By Melissa Caruso
“Shit, the least rock ‘n’ roll thing I’ve ever done?“ reiterates Mario Cuomo, lead singer of the Orwells.
“I don’t know, I’m pretty rock ‘n’ roll.”
Meet the Windy City’s latest reason to brag, a promising group who have signed a major record deal, toured both sides of the Atlantic, and received a condescending review from Pitchfork—all in a few short years. In other words, the Orwells have made it.
And that means something in 2014, a time when rock ‘n’ roll takes a backseat to transient trends. Whose fault is it? Cuomo says the media, who go about reviewing music all wrong. Unless you’re “doing heroin” or “from some foreign island playing fucking electro-pop,” as he puts it, “they just don’t fuck with you anymore.”
Take the Orwells’ debut television performance, on the Late Show with David Letterman this past January, when Cuomo was pelvic thrusting across the stage like some edgier version of Elvis. Moments later, Letterman himself requested an encore. Pitchfork, however, later wrote simply that the band made “complete asses of themselves.”
Whatever your take, the Orwells, from Lollapalooza to Bonnaroo and beyond, do have a following. The band’s snot-nosed defiance taps into a dangerous brew of rock ‘n’ roll that isn’t afraid to get dirty. They don’t rely on synths to soften the mix, because they instead desire a rhythmic pulse of raw, in-your-face intensity. When you hear rock ‘n’ roll, you want dangerous. Like the Rolling Stones, the Orwells let their music bleed.
And the blood seeps through on Disgraceland (out now on Canvasback/Atlantic), a collection in which Cuomo’s disgust with war and injustice makes as much sense today as it would circa Vietnam. “You better save the country/You better pass the flask/You better join the army/I say no thank you dear old Uncle Sam!” he sings on “Who Needs You.” Throw in the production of Dave Sitek (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Chris Coady (Smith Westerns) and Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys) and it’s pretty obvious why Disgraceland has catapulted the band into stardom.
But this sort of recognition took time. Back when the band was first hitting the pavement to self-promote their debut album (2012’s Remember When), not one Chicago-based label would throw them a bone. “We really wanted to be a part of that scene (HoZac, Fat Possum, etc.) because that’s all the music we love: the Black Lips, Ty Segall, shit like that. We really wanted to be a part of that because that’s all music we love and we wanted to join the ranks. And we just got no reply.”
Later, when offers started rolling in from major labels, those indie labels who never replied were suddenly interested. But it was too late for Cuomo, who thought, “Why fuck with the people who didn’t give a fuck about us when we needed them?”
Another thing that rubs Cuomo the wrong way is how the public perceives him: “It really pisses me off that people think I’m this huge cocksucker when in reality I try my best to be really nice to people, especially people that I don’t know.” Sure, he might seem a bit unhinged, stuffing girls’ panties in his mouth on stage, but it’s facetious. It’s frivolous. It’s rock ‘n’ roll. “People rely too much on stage personas and what the songs are about,” he said.
In 2009, when the band was just another gaggle of young hopefuls jamming in each other’s basements, Cuomo anticipated a specific fan base. “I thought we’d be playing shows to kids our age and then you look out every night and it’s a bunch of young ass kids and old ass people. Maybe that’s just when you have the most heart: when you’re young and when you’re old.”
Stooges guitarist James Williamson is a testament to that. When working on this year’s Re-Licked, the 65-year-old rocker invited Cuomo to lay down vocals, proving that Cuomo’s range lies far beyond “records the Strokes stopped making 10 years ago,” as Pitchfork put it.
As for future plans, Cuomo has his fingers crossed, hoping for a tour with Ty Segall. “He goes about it the right way, the way rock ‘n’ roll should be made. I feel like if Jack White kept doing what he was doing, the music would sound like what Ty Segall’s doing right now. He took over where Jack White left off.”
In the meantime, Cuomo is looking forward to two headlining gigs at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall on New Year’s Eve and the night before, where his parents will be in attendance. Their son, the high school dropout who couldn’t even get a job at Buffalo Wild Wings, seems to be doing just fine. Sometimes the kids are alright.