Just 18-years-old, Mario Cuomo claims that nothing about his raspy vocal tone is natural. "It's the cigarettes," he says, half-smiling. And reluctantly, I'm prone to believe him. When I met him and the rest of his band, the Orwells, outside of their car, they were pulling from their smokes like they're used to having them smacked away by parents. For a band consisting of 17-year-olds, that's a real concern.
The Orwells are from Elmhurst, Ill., a suburb of Chicago that guitarist Baby Chuck describes as "a great place for parents, a shitty place for teenagers;" though, that seems true of just about anywhere that complies with the state's age restrictions. They had driven to Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood just to headline for a bill of local comedians in a record store, all the while scheming ways to inconspicuously procure beer and toke up before their set without ruffling the wrong feathers. In a telltale sign of a self-aware suburban upbringing, they go to great lengths not to seem pretentious or offensive.
Cuomo is the only one of the five old enough to legally buy their cigarettes, though he's also the only one incapable of driving a car. He had a sizable gash on his left elbow that was in the nascent period of healing. As they launched into their abbreviated set, he beckoned for people to come closer. When no one did, he climbed over some chairs and tackled others. He introduced a cover of Black Lips' "Not A Problem" by declaring it "a cover of the greatest song ever written," and their wide-eyed rendition was a clear indication of their own aspirations. Their debut LP, Remember When (released Aug. 7 on AutumnTone Records), is still prone to the kinds of misguided and sloppy songwriting of teenagers whose ambition vastly outweighs experience. But it also packs numerous glimpses of transcendent hooks so full of pure and—here's the operative term—unadulterated passion that it seems like connecting the dots is just a couple of fake ID's away.
How much more difficult has it been for you to book shows since you're underage?
All: A lot.
Baby Chuck: We went to L.A. for two weeks this summer, and there were like three shows that fell through because the owner found out we were under 21.
Henry Brinner: One was like day-of, after we'd sound-checked.
Chuck: Literally like 30 minutes before we were supposed to go on. It's tough too, drawing a crowd in downtown [Chicago] for people our age. When you have people living in the suburbs, their parents don't really trust them to drive into the city to watch us play.
Cuomo: And then we've got 17-year-old friends, and it's like oh, it's an 18-and-over show...
Are all of you done with high school now?
Chuck: Mario's finished, and we're graduating a semester early. So we're done in January, and then all focus goes to this.
Grant Brinner: Hopefully we'll move out to L.A.
Chuck: Don't move out to L.A. too soon. … But I have family out there.
And you just said you've already played out there. Has the response been better there?
Henry: People [in L.A.] actually go to shows to go to shows, without just knowing the band.
Chuck: In L.A. the best shows were in people's backyards, and you don't get much of that in Chicago. The weather's not always great.
What's the story behind the name of your record, Remember When? Who's that directed at?
Chuck: Remember When was actually an old record shop that was around for, like, 50 years in a suburb next to us called Westmont. We'd been shooting around titles for a couple of months and we found out Remember When was closing, so we just dedicated the album to them for all the shit we got from there.
Are a lot of kids at your school into that same kind of music?
Chuck: I find it strange how big, or how many kids actually listen to music like that—just lo-fi or DIY music. It's not a bunch, but it's enough to be kind of surprised by it. But mostly it is, like, dubstep. Skrillex or Wiz Khalifa.
What's the story behind the name The Orwells?
Grant: Me and Henry were reading George Orwell books, and I thought the name sounded cool so I just chose it.
Dominic Corso: I don't want it to get out, though.
Grant: Yeah it just sounded cool to us.
Chuck: We come from a town—like, kids' band names at our school are super obscure—
Henry: Twin Dinosaurs From Outer Space.
Chuck: Yeah, like that. And we just wanted to bring back a classic "The [blank]" band name.
Remember When really focuses on reversing the way people romanticize high school, yet you have the lyric on "Never Ever" in which you say, "We got this fear of aging." How do you reconcile those two ideas?
Cuomo: While we were in the process of recording the whole album, we didn't really know if this was possible—being a somewhat successful band that can tour and sh—stuff like that; and get on a label, we didn't know if that was possible yet. … So it was the fear of getting older and it being too late.
Yeah, like you're somewhat discontent now, but what if things actualize themselves and everything is just as shitty.
Cuomo: Yeah. Like, what if this is all we've got? Like, we're living in a daydream, but what about what comes after? It'd be cool if something comes of this, but we don't know.
Have venues let you drink at all?
Grant: There's only one in the history books. It was at South By Southwest and I asked for two Coronas, and he just didn't even look up. But usually they'll say, like, If we see you with a beer you're never playing here again.
You mentioned your friends having to deal with their parents maybe not letting them go to shows. Have your parents ever tried to hold you back like that?
Chuck: We were very lucky to have the parents we have. They helped fund our trip to L.A., they're letting us graduate early. A lot of parents would be like of course not—you're going to college, you're not going to L.A. for the summer. But they've been very on-board with all of this.
Have you started working on anything else?
Chuck: The record is coming out soon. Hopefully in the next year we can do another one. Hopefully it will be even better.
Cuomo: Yeah, hopefully just keep the records coming at a steady pace.
Grant: We recently picked up a team—publicist and a manager. So we don't know how it works now. It seems like it's going to take off, but…
Corso: We're still learning.
Chuck: We first self-released Remember When in October. It was big in our high school for two weeks, and then it died out. The week we finished Remember When was the week we started our new album, so I don't think our sophomore is going to be that far away.
Henry: We're already halfway done with it.
Corso: Well, we—we're getting there.