T he flotsam and jetsam littering Orson’s recently abandoned downtown rehearsal space — a spooky concrete room overlooking highways and an auto-impound lot — chronicles a six-year quest for power-pop success: handmade fliers for East L.A. all-ages shows; a wall calendar scribbled with bookings at Suzy’s in Hermosa Beach and Silver Lake’s Juvee Skate Shop; a stencil of the band’s “leaping girl” logo; copies of their self-released 2004 debut, Bright Idea.
I’ve been a fan of Orson’s joyful pop-rock-soul for a long time; when I wrote Orson’s first-ever review, in this paper back in 2003, they were playing to a couple dozen folks in the cellar bar of the faded Hollywood Ramada Inn. When I interviewed them six months later, the resulting tape was confused by band members talking across each other, mumbled in-jokes, rambling anecdotes — see, they’d never been interviewed before.
Orson’s tale seemed set to trail off into the aching twilight when we chatted on the sidewalk after yet another elegantly energized show at the Gig on Melrose last summer: They were simply all out of ideas on how to break their band. They’d built a modest but devoted local following that could fill haunts like the Dragonfly, lovingly mouthing every word of Bright Idea, but Orson were still stuck in day jobs and, having been passed over by multiple labels, lacked a record deal or manager. They’d never even really been on tour.
Then, after around 200 L.A.-area performances without any tangible industry interest, Orson played a single U.K. show last October, at the In the City convention in Manchester — the English equivalent of Austin’s South by Southwest. Instantly, they landed a publishing deal. A European arena tour with Duran Duran soon followed. Then Mercury Records in the U.K. signed them. Orson moved to London in late January, and their first single, “No Tomorrow,” came out in mid-February. Within three weeks, the song was No. 1 on Britain’s singles chart.
Mercury’s U.K. release of Bright Idea (out last Tuesday) is the very same Noah Shain–produced disc that the band put out themselves two years ago. Even the band’s image — individual takes on a debonair shirt & tie theme — is unchanged.
“I do have moments when I wake up and think, ‘Where the fuck am I?’ ” admits quietly genial guitarist George Astasio, who co-founded the band with fellow six-stringer Chad Rachild in 2000 (originally as Dr. Lady). “In the blink of an eye, we have a big record-label machine plugging us in with radio, video, the whole package.”
Astasio and Rachild had tried out around 40 singers before ex-Broadway crooner Jason Pebworth answered their ad. Scene veteran Johnny Lonely soon brought soulfully pumping bass lines to the table, and by late 2002, Mohawked ringer Chris Cano had replaced original drummer Johnny Fedevich. In a true Pete Best twist, a frustrated Rachild threw in the towel last summer, right before doors finally flew open for the band. (His role’s now filled by Kevin Roentgen.)
“Chad decided that he gave it his all,” Astasio sighs. “And the guy was amazing. I empathized — I had my bouts of wanting to quit. But you want to give it one more shot. The payoff you get being on that stage, having people planning their day to see you play — it’s hard to shake off.”
Orson’s sound is all about deftly conceived twin-guitar conversation, a rhythm section that both throbs and swings, and Pebworth’s cinematic, escapist timbre and otherworldly falsetto (not that ubiquitous post-Radiohead squeak). Their curious grab bag also includes a hipness-free side of mainstream ’80s radio rock that even the recent strip-mining retro surge has left largely untouched.
“Jason was really big on Hall & Oates and the Pretenders, and I was really big on INXS and the Police,” says Astasio. “Another guy was big on Motown, and another guy was into the Minutemen and Pixies. We were just banging stuff out till it sounded good. Labels and industry out on the West Coast thought, ‘Where do we put it? What category?’ ”
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Other stimuli, from the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan to Queen and the Smiths, flit through Orson’s polished prism. Pebworth’s lyrics are thick with totally Hollywood red-carpet imagery and boy-pursues-girl romance and pathos; “No Tomorrow” transmits the euphoria of the perfect date like few songs before it.
Now that they’ve relocated, Orson are wisely choosing to nurture their relationship with overseas audiences rather than rush to assault American ears once more. “There’s a lot of interest here [in Europe],” Astasio explains. “The shows are selling out. These people really dig what they’re hearing. We have a lot of work cut out for us at least for the next 12 months: playing festivals this summer — the V Festival, with Radiohead and Morrissey, and other ones up in Scotland and in Germany — and another U.K. tour, and then there’s also Japan. So I’d say, yes, definitely, bring on the States — but it may be a while. I would much rather work on an amazing follow-up album and get ourselves established in the U.K. and Europe.”
On the very day Orson left for England, L.A.’s Indie 103.1 interviewed them for its Passport Approved show, which profiles foreign bands. Such local ironies have been many.
“We all look back and kinda laugh a little bit,” says Astasio. “There we were, beating doors till we bled our knuckles. And these same guys — I’m not going to mention names — who came out to see us and passed us up are now saying, ‘I remember Orson — those guys are great!’ ”