“Do you ever get the urge to run, run get gone gone/and a lot of things get abandoned along the way don’t they?!”
“With a lot of the produced music you hear, its hard to hear the real person in it” points out Orphans and Vandals intriguing front man Al Joshua “I was really keen to keep it more alive: that’s why we did the album ourselves in our front rooms, we set up the microphones and that’s were we recorded ‘Strays’ and ‘Terra Firma.”
The genesis of London based multi-instrumental five piece Orphans and Vandals was borne of Joshua’s similarly frustrating fruitless musical situation, the grind of playing in dead end bands peddling the same old same old, constrained by the hackneyed melodies repeated every night in the same clichéd form. Orphans and Vandals front man AL Joshua talks passionately about a band that changed his life, its birth inspired by a trip from London to Paris – his own pilgrimage to retrace the footsteps of poet Arthur Rimbaud. With this new found lust for escape he let himself off the leash, starting to record songs that ”we’re for him” Joshua explains “I wrote and recorded the first few ‘Christopher’ and ‘Headful of Tears’ in my house at the beginning, and just gave it away when people asked for it. …They were done my bathroom, our neighbours were constantly on cocaine fuelled porn marathons, and I liked to keep the sounds that fall through the cracks in the background…
This release of creative freedom saw him giving away these nascent recordings to anyone who asked, and was swiftly followed by the union with Orphans and Vandals bassist and song writing partner Raven. They then set out with a rough idea of what they wanted from the remaining members Francesca and Quinta on strings, percussion and glockenspiel, and Gabi on drums that would form the crux of a very different kind of sophisticated rock band, one that attempts to skew expectations of form, meter, and song. A spontaneity of creative process that big label bands who take months to produce and over dub, to over think to quite frankly shine shit before its ready for your mass consumption might baulk at, thus all Orphans and Vandals sessions were recorded live: ‘I like to keep the mistakes in the recordings most of my favourite albums have them.’ Joshua notes ‘the thing with producing is you only get exactly what you planned on doing, there’s no accidents that bring in unexpecteds, I try and leave room for slight accidents or random chance.’
Maybe that’s why the songs he written in the last eighteen months documented in their superb debut album ‘I am Alive You Are Dead’ stand out so much in a sea of rock pastiche, skinny boys with their guitars, and vacuous two dimensional 80s revivalists, they live and breath with life, snippets of dreamlike imagery, brutal autobiography, literary couplets and warm instrumentals that rattle with aggression, melancholia and euphoria: a reflection of the people that crafted them and the modern world that seeks to suck the humanity from our veins.
The album’s finest moment is the emotionally exhausting epic ten-minute symphony Mysterious Skin, which is stupendous and life affirming. Cinematic instrumentation that rises and falls like the wild tide, below Joshua’s sprawling stream of consciousness. It pierces your heart and calls to mind the seedy urban poetry of Lou Reed, the sexual ambiguity of Rimbaud, and the half spoken/half sung working class humanism of Jarvis Cocker, moving from intricate emotional details to the huge foreboding underbelly of the city, back to a stranger’s bed (a boy or a girl? Who knows.) Toward a literal sexual climax, into sky scraping chanted refrains, propelling rambunctious rhythm sections, huge stirring violins musical saw, and harmonium, flailing to a cacophony.
The twitching opener Strays hints at the satellite town frustration of New Model Army singer Justin Sullivan: and the stirringly life affirming choral epics of the Arcade Fire. Their last double aside single Terra Firma/Christopher from Summer ’08 confirmed the strength of their material – plaintive, pared back, Bowie-esque balladry telling tales of urban decay fleshing out characters that seethe with passion, anger and disenchantment. The wonderful twinkling instrumentals of ‘Argyle Square’ gently opens its eyes, and onto London’s streets, where dizzying images of the past and present collide. While closer ‘Head full of tears’ shows another side a downtuned, intimate, delicacy.
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The Arcade Fire and Pulp have often been drawn as modern comparisons, maybe a resurgence in the intelligent lyrics of Cocker, and the acceptance of multi instrumental groups like the Arcade Fire might mean there’s more of a place for Orphans and Vandals right now, but Joshua surprisingly reveals to “not listening to bands at the moment, I’m bored of all that at the moment” he claims to have never heard the Canadian troupe and even the references to Pulp leaves him a little cold “I couldn’t stand any of that Britpop stuff really.”
A veracious consumer of poets like the aforementioned Rimbaud, the songs of William Blake, the work of William Burroughs, a year spent obsessing over Francis Bacon, the sheer literary quality of his lyrics, shifting effortlessly from dreamlike, to intricate detail, and back to naked brazen honesty of the kind that you rarely here within popular music. Listen to their superb debut album, and it’s best moments Strays, Terra Firma, Christopher and Mysterious Skin you’d be forgiven for thinking that Al Joshua painstakingly, constructs each lyrical piece before he enters the studio, but like everything else about Orphans and Vandals the creative process is spontaneous and led by an instinct to keep it alive, to keep it fresh to the ears ”Everything has got to be one in one take or one performance, unlike mass produced that is the finished product whereas I’ve got no interest in the finished product at all: I’m more interested in the process. That was the performance of that day, if it was recorded another time it could sound very different, its all on instinct and chance.”
This is reflected in their raucous ever evolving live performances, where sometimes not even the band know what journey the next song is going to take them next: ”Every time we play a song live its different, plus I like to change it up, play with the band, it keeps it fresh They’re all brilliant musicians and It keeps us all on our toes. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, if we fuck up a small part of a song nine or ten times, the tenth time could be really special… We’ve been booed before but how often do you get the opportunity?”
Central to the Orphans and Vandals experience is Al Joshua’s unique vocal style: a starkly original new voice combined with emotionally complex streams of consciousness, a half spoken, half sung Estuary English it’s a style that allows him freedom to roam within, and astride his band’s multi-layered oscillating orchestral sound, it’s drawn favourable comparisons with some of his own musical touch points Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Steve Reich, for him it’s all about turning himself on and challenging the listeners preconceptions of the rock vocal, his approach inspired by poets and the spoken word: ”That’s the thing that keeps it interesting singing and using your voice in a different way, listening to(Jack)Kerouac reading his poems set to music I’d just listen to him without any real interest in what he was saying…, when you hear someone with a real interesting voice you can here the melodic metre, you get all the tonal things and all the notes between the tracks, which you aren’t going to get on a standard rock song.” Some lyricists like to create oblique imagery, allowing you to draw your own conclusions, or characters they can hide behind, Joshua’s work is intimate yet spliced with imagery, yet he is reticent about defining it, preferring to keep the mystery (get the pun?) behind the words, leaving you the listener to draw your own conclusions. “I would never be interested in writing a autobiography, it’s certainly intimate … It’s like putting yourself out there naked at times, there are plenty of images and I suppose you could call certain things true. But everything becomes a movie once it’s written down, everything becomes a lie the moment someone talks about it.”
Orphans and Vandals are a rapidly emerging band you must hear in 2009, an act that will challenge your preconceptions of what a modern rock band can be. Creating music of the street, thrillingly dangerous, sometimes brutal yet rather like life intensely beautiful and human all at the same time. Looking to the future, Joshua excitingly reveals that’s he’s already constructing songs that will make up their next record ‘When we’ve finished with this album I’ll get back to writing. The songs I’ve started are quite different. I suppose they will decide how we’re going to play them’ and he’s aware of not repeating a formula, though ‘I don’t want it to be the same. They’re quite different everyone in the band plays various instruments and is capable of reinventing themselves.’ We look forward to the journeys they will take us all on next …
The Orphans and Vandals album ‘I am Alive You Are Dead’ is out now on Fourth Floor.