The snotty punk teenagers of The Orwells are now the snotty punk twenty-somethings of The Orwells, and Elmhurst, IL’s finest have diversified their sonic palate some on their stellar third album Terrible Human Beings — released February 17 on Canvasback Music — with richer production, more intricate melodies, and even a seven-minute title track.
The quintet still has a way to go before maturity threatens to rob them of the anarchic spirit that made their 2014 Late Show With David Letterman performance an all-timer, though, and their visit to Billboard‘s office on album-release day felt more like a pre-game hangout than an actual interview — as the band rifled through copies of Billboard magazine, debated the setlist for their upcoming DJ gig (“Hanging on the Telephone’” by The Nerves is apparently off-limits) and gave one member crap for mixing up Uncle Tupelo with Pablo Honey.
Read an edited version of the 20-minute discussion below.
Congrats on the album coming out. How’s the response been so far?
(Multiple members: “It’s been good!”)
Mario Cuomo, vocals: Everybody’s gave a lot of shit about us today.
Is it still fun for you guys to do this press cycle stuff?
Matt O’Keefe, guitar: It’s good. We haven’t done it in a while, so it’s good to be back. Just for this one day. It’s all downhill for us now.
How was the Rough Trade show [in New York on Feb. 16]?
O’Keefe: It’s good.
Cuomo: Yeah, it was one of those you had to buy a record to get in things. Sold 200 records before it came out, how about that!
Henry Brinner, drums: Does that count, if you sell it the day before your record comes out?
Think so. Sales are sales, right? And by the way, thanks for the Billboard shout out on the album.
O’Keefe: Oh yeah, we did!
Dominic Corso, guitar: Oh s–t, I forgot about that.
Cuomo (Leafing through Billboard magazine): Hey, look who it is!
O’Keefe: Oh yeah! It’s our lawyer, Elliot [Groffman]. He won a Grammy!
For best lawyer?
O’Keefe: Yeah! Something like that, yeah.
Brinner: They were like, “You’ve just been killing it, we’re just gonna make your own section.”
Cuomo (spots Grouplove poster in the mag): That Grouplove [poster] with the Thrasher font! I don’t like that. Don’t like that, Grouplove.
Corso (whispers): Posers, posers! No, I’m kidding…
Cuomo: Anyways, where were we…
Do you guys pay attention to the charts?
Cuomo: I mean it’s cool. Not really, but like, it’s cool to see like… Dom loves seeing what’s going, like, biggest thing in the world.
You guys know what the number one song in the country right now is?
Cuomo: Wait, stop. It’s an Ed Sheeran song. ‘Coz I just saw it [in the mag].
Have you guys heard that song?
Corso (checks chart): Ed Sheeran, “Shape of You” is number one. I don’t think I’ve heard a single song on here.
O’Keefe: Yeah, that grown-up Chuckie from Rugrats is killing it.
Did you guys watch the Grammys?
Cuomo: It was on. We had a DJ thing, a listening party. We were just playing on our record, so I’d look up and see some stuff.
H. Brinner: Cool that Chance won.
Cuomo: Yeah, that was badass. That’s really cool, that he can do all this stuff without succumbing to, uh…
G. Brinner: We’ve met him before, he’s super nice.
Any Adele vs. Beyonce hot takes?
Cuomo: What, they’re fighting or something? Are they gonna fight each other?
Corso: How long has she been Queen, man, when did we crown her?
Brinner: Wait, was she in Austin Powers?
Cuomo: Yeah, she was Foxy Cleopatra.
You guys are all over 21 now, right? Are you excited to have that part of your story out of the way?
O’Keefe: Yeah, but people think we don’t age, so we get all those reviews, like, “These 17-year-olds!…” It’s pretty inescapable.
Who had the wildest 21st birthday celebration?
O’Keefe: Mine was super-tame because it was Sunday night. Bogus.
Grant Brinner, bass: Me and Henry were in Atlanta…
H. Brinner: No, that was 20. My 20 was way wilder.
O’Keefe: [For] 21, we were skaters in San Francisco.
Cuomo: Yeah, that was cool too. I had sex in a stranger’s El Camino. In the bed. And I was stopped by a homeless man to ask me for change. During. I was just like ‘What the f–k? Yo man, this is a horrible time.’ I just pulled up my s–t, I was like ‘We’re outta here…’
And I guess you didn’t give him any money?
Cuomo: No. Bad time. If he had waited a little bit… And then I realized he was probably watching for a little while. It’s just some birthday s–t, though.
Is it true that you listened to a lot of The Pixies’ Doolittle before this album?
O’Keefe: That is very true. We tend to listen to a lot of Doolittle regardless.
Corso: Homie got a shoutout this time [on “Black Francis”].
O’Keefe: We’ve said with this record we wanted to make mutilated pop songs. And obviously there’s the best mutilated pop songs on that album.
H. Brinner: I was listening to a lot of Air and My Bloody Valentine and that kind of stuff.
Corso: Didn’t help your drumming.
Got a favorite song on the Pixies album?
O’Keefe: Probably “Hey.”
Cuomo (grunting): “Monkey”!
H. Brinner: “Debaser” probably pumps me up the most.
O’Keefe: It’s really all good. Except “Silver.”
Was the “Black Francis” video fun to film?
Cuomo: Uh-huh. It was cold as s–t, but it was fun. It’s kind of like a snarky, in-your-face song, so I kinda pictured it shot [up close].
O’Keefe: Beastie Boys meets Do the Right Thing is what we were going for.
Do you still watch videos these days?
O’Keefe: No. I really don’t. I haven’t seen a video in so long. When we started, they had way more of an importance.
Corso: You know what sucks? For me, music videos can sometimes just ruin a song, horribly. Like if I’m gonna look at a music video sometimes, and I haven’t heard the song before, I’ll just scroll down on the YouTube page and just not watch the video.
O’Keefe: They’re cool, but like, who really gives a s–t about music videos?
So why even bother filming one?
(Multiple members: “Good question.”)
H. Brinner: I think people need content to digest, get their opinion about you at a band and stuff.
Cuomo: If you’re fun to look at, that’s cool too.
You guys had a big music video that wasn’t really a music video. You got any late-night performances on this album cycle?
O’Keefe: We’ll see. Now that our boy Letterman’s gone…
Is there any kind of fraternity among the bands with the viral late-night performances? Do you guys and Future Islands hang out?
O’Keefe: Yeah, we hang out all the time. Text. Huge text group message, like, if you bomb on Late Show, or you do really good, you get invited in.
H. Brinner: We’ve seen them before, we’ve talked to them, they’re super-nice dudes.
You guys do one of my favorite things that rock bands do, on the new album — you have a closer that’s twice as long as anything else on the album.
O’Keefe: At first the ending wasn’t nearly as long, and it didn’t go anywhere… it never built up.
H. Brinner: I think the last song has to be epic. If I’m listening to an album and the last song isn’t just some awesome-ass epic song…
G. Brinner: I guess I always just expect the last song to be the best.
O’Keefe: The last song, it’s almost more important than the first song.
Cuomo: The two bangers gotta be on the outside. Banger sandwich.
“Banger sandwich,” that’s an album title.
Cuomo: Yeah! Our next record’s gonna be called Banger Sandwich.
Does the song really blow up live?
Cuomo: Yeah, it’s a great closer for the set. I get to walk off and s–t.
Corso: Did you see The Prestige?
Cuomo: Where he’s, like, under the stage, and he doesn’t get to see the crowd? That’s what I do. I’ve been doing that every time.
Twenty One Pilots kind of do The Transported Man from The Prestige in their show. They’re on stage, and all of a sudden you look up, and the main guy’s on the balcony.
Cuomo: How do they do it? No one knows? They’re killing someone each time in a f–king tank of water?
Yeah, you don’t want to look under the stage at a Twenty One Pilots show.
Cuomo: It’s just another dude in a red beanie and a red shirt, and he’s lip-syncing. And [the singer’s] actually over there the whole time.
G. Brinner: Yeah, but people could tell!
Well, the singer’s still wearing a mask at that point.
O’Keefe: Oh, well that’s obvious! That’s a dead giveaway right there.
What song from the new album gets the best response live?
G. Brinner: Out of the new ones? Probably “Body in the Bayou.”
O’Keefe: “Double Feature” does get a good reaction, I think that’s right now, our peak live performance. And we end with it, so now we might be done doing encores. Because it’s just pointless…
Cuomo: Yeah, I’m not a big fan of encores, at all.
O’Keefe: Yeah, it’s weird that like, if you don’t do it, it’s like “Wow, what a dick.”
Do you get to bump up your set lengths with every new album?
O’Keefe: Yeah, that’s expected.
Cuomo: We did an hour and a half once at this one festival, it was so brutal.
O’Keefe: We were, like, making up songs while we were onstage.
H. Brinner: Scraping the bottom of the barrel.
O’Keefe: We just extend parts, like, “Just make that breakdown four minutes long…” And the entire time we were playing to like four people, while Stevie Wonder was going apes–t across the park.
Hard to compete with Stevie Wonder.
G. Brinner: I think my uncle was at that festival, and he saw Stevie Wonder over us.
Cuomo: We got offered, like, our first nighttime festival slot. We were like, “Here it is, f–king finally playing the night. There’s no catch.” They were like, “Or you can play on the main stage at 2 p.m.” And we were like “F–k that 2 p.m. bulls–t, we’re gonna be a nighttime festival band!” And then we quickly found out why nobody wants to do that. It just sucks, like, 200 people have never looked smaller.
Are you guys moving up the font sizes on the festival posters?
O’Keefe: I think we’re actually seriously going down. They bumped us down a little bit. It’s just an ebb and flow, man.
G. Brinner: We lost some momentum.
Is that something you’re seriously looking at, like you’re taking the magnifying glass out…
O’Keefe: Yeah, I’m calling the festival up, like, “What font size did you use? Give me a number!”
Corso: We went from like, 12 points, to 16, to f–king 12.
Cuomo: Success is just crazy that it’s really, like, one song. Maybe two. That’s all it is. Unless you’re making solid records, like… if you go to a Pixies show, they didn’t have to have any one giant song or anything. Or like a Father John [Misty], like nowadays, he’s just making good records…
Corso: I think if you’re established, yeah.
Who do you guys measure yourselves against? Whose career would you want to have?
G. Brinner: I think My Morning Jacket’s career is pretty cool. Because they’ve been doing that s–t forever.
O’Keefe: I feel like Wilco’s had a really good career. They make really cool albums, they’ve never had a huge hit, and everybody respects the s–t out of them.
Cuomo: How long have they been going?
Corso: Like 20 years.
Cuomo: Will you be able to go see Migos in 20 years?
Corso: I was gonna say that the No. 1 song was gonna be Migos.
It was a week ago. Them and Ed Sheeran have kind of been trading off.
Cuomo: I guess Ed Sheeran’s more bad and boujee than we thought!