Growing Up Orwells

Published June 3, 2014

ABOVE: THE ORWELLS

Formed before most of its members were old enough to drive, the Orwells still spend a lot of time talking, singing, and shouting about teenage rebellion. On their first album, Remember When, the band sang of shared cigarettes on suburban streets, the high-school thrill of underage drinking, and picking up chicks in the mall. Disgraceland, their second studio album, pulses with the same youthful energy. Their performance on Late Show With David Letterman earlier this year left viewers speechless and the Internet abuzz when lead singer Mario Cuomo writhed on the floor uncontrollably before sitting in a chair intended for Letterman’s guests. The Orwells, like The Ramones and Peter Pan before them, don’t want to grow up. But like it or not, the songs on Disgraceland reflect a lyrical and musical maturation that proves that while they might not be grown-ups, The Orwells aren’t just kids anymore either. Guitarist Matt O’Keefe talked to us from the Chicago suburbs about recording, touring, and how to keep get older without losing your teenage dirtbag vibe. 

REBECCA PATTIZ: Hey! Where are you right now?

MATT O’KEEFE: I’m in my house in Elmhurst, Illinois. It’s just outside of Chicago. It’s a suburb of the city. We have some time off until early June.

PATTIZ: How long has it been since you’d been home?

O’KEEFE: At the start of the New Year, we were on tour for two months straight. That was the longest time we hadn’t been home at all. We came back for like a week, and then we were gone for like a week.

PATTIZ: Do you like touring?

O’KEEFE: Uh, yeah. There’s things that I like and there are things that I do not love about it. But it’s basically traveling around the country with your best friends and playing shows and shit, so it’s hard to beat. But at the same time it does get a little exhausting when you’re away from home for so long. You do get a little homesick.

PATTIZ: Do you have a favorite place to play on tour?

O’KEEFE: Chicago is the obvious one. But New Orleans and Nashville are my favorite cities to play in. We have some buddies down in Nashville, and it’s just a music loving city. People there don’t even have to know you, but they’ll come see you. New Orleans is usually just wild as hell. Not a lot of people come out, but they are like the 30 craziest people you’ve ever seen.

PATTIZ: Do you remember the first show you guys ever played?

O’KEEFE: Yeah, the first show we ever played was at this place downtown outside Chicago called Subterranean. My brother’s girlfriend was in this band and they were playing, this band called Gold Motel. It was a sold-out show and the Orwells had just started, we were like freshmen in high school. My brother’s girlfriend was like “Oh, we’ll shave 15 minutes off our set, and you guys can play in that 15 minutes before we go on.” So the first show we ever played was in front of a sold-out crowd at the Subterranean where not one person had ever heard of us. But after that, we started playing more and it was like two years of playing in basements and garages around Elmhurst.

PATTIZ: What were the bands that influenced you when you were first starting out in high school? 

O’KEEFE: The bands we listened to the most were probably the Stooges and the Modern Lovers. My brother gave me the first Stooges record and the first Modern Lovers record for Christmas right around when the band started. We were listening to those and that’s what got us into trying to keep it as simple as you can and also focusing on our live show.

PATTIZ: So what was it like recording the new album Disgraceland?

O’KEEFE: We recorded it actually all over the place. We did most of the album up in Kingston, New York in a church that was bought out and became a studio. It’s up in the middle of nowhere. We did two songs in Chicago. We did one song in L.A. and two songs in London. There’re three different producers, but Chris Coady has the majority of the record.

PATTIZ: Do you think that recording in so many places affected the record at all?

O’KEEFE: You won’t be able to pick up where they were recorded, but I think you can tell which group of songs was recorded together. I don’t think the environment really played into how the song turned out, but the gear that was at the recording studio did. Recording in a lot of places is a good thing because now we’ve tried all these different places. The first song we recorded in L.A., and then we went to London, and then we went to the woods in New York, and then we were tired of moving around so we were like, “Screw it, let’s just stay in Chicago.” So you get to experience all of these things so we have a better sense of where we want to record the next album, which would be like downtown Chicago.

PATTIZ: How do you think this new record is different from your last one, Remember When?

O’KEEFE: I keep saying there’s a brother-sister vibe going on between Remember When and Disgraceland. It’s not like a crazy jump into a different direction. But on Remember When we normally had one chord change that played throughout the entire thing and when we found something catchy we didn’t try to explore, we just went with that. But on the new one, we tried to put new parts in push things, so the new one is much more of a dynamic album.

PATTIZ: Some of the videos for the songs on this album are pretty interesting, especially the one for “Who Needs You.”

O’KEEFE: My older brother has done all of our music videos. And the “Who Needs You” one, which is kind of an anti-American rant, was like us playing in front of images of Americana and bombs being dropped, Osama Bin Laden and shit like that. It’s like what you would learn if you were in U.S. history class in high school and what the slides would be on the PowerPoint.

PATTIZ: So do you think you’re taking on more serious themes on this album?

O’KEEFE: Yeah, I think there are songs that take on more mature themes, but we still have songs about us drinking beers and throwing up and shit like that.

PATTIZ: Do you think you’ll ever stop writing songs about that stuff, or is that really who you guys are as a band?  

O’KEEFE: We’ll keep talking about it as long as we’re still doing it. Eventually you get older and then you become kind of like Blink-182, so eventually you have to stop. Maybe we can do it in a more nostalgic way, who knows.

PATTIZ: Well, Jonathan Richman [of the Modern Lovers] is still at it.

O’KEEFE: It’s cool because I heard he refuses to play “Roadrunner” because he’s like, “It means nothing to me. That’s not how my life is anymore, so I refuse to play it.”

THE ORWELLS’ DISGRACELAND IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, PLEASE VISIT ITS WEBSITE.