Meet the Orwells, trying to make it big in a music industry turned … – Washington Post

All five members of the band — including the bassist, who finally showed up — walked onto the patio. Their playlist had been culled for the moment. Earlier, the band had decided against playing a complicated, seven-minute song called “Double Feature” that would have showcased how much they’d grown as a band. They worried it wouldn’t work in this setting. It was scrapped. Instead, their songs were short, loud and fast. Cuomo vamped and shimmied as he sang, tossing about a mane of long blond hair that he’d soon dye black.

After the first song, Cuomo teased the crowd, “If you’re really into licensing our songs for a movie, then, well, it’s good to be here.”

In the back, Jack Steven, one of the band’s managers, laughed.

In the early 1980s in London, he helped sign huge acts such as the Eurythmics and Sade. Now, at 62, he was smoking a cigarette and sitting in a chair because his back ached, recalling how the industry had changed.

Yes, he said, record sales are over. But the making of music isn’t over. It’s just that music’s role in an artist’s career has changed. So if you’re not selling physical copies of music, you’ve got to be selling something else.

“There’s all these other areas of income,” Steven said. “We just need to find them.”

Meet the Orwells

Like so many bands, the Orwells got started in a basement.

In 2009, when the boys were 14 and 15 and living in the same neighborhood in Elmhurst, Ill., they began meeting every Friday night at guitarist Matt O’Keefe’s parent’s house. Henry Brinner on drums. His fraternal twin brother, Grant Brinner, on bass. Corso played guitar. But they needed a singer.

Although Cuomo was Corso’s cousin, it was Henry Brinner who asked Cuomo during science class one day whether he wanted to give it a try.

“I just kept coming back,” Cuomo said. “Every Friday and sometimes Saturday, we just did that for the entirety of high school.”

Influenced by rock acts such as the Strokes and the Black Lips, the boys forced themselves to write a new song each week. The songs had catchy hooks and lyrics that focused on girls and the trials of a suburban teenager’s existence.

The Orwells were all 14 or 15 when they started the band in Illinois. (Band photo)

They stole the name the Orwells from another band in town. Then that band broke up. And the new Orwells took off, scoring shows at parties. Two years passed before O’Keefe’s older brother emailed a handful of music blogs to beg for attention. One blog that responded was connected to a small, independent label called Autumn Tone Records.

A few months later, the Orwells were signed.

Cuomo rushed home to show the contract to his parents. His dad was impressed. His mom cried. Annalisa Cuomo loved Def Leppard and Bon Jovi. And now her oldest son was standing in her kitchen with his own music deal — even if it was for just one album, no money upfront, with a split of any profits.

“He just looked so happy,” she recalled.

Freshly signed, the Orwells headed to Austin to play a music showcase. In the crowd that day were the two men who would become their managers: Jack Steven and Larry Little. The two industry veterans were blown away by the high school kids. Little felt moved by their energy. He knew he had to work with them.

Things started happening fast. The band signed with Canvasback Records, part of the major label Atlantic Records. In 2014, they played their high-cardio rock anthem “Who Needs You” on “Late Show with David Letterman,” Cuomo writhing on the floor in a red Chicago Bulls jersey and black leather jacket.

Letterman sounded smitten.

“Oh that was wonderful! Thank you very much. The Orwells,” the late-night host said, turning to his bandleader, Paul Shaffer, “What do you say, a little more of this?”

“Yes! Crank it up!” Shaffer said.

“A little more,” Letterman said. “Do you have little more in you? Here you go.”

Cuomo shook his head.

“Come on, do something!”

“One more time! One more time!” Shaffer chanted.

Cuomo and the others smiled awkwardly. O’Keefe had broken all six of his guitar strings. They couldn’t play more. Shaffer was unfazed. As the credits began running, his house band started playing the Orwells’ song. And then Shaffer, in gray suit and sunglasses, pulsated on the floor in an uncanny imitation of Cuomo.

The moment blew up online, racking up YouTube views. The song was picked up for an Apple iPad ad. And the band returned to Letterman’s show later that year to play that encore.

There was a buzzy energy around this young band. And they rode their popularity to play festivals and shows around the world.

But the music world was changing.

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