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The Orange Opera: Stronger than ever
By Sean Smith
Fort Wayne Reader
I've never been a big fan of clichés. Puns and ridiculously awful jokes, sure, but I tend to despise overly used phrases. To my alarm, the sad truth is that the best way to describe The Orange Opera is with the old adage, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
Despite going through guitarists in much the same way that Spinal Tap went through drummers and an ever expanding tour itinerary, Kevin Hambrick (vocals, piano, guitar), Bryan Brubaker (bass) and Kevin Hockaday (drums) are still churning out consistent, quality pop songs. With the addition of Michael Ostermeyer on guitar and several trips around at least half of these United States, the quartet have melded into a tight, yet bouncy unit with an energetic stage show to boot.
Their new six-song E.P. Ant Muscle is the first release to bear the fruits of their labor since 2006's Land of Tall (which featured original guitarist Matt Tackett). The CD was mastered by Tom Luekens (Metallica, Kronos Quartet, George Crumb), who works with Scott Mathews (The Beach Boys, Elvis Costello, The Legendary Trainhoppers) of Tiki Town Studios, in California. The overall sound still bears a nod to Hambrick's idols The Beatles, but there's a dash of Sparklehorse here (“We Can't Fight It”), a sprinkling of E.L.O. there (“Squirrel Feet”) and a nod to Supertramp for good measure (“I'm Just Beginning”).
The idea of a musical savant such as Hambrick releasing an E.P. does seem a bit odd, given that he's written at least eight songs in the time it's taken me to type these few paragraphs. But, getting the money together to get the music out into the public is still just as hard as it ever was. That's where Rob Wood of Little Brother Radio stepped in and offered to help the band release some new tunes.
"I've been a real fan of a lot of things about the band. The music, obviously, but also the way that Hambrick has networked in the last year and worked the band with a lot of professionalism," declares Wood.
One afternoon, Hambrick played Wood a few songs he had recently worked up. "They were coming out of his white Honda and they sounded great," laughs Wood. "I thought they should be playing out of everyone's speakers. We talked about doing a double album, but settled on an E.P. to see how the relationship would work and it's been an easy process and a whole lot of fun."
The double album would have been easy to oblige, since Hambrick had at least two complete albums ready to go at that point. "A year after Land of Tall was released, I came up with "Sugar Coated Scribbles” and "Refill: B-Sides from Seratonin, Football Weather, Sugar Coated Scribbles and Other Various Songs." Plus, I had begun working on "Year of the Beard,"" recalls Hambrick, "So, I gave a copy of 10 songs to Rob and he handed it out to some other people for advice and they picked their favorite six songs."
"I like the way it turned out," says drummer Kevin Hockaday, "I'm glad that we were able to record over at Kevin's place. I think it sounds great and we were able to do it in the comfort of his home and on our own time. I think it has a really classic sound to it. It's definitely not that clean, crispy sound."
The six songs fill up about 17 minutes and instantly beg to be heard again. Trying to pin down a favorite proves tough each time, which is something the band is happy to hear.
"My favorite E.P.'s tend to have a single. Guided By Voices' Hold On Hope E.P. or Pavement's Shady Lane both have six or seven songs along with the single," points out guitarist Ostermeyer. "I don't feel like there's a standout track on Ant Muscle and we didn't intend for that. Personally, “I'm Just Beginning” and “We Can't Fight It” are my favorites. It's refreshing to hear that everyone has a different favorite."
When it comes to playing the new songs live, Hockaday picks 'I'm Just Beginning' as his favorite. "I really like 'Good Girl,' but it's kind of hard to play it live without the trumpet."
Ostermeyer says that Hambrick was begging him to bring his trumpet around to play on a song, so he eventually obliged and worked out a trumpet line within a few hours for the song. His trumpet playing is just one more layer that Ostermeyer brings to the band and the other guys find him to be a perfect fit.
"He's probably the best out of all of us and you rarely hear a mistake from him," offers Brubaker. "Collectively, it's the best it's been."
"We call him my little, good luck charm. The first time he played with us he did 10 songs and they sounded perfect," notes Hambrick. "A few weeks after only two practices, he played his first show with us in Philly."
Finding that good luck charm took some time, but it's definitely been worth the struggle. "It's amazing to be together after six years, especially since we weren't as active as we could have been for the first three years," admits Brubaker.
Hockaday thinks it boils down to luck. "Kevin is a completely different personality. Everything he's done, he's done obsessively/compulsively. When he writes music, he does it all day and he records it. I think that we're very luck to have him, because we couldn't write shit. Michael and Bru probably could, but I can't write a song. I also think he's lucky to have us, because we're a good fit and his personality is so strong."
Brubaker says that Hambrick's songs are almost always fully formed, but that other times it's "completely free and up to our imaginations. I like both ways. It's nice to have someone who can arrange songs in their own way and have someone replicate them. The recording of the songs is more of a collective thing."
It's also a bit of a unique thing. "I'm used to recording with a bass player and myself," shares Hockaday. "But, when we record it's just me on the drums with these headphones that keep falling off and Kevin playing a cheap Casio. I can barely hear it and I'm trying to remember the song. It sounds like a cheap recording and I was so surprised with the final product. Everyone was able to play along and layer it in."
The next few months are full of upcoming shows and a full length album is planned for early next year. For updates on shows check out: myspace.com/theorangeopera and be sure to pick up a copy of Ant Muscle at Wooden Nickel.