By Peter Lindblad
It’s flashy. It’s trendy. And it’s nothing like what used to be there.
Roman Kuebler, of The Oranges Band, a hard-driving but disarmingly melodic power-pop dynamo that now boasts former Guided By Voices guitarist Doug Gillard among its ranks, remembers it well. On the guitar-based group’s latest set of hook-filled knockout punches, The Oranges Band Are Invisible, Kuebler revisits the old haunt and takes listeners on a tour of not just Baltimore the city, but also its criminally ignored indie-rock scene.
“One thing that was important to me in making this record was the idea of artistic, historical accuracy,” explains Kuebler. “I really like the idea of talking about places that were true and phrases and bands that were real. I wanted to place these words into songs and direct them towards the 200 people in the whole world who might know what they mean, if they are listening.”
Targeting such a tiny segment of an audience may seem like career suicide. Kuebler recognizes how foreign a concept this is to a music industry that’s always looking to widen its audiences.
“It is kind of a funny way to promote your music, but this album really is about focusing the subject towards a very small group of people in the hopes that they have a personal experience with our album in relation to their experience,” says Kuebler.
Full of local flavor, with lyrical allusions to Baltimore indie institutions Runway Model and the Lee Harvey Keitel Band, The Oranges Band Are Invisible counts among its tracks a toast to a forgotten live venue titled “Gordon’s Nightclub.”
“The line in the song is, ‘What happened to the Rev? It was right here when I left, but now it’s turned into Gordon’s Nightclub,’” says Kuebler. “The Rev was an old venue called the American Revolution. I moved away from Baltimore, and when I returned, the Rev had become Gordon’s Bar and Grill. It was, and still is, in fact, a hip hop/soul dance club.”
Not exactly the kind of forum for The Oranges Band’s brand of bright, straight-forward rock. But Are Invisible, released in early May and being distributed through Morphius Records, should connect with fans of slashing guitar riffs, directional twists and turns and ballsy, action-packed rock ‘n’ roll. Tracks like “Ottobar Afterhours,” “ArtStar,” “One More Dog” and “Do You Remember Memory Lane?” bristle with energy. How much did Gillard’s amped-up intensity have to do with that?
“As you (and anyone who is familiar with Doug’s guitar playing) can imagine, Doug had everything to do with it,” remarks Kuebler. “I had all the songs written before Doug was involved in the project, and I didn’t want to be the one who overdubbed the second guitars, so involving Doug in the project was a real life-saver for me in that it not only saved me a lot of work and self-criticism, but it also allowed me to experience the songs as an outsider and become a fan of our own music. Also, when Doug got involved, it transformed the way the rest of the band approached the music, and it definitely infused that energy that you hear into the tracks. It was incredible. That is why we tracked the record as four people in the room at the same time.”
The fifth album by The Oranges Band, Are Invisible is something of a transitional album for the group. Two veteran members departed before 2008, leaving Kuebler and ex-Wrong Button drummer Davy Voyles as the only Oranges Band originals still left. After recruiting bassist Pat Martin, the band took time to write songs and play live in preparation for going back into the studio.
About the lineup changes, Kuebler says, “Well, it was a tough situation. I always took a lot of responsibility for keeping the guys in the band engaged and interested enough to want to continue playing. I also felt that a band could not necessarily be dependent on all of its members, so when Tim (Johnston), our original bass player, left to pursue a family and all, it was a loss to say the least, but I thought we could just kind of continue on without much interruption or even too much effect. I tended to think in terms of music and records and just the more literal functions of the band. What I underestimated was how Tim’s departure would affect the personal construction of the group and on our first tour without him, I was a little lost in my place in the group. I don’t know if Dave felt the same way, but I think everyone was affected in some relatively significant way. The band was much different at that point, and it was rather unexpected.”
Around the turn of this century, Kuebler, who got his feet wet with the Baltimore band Roads To Space Travel, began forming the core of the future Oranges Band, enlisting Voyles, Johnston and guitarists Dan Black and Virat Shukla to join. One EP, Five Dollars, christened the group’s recording endeavors. It was followed by another EP on Morphius titled Nine Hundred Miles Of F**king Hell. Looking to stretch out, Kuebler also began collaborating and touring with Washington D.C. punks The Thumbs. Though his attention was divided, Kuebler and The Oranges Band prepped a full-length album, but then Kuebler hooked up with high-profile indie heroes Spoon.
Eventually, however, after put the finishing touches on a series of demos, The Oranges Band landed a deal with the pop-punk label Lookout! Squeezing out another EP, this one titled On TV, in 2002, The Oranges Band then delivered a proper LP called All Around. Two years later, they followed up with The World & Everything In It.
Complications arose when Lookout! decided to concentrate solely on its “catalog only” business. It was symptomatic of a music industry in flux. In response, Kuebler created every7th.com, which is described as a monthly person-to-person music subscription service that allows Kuebler to be interactive with fans.
“Yeah, every7th.com is sort of a reaction to all that monkey business about promoting and angling and manipulating your music to fit into an idea that is current and active,” he says. “What it is meant to do is to say, ‘Here is something I do. I write music, and it would be great if you would support me and offer me feedback and help me to continue doing this thing that I like to do.’ And I feel I have something to offer. I mean, the format itself is noteworthy in this time of digital music confusion and chaos. I hope that it confronts the issue.”
Outside of the online world, Kuebler had to deal with the changing makeup of his band and the fact that The Oranges Band no longer had a label home. They became schooled at the art of self-promotion.
“The thing is that we have always worked for every advantage, so just being on a good, national label like Lookout! meant that we had to put in a lot of time and effort towards making our band’s profile worthy of that attention,” says Kuebler. “Once we were there, the work really started because we had to constantly look for an angle to promote our music, and once we felt we had a really good thing going, in our last album, The World and Everything In It, the label folded under us and interest in our band and (what we considered to be) our best album diminished.”
In essence, The Oranges Band had to start over.
“I felt like we got cut off at the knees a little bit there, and now, we have to basically take all that work and rebuild the foundation,” continues Kuebler. “The thing is that we have a pretty limited reach, and people aren’t impressed, generally, by a band who is less notorious than they were previously, so the ascent becomes twice as difficult.”
In a way, it’s like he’s running his own small business now … well, it’s almost like that.
“It is like a small business except that when a business owner puts in an extreme amount of quality work, he can expect it to pay off in a tangible way,” says Kuebler. “The same is not true for a band who is really just trying to create a story and artwork that people can relate to. The artist has not a lot of control over how that story is received. So yes, it is tough, but you just continue because you believe the music and the story continue to be relevant … I think we’ve added to the culture in some way.”
And the latest way The Oranges Band has contributed to the culture is Are Invisible. While most of the album races forward with its foot on the accelerator, its framework built on good, solid guitar riffs and tidy songwriting, they do, on occasion, throw in a monkey wrench like the ’80s Talking Heads funk throwback “When Your Mask Is Your Revealing Feature” and the stormy, shoegazer-style closer “Toulouse-Lautrec.” Kuebler enjoys his little surprises.
“I think I tend to follow the song a little bit sometimes,” says Kuebler. “The truth is that a lot of times I am as surprised by the result as anyone else might be. I do love that feeling and look forward to feeling a kind of secondary ownership which allows me to both own the song and be a fan of it. It is that unexpected thing that keeps me involved I think, yeah. Basically, I am just continuing to try and write a really perfect rock song or one that expresses something really accurately.”
This time out, Kuebler wanted to shed some light on Baltimore’s underappreciated mid-’90s indie-rock scene. That’s where the title of the album fits in.
“Yeah, the whole concept does refer to ‘unheard’ music,” says Kuebler. “Whether it be ours or of these other bands as well, one thing that is significant in talking about bands of the mid-’90s is that since the Internet did not really exist — certainly not as much of a marketing tool — the band who did not follow themselves into the new millennium and post their own information really have become ‘invisible’ and hard to track. There really is no information available about Runway Model, who were a very popular band in Baltimore in about ’97. Now, if you don’t own the vinyl-only LP then you have no access to this incredible music. It is also worth mentioning that that is not always a negative.”
As Are Invisible amply illustrates, Kuebler was paying attention to them.
“What I took from these bands, in some cases, was very literal,” he says. “In the song ‘Ottobar Afterhours,” I just lifted a couple lines from a Lee Harvey Keitel Band song called ‘Any Five Workers.’ Also, in the song ‘Do You Remember Memory Lane?’ I referenced a Runway Model song called ‘Last Night on Earth.’ These were the literal references and the direct influences on the music. There are a couple more, but maybe more importantly was that during this time and from these bands I felt the importance of a localized music scene that challenges people to participate. This music and this scene was important to me and aside from the music that the people in the rest of the country missed out on, there is a legacy that is now all but forgotten that, in my opinion, would have been valuable in the context of what peoples’ impression of Baltimore music is now. That really motivated me to write music about these bands and about this time period in Baltimore music history.”