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Kevin Hambrick and the Orange Opera

Meet Fort Wayne’s most prolific songwriter

By Ben Larson

Fort Wayne Reader

2009-12-19


With over 400 songs written and recorded over the past 15-20 years, local songwriter Kevin Hambrick, leader of The Orange Opera, could easily be described as “prolific,” if nothing else. Luckily, though, he has the talent to go with his proclivity, even if he admits that he’s still not sure if he knows what he’s doing. “I’m just a crazy OCD recovering addict who has all these songs in his head,” he says.

Hambrick’s band The Orange Opera has just released Year of the Beard, their second full-length album and their third release overall. If you need an easy description of the Orange Opera’s sound, “Beatlesque” might be a safe bet, and probably not one the band or Hambrick would object too much to; they performed the music of the Beatles at one of the Down the Line shows and, this past fall, paid tribute to Sgt. Pepper’s… at a Wooden Nickel in-store appearance. But the band’s rich, melodic sound really seems to take its cue from the “next generation” of Beatles-influenced pop/rock artists of the 70s — Badfinger, maybe a little ELO, and singer/songwriters like Harry Nilsson.

Having come from a family full of musicians, it seems Hambrick was set on a course since childhood to be a musician. “My dad’s always played some guitar and sang, you know,” he said, “and my mom sang in a 3-piece gospel group when she was young so I’ve always had music, on both sides, around me.”

As a kid, Hambrick’s musical training was sparse, at best. “I took piano lessons for a couple years, and then I took like a month of guitar from a lady in a trailer in Bluffton. From there it was more just watching people.” After admitting to writing some “cheesy rap stuff” when he was in middle school, Hambrick said that he wrote his first real song, something that he created and could be proud of, at around age 15 or 16. “It was just a little acoustic song called ‘Blue Foresight’ or something stupid, you know.” After that he started writing songs for his first band Issue Green. “Before that it was called Conspiracy, which was just a terrible name. You know, your typical first band name. Conspiracy,” shaking his head.

After Issue Green, Kevin went on to form Donny Flannagan, then Big Red & Rojo, and cut his teeth playing at Sunset Hall and the now legendary Monkey Lust Cafe in the 90’s. “After Big Red & Rojo” he said, “I decided to do Blueberry Hurricane, which was my first little solo thing. That was by first time trying to play everything. Drums, bass, guitar.” After recording 2 albums under the Blueberry Hurricane moniker, Hambrick decided to start releasing his solo material under his own name.

Around this time he released Serotonin, the first as only Kevin Hambrick, and this is also the time that Hambrick formed The Orange Opera with Kevin Hockaday, formerly of Skavosass/Heavy Step and The Dictatortots, and Brian “Bru” Brubaker, who had been playing in jazz fusion combos around the area (most notably Master Zodd). The recording and releasing went on with The Orange Opera’s first album, Land of Tall, recorded by Jason Davis, followed closely by another solo album, Football Weather, which Hambrick recorded and mixed all on his own at home, using one microphone and a digital 4-track recorder. Football Weather was the last he’d release under his own name, and then went on to put out the EP Ant Muscle and, most recently, Year of the Beard with The Orange Opera. He also added “I’ve had another solo one recorded for years, I just haven’t had the money to put it out. It’s called Sugar Scribbles.”

For quite a while, there was a definite distinction in sound between what an Orange Opera song sounded like, and what a Kevin Hambrick song sounded like. I asked Kevin about this, and he said “I used to try to separate it more and that just became a hassle. I’d be like ‘this is kind of poppy/piano and make it more piano based toward Orange Opera, but not now, on the last 2 [albums]. I like having the piano mixed with the double guitars, instead of just being stuck behind a piano.” So these days the Orange Opera sound has evolved into a kind of mashup between Hambrick’s earlier solo work and The Orange Opera’s early material, changing the band’s sound significantly and showing some definite growth. In regards to the newest album, Year of the Beard, Kevin quoted Rob Wood (formerly of Little Brother Radio and the man who helped put out the band’s last 2 releases), by saying “I think It’s just more of a grown up album.”

In regards to his writing process in general, it seems that Hambrick doesn’t have a specific formula for putting a song together. “Some days I just make myself write. I’ll sit down and say ‘I’m gonna write a song, called, uh, “Jacket”, Ok, here we go,’ you know, and just there you go. I don’t know; writing’s really weird.” He went on to say “when I try to write lyrics I suck at it. I don’t know how many new notebooks I’ve had through the years that only have maybe one line in them, but yet my car will be filled with napkins and receipts with things on it. . . my best way is if I just gibberish stuff out when I’m listening to [a song] on a cheap little demo, and I’ll think ‘that sounded like that’ and then go from there. That’s what I’ve been noticing the last couple of years,” adding “and I’m not good with grammar, you know. Sometimes I have to ask my wife and say ‘is that a word?’”

Writing the music for his songs goes in much the same fashion. According to Hambrick “Sometimes I’ll be doing something and just hear it in my head, or I’ll be messing around on the guitar and wind up with something. Other times I’ll just make myself write, you know, I’ll say ‘OK, I’m gonna write an up tempo tune,’ and there you go. I honestly have no clue sometimes.”

A few years ago (4 or 5, to be inexact), Hambrick had a documentary made about him called Paging Rascal Hanks, and I asked him how that came about and what the experience was like for him. “The guy that did it lives in San Fancisco, Alex Unkefer. He used to live and go to school with Bru (Brian Brubaker, The Orange Opera’s bass player). He’s known all those guys for years and was back on Christmas break, visiting. He had seen us play before but I think Bru was playing him some of my solo stuff.”

Brubaker then told him some of Hambrick’s background “about having OCD and being a recovering addict with hundreds and hundreds of songs, and that’s what [the movie] is. It’s about a guy with OCD who’s a recovering addict and has all these songs in his head but yet he’s stuck in this smaller town. But that’s about it. He wanted to try a first documentary for him, and he put that together and we showed it at the Cinema Tech, and then we flew out for the premier in San Francisco.” He really didn’t have much else to say about that, other than “[Alex] has always been a camera editing guy and wanted to do a little trial, and though it was a weird little story, and we went with that.” Summing up the film, Hambrick said “it captures that part in time in a little 40-minute film inside a little hairy fella’s head.”

There was a span of about two years when Hambrick tried his hand at just playing music for a living. On that, Hambrick said “it was great. That was the whole reason we were able to get Dr. Dog here, and we were able to go touring for weeks, you know, stuff we never did before.” Hambrick said it forced him to get a little more on the ball, musically, but then financial constraints have forced him back into the working world since this past January. On the adjustment back to being a working stiff, he said “I can tell that the laziness in me has definitely kicked in, and I don’t network nearly as much as I used to, but I’m hoping 2010 will be a good year.”

After spending some great 1-on-1 time with Hambrick, I then went to one of the band’s practices, and got some input on Kevin, The Orange Opera, and why the band is now on their fourth guitar player.

The Orange Opera usually practices and Brian Brubaker’s house, and it was there that I talked again with Hambrick, but this time was joined by Brubaker (bass), Kevin Hockaday (drums) and the bands newest member, Zach Smith (guitar). Hockaday and Brubaker have been with the band since its inception, and Smith just joined the band around the beginning of the summer. According to Hockaday, he, Hambrick, and Brubaker knew each other from around, and decided to form the band, “and the next week we played a gig,” adding “that was our first gig and we got busted . . . we just heard some knocking on the door, and then ‘ALLEN COUNTY POLICE!’” Needless to say, the band was off to a great start. Brubaker then pointed out that The Orange Opera’s very first incarnation was just Hambrick and an upright bass player, before he recruited himself and Hockaday. As far as why they’ve had so many guitar players, the band said each has left for different reasons, and that there’s not really much else to say. Honestly, that’s about it. Smith joined the band, according to him, “around May or June, and [Kevin] taught me a bunch of songs, and that was it,” citing that he had basically wanted to play in The Orange Opera since he first saw them.

In regards to the transition between playing music they had a more active part in writing to taking a creative back seat, so to speak, to Hambrick, “I thought it was a simple transition, other than memorizing a lot of chord changes at first,” Brubaker said, and Hockaday jokingly said “and that’s when Kevin made us totally relearn music.” Smith said it’s been refreshing for him, not having the pressure to always write, and that he enjoys just learning the songs and then playing.

Over the years Kevin Hambrick and The Orange Opera have played throughout the south, midwest, and east coast, and have no intentions of stopping anytime soon (they’re currently planning an east coast tour for the spring). I hope this has helped give a little insight into one of our most talented musicians and songwriters, and that it causes you, if you haven’t already, to go see The Orange Opera and pick up any one of their fantastic albums. You can also visit them on the web at www.theorangeopera.com.

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