With diverse influences ranging from Broadway musicals to Black Sabbath, Orson have taken the charts by storm. Daniel Whitehead meets the band
The stench of night-before smoke and heavy perspiration lingers around the large hall of Leeds University’s Refectory as the final preparations are made for tonight’s show. A group of five Californians stand in the empty hall, looking on in awe at a stage graced by some of the greatest musicians of the past century, including the Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin and Bob Marley. Whilst Orson have some distance to go before achieving such legendary status, they are a long way from their days of minimum wage fast-food employment. This is a group hailed as the ‘saviors of pop’, an ‘overnight sensation’; this is Orson. Formed in the back streets of Hollywood, band members George, Kevin, Johnny, Chris and lead singer Jason hardly grew up with silver spoons in their mouths; far from it. As little as 12 months ago, bassist Johnny Lonely worked in a Thai food restaurant, while fellow band member Kevin Roentgen drifted between jobs as a busboy, telemarketer and UPS driver.
The band formed in 2000 as a side project, playing several gigs in Los Angeles and the surrounding area under many different monikers before deciding on the name Orson, in honour of movie director Orson Welles. In fact the band’s entire image is reminiscent of old Hollywood; from the 1940’s dress sense to the tweed caps and bowler hats that they are never without when there is a camera lurking. Such a quirky sense of style gave Orson the perfect image for a music industry which is currently devoid of individuality. Their breakthrough came when they were heard on MySpace by an American newsletter which subsequently named their soon-to-be number one song ‘No Tomorrow’ as their Record of the Day.
The publicity created on the web was enormous and gave them the chance to play their first ever major gig. The only problem was that it was thousands of miles away in Manchester and had to be paid for by the cash-strapped group. Bassist Johnny Lonely admits, “we had no money but what had we got to lose? So we all pitched up, made it out there and we blew people away”. They certainly did; Orson made their first performance in the UK in October 2005 at Manchester’s In The City, the same night as the Arctic Monkeys, who were playing at a sold-out venue close by, but it seems Orson stole the limelight. “After the gig we were offered a publishing deal on the spot, and we took it. Everything was going in slow motion up until that point, but it’s been a blink of an eye since then”.
Sitting down with the band feels like sitting with your mates in the bar. It’s just an hour before their performance in front of a sold-out Refectory, but they seem almost too chilled out, as if becoming famous and being adored by thousands isn’t such a life-changing experience, but something they have been destined for all along. Perhaps that has some truth.
From their first performance in the UK, Orson’s rise to fame was almost instantaneous. In November 2005, Orson were invited to be the supporting act for Duran Duran’s sell-out UK leg of their ‘Holiday’ European tour. For bassist Johnny this was an amazing time: “playing with Duran Duran was like a birthday party every single day in my brain. It was the most fun you could possibly imagine. I still had rent due at home but here I was in the NEC arena, it was pretty far out!”
Still fairly unknown during their tour with Duran Duran, lots of publicity came from playing every night with such a well-followed band. “A lot of the Duran Duran crowd went to every single show because they are fanatical fans, [but by the end of the tour] people were going crazy for us and that really did help out a lot” said Johnny. The hype spread infectiously towards the end of 2005 and with that came airtime on several UK radio stations including plays of their hit single ‘No Tomorrow’ on Scottish radio station Fife FM and Jo Whiley’s weekday morning show on Radio One.
At this point it became obvious Orson were going to make it big. Critics purred over their brand of catchy soft rock which was a sure hit with teenagers and adults alike. In February of this year, only four months since they first ventured into Britain, their single ‘No Tomorrow’ went to number one in its second week of release amidst a plethora of media attention, breaking the iTunes record for the most single downloads in a week. As we discuss this point of their journey Johnny seems visibly awoken from his slumber, as if he is actually re-living the moment when Orson realised they had fulfilled their dreams; they were stars and, amongst an ever-crowded indie scene, they had emerged among the brightest talents and biggest names of the year.
A springtime release followed for their debut album Bright Idea , as did a high-profile UK tour and the opportunity to support Robbie Williams over the summer months, after the Ordinary Boys pulled out of the opening night. Despite being given the chance to tour European cities such as Vienna, Stockholm and Berlin it seemed that the band were truly under whelmed by the experience of being a support for the Robbie Williams circus: “Duran Duran are one thing because they are rock n’ roll legends. They were the coolest… great great guys, but Robbie doesn’t have the same status in America as the rest of the world”. However Johnny doesn’t seem too concerned about that: “It’s all a blur, I can’t believe I’ve played in front of more than a million people!”
Orson slipped into the public consciousness rapidly, but such instantaneous fame wasn’t without its problems as follow-ups to their hit ‘No Tomorrow’ and their album Bright Idea failed to live up to expectations. Popular music review site Drowned In Sound described their album as “leaving a disgusting trail of musical filth”, but this didn’t prevent it hitting number one in the album charts following its May release. When asked about critical reviews of their music, Johnny shrugged dismisively, sniggering slightly, “I don’t really read the reviews so I don’t hear that kind of stuff too much”. Somehow, his statement didn’t really ring true; he seemed a little despondent at being accused of lacking soul.
Perhaps a lack of soul is evident, but there is no denying that Orson’s music is produced with the confidence of a band who are much more experienced than might be imagined. Their style is varied; lead singer Jason Pebworth writes songs on the piano but has never learnt to play the guitar, and admits to an obsession with Jeff Buckley and Radiohead. Other influences come from the Flaming Lips and Led Zeppelin. Each member describes their music differently; “two-guitar power pop”; “rock and roll girls can dance to it”; “funky soul band” and “poppy punk band”. Johnny sums up this lack of cohesion by responding “good question man”. A worrying sign of a band who don’t know what they stand for?
It’s clear that instead of aiming for Dylan-esque lyrics Orson are much more comfortable sticking with their image of a cheesy dance-rock band. Much of this artificial coolness seems to come from the band’s upbringing in Hollywood where – as their song No Tomorrow says – “funny hats” and “shiny pants” are unequivocally good things to be associated with.
However, Johnny was keen to stress that the difference between the East Coast and other parts of America may not be as great as people generally perceive. “Growing up in Los Angeles? It’s like growing up anywhere else. I guess it’s a lower pace than London but I’m not a real big city fan, it’s so spread out, it’s just one giant suburb. We were at a party just before we moved to London in January with Paris Hilton and Mike Tyson. Kevin knows some of those cats but I don’t really fraternize with Hollywood types too much, it’s not my thing.”
As for the future, Orson have already moved back into the studio to begin recording their second album, and they have plans to crack the ever-elusive American market once their current UK tour ends with the release of their debut album in November. Johnny ends the interview by describing their ride to fame as a “fantastic experience” but admits “we’re really just an indie band that got lucky”.
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