Oranger At A Crossroad
San Francisco "It was a junior high dream come true...
You pass out at a friend's house and wake up and you're playing with
R.E.M.!" said Mike Drake, lead singer and guitarist for San
Francisco's subterranean, psychedelic, alternative-pop band Oranger.
"Bono told me he had our record and played it in his car!" continued
Drake, recalling a surreal conversation he had backstage at the
Marley Park Festival in Ireland. "Then Joe Elliot of Def Leppard and
Peter Buck were talking to Bono, and Bono was telling Elliot how
important Def Leppard's 'Pour Some Sugar on Me' was to the sound of
The 2003 summer touring experience with R.E.M. cemented Oranger's
reputation as "a band's band"; Peter Buck had personally invited them
to join the tour in Manchester, England (and open for R.E.M. in
Ireland as well) after purchasing their first two albums earlier this
The little-known, San Francisco-based band is pinching itself,
returning to its hometown somewhat stunned at having toured with some
of the biggest artists in the indie world during the past few years,
including the late Elliott Smith, Guided by Voices, Wilco, and R.E.M.
Oranger Matt Harris (guitar, bass), Jim Lindsey
(drums/percussion), Patrick Main (keyboard) and Drake draw on
the '60s pop of British Invasion bands such as The Kinks, The Who and
The Beatles, as well as the Beach Boys and The Byrds. One can hear
echos of Big Star in their sound as well. And yet there's nothing
retro about their sound, which seems totally of the moment.
In late September the group's third album, Shutdown the Sun,
was released on the Jackpine Social Club label. It was recorded last
year at San Francisco's Plymouth Sounds Studio. Drake, during an
interview at SF's plush red cellar club Café du Nord, said the
new recordings "evoke a stripped-down and raw approach, compared to
the baroque chamber psych of 2000's Quiet Vibrationland." (The title track can currently be downloaded from the 'Gramophone' section of Neumu.)
The album flows effortlessly through a thoroughly unique blend of
genres, and includes, as Drake describes them, the "Pink Floydy,
country-psych-pop" flavored opening track "Cut off Yee Thumbs," the
"Crazy Horse/Muswell-era-Kinks, hard rock/country groove" of
"Outsider" and "Tree Bent," and the "jazzy Burt Bacharachish inverted
love song" "Just a Little Dumb."
"On this record, [the band] is really starting to gel," Drake said.
"We're a little nervous because its not quite as garage rocking,
sugary pop like the other stuff we've done...but I think the songs are
just better, in a mature way.
"Everything we do has to be entertaining for us, and we play live the
same way," he added.
This was evident at the album release party, where the band
constructed a life-size reproduction, from painted cardboard, of the
colorful & groovy Sgt. Pepper-influenced landscape of pillowy clouds,
rolling green hills, flowers, and a giant rainbow featured on the
album cover for the stage. "It looked like a 3rd grade play. At the
end of the show we gave the set away and autographed it
everyone wanted a tree!"
Oranger often perform in costume. "We try and make the shows an
event. It's more fun when people come out to a weird party!"
The group's Web site also
reflects the unique Oranger sense of humor. "We used to have this
entire fake discography on there, made fake album covers, described
each one, but then we started getting these emails from people in
Denmark asking where they could get a copy of Triple Live
Bongo." Drake also confessed the liner notes for Shutdown the
Sun "were spiced up a bit."
The first 3,000 copies of Shutdown the Sun includes a 34-track
bonus disc. Oranger fans can decide for themselves if this newly
released vintage material is a departure from, as Drake puts it, "the
lonely child in the attic with no friends, having a tea party with
stuffed animals" character of other earlier Oranger songs. "[These
songs] kinda didn't fit anywhere else, because they were weird; we
cleaned the closets out, and there would have been more but we ran
out of space," he explained.
On this crowded disc you will find rare gems, complete with
explanations and descriptions of each in the liner notes. Regarding
"Gorilla in a Rucksack": "someone left a copy of Physical
Graffiti out too long and it spoiled"), while for "Friend to You"
they write: "train engineer falls asleep, crashes, and wakes up in
some kind of hellish Disneyworld cartoon afterlife." Also included is
a live version of their ode to the Beach Boys, "Mike Love Not War,"
recorded at SF's Bottom of the Hill in 2000.
Oranger formed in 1997; their first album, 1998's Doorway to
Norway, came out on former Pavement singer/guitarist Scott
Kannenberg's Amazing Grease label. "The first record we wanted to be
a garage version of The Who crossed with the Beach Boys," the
unassuming 32-year-old Drake said with a boyish smile.
They followed in 1999 with the "more elaborate" Quiet
Vibrationland (released on AGR in the U.S. and on Alan McGee's
Poptunes label in the UK), recorded on a 16-track tape machine
formerly owned by their idol, the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson. "You
could smoke the karma of it," said Drake.
They came to the attention of Elliott Smith in 2002, and he had them
open his European tour. That same year they won a Bammie (Bay Area
Music Award) for "Best Pop Act." In 2001, Guided by Voices drafted
them for their UK tour, as well as many of their shows in the U.S.
They spent 2002-2003 appearing with Wilco and R.E.M., as well as
writing and recording Shutdown the Sun.
Fall has found Oranger contemplating the band's future, and the title
of the new album, Shutdown the Sun, reflects their melancholy
mood. Drake explained that despite the band's remarkable touring
success and well-received new album, they're at a significant
crossroad, uncertain as to whether Oranger can survive these
difficult economic times while still remaining true to their eclectic
"This record is very stark and darker, a lot more acoustic," he said.
"When we lost our practice space [last year], it changed how we
worked as a band. I had to set up the studio in my house, [and we]
couldn't be very loud because of the neighbors. It's been a tough
year for everyone. The music isn't suicidal, but more up-close and
emotional. Our earlier stuff has been kind of sunny; this is a little
bit darker, a lot more introspective." For more information about the
band and for tour dates, check out their official Web site. Nicole Cohen
[Monday, November 24, 2003]