When bassist Charlie Milkey auditioned for Orchyd, he wasn't entirely sure what he was getting himself into. Percussionist Geoff Carl brought him into a basement. "That was kind of funny," Milkey says. "The first day meeting these guys, I go into their house and their house is kind of dark, and they're like, now we're going to go into the basement. I thought, we're either going to start a really cool band, or I'm going to get tortured to death."
The notion of descending into the dark underbelly of the home of Orchyd's founders, Geoff Carl and his wife, vocalist Shanna Carl, is particularly frightening when considering that the two name "broken things and bad dreams" as their primary influences. As for the invitation though, "Fortunately, it was for a band and not for death," says Milkey. The three were eventually joined by guitarist Tom Zempel, and thus Orchyd was fully realized.
This Saturday at the Kitty Cat Klub, Orchyd will celebrate the release of their full length, Mechanical Angels. Gimme Noise met with the group to talk about the album and delve into the philosophy and process behind their music and unique live performance elements.
Shanna and Geoff have been married for eight years, and recording music together for ten. Their collaboration began when Geoff heard Shanna sing Fiona Apple's "Criminal" one night at a karaoke bar. "I was like, I should probably do something with that," he says. He purchased a laptop, installed Ableton, and taught himself how to navigate music programming while experimenting with synth design. "I was afraid to even do karaoke," says Shanna. Now, she finds being on stage like "fear mixed with liberation."
Their songwriting process today with the full band builds upon the original method from ten years ago. Geoff begins with a framework, utilizing loops and midi with various synth patches and other electronic elements. Shanna fleshes out the vocals, and they present this skeleton of a song to the other bandmates. Milkey then adds layering to it, or adjusts the bass line. "It's almost like remixing it," Geoff says. "I think that gives us a chance to play Shanna and I's music in a more progressive, powerful post-rock way," allowing them to expand from the computer-centric Numbers, which Geoff and Shanna released on their own in 2012, into the fuller sound of Mechanical Angels.
It is impossible to avoid referencing Portishead when describing Orchyd's music, yet the songs on Mechanical Angels contain a bit more of a forceful, ominous feeling of impending collision or rapture. "Roads," which begins with Shanna singing, "Separating from this physical body, this broken mess, uncertainty...'cause nothing's ever for sure in this body..." is sexy and suspenseful, growing from a deep vibrating bassline bouncing off of Shanna's silky vocals into a burst of synth and Zempel's intriguing guitar elements, achieved by running a drum stick over his strings while utilizing delay pedals.
"Roads" cemented Zempel's position in the band. "I was being lame and old, sitting on my couch like, I don't know," he says of Geoff inviting him to play with the band. "I could really only fall asleep so many nights, so many Wednesday nights on my couch, before Geoff didn't believe me anymore." His unique idea to play guitar for "Roads" with a drum stick was enough to convince everyone that he should forgo the couch once and for all.
Zempel describes the song "Pork" as the group's "pop song." The track begins with a distorted sample, disappearing beneath a gloomy synth. Shanna's voice grows in volume as she seems to admonish the listener: "Don't say I'm here, don't say I'm here." The chorus is an allusion to characters from fairy tales, namely Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs. "Geoff came up with the lyrics, and to him, he says it's about sexual deviance," Shanna says. "To me, it's about when the prey becomes the predator. It's about being in a cage, and then revenge." The song is somewhat disarming -- even more so as it ends abruptly with Shanna counting "one, two" and then disappearing without a "three."
"Imagine if Red Riding Hood was a wolf," says Geoff. "It's like, the wolf and the three pigs and Red Riding Hood, so Red Riding Hood is the wolf, Red Riding Hood kills a pig, the pigs are pissed so they go after the wolf, that whole thing." For their Halloween performance last year, Shanna dressed up as Red Riding Hood, the rest of the band as pigs wearing police uniforms.[page]
"We like that visual element," Milkey says. "If you think about it, there's so many bands that just get up there on stage, just do their songs and get off. When you have people up there dressing up like pigs and he has lights constantly flashing in your eyes, hopefully you'll remember it, unless you have some kind of seizure. Then you would probably remember that, too." In fact, Orchyd is planning on using a 750-watt strobe light for the first time this Saturday. "The visual aspect, with the lights, that's really big for us. We want you to obviously remember us for our music, but we like a full show," says Milkey.
Geoff began designing the elements of light in Orchyd's performance when he discovered PVC. "It started when I couldn't afford real lights," he says. "You can build anything out of PVC pipes. I started building a drum kit that we have yet to use, but it's almost ready, and mounts for different things our of PVC, and then I graduated to galvanized piping. Galvanized piping is interesting to me, like adult Lincoln Logs. I started building lamps with that stuff. Then we started buying antique brass lamps off of Craigslist and putting bare red bulbs in them, and that was kind of our brand."
Another of Orchyd's signatures is the spiral symbol used to represent their band. The spiral signifies the moment in which the listeners becomes lost within the moment of the music. "Losing yourself in the spiral is when you're listening to drone music and you sit back and you're listening to it and you're there with the moment, and you're not aware of anything else besides what's going on," says Geoff. "That's really magical when that happens live; where everybody can share in that synced up moment of release or tension."
The spiral correlates directly with the band's philosophy. Geoff refers to the orchid flower as the "deviant child of all other flowers," straying from the standard symmetrical perfection and into asymmetrical, flawed perfection, much like Orchyd's music. The band members prefer not to overthink anything; rather, they strive to build upon mistakes and deviations, viewing them instead as opportunities, letting the "songs do what they're going to do," says Geoff.
"If you make a mistake and everybody is listening, it won't sound like a mistake. If everybody knows what they're doing, it's going to sound real; its going to sound like a song, it's going to sound like you wanted it to, because everybody is together," says Milkey. "Music is an interaction and if you focus too much on what you're playing then it doesn't work. If Tom's listening and if I'm listening, and Shanna's paying attention, and he hits the wrong beat, it's fine, we follow it too. Or if I play the wrong note, Tom can fix it. That's the don't overthink it, don't stop playing -- just, that's the song now."
The songs are never played the same way twice, either. "If you go up on stage and everything sounds the same all the time, then it's almost not putting the emotion that you're having that night into it," says Shanna. The band enjoys utilizing live performance as an opportunity to expand on already-written material as well as to create brand new work. During a live performance on KFAI, they wrote "Throwing Stones," another track from Mechanical Angels.
Orchyd have big plans for the future. Geoff hopes to begin integrating more theatrical elements into their shows. "I really want to start doing puppetry. I want to do lo-fi shadow art puppetry," he says. "I really like In the Heart of the Beast. I really want to do the story aspect. For the release show we have some band visuals, we're having a curtain, we're having light bulbs, and we're having strobe lights." Eventually, the band aspires to performing a story from front to back with a soundtrack, all live.
"You want something that's going to be different, and so what we want to do is focus more on making these big events," Milkey says. "You don't just go for the music, you go for the whole experience involved."
Orchyd plays this Saturday at the Kitty Cat Klub with Venus DeMars and All the Pretty Horses, Up the Mountain Down the Mountain, and Minneapolis Chapter of Roustabouts. The first 50 people in the door will receive a free download card for Mechanical Angels. 9 PM, 21+, FREEGIMME NOISE'S GREATEST HITS
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