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Accidental Tourists

The Oranges Band emerges from 900 Miles of Fucking Hell with a new EP and a bigger sound


The Oranges Band

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The Oranges Band

By Bret McCabe | Posted

For a moment in November 2000, the four members of Baltimore's Oranges Band--whose third EP, On TV, came out Oct. 22--thought they may never play another show again. While traveling from Wyoming to Montana during their second national tour, their van couldn't climb the mountainous pass out of Jackson Hole. And sitting in the back of the van was bass player Tim Johnston, who had a broken ankle that he refused to believe was broken.

"We're on the mountain--actually sort of fishtailing back off the mountain--and we were all afraid we were going to die," remembers singer/guitarist Roman Kuebler. "It's just a two-lane highway and then like a 300-foot drop off the side of the mountain."

It was but the first of numerous setbacks on that second tour, a tour as epically labored as the band's first was idyllic. The breezy ease of the Oranges' first tour made them feel like they could do anything effortlessly. In fact, the band's very existence comes across as a combination of pluck and luck, going from nothing to something seemingly without having to try.

In early 2000, Kuebler was the vocalist/bassist in Roads to Space Travel, a lauded local trio that wasn't ambitious enough for Kuebler. So he started writing some songs for a potential side project. And one February weekend in Washington, Kuebler teamed up with American University senior Daniel Black and recorded three songs on a lark.

"It turned out really great and I liked it," Kuebler says. "So I came back [to Baltimore] from that relatively excited. And I wanted to kind of get the wheels in motion. So I went over to [Baltimore-based] Morphius [Records] with the tapes and said, 'I want to do a tour and I want you guys to put out this record.'"

The next thing Kuebler knew, he was reaching out to contacts he made through Roads to set up shows. He was also tooling around with drummer Dave Voyles, and they recorded some songs in Kuebler's living room. Between that session and the one with Black, Kuebler had five songs for 2000's Morphius release The Five Dollars EP. He had a string of gigs that would take him across the country over a month. But he didn't have a band.

A nascent Oranges Band played two local shows--one at the old Ottobar, one in Kuebler's living room--but Kuebler needed people for the road. The touring band didn't fall into place until three days before embarking on the first show in St. Louis: Kuebler on guitar and vocals, Black on guitar, Voyles on drums, and Johnston on bass.

And it stuck. "By the fifth show of the tour, it just seemed to work," Black says. "I remember playing our first couple of shows and thinking, Glad we got through those. And then one night we came out of the show feeling, We got to do that again. It got to be more fun and less concentration. Everything was working out for some reason."

Part of that fun was due to the band's vivacious early songs, guitar-based indie pop that feels fueled by youthful verve alone. The Oranges stripped late-'80s/early-'90s guitar rock--equal parts Superchunk, Jawbox, and Eleventh Dream Day--of its flowery pretensions and whittled it down to its hooky core, resulting in blissfully simple songs.

The quartet also wrote on the road, returning home with a slew of new songs that it knocked out in a studio right away. And since they had such an easygoing first tour, it decided to hit the road again in the fall of 2000.

This tour wasn't as painless. Johnston broke his ankle skateboarding and had to return to Baltimore. The trio version of the band arrived at clubs and spaces in California to learn that the gigs had fallen through. The van was ailing, and when the band reached El Paso, Texas--en route from Tucson, Ariz., to play Austin and Houston with the Rock*a*Teens, gigs that were going to put the band "back on track"--it died completely. Kuebler had to get extensions on his credit cards to cover the $2,000 it cost to replace the transmission.

"Everything that went right the first time was going wrong the second time," Kuebler says. "Fifty percent of our shows or less had actually happened. We're [in El Paso] for three days waiting for the van, and somehow our spirits are not completely broken. We miss the Houston show, but we're still on target to make Austin. So we're driving along west Texas, in the middle of nowhere, and all the lights start to dim on the van. It's night. I don't know what's happening. And we're looking at the map wondering if we're even going to make it to a town before the van completely dies."

The group coasted into a gas station in Sheffield, Texas, where for 50 bucks a local guy in a wrecker pulled an alternator out of a van in his junkyard and worked well into the night with Kuebler installing it. The tour was officially a bust by now, and though the group had a few more shows left that eventually went off without a hitch, Texas wasn't through with the group yet: Rain poured on the band the duration of the long, flat, barren journey to Louisiana.

"I felt good about the attitude that we had after that because it takes a lot of strength and determination to get through something like that," Kuebler says. "I also felt that we could never do it again. I wasn't going to let that happen anymore, being on the road completely unsupported. I thought that was unacceptable because I thought we were a great band."

One good thing came out of that tour, a memorable title. The Oranges' second EP, 900 Miles of Fucking Hell, came out in April 2001 and continued the band's seemingly effortless spewing of guitar-propelled confections. The melodies were tight, the guitar and percussion still pleasingly skittish, and Kuebler polished his knack for perfectly pitched pop with weightless lyrics that have the patina of great importance.

Even so, Kuebler had tired of the band's yearlong existence as a DIY affair. "After the second tour, it felt like there was a real limit to what you can do the way we were doing it," he says. The band fed off its own momentum on its first outing, he explains, because "we were on this tour we shouldn't be on. We're driving across the country thinking, This is great. We just started playing a week and a half ago. We got a record out. And it carried us through the second tour, when it became work. At that point we made a decision that we needed to make a great record, get on a better label, get people to help us--pretty specific decisions. It could only be that easy that one time. We got lucky. We had a successful tour by the seat of our pants."

For more than a year now, Kuebler has worked to get the Oranges Band where he thinks it belongs. And it has been work. Previous recordings lasted a few days; the Oranges spent a few tedious weeks in the studio recording new material for its follow-up, some of which eventually ended up on On TV. The Oranges wanted their next release to be full-length, but by the time they started talking to labels, they realized that they weren't going to be able to make a fall release in time for their October tour dates with Britt Daniel's Spoon (with whom Kuebler has played bass). Hence the TV EP, the Oranges' Lookout! debut, which features the Oranges new three-guitar front (Art Lavis plays on the album; Virat Shukal plays onstage). The band anticipates releasing a full-length album in early 2003, which it leaves to record in Michigan Nov. 8, six days after finishing up its recent tour that concludes at the Ottobar this weekend.

And though the Oranges' recent travails have tested the band's resolve as a unit, good fortune hasn't completely abandoned them. Their luck always finds them--even on the icy side of a mountain in Wyoming. While waiting for a tow truck that Kuebler called from his cell phone, "some people we knew--not somebody that we knew, but somebody that our [Wyoming] friends knew--just happened to drive by heading back into town," he says. "So we stuck a bunch of people in their car. And then I got towed off the mountain, and we were snowed in for a few days. We missed a few shows, but it wasn't too bad. Yet."

The Oranges Band plays a CD-release party at the Ottobar Nov. 2 with Flin Flon, Palomar, and Cass McCombs. For more information, call (410) 662-0069 or visit www.theottobar.com.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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