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Feature: The Orwells

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Not all talk show appearances go according to initial plan for some artists. Take punk-fueled Chicagoans The Orwells’ spot on “The Late Show With David Letterman” this past January, for instance. Before taking the stage for a stomping rendition of the single “Who Needs You” from the group’s new Disgraceland album, singer Mario Cuomo, 20, had a suitably bratty idea. “I just kind of wanted to fuck it up,” he chortles. “I didn’t want to take it too seriously. Because when some bands get on T.V., how they really perform is taken away because they’re suddenly in the spotlight. I wanted it to look like we were doing that song in the middle of a set in some small, shitty venue, so we did it the exact same way.”

But the stars all aligned for The Orwells that night, creating a word-of-mouth buzz that’s still circulating today. Which is due in large part to Cuomo’s hilarious, larger-than-life character, sort of a modern approximation of Sean Penn’s whoa-dude stoner Spicoli from the “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” film. On “The Late Show,” he was clad in black jeans, mismatched black and white tennis shoes, and the classic black leather biker jacket, with shoulder-length blond hair that perpetually obscured his face. As his bandmates (bassist Grant Brinner, drummer Henry Brinner, and guitarists Dominic Corso and Matt O’Keefe) rocked out behind him, the singer woofed his disaffected lyrics while he writhed on the floor like a reptile, pinballed around the stage; then finally came to rest in one of the guest chairs, blowing tendrils of hair from his eyes as he caught his breath before rejoining his pals for the grand finale.

It was a truly memorable – and altogether electric – rock and roll moment, and Letterman himself seemed to think so, as well. Applauding, he walked out to greet Cuomo, saying “Finally! Now we’re getting somewhere!” He called for an encore, at which point his bandleader Paul Shaeffer started into a note-for-note rendition of “Who Needs You,” perfectly imitating Cuomo’s snarling voice. It wasn’t just lip service, either, says Cuomo. “Because they’ve had us back on the show since. But I think that first time we were on, all week up to then was kind of boring. So I think we kind of woke (Letterman) up a little bit, because he seemed genuinely happy. And Paul Shaeffer was really having fun, so it was kind of nice to see somebody like that who does the same thing every night react like that. It seemed like he felt a little bit younger for a second.”

It was a nice career payoff for some musicians who had been together since high school, initially playing together just for fun on Friday nights. And they’re practically a family now anyway, says Cuomo (and no, it’s not some New York mayoral in-joke – that’s his real name, he swears), who was invited by Corso, his cousin, to join the outfit, which already boasted two brothers, the Brinner twins. On early EPs Head and Oh! Well – and then into the jagged Remember When debut disc in 2012 – they wrote songs bemoaning the pitfalls of high school life. “But now I’m not in high school, so I don’t want to make songs about school anymore,” Cuomo declares. “But I’m glad that I wrote about that at the time, because the songs were honest and they made sense.”

On “Disgraceland,” the lyricist has graduated to more elevated subject matter – chicks, drinking, and smoking pot. With a few tour-inspired experiences thrown in, as on “Dirty Sheets” and “Bathroom Tile Blues.” He makes his intent clear on the opening growler “Southern Comfort”: “Drink by drink/ I think and think/ And why won’t you hang with me this week/ I can’t walk and I can’t dance/ Give me a smile and then take off your pants.” It – and other anthems like “Blood Bubbles,” “Let it Burn,” and the handclap-driven “The Righteous One” – are all cloaked in a mature new sound, as well, a standard meat-and-potatoes rock and roll approach that recalls vintage Replacements, circa Tim and Let It Be. Cuomo may have dropped out his senior year at YHS to pursue his Orwellian dream. But he’s no naïve knucklehead.

Booze, Betties. Bongs. “That’s just what I do now,” Cuomo assesses. “I’m at that age, and this is what I do right now, so I might as well put that into some fucking songs. Because you can only do that for so long – talk about this kind of shit – so I want to just get it all out of the way.” There’s definitely a whiff of Spicoli wafting about the kid, which is all part of The Orwells charm. For this half-groggy interview, he’d just woken up at 3:00 p.m. and was drinking his first cup of afternoon coffee. “Last night, I was trying to watch as much “True Detective” as possible while drinking as much whiskey as possible,” he apologizes. “But lately I’ve just been on a horror kick – me and my roommates bought a bunch of random movie, like “Ichi the Killer” and the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” so we’re just trying to see some really fucked-up shit together.”

When the feisty frontman was residing with his parents not so long ago, his home became somewhat notorious for – not just late-night – but all-day revelry. Which eventually caught the attention of the local constabulary. “There’d be a lot of people at my house at one time, ‘cause we’d just be playing basketball in the back yard,” he recalls. “So a lot of people would smoke weed at my house, and we’d just get high as fuck in the garage all day. But I guess (the Elmhurst police) thought that there was some serious shit going on, so they went to all this trouble and put cameras in my neighbor’s trees for months.” He sighs. “It was honestly pretty fucked up. Because then they just busted in one night and arrested us all. But they didn’t find anything when they raided our house, even though they’d prepared for it for months. But I was in a holding cell for 12 hours – it was a really shitty night.”

Truth be told, Cuomo just looks like a mischief maker. Like he’s just secretly pranked some frat brother, and he’s trying to contain himself while he awaits the zany results. And he admits that he regularly stumbles into trouble. Especially in concert, where he crowd surfs and grabs random female fans for impromptu make-out sessions. “One night in Boston, I tried to fall into the crowd, but it was a really high stage – ridiculously high, like six feet or something,” he shivers. “And I just went straight through them and ended up flipping. Luckily, I didn’t fall straight to my head – I landed more on my back. But that was kind of scary, because I got up and thought ‘Whoa! Is my neck broken?’ But I just got back up onstage. Sometimes you just get caught up in the moment with that shit.”

Cuomo is unashamed of his habit of kissing strange women. He blames it on a libidinous combination of being drunk and not currently being anchored to any one girlfriend. “And it’s not like I’m walking her offstage and having her over to my dressing room or anything, so I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” he guffaws. “But one time at South by Southwest, this girl was just going at me, while her boyfriend was physically pulling her away as hard as he could. It was pretty fucked up. She was trying to kiss me, and he was like ‘C’mon! Let’s get the fuck out of here!’ And I looked at the dude, thinking ‘What kind of chick is this?’ But I don’t like to perform sober,” he adds. “I mean, I don’t like to get completely shitfaced, but it’s nice to have a few beers and a couple of shots before I go on. I dunno. I just move better, you know? I can jump into it right off the bat. It’s the same reason people throw pre-game parties – you get there, and you’re in the mood right away.”

At 20, the artist knows he’s living a dream existence that most of his former York High School classmates could only dream of. He’s traveled the world, and by the time you read this, The Orwells will have just returned from their first trip to Japan. Cuomo will celebrate his 21st birthday on the road in California this September, and – at the moment — he has no idea how he’s going to spend it. He can barely remember his 20th, which occurred while the group was playing Kansas City. The nightclub’s sound had been cutting out on almost every song, so afterwards, the management made amends by offering The Orwells an open bar. Big mistake.

“We just got completely shitfaced,” Cuomo says. “And then at midnight, I turned 20, and we ended up drinking behind the venue in an alley, and getting on top of the venue’s roof. And then I ended up literally in the bottom of a dumpster. I crawled inside a dumpster that night, I guess. I dunno how I actually ended up there….”

— Tom Lanham

The Orwells appear September 13 at Riot Fest Chicago. Tickets are available HERE

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