“The World and Everything in It”: An Interview with Roman Kuebler, Singer and Songwriter for The Oranges Band

the oranges band

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.

roman kuebler of the oranges band

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.

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