In 2010, the Orwells executed the kind of prank that takes forethought and know-how. The Elmhurst, Ill. outfit, which consists of five recent high school graduates, were slotted to play a school concert organized by human rights group Amnesty International when the band decided to do something special for their set. During that period, there was a major heroin problem among seniors at their school. The Orwells also happened to be fans of the Velvet Underground and were willing to cover them. Stop us if you can guess where this is going.
"We just decided to really piss off the administration and we played 'Heroin' pretty loudly. It was awesome," guitarist Dominic Corso, 19, recalls. "I remember when we started with those opening chords, there were kids we knew [whose] faces immediately were like, 'No fucking way they're playing this right now.' After that, they just kicked us out. We got off-stage and they were like, 'All right, get out of the building right now.' We were all like, 'Damn, are we in trouble or some shit?' Then, we went to school the next Monday, and it was totally fine, so we got away with it, but we really did piss off our Deans and shit."
It isn't exactly surprising that the Orwells would attempt a stunt like this. On 2012's Remember When, their ostensible full-length debut (Corso isn't counting earlier albums anymore), the band generate loud, anarchic, dirty and occasionally forlorn garage-punk that takes pride in sounding like it was recorded inside a food processor. You can sense carefree disobedience in their DNA, and that trait is exactly why they did "Heroin."
When Corso and fellow guitarist Matt O'Keefe launched the Orwells in 2009 as something to do after school, the outfit took a different, more Strokes-like tack. "It started as chiller, lighter rock 'n' roll," Corso says. Then, the group got into the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog"–a punk classic the Orwells would end up covering repeatedly–and garage-punk contemporaries Black Lips. They also began paying attention to how much energy their peers' bands were pouring into their music; meanwhile, the Orwells' relatively softer sound didn't allow them to do something similar. The angle started to change.
Along the way, the group became prolific through routine, cranking out a song a week at one point, filling out their pre-Remember When records. After hooking up with Autumn Tone Records (the sister label to Aquarium Drunkard, a music blog the Orwells originally pitched for coverage), the group began life as a touring band, once hitting South By Southwest for a notable stint. But the group's true break arrived this past January when they appeared on Late Show with David Letterman.
In keeping with the "Heroin" story's spirit, the band played the eponymous track off 2013's Who Needs You EP on the late night institution, performing as if they weren't particularly moved or intimidated by being on this nationally broadcast show. Vocalist Mario Cuomo caterwauled, staggered around and laid on the floor, humping the air, while the rest of the band–all straight-faced–focused on blasting their gnarled rock.
The Orwells seeming as if they didn't care somehow led to everyone caring. A giddy Letterman was bowled over by the performance, insisting on an encore (which didn't happen), and Late Show band leader Paul Shaffer even imitated the group. Footage of the performance became viral wildfire, substantially upping the young act's profile. The Late Show set was, by all means, a turning point for the Orwells.
While Corso appreciates that things have picked up recently, he emphasizes that the group still have a lot more progress left to make before they can really reap the rewards, evidencing a work ethic that suddenly feels more Puritan than punk. "Right now, we're just trying to become better writers, better musicians. All we've got to do now is tour and write, tour and write, record, all that–just keep repeating," he says. "We're just going to do the best we can for as long as we can."
The Orwells perform with Twin Peaks, Criminal Hygiene, Corners, L.A. Witch, Broncho and more at the Observatory, 3503. S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Thurs., 8 p.m. $13. All ages.