(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )
It's a muggy June evening in Lafayette, LA, and the college kids packing Shanahan's--a rundown college bar known for its dollar pitchers--are aglow with more than cheap beer. Orbit, the loud 'n' proud A&M Records combo that's putting the "power" back in "power trio," is midway through an hour-long set of songs from their latest LP, Libido Speedway.
"Yeah!" shouts a well-oiled coed from the back of the crowd as a song-ending chord dissolves amid second-hand smoke.
"Yeah!" shouts Orbit's guitar-bashing frontman, Jeff Lowe Robbins, in return.
"Fuck yeah!" shouts the coed.
"Fuck yeah!" answers Robbins.
"Hell fuck yeah!" shouts the coed.
Then, "Sorry--'Hell fuck yeah!'" chuckles Robbins. "You'll have to excuse us," he explains. "We're from Boston, and we're just learning."
In some ways, the members of Orbit really are just learning. Despite several years of Beantown dues-paying, this tour is their first go-'round in the major leagues.
Their minor-league experience, however, is both considerable and impressive. Since 1994, Robbins, Wally Gagel (bass), and Paul Buckley (drums) have run Lunch Records, the label on which their EP La Mano and their first few singles appeared. Buckley did the hands-on work, leaving Robbins free to indulge his web-designing skills on behalf of not only Lunch but also a number of other clients, including the venerable Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Gagel, on the other hand, spent his pre-Orbit years becoming one of the most sought-after producer-engineer-recorder-mixer-programmer-writer-musicians in the music business.
As the producer and co-composer of Folk Implosion's "Communion" and "Natural One" and a knob-twiddler on recent recordings by Sebadoh, Juliana Hatfield, and Rancid, the Orbit bassist still finds his skills in great demand--so great, in fact, that he recently had the privilege of jetting out to L.A. at the behest of Don Was and mixing two songs for the new Rolling Stones album. ("Keith's work hours are from about ten at night until nine A.M.," Gagel said recently. "[But] I was on East Coast time, so ... I'd get there in the early afternoon and start to fade around six A.M.")
To Robbins, Buckley, and Gagel, however, such extracurricular activities are back-burner items. Their main objective is to launch Orbit, and anyone who doubts their commitment to that goal should log onto the trio's home page (www.lunch.com) and click on the "tour diary" link. Described by Robbins as the piece de resistance of the site, the diary lists the nearly two hundred shows that the band has played since its inception and includes the group's take on what went down at each.
"We decided to play the songs from the new album," writes Robbins of Orbit Gig 129 at T.T. the Bears in Cambridge, MA. "People kept yelling for stuff from the old album though. I told them to fuck off." Other high points include Robbins' description of the time he was almost "arrested for eating Subway in a Taco Bell" and Buckley's description of gig 141 in Dallas: "Dallas is just the opposite of Boston on St. Patrick's Day. Lame, lame lame. They wouldn't know a good time if it sat on their face and wiggled!"
Theoreticians might disagree over which is harder--the touring or the gig-by-gig writing about it--but few dispute that Orbit is as hardworking as they are good. Providing further confirmation of their strengths is the fact that they've just been tabbed to play Lollapalooza's second stage throughout the month of August.
Not all of their strengths, however, are live ones. Despite its apparently spontaneous combustibility, Libido Speedway is in many ways a careful studio creation. "Our album took a long time to make," Robbins recalls with a touch of regret. "About twice or three times as long as we were expecting it to, actually."
Robbins' regret is somewhat surprising considering the high quality of the finished product. In "Nocturnal Autodrive" and "Amp," for instance, Orbit impales garagey guitars on rabble-rousing hooks and shout-along choruses as if this album were their only shot at rock glory. In other words, they toy with rock's basic elements in such a way as to draw attention away from the elements themselves and toward the big, throbbing groove thing in the middle.
"We'd come from an indie-rock background, where you come in and do your album in a week," Robbins explains, "and we thought doing this album in a month-and-a-half would be great. We could do a really killer album in a month-and-a-half. Then we got in there, and, you know, we went through this producer named Ben Grosse [Filter, Flaming Lips, Jane's Addiction], who's a very meticulous guy, so we took a long time. I think it came out really well, but it was frustrating at times, going through the meat grinder. Paul and I had a lot of extra time and tried to find other things to do."
One of the other things they did was to record an unlisted instrumental bonus track and a Klaatu-like walk through the woods that ends when a child spookily says, "You can turn the CD off now." "His name is Alex," says Robbins. "He's our attorney's nephew. We stuck the DAT in front of him and got him to say a whole bunch of things." As for the outdoors stroll: "Paul got stoned, took the DAT recorder, and walked around through the frozen grass at one of the places we were recording. When we started sequencing the album, we thought, 'Let's put that on it!'"
Several weeks before their Shanahan's show, Orbit played the Orange County Fairgrounds in Riverside, California. Besides going on at the indecently early hour of seven-thirty P.M., the show was weird for other reasons. First, Orbit went on after a hypnotist, and so surprised were they that they failed to take advantage of the situation: Orbit could have, in other words, asked the mesmerist to convince the crowd that--well, what would Orbit request of an opening-act hypnotist?
"I don’t know," says Robbins. "But there are some bands out there who seem as if they must have hypnotized the crowd in order to get the reactions they get."
Laughing, he digresses. "Did you ever see those R-rated hypnotists, the ones who get people to strip and stuff like that? I don't understand how that works, but I think it's a combination of stage fright and whatever it takes to get them up there in the first place to simply be told, 'Sleep!'"
Suddenly, it hits him. "That's what I want to do some night--get some people onstage, tell them, 'Sleep!' and see what happens.
“But,” he says, “I wouldn't know what to do with them after that--except call 911 and ask for a hypnotist to come wake them up."
Heck, let ’em sleep, Jeff. Anyone who can fall asleep on Orbit’s libido speedway probably deserves to be run over.