“Judas” was shouted at Bob Dylan by a concertgoer in 1966 at his Free Trade Hall show in Manchester England because he had the audacity to “go electric.” Some people prefer their favorite artists to remain in a vacuum, never experimenting or breaking out of the limited box they are placed into. I, for one, prefer Dylan’s work in the late sixties and early seventies. Which brings us to Trenton based Roy Orbitron‘s latest EP, the fantastic Elston Allen Gunnn. It’s named for an early pseudonym Dylan used and you can hear touches of him, especially during that period, all over the record. Conor Meara, guitarist/vocalist, and his band have never sounded more confident and assured than they do here. The record is the first of the group’s Traveling Wilburys named EPs recorded fully in professional studios so it sounds great as well. Roy Orbitron has evolved but the only thing I’ll be yelling Meara’s way is “More!”
Opener “Doctor, Take My #” and “Copacetic” announce, obviously, that we are in a different place than the last time out with Jeffery Lynne. Gone are the fuzzbox vocals and distorted guitar. In its place we have vocals with clear conviction and a folk rock, harmonious musical energy. Dare I say a mature sound? Gasp!
The retooled “Black Fox Farm” has an intro that could easily be a Dylan outtake from his Desire album. It showcases the amazing violin work of Noah Baum. The song is the shortest on the album but Meara has a way of relating a story in a beat-poetic way that tells you all you need to know in that time. “Make Enemies” displays a punk influence and sounds more Nick Cave than Bob Dylan. In fact Conor, who gets compared to Springsteen a lot (maybe it’s the Jersey thing), actually sounds a lot like Cave. And who doesn’t love Nick Cave?
Not many people can pull off referencing the Insane Clown Posse and The Turtles in a song but Meara does it wonderfully in “Navajo Juggalos.” The song is a duet with guest Cynthia Rittenbach of Glycerine Queens whose soulful voice adds poignancy and compliments Meara’s very nicely. She is Joan Baez to Meara’s Dylan. The song finishes with a little guitar from The Turtles’ “Happy Together.” I’d hit the trail with these two and a “canteen of Faygo.” We’d discover some interesting places I’m sure.
The closer “Pastoral” slows things down a bit and has great vocal harmonies. It might be the most Dylanesque of the tunes. Meara shows off his crooner skills and the band really gels here especially as the song reaches the crescendo. It ends quietly as the last jangly guitar chord fades out.
Every song on the record clocks in at 3 and a half minutes or less so there is no filler here. The album goes by quickly leaving the listener wanting more and isn’t that the ideal situation? Elston Allen Gunnn was released at the stroke of midnight on January 1st so other bands take note. The EP bar is already set very high for 2015.
Meara answered some interview questions below.
How did you come up with the name Roy Orbitron?
Roy Orbison was an incredible singer, songwriter, and as far as I can tell by the rare interview, he was a really solidly decent human being. When I got a turntable I started buying every Roy record I came across. Nothing super rare but just any original pressing I saw (including a few extra copies of “In Dreams” that I gifted to friends), best-of collections, name-exploiting “early days” compilations… none of which are hard to find so I just kept grabbing them. The crazy thing about Orbison is that despite the breadth of heartache in a lot of his super dramatic anthems, most of those songs were written before some of the real unbelievable tragedies that befell his life. I wouldn’t say they were self-fulfilling prophecies because most of the shit seems to have been just ridiculous “acts of God”. It’s like he was just some ugly guy from Wink, Texas, who must’ve made some kind of pact with the Devil between there and Memphis to have the most beautiful heartbreaking voice America’s ever produced but the Devil said “alright, but now I’m gonna make these songs real for you”. Like some biblical fable about empathy. When I started Orbitron my life had been all sorts of shook up and I was bear-hugging a lot of blame in a self-deprecating way like Orbison did in his songs. I’m not a religious guy but Roy probably was. Texas and all. I originally called the first set of demos Raw Orbison but that was a little weird to say aloud and Curdo, who founded The Faux Fetus Collective back when I was in high school, suggested Roy Orbitron. It sounded better.
Why the references to The Traveling Wilburys in this and the previous album names?
I found the photo I used for “George Harrison” in an album that my friends had pillaged from a burned down building in Pittsburgh. I was out there recording with our violinist Noah while he was at Carnegie Mellon and it just looked like the perfect album cover. And it happened to feature George Harrison’s big bearded face. My goal before doing a first proper full-length was to write and release 4 EPs and I was going by Roy Orbitron so I figured that the first one would be “George Harrison” because of the photo and I’d just continue through the Wilburys. I don’t know, the Wilburys were always super funny to me. “Elston” is the last of the series, named after Robert Zimmerman’s first pseudonym before he went with Bob Dylan. I think he was playing piano in some rock n roll band at the time.
You were part of Speak Into My Good Eye‘s 24 hour songwriting challenge. Was it easy for you? Do you find songs come pretty quickly once you have an idea?
It’s always work, but if you play an instrument enough you start racking up ideas and you keep varying things to entertain yourself until you have something really solid that you’re sure of and enjoy playing. Wilbo, my old bass teacher who plays upright bass on half of “Elston” and who’s played with Yo La Tengo and a bunch of other crazy talented people, gave me some really important advice back in the day which was – and I’m paraphrasing – “you can totally watch TV and browse the internet with your Myspace and instant messaging and whatever you do but it’d be really stupid to spend all that time without your bass in your hands. Even if it’s just to get used to the contours, to try to mimic a song in a commercial, just always keep your hands on the instrument and moving and pretty soon you’ll be able to play things without even thinking about it”. So at the start of Roy when I began playing guitar instead of bass, I decided that I wouldn’t let a day go by that I didn’t play the thing, even if for just 10 minutes, and that I’d play while simultaneously doing other things when I could. Like during conversations. That pissed off my girlfriend a lot. But all of that results in a lot of fractions of ideas left all over the guitar neck and the good ones tend to stick with you until you’ve got a good vocal melody to go over one and some words to say. “Condoms in My Leather Jacket” for the 24-hr Songwriting Challenge was a combination of 3 of those little ideas worked out a bit more and fit together with some transitions. I got the guitar part down while my son was napping when we were at the shore this summer. I recorded the guitar all the way through on my phone and when he woke up we went to the beach and I sat there with headphones on and the “voice memo” on repeat working out a vocal melody and lyrics. We got back home that night and I recorded it in an hour or two after my son went to sleep and sent it in to SIMGE at 11:54pm. 6 minutes to spare! I’m working out a more fully-realized version of that song for Dead Man.
Many articles about you mention Bruce Springsteen, whom you cover sometimes at shows. What is it about The Boss that appeals to you?
My friend Joe from Tom Blacklung & The Smokestacks used to play a really punk acoustic cover of “Dancing in the Dark” and until I heard him do it I had no idea how heavy and real the lyrics were to that song. I always thought it was just a cheesy 80s dance song. Since then I’ve gotten into Bruce’s whole discography and turns out he’s really great, and a really underrated guitar player too. I resisted him for a long time because he was something my parents and my parents’ friends, that whole generation and especially being from Jersey, always kind of held dear in a cheesy mom-jeans arrhythmic first-pumping kind of way. So there was that. But he’s great! I don’t know why people mention Springsteen in relation to me other than the fact that we’re both yelling a lot with loud guitars and from Jersey, but it’s not something I’m embarrassed about at all. Bruce has written some of the best songs I’ve ever heard. There’s a great interview with him from 1984 on MTV that makes a lot of sense to me: Part 1 and Part 2. I really want to put together a good live cover of “Thunder Road” with Roy, I’ve been working that one out. That’s a big tune.
You can hear influences of classic rock, blues, punk and more on the album. Are you inspired by a wide selection of musical genres?
For sure. Right now I’m really into the Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” and Nicole Atkins’ “Slow Phaser” – the deluxe edition with the live set at the Masonic Temple in Detroit when she was on tour with Nick Cave. The album tracks are very clean and layered with synths and tight krautrock drum sounds then in the live set she strips it down to a guitarist, drummer, and herself, and it’s punk as hell. You can really tell if a song holds up by throwing it into a completely different arrangement and it’s damn clear from that live set that she’s an incredible singer, songwriter and performer. She calls herself “Pop Noir”, which I think is pretty accurate, and the cover she does of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” makes me want to drown – in a good way. I’ve also kept the Peter Matthew Bauer album “Liberation!”in my car since he put it out this past summer. He was in my favorite band for the longest time, The Walkmen, and now he’s based in Philly and starting out on a solo career. He recruited the back of my head to play piano in his music video for “You Are the Chapel” and he’s a really good dude with a lot of raw rock n roll passionate energy. You don’t see my face at all in the video but it’s totally me.
Cynthia Rittenbach of Glycerine Queens is on the record. How did you meet and decide to ask her to be a part of Elston Allen Gunnn?
We didn’t meet until we both showed up at Retromedia to record! And I was late like an idiot! I had tweeted at Nicole Atkins back in September or something trying to get her to produce “Elston” but we had already started it because we got free time at Rubber Tracks and Nicole was just leaving for her European tour so it wasn’t meant to be for that record. I had been looking for a female voice to do the “Navajo Juggalos” duet with me and I saw that Nicole produced The Glycerine Queens‘ “Sleep Deprivation” EP. Once I heard Cynthia’s voice I was hooked, so I asked her and she said yes! She nailed “Navajo Juggalos” so quickly that she wound up singing backups on other songs on the record too. We worked together well and got along great so we decided to start writing songs together and we’ve racked up 10 or so in the past few weeks and we’re heading to SRG Studios tomorrow to start tracking a short demo with Patrick on drums, who plays on this Roy record. We’re called Dead Man. Roy Orbitron isn’t dead though. Not by a long shot.
Do you like living in New Jersey?
Yeah, this is definitely home. I can’t really say if I’d be better off somewhere else because there’s a lot of places I haven’t been yet but me and New Jersey get along just fine. It’ll be even better when Chris Christie isn’t around fucking everything up.
Five words to describe Roy Orbitron?
Cathartic Noir Guitar Psychedelic Voodoo
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