THE ORWELLS IN NEW YORK, NOVEMBER 2016. FROM LEFT, ON GRANT BRINNER: SWEATSHIRT: CHILDS. T-SHIRT (UNDERNEATH): AMERICAN EAGLE. ON MATT O’KEEFE: JACKET: AG JEANS. T-SHIRT: ERIC LAWRENCE. PANTS: TOPMAN. ON HENRY BRINNER: JACKET: LEVI’S. T-SHIRT: HERMÈS. PANTS: 3.1 PHILLIP LIM. ON MARIO CUOMO: SWEATER: ACNE. JEANS: DIESEL. ON DOMINIC CORSO: SWEATSHIRT: POLO RALPH LAUREN. T-SHIRT (UNDERNEATH): LEVI’S. JEANS: DIESEL. STYLING: IAN BRADLEY. GROOMING: THEO KOGAN. SPECIAL THANKS: WHITE BALANCE STUDIOS.
When the Orwells first started gaining attention, in 2012, the band’s response to being primarily identified as teenage suburban punks—ones who frontman Mario Cuomo admits sang almost exclusively about “beer, cigarettes, and make-out bullshit”—was a collective eye roll. Now, on the eve of releasing their second major-label album, Terrible Human Beings (Canvasback), the Chicago-area quintet, all in their early twenties and notorious for turning an otherwise sloppy 2014 performance on Late Night With David Letterman into a signature breakout moment, say they’re ready to be treated like adults. “You can’t sing about that beer-and-blowjob shit forever,” Cuomo says one afternoon sitting in an upscale Chicago fried-chicken joint. The blond-locked singer throws back a whiskey-and-coffee concoction and offers up a typically off-color metaphor for his band’s maturation: “Basically, you don’t want to be those creepy older dudes still trying to finger high school girls.”
The Orwells—which also includes guitarists Matt O’Keefe and Dominic Corso, bassist Grant Brinner, and drummer Henry Brinner—took a more democratic approach to creating this album. Where Cuomo wrote all the lyrics for 2014’s Disgraceland, this go-round, O’Keefe penned the majority of the lyrics for two songs; and for the first time, Cuomo contributed chord progressions and melodic ideas. “We let suggestions come in and were open about it,” O’Keefe says of the 13-track album, written and recorded early last year with producer Jim Abbiss (Adele, Arctic Monkeys). The result is a sound that’s unafraid to experiment with twang, Pixies-style jangle, or unorthodox time signature without sacrificing the band’s trademark garage-y grit, and lyrics that are weightier, touching on topics such as overcoming social anxiety (“M.A.D.”) and rock-star excess (“They Put a Body in the Bayou”).
Signed to an indie label while still in high school, the Orwells released their debut album, Remember When, in 2012 to near-universal acclaim, and they soon were equally known for their manic live shows. None of the members had career prospects beyond music, which only fueled their drive. “I had no other options whatsoever,” says Cuomo, who dropped out of high school at 17. Now six years into their career, the Orwells are amazed that they’re doing exactly what they’d imagined back during their “stoner-prick” teenage days. “It’s kind of crazy,” says O’Keefe. Adds Cuomo: “As long as I don’t have to work somewhere I don’t like, then this works.”