Mario Cuomo, lead singer of the young Chicago garage rock upstarts The Orwells, is a big horror movie fan – you can hear it in his lyrics and music. He speaks to ALFRED GORMAN from Chicago just having got home from seeing the new IT movie, and is preparing for his band’s well overdue first visit to Perth, playing Jack Rabbit Slim’s this Saturday, September 23.
This year’s new album Terrible Human Beings is a follow up to their major label breakthrough Disgraceland, and their third official LP. You could say it’s a more mature release, but the band are still in their early twenties, having formed in early high school. With a youthful swagger and energy, their music draws comparisons to their influences: The Strokes, The Black Lips, The Hives and Pixies – but they have their own unique brand of insanely catchy and likeable, raw, rock and roll stylings.
While they haven’t really blown up in Australia, yet, their notorious, energetic and anarchic live performances have seen them in high demand on the touring circuit, and after Australia, they’re touring with Weezer and Pixies. But this weekend they’re finally bringing the passion and mayhem to our fair city – it’s a live show you don’t want to miss.
It’s great to hear you’re finally coming to Perth. I’ve been a fan since Remember When and loved the raw, garage sound, and I thought Disgraceland was brilliant – in fact, in our X-Press’ End Of 2014 poll, I had it as my number one. Congratulations on the release of your third official album Terrible Human Beings, which I’m really enjoying. But an interesting thing I only discovered last year, was that you guys recorded two other full albums before Remember When?
Yeah, when we were high school kids, we churned out a couple. We formed when I was like, 15… or 14. There was a year age difference. They were all freshmen and I was a sophomore.
It’s amazing how tight you guys were as a band. While they were garage quality recordings, there are some great songs on there. [Their two early LPs are called Head and Oh! Well and are available on You Tube]. So are you guys still based over there in Chicago?
Yeah, we were from a suburb outside the city, but I’ve been in the city for a few years now. And the rest of the guys have moved down now too.
What’s the band scene like there? Is there a healthy scene for young bands coming through – does the city nurture and support that kind of thing?
Yeah, I think so. I mean I haven’t really kept up with things lately. But yeah, there’s a big house show scene, basement shows and parties and stuff, but I haven’t really been around that kind of garage scene for a while. But the bands that I’m aware of that are touring and more established – there’s a handful of good bands I really enjoy. It’s definitely growing.
The Orwells put on a gig in Chicago last year featuring a bunch of young, local bands – there’s a little promo for it on You Tube I saw – looked like a great time. One band you featured that I really noticed was The Symposium, who I’ve really gotten into now…
Yeah, I really love them. They’ve put out a couple really good EPs in the last year or two. That show was really good fun.
How have things changed for you in recent years – with the making of the new album compared to Disgraceland? Both were done since signing with Atlantic Records. This album seems a bit more polished. Was this time a better experience? Do you feel you’re maturing and trying some different things musically?
Yeah, it was just a lot more straight forward. We had all the songs ready to go, except for one that we kind of wrote in the studio by accident. We knew what it was gonna be like, and we got to go into one studio, as opposed to Disgraceland, where we were in three or four studios and three different states and other countries. It was recorded all over the place, and there were three different producers that worked on it. But this time we were like, we wanna be in once space the whole time. We worked on it from noon to midnight almost every day for a month.
It was recorded at Steve Albini’s studio Electric Audio – what was it like working with him?
We didn’t actually work with him. He just owns the place, but we brought in our own producer, Jim Abbiss [Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian] and he’s the one who did the record. I never actually saw Steve Albini the whole time. I think he was recording another band in the upstairs, and we were in the downstairs room, so we just never really crossed paths.”
Do you feel your lyrics are also evolving with the music? The songs don’t seem to be quite as straight-forward, or all about girls and beer, well to some degree… There’s some more abstract themes…
Right [laughs]. Yeah I don’t think you get to do that two times in a row. You get to a certain point… I mean that stuff’s still fun, I’m still enjoying alcohol and girls, but I don’t really wanna talk about it in songs. I guess you could call it a maturing, but I just found it not as fun to sing about. It just didn’t make me feel good to glamorise partying anymore. I just wanted to approach writing songs with more of like, how I’m guessing somebody that writes a story or directs something does it…. You know, like, put together a story in my head. I was more into writing less about my own life and my own experiences, even though there’s still some of it on the record. I just wanted to create more situations in my head that maybe I don’t really know anything about, but you know, take a crack at it.
You seem to have something of a penchant for horror movie themed lyrics – have you managed to get a song signed to any movies, or horror movies yet? I think it would be a perfect match.
That’d be really cool, but no bites yet. I’m a big horror fan, and I was watching a decent amount of movies while we were writing the record. I literally just got back from the new IT movie like 20 minutes ago. I just love stuff like that. I think sometimes I have more interest in movies than music. I spend a lot of time at home just watching films, and I think it’s a good way to spend down time, cos it keeps you thinking and it’s good if you’re bored at home, because you can put your mind in a different place and find a really cool movie that affects you, and that can be as inspiring as anything real.
I’ve read about some of your influences, which I also thought were evident, but some mentioned are Julian Casablancas of The Strokes, Cole Alexander of Black Lips, Pelle Almqvist of The Hives – but I have to say I’ve always picked up a bit of a Jim Morrison vibe from your vocals – were they an influence?
I mean, not as much. I definitely had my Doors phase. But I don’t really know that much about Morrison. He always seemed like a bit of a loose cannon and all over the place, whereas I just kinda wanna be tight and more energetic, so I try to stay away from that. I like, picture him on psychedelics in the desert and all spiritual, and I’m the total opposite when it comes to recreation. I don’t have any interest at being one with the universe in a desert somewhere.
You guys have toured with some of your idols and legends, and in fact after Australia I read you’re going on tour with Weezer and Pixies? Have you heard anything from Pixies about your song? [The band wrote a song called Black Francis on the new album that’s something of a tribute.] I think it’s really great the way it evokes the sound and style of the band…
We actually just met Frank Black last weekend when we played a festival in Southern California and we said thanks, and expressed that they were a large influence on us and that we were looking forward to the tour. They were very, very nice people.
I have to ask about that infamous performance on David Letterman. It was so awesome. You guys rocked it. So hard in fact you broke guitar strings at the end so couldn’t keep playing when they asked you to play more. There was some online commentary about Letterman and Shaffer’s reaction and that they were mocking you – but it didn’t seem that way to me – it seemed like they loved the realness and rawness of it. And they must’ve liked you, because you were asked back right?
I think it was just fortunate the way it worked out that we got them excited. I don’t know what the other acts are like normally and if we just woke them up. I don’t really think it was that crazy or anything. I think a lot of people, when they get to the TV performances, are like “This has to be perfect and we have to do our best.” and are very tame cos they don’t wanna fuck up on TV. I just tried to put on the same show you’d get if you just caught us in a club at night and we happened to be playing that song – so I just tried to do my best to imitate what we’re like as a real live band, and not somebody under a spotlight.