When you first hear Roman Kuebler sing, you may think you’re listening to a good, clean Buddy Holly album, or the incarnation of some other dawn-of-rock crooner back from the dead, or dad’s vinyl collection. His voice is smooth. It’s mannered and airy. It’s not at all “cool” in the contemporary sense of the word, whatever that may mean. But it is this defiant brand of nerdiness, this not-so-subtle nodding of the cap to those suit-wearing, slick-hair-having grandfathers of rock and roll that propel The Oranges Band forward, even as they face the other way. And Kuebler’s voice is just one piece of the action that is head-bobbing, garage-band rock, with a pop sensibility that has balls.
The Oranges Band may have come out with the ambitiously titled The World & Everything in It a little over a month ago, but the best-if-eaten-by date somehow pushes farther and farther back and I don’t think it’s going to sour any time soon. Blending the nervous cacophony of discord with the bonhomie of a good book by the fire, this album strikes all the right nerves and even the wrong ones don’t seem to mind. You’ve got cute doo-wop meets ’80s power chord rock in “White Ride,” beautiful and staccato-light guitar touches in the strange and melancholic “Drug City,” and stretching, harmony-driven surf in “Ride the Wild Wave” that belies the fact that you are here and not on Zuma Beach in the early 1960s. You’ll find yourself double taking from track 1 to 12, but never hitting the skip button.
But this isn’t all beginners’ luck. The album represents an onerous search for that formula that can create songs that not only appeal to a wide variety of personalities, but also can in some way relate to each of their individual experiences. The recipe: equal parts experience, restlessness, nostalgia, and a larger sense of and pride in one’s history. This is really what is missing from much of rock and roll and mainstream music these days: an allegiance to home, to reminiscence, to something greater than self-indulgent angst and love. Sappiness is not always a bad thing.
I had a chance to catch up with Roman Kuebler on the top floor of the Ottobar, a black-walled haunt for the hip in Baltimore, MD. The members of The Oranges Band were celebrating the release of their new album, by playing a show at home, in one of their favorite venues.
Scott Hechinger: How does it feel to be back in Baltimore?
Roman Kuebler: It’s generally good to be home and in my living space. But it’s nothing like our last tour when we’d be gone 8 to 10 weeks in a row and coming home was a little disappointing. There wasn’t a hero’s welcome or anything. We snuck into town, played some shows, and saw some good friends. But when you remove yourself for eight weeks at a time, people have no choice but to forget about you. That’s just a fact of survival for bands. I get a lot of “what are you doing here?” “I didn’t know you were gone.” “I didn’t know what was up with you.” “You just aren’t here anymore.”
SH: Do you feel then that popularity has a downside? That as your band grows and starts going on more far-ranging tours, you become alienated from what’s most important to you?
RK: To some extent certainly. There is a separation inherent in growing popularity and being away for longer. But this separation is also a product of age. As I’ve gotten a little bit older, the people who I grew up with are less enthusiastic about going to see shows and about participating in a scene. And as bands break up and people grow up, they no longer dedicate as much of their time to music. So naturally, the longer you stick with music and the less your friends are doing it around you, the less you feel a part of that scene that you once were. And you can’t necessarily float in to the scene of the people coming up. You can’t just attach yourself to their scene. They’ve got their own thing going on and it doesn’t really include you and it shouldn’t.
SH: Inherent in your music and lyrics there seems to be a strong sense of nostalgia for the past, the way things used to be. What was it like for you, musically, growing up in Baltimore? How would you describe your scene? How did it affect your development?
RK: Local influences were extremely important for me coming up, and I really did feel like there was something going on that I could be a part of. It wasn’t that you’d just go to a show and see someone play. You’d go to someone’s show, or to a bar they’d be working. These guys would be having a beer with you. And like that, you were developing relationships. We would go to see bands like Candy Machine, Butt Steak and The Lee Harvey Keitel Band every time they played and then we’d see them on the street and talk to them and ask them questions. With a local scene like that, you could really see what these bands were doing and learn from them.
So when I was trying put my own music together, there was a lot of sharing involved. I was trying to do the Candy Machine thing with the guitars and the Buttsteak and Harvey Keitel thing with their really adventurous vocals and harmonies and lyrics. That all influenced what I was doing and what I’m doing today, especially with regard to my singing. You can try to interpret what the bigger bands are doing, and I definitely did that, but when you can actually have a conversation with the bands and you can hear what they have to say in their music, that really makes a difference.
SH: You’re playing on a national stage now, but would you have been content with just being ‘that’ local band?
RK: No. I wanted to be involved in the local scene. But I never aspired to be a local band. To me a local band is the band that gigs once a month, practices twice a week, and leisurely completes their album. I always wondered why someone would ever do this if they didn’t have the ambitions to really do something good, to really get it out to the people. Now I understand why that is. In Baltimore, you don’t get the benefit of being from New York or Chicago or LA. You are really out there, on your own, trying to sell something and I can understand why not too many people are up for that kind of effort. It has always confused me why there are all these great bands from Baltimore and no one pays attention to us. And why are there all these other bands from other places that people do pay attention to. It has always been a struggle for bands from Baltimore and it has always bummed me out. I wanted to be the one to break that mold.
SH: What does differentiate Baltimore musically from other cities?
RK: The difference has more to do with the lack of industry and experience here in this town than anything else. When I first started out, there were no booking agents, record labels, nothing. We had our own way of doing it here in Baltimore. If there was a bar down the street that you wanted to play at, you’d have to show up, tell the bartender you wanted to book a show, and then he’d probably say “Sorry kid, I’m on the phone.” If you wanted to book a tour, you had to be the one that said, I want to go to New York, so I have to figure out how to do it, who to talk to. I’ve gotta be the one, who makes it happen. There wasn’t anyone here coming to your shows saying, “You guys are great. I want to book you a show in New York City.” It was just really punk here, really DIY. Not because it was like, “we’re punk” or “we’re DIY,” but because that’s just the way it was.
SH: Has anything changed since then? Is the infrastructure any stronger now?
RK: There are some record labels coming out here and there, trying to get bands out nationally, which helps to grow the scene up a little bit. But there still isn’t any management. Still no booking agents. Still no entertainment law. In cities like New York, LA, San Fran, bands will go out and get themselves a lawyer before they even put on a show. It’s all industry all the time. Bands are talking about their lawyer and their management and I’m like, “Whoa. What the fuck are you talking about?” That didn’t make sense to me. In our experience, you meet someone you like and you say, “Hey, we should play a show together,” and they say, “Yes we should.” And you do it.
SH: So what differentiates you guys? Why were you able to make it out?
RK: We’re definitely not the only band to do it. But we made ambitious goals and stuck to them. When we started Oranges Band one professional goal was to go on a tour of the country, which we did in three months. The next goal was to do it again a little bit more successfully, which we did. Well, not as successfully, but we still did it. Then the goal was to get on a better label, and we did it. And then the goal was to open up for Guided By Voices, Spoon, and Ted Leo, which we did. Now the goal is to sell an amount of records and reach enough people so that we can go on tour by ourselves and bring someone along with us.
SH: Do you see The Oranges Band as capable of changing the way things are musically in Baltimore or are these patterns here inevitably immutable?
RK: We only want to bring our experiences back in to the town and add them into the collective experience. We want to say here is what we found when we did this and here is a way that you can do it or not go about it. But I don’t play music and go on tour because I want to teach other people to do it. I don’t want to overstate our importance. I do it because I want to do it. But I want to be able to say that we can help. If you want to try and make it from this town it’s a fucking pain in the ass. You have one strike against you being from here. So if we can provide a band who wants to be more than a local band, with at least the idea that it’s possible, I think that is great. I don’t know how people view us though. They might just think we are gluttons for punishment.
SH: In spite of all of these issues and maybe even because of them, there seems to be an inexorable pride in your town. Can you explain that?
RK: There is a great sense of pride in this town. And that’s always been one of the most attractive things about it for me. It comes from this odd inferiority complex. It’s like, we’re not D.C., we’re not New York City, we’re not Philly. Don’t call us anyone of those things because we’ve got our own thing, we don’t need any of those people, and fuck you because we’re from Baltimore and were tougher than you anyway. The town itself has always had this chip on its shoulder. So if you are from here, you can commiserate with or relate to our own specific experience. And there are a lot of unique things that are really worth celebrating and only people from Baltimore know what those are.
SH: Does being a band from Baltimore produce a natural allegiance to your music in the population here or does it require nurturing? What role does a band’s hometown play in developing an audience?
RK: It’s somewhere in between. Some people can relate to the music because they are from the same place. Other than that you just have to be proud that the band is from your town and making music that is relative to their experience even if it’s just because they know where the music was made and know what the band saw in their daily lives. They can understand a little bit of what happened there.
But, at the same time, there’s almost no way to reach people musically here if it’s not live. We’ve never had a good radio station here in my opinion, no local station that unifies every one. So there’s no outlet for people to hear music other than through national outlets or live shows. So it requires a lot of effort on anyone’s part to keep up with the band and for us to keep up with the people accordingly.
SH: How important is a sense of place in music?
RK: Place definitely adds a lot to music. Not sure it happens as much as it used to here though. Stylistically people are going in different directions. There’s no Discord sound that people coming up are really emulating. None of our bands ever get popular, so there’s no sense of history to continue, there’s no importance attributed to it. The bands that are 22 years old are not listening to the bands that I was listening to when I was coming up and they should be; they should know what all of that was about because that’s why these current bands are here. But they’re not listening to it. Discord is an institution. If you come up in Washington, DC, for example, you know Discord and you know to listen from Minor Threat and take your little steps all the way through and you come to Q and Not U. You go from top to bottom. If you’re involved in that scene you better know about these bands. DC has that sense of history. In Baltimore we don’t. And that’s a problem.
SH: Do you view your music as similarly syncretic? Is The World and Everything in It inextricably tied to All Around and other past albums in your musical development? Is your current music always an outgrowth of the past?
RK: They’re all connected. All of music relates to what came before it. The World and Everything in It was definitely an attempt to make a better record than All Around. Songs on last one didn’t come through all the way. We didn’t get to develop our sounds the way I wanted to. But we took from the best and rejected the worst to make this album. We learned from the experience.
SH: How was this development manifested in the creation of the songs and the recording process itself?
RK: For our last album, we had studio time for a little more than two weeks in Michigan. All kinds of problems were happening, with the studio, with us. There wasn’t a whole lot of room to change what we put down. We did one mix of all the songs and decided that that’s what we were using. I was writing songs on the spot in the studio because I didn’t have enough songs to go on the album.
For The World and Everything in It, we set up shop in my house and built a studio in my basement so we could control everything and take our time to make sure the music was right. We had the ability to bring in all of my favorite musicians from the city: keyboard players, backup vocals, whatever. That allowed us to experiment with all kinds of things, new sounds, different influences. At the same time though, recording at home allowed us to second-guess more. I would go to bed sometimes at night and feel like I just wasted my entire day doing nothing. I went to bed thinking everything I did was shit and that I would have to redo it all again tomorrow. So because we had this grand unlimited time, we were much less productive. It took the better part of the year to get the damn thing done, not to mention 10,000 dollars. But we did it and created something I’m really proud of.
With All Around, on the other hand, more than make an album, we created a document of what our band was doing in those two given weeks. What you hear on the album is what happened over those days. Given those circumstances, I think it was a really great record and I’m really happy about that. I really like it. I think the songs are cool, the performances are cool. The point then was to just do it and not second-guess ourselves. But it didn’t catch.
SH: Why not?
RK: I just don’t think people cared. Maybe they needed a hook. They needed a story. But that’s not the story they wanted. Not from us I guess. It just didn’t affect people the way I wanted it to. I still think it should have. I don’t know why it didn’t reach a lot more people or even a little more people.
SH: So would you say the The World and Everything in It was, in its simplest form, an effort to find that hook that relates to more people?
RK: This album was a conscious effort to catch people musically. I found it a certain challenge. Like, alright, you want some fucking music? You want some fucking interesting shit to listen to? I’m going to make you a fucking interesting record. And I think we did exactly what we said we were going to do. We made a fucking interesting record with better songs that had all the more connections with the people. At some point that’s all that you can do. I’m not really interested in absolute creation—cold creation for the sake of creating. I’m not interested in doing something brand new either. I just wanna make good songs. And if it doesn’t work out, I’m gonna try something else. And even if it does work, I’m gonna do another album in a different way.
SH: What inspired you originally to play music? Have these earliest influences changed at all?
RK: From the beginning, I always had a desire to pick up a guitar and write a song. And I’ve never wanted to pick up a guitar and play someone else’s song. I did a little bit of covering here and there and it helped me learn. But I don’t remember any songs unless they are mine. Now the influence is different and in some way the goal is different but the music itself and drive to make music is the same.
Now, I’m always trying to write better songs. For a while I wasn’t trying to write songs at all. I just wanted to make music. Make sounds. Make funky noises. Do something fucked up, but not necessarily express or relate an idea through a song. Before it was never like, how could I speak to this person so he understands what I’m trying to say? That’s the kind of growth musically that I have had.
SH: Every article or review of The World and Everything in It classifies it as a “summer album.” Would you say this depiction is correct? What makes this album a summer album?
RK: This was a bit of an experiment for me. If I tell people what this album is are they going to say what I say it is? And of course they are. I said it was a ‘summer album’ and everywhere you read it’s a summer album. I don’t know what influence that’s going to have on people buying it or not or forgetting it in the fall. Musically it’s not a ‘summer album.’ It’s got a few things. I tried to pull in a certain surf influence and surf reference and summer influence and summer reference and that meant a lot to me while I was doing it. That guided my lyrics and ideas a lot. I went through my own experience and came up with different ways to say it.
However, there are other very strong influences that I didn’t mention or don’t mention as much and no one talks about. The X-Files is a huge influence on this album. I love that show. I watched it start to finish while I was making this album.
SH: We’re talking David Duchovny X-Files?
RK: We’re talking David Duchovny. We’re talking Scully and Mulder. That relationship was one that I really looked at and said there are really interesting parts of the relationship that people don’t talk about, that sexual relationships don’t go into. Issues of trust and friendship, personal relationship and battles that they have to deal with all the time.
SH: The World and Everything in It is a pretty ambitious album title. So here’s an ambitious question: in The World and Everything in It, what is the most important thing for you and your band going forward?
RK: I want to be respected and I’d like for our music to be appreciated and to influence somebody somehow. But also, over the past couple of years of doing this, I have amassed a pretty hefty debt and people are starting to come knocking on my door, asking for their money. They are telling me that if I can’t pay them back playing music, I’m going to have to get a real job. So I guess the most important thing for me right now is to do whatever I can, not to get that fucking job.