It’s rare for a pretty straight-forward indie rock band to achieve rapid success and then be able to maintain and grow it while still growing up themselves. In 2011, when the gritty, audacious teens of The Orwells landed their first record deal, on Justin Gage’s Autumn Tone records, they were still in their senior year of high school.
According to guitarist Matt O’Keefe, “[The success] definitely came by surprise, given how much and how quickly it happened…and how early. We were still in high school for Remember When. Of course, it’s all still very surprising, even the fact that people continue to go out to our shows and care about our songs.” Now 21 years old and admittedly partying less and focusing more on “actually saying something,” the band is exploring a simpler, more straight-forward sound.
On their third LP, Terrible Human Beings, there seems to be fewer crowded instrumentals and shifting arrangements — it’s cleaner in a sense — but judging by the already released tracks “They Put a Body in the Bayou” and “Buddy,” the band maintains their raw energy and unapologetic lyricism. The band members obviously have opinions on the shifting landscape of America and all that it stands for, but their intention is not to spew political rhetoric or criticism but rather react to “the weird darker stuff that happens to a person in America in 2016.”
Their upcoming LP, which is slated for a February 17th release date, was recorded at Chicago’s Electrical Audio with producer Jim Abbiss, who also worked on their previous album Disgraceland. O’Keefe sees the benefit of having a production team behind the band: “When we recorded with Jim, he helped bring life to certain songs and added parts during the actual recording, which felt like adding a new member to the band. He came in with his own ideas and improved and changed parts of each track.”
I chatted with O’Keefe about what it’s like to achieve success at such a young age, how The Orwells’ music has evolved, and what was behind the making of their forthcoming LP.
I’m sure you get this all the time, but given that you’ve been successful at such a young age, do you still have a passion for touring and performing, or are you starting to feel burnt out
I do still have that — I’m probably not as starry eyed and wide-eyed as when we started touring, but I still like it just as much. It can get exhausting, but it’s fun to go back out on the road, especially after being off of it for so long.
Have you been actively working on music since your last album?
There was a little break in-between, before we started writing very seriously — whether it was moving out of our parents’ houses or needing to be away from the road or from the band for just a few months — and since then, we’ve been writing and recording.
How do you think you’ve evolved instrumentally, lyrically, etc. since Disgraceland?
It’s tough to say because if you listen to this album, it feels almost simpler, but that [implies] we’d be taking a step backwards when it’s really a big step forward for us.
Would you say the album is a collective exploration of “this is how I feel as a human being, so this is what we’ll write about”?
Yeah, and some days when we get together to write, we’ll flip through a newspaper and there’s a story about something that finds its way into a line in a song. There’s a little more of that stuff happening this time around than there was on our last records.
How do you think you’ve changed as a human being since your last two albums or even from your first?
I think when it comes to the music and the band, with the last two albums at least, it was like, “Here’s this opportunity for me to go and just have fun and tour the country and play shows and get drunk.” This time around I’m more of the mindset that now that I’m lucky enough to be in the position I am, I have this chance to actually say something, to contribute back rather than just taking what I’ve got and running around the country with it.
Yeah, ’cause you kind of dove in head first not knowing what was gonna happen and now are like “oh, we’re still doing this?” Was the production process on this album any different than the last one?
It was kind of the same as Disgraceland, though more of it was recorded live and there was a bit more experimenting with drum loops and stuff like that. We played around in the studio with new techniques that we haven’t used on any of our previous albums. But for the most part, the recording process for a rock n’ roll band doesn’t really change that much.
Do you find there’s an evolution with the band that has come naturally? I feel like it’s a little less heavy this time around.
Yeah, I can see that. I feel like there definitely is an evolution. And we knew we had to do something we hadn’t really done on the last two albums just to stay fresh, coming back from being off for two, two-and-a-half years.
Where did you guys come up with the name for the new album?
It’s a little bit of us trying to be tongue in cheek with what our own reputation may be and what people say about us and demonstrating that we have the ability to throw it right back at them. And it just sounds cool, which is obviously what is most important.
What do you hope people will take away from this album?
I don’t think there’s much to overall take from it. I just hope they really like it and keep playing it, then rip it off, and form bands, and do all the stuff that great music makes you do.
The Orwells will continue the first part of their North American tour with a stop through Resident DTLA this Sunday and The Smell on Monday, November 21. Online ticketing is no longer available, so be sure to purchase directly at the venue. Then the band is off to the UK, so catch them in town while you can!
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* Lead photo by Kelly Puleo