5:40 PM EDT, April 29, 2014
On an April Tuesday afternoon, a big black van rolled through the streets of Elmhurst.
It might have been rented for a prom by a group of friends. It might have contained a baseball team headed to a game.
Then it stopped at Dominic Corso's home and Corso got in, a scruffy 19-year-old in a gray hoodie and baseball cap.
Corso said he had just heard "Who Needs You" on Chicago's 101 WKQX. This wasn't just musical chatter: The back of the van contained the guitar he'd used to help play that song in an electrifying national TV appearance in January.
The van also stopped at the house of Mario Cuomo, Corso's cousin and lead singer in their band and the only one who, at 20, is not still a teenager; at guitarist Matt O'Keefe's, in whose basement they all used to practice; and at the home of the twins, bassist and drummer Grant and Henry Brinner.
Henry came out and presented a bag of Easter egg candy to the band's driver and tour manager, Drew Potenza, also an Elmhurst native and friends with O'Keefe's older brother, Eddie.
"My mom," Henry said sheepishly.
Meet The Orwells, five pretty ordinary-seeming kids from Elmhurst who just might be rock's next big thing.
That national TV performance, on the "Late Show with David Letterman," went viral. It ended with Paul Shaffer, Letterman's 64-year-old musical director, flopping on the TV-studio floor in imitation of Cuomo.
You could say the "Late Show" triumph put them on the national radar, but The Orwells have been on a steep upward trajectory for years.
They've got their major-label debut, "Disgraceland," coming out in June; its cover, shot by Eddie O'Keefe, depicts a cookie-cutter post-war Elmhurst house. They'll be back on Letterman's show June 10.
And the touring, already happening at breakneck pace, will only increase. The Orwells are playing festivals in Japan and America this summer. Already this year, they've visited the U.K. twice, rolled through mid-level U.S. clubs and even spent a week on The Weezer Cruise.
The people on the ship "were all such big Weezer fans," said Cuomo. "They felt obliged to say, 'Now, don't get me wrong. You're no Weezer. But you guys are great.'"
WXRT-FM 93.1 and WKQX-FM 101.1, two stations without a lot of overlap, are already playing The Orwells' music, and they ought to be. Critics always talk about Cuomo's on-stage antics — including not just stage-flopping but occasional bouts of pantslessness. But the band is making rock-and-roll with two-guitar muscle, driven by the Brinners' pounding rhythms, topped by absurdly catchy melodies and Cuomo's fragmentary, shout-along lyrics about teenage anxiety and disaffection.
Think Arctic Monkeys — for whom they've opened — merged with Green Day, minus the latter's fake British accents. "Filtering the Strokes through the granite bedrock of Led Zeppelin," a reviewer for The Guardian said of "Who Needs You."
It's a bright spotlight. Expectations are high enough that the band members have won their parents' blessing to forgo college — for now.
"I realize this is insane," Matt O'Keefe said. "I remember walking home from York High School to my house and I'd put my headphones on, listening to Velvet Underground and Nico, and I'd be like, 'This is what I want so bad.'"
The day's destination was Lincoln Hall for a sold-out show that would be The Orwells' first in the city since a pre-Lollapalooza gig last year. Parents would be there. Grandparents. Friends who were organized enough to ask for tickets before the guest list filled up. Their out-of-town managers, punk-scene veterans who signed them after being blown away at the South by Southwest festival last year. And the head of the record company that signed them, Canvasback, a subsidiary of Atlantic.
So yes, it is a big show, but as the Orwells describe the blear of touring, it is also, inevitably, another show in a string of them. Being all-ages on a weeknight, it's also an early show.
"8:30 show?" Cuomo said. "We've got to pace ourselves."
"Yes," responded Potenza, a skinny guy in his 20s whose role ranges from big brother to father to gopher to settler of accounts at the end of the night. "Please don't make it a (mess) tonight."
(Later, backstage at Lincoln Hall, when a band member suggested doing shots beforehand, Potenza said, "The venue knows you're all under 21, so let's not even try any (stuff) with your fake IDs.")
As the van rolled through the boys' hometown and then the West Side of Chicago, the talk was typical: Hamburger Heaven, the vintage, charming-looking drive-in on North Avenue has gone downhill. A couple at the skate park proved their love by sharing Flamin' Hot Cheetos.
But music and the music business always worked their way back into the conversation. Band members wondered whether they'd be getting their $25-per-day tour per diem (yes). Potenza explained the laundry trick he had used to get diesel fuel out of a batch of "Who the (Expletive) Are the Orwells?" T-shirts (Dawn and Coca-Cola) so they could be sold at the merchandise table.
"We should have just sold them as 'diesel shirts,'" Cuomo said.
O'Keefe mused about making a next album with acoustic guitar and bass: "When has anybody ever done, like, a throwback to the Violent Femmes?"
Other bands that came up: Nirvana, Wesley Willis, John Lennon, The Strokes, Robert Plant.
O'Keefe pointed out that a friend tweeted, teasingly, that "Let It Burn," the first song released from the Orwells' forthcoming album, "is about having the Clap."
"What's the Clap?" someone asked. "Chlamydia?"
"The Clap is gonorrhea," O'Keefe said.
Potenza announced that, at the Chicago hotel where they'd stay before a very early-morning drive to Minneapolis, "everyone has their own room tonight. So, you know, gather for Bible study and discussion of Eastern European socioeconomic policy. Just a typical Tuesday."
As he stopped at the hotel, the Indigo in the Gold Coast, to check the band in before soundcheck at Lincoln Hall, some of the band members stepped outside the van for a smoke.
Corso decided it was time to bust Grant Brinner about his outfit: skinny jeans, an "Aztec Baseball" sweatshirt, Nike running shoes and a backward Adidas cap.
"You are not in this band. That's not what we are at all," Corso said. "If there was ever a day to stop and look at yourself in the mirror, this is the day." He snapped a cellphone picture, just to be able to make the point again later.
Added Cuomo, "You look like a mom going for a jog."
Grant later would laugh about it, pointing out that Corso, in his estimation, was dressed "like a grandfather."
The band has been together more than four years, since the four younger guys started high school, ended their middle school band and recruited Cuomo to sing.
This was no sure thing, they said, because while the younger foursome were pretty nondescript students, keeping mostly to themselves and out of trouble, Cuomo was known throughout York High School.
"He was always the kid who always started (stuff)," said his cousin, Corso. "He was pretty consistent with his provocations. It seems like it would be hard to live with, but it's part of the band. It is a dynamic part of the band."
Cuomo blew off the first practice to be with a girlfriend, but they broke up and, a few days later, there he was. The new band started with, what else, a Strokes cover, but they quickly began writing their own songs.
The band name had nothing to do with English class. It was outright theft, explained O'Keefe: "We had booked ourselves for a garage show, and we wanted to hang fliers around the school. We couldn't hang up, like, 'These kids are playing at this place.'
"So the biggest band at York at the moment were these senior kids called The Orwells. So we were like, 'Let's just say The Orwells are playing.' We did that and kids showed up and then we just kind of continued to do that, just like a joke, until, coincidentally, a few weeks later they were like, 'We're not a band anymore.'"
Not content to just play the occasional party, the band rehearsed steadily, and the members challenged themselves to write a new song every Friday: Corso or O'Keefe would come up with guitar parts during the week and while the band fleshed the song out, Cuomo would sit on a couch "trying to figure out vocal melodies, scribbling down lyrics," O'Keefe said.
That work ethic, plugging away rather than waiting for the genius moment, forced them to improve as songwriters, the band members said. As they began to get sincere compliments on songs — a request for a digital copy, rather than just polite approval — they started to think they might have something that would propel them beyond Elmhurst and into the company of acts they admired, including The Black Lips and Ty Segall.
They made and distributed two records on their own, "Head" and "Oh! Well."
The music blog Aquarium Drunkard offered to put out the band's first album on its Autumn Tone label. "Remember When" (2012) drew praise from Filter as "nothing like the inexperienced unprofessional debut one might expect. The songs are stable, full." From that, the song "Mall Rats (La La La)" — again, ridiculously catchy and with a winning low-fi video shot at Yorktown Mall by Eddie O'Keefe — got a fair amount of independent press attention.
Jack Steven, a veteran A&R man who'd worked with bands including Eurhythmics, wanted to help manage the band, he said, after he and his partner found them at South by Southwest.
"I hadn't seen anything like that at that age since the 1970s," Steven said. "They got me out of retirement."
"They're not frightened of hard work," he said. "I think they're only hitting the tip of the iceberg so far."
That's the bet that Canvasback is making in signing The Orwells as one of only a handful of acts. To shepherd his investment, label head Steve Ralbovsky flew to Chicago for the Lincoln Hall show to meet with the band for a kind of pep talk.
Fragments from his talk with them in the Lincoln Hall green room filtered out into the hallway.
"I know these drives are brutal," he told the band. "It's only going to get better from here."
He reminded them that gratitude, appreciation, "pleases and thank yous go a long way," a lesson the band put to use when representatives from 101 WKQX came backstage to say hello before the show.
There was business to talk about in advance of the June 2 "Disgraceland" release: a photo shoot, CD packaging, a possible return appearance on Letterman (since announced for June 10).
"Does everyone know about the good news on iTunes?" Ralbovsky asked. "We are single of the week, which is huge."
Then, like Bulls coach Phil Jackson with his players in the 1990s, he gave them reading material, plus viewing and listening material — a big bag of stuff he'd picked up at Barnes & Noble.
It included "The Wire" and "'Fitzcarraldo,' which is a film about dying for your art," music by the Rolling Stones, New York Dolls, Van Morrison, Big Star and Townes Van Zandt, books of Lester Bangs criticism and on the Chelsea Hotel in New York.
It was a paternal sort of gesture that would probably put at ease the minds of some of the band parents, who aren't entirely sure what the rock world has in store for their kids.
Lori Brinner, mother of the twins, said she worries "24 hours a day, 365."
"I just talk to them a lot about it, maybe ad nauseam. I think they get really tired of it," she said. "I love music, but I don't like the stuff that comes with it.
"I've texted it to them. I've said, 'That's already been done. It's not original. Be cool. Be great. But don't become a cliche.' We've all watched 'Behind the Music.'"
The parents together call themselves the Orwell family unit, she said, and "especially the moms" get together to talk about how they can best help their kids.
In the end, she said, she has to trust how she raised her kids and that the five Orwells and the people around them will "keep each other in check."
Besides, there's plenty of scary stuff going on in college dorms these days too, she said. Letting them pursue rock rather than go on to school became an easier decision as The Orwells kept advancing in their careers, and she and her husband, a chemical engineer, kept liking the music the boys were making, both on record and live.
"How do you tell your kids when they're growing up to follow their dreams, and then when their dreams are coming true tell them 'You can't do that?'" she asked.
The Lincoln Hall show was rowdy by 2014 concert standards: a large mosh pit, with fans frequently landing or maneuvering themselves up onto the stage to dance for a few beats before diving back in. Cuomo, who has said he's over the pants-removal thing, at one point dived into the crowd himself. From behind a curtain onstage, Potenza monitored it all, playing catcher in the rye for those fans who seemed a little too exuberant, depositing them back where they came from.
By Orwells standards, it was, band members said, "pretty tame," hot-and-sweaty recitations of songs to which the mostly young audience seemed to know most every lyric: "You better pledge allegiance / You're not the only one / Listen up forefathers / I'm not your son."
When it was over, friends of the band came by to offer congratulations. Spencer Tweedy, son of Wilco frontman Jeff and former drummer in the band The Blisters, had praise for Henry Brinner's drumming: "Dude, the (expletive) volume that comes out of your snare drum!"
Henry: "Thanks, man."
Socioeconomic policy discussion would have to wait. The band members would head to a party at the city apartment of a friend from Elmhurst before getting up to get on the road for the Minnesota show the next night.
But first there was gear to load into the van, and that process was complicated by the keys being lost temporarily. (They turned out to have been left at the merchandise table.)
"All right," Henry said, "we seriously need to stop losing the van keys."
As Brinner packed his drums away, a couple of broken drumsticks on the stage nearby, a "Woo-hoo!" came from up in the balcony.
"My mom," he explained.
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