Singer Mario Cuomo looked a little bit out of it. He stumbled over a speaker, thrust his hips into the air while writhing around on the floor and made his way to a couch where he took a few deep breaths. Guitarist Matt O'Keefe, in the intensity of the song's final notes, broke all of his guitar strings. It wasn't an out-of-the-ordinary performance by The Orwells' standards, but considering it was for an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, it was unexpected.
Fans raved about the performance of "Who Needs You" — which ended in a haze of feedback and crashing cymbals — for its raw nature; detractors called it disrespectful and unprofessional. Letterman and Late Show bandleader Paul Shaffer wanted more.
"I think we put on a good show, and even though there's been a lot of negative reaction, there's been a lot of positives too," O'Keefe says, less than 48 hours after the performance aired. "People have either loved it or wanted our heads. Nothing was planned. If you come out to our live show, that's what you're gonna see."
While numerous bands perform on late-night television without a replay or much fanfare, the Orwells are riding high on a buzzed-about appearance that will only make people pay attention to its opening set on the current Arctic Monkeys tour, which will stop at the Fillmore on Feb. 3.
"There's always a lot of improvisation that happens around [Mario's on-stage actions]," O'Keefe says. "It doesn't really throw us off or piss us off — it's just how he feels in the moment. There have been songs that have gone off the rails after 45 seconds, but we just stop there and have a good laugh."
O'Keefe says the band — he, Cuomo, guitarist Dominic Corso, bassist Grant Brinner and drummer Henry Brinner — watched the performance the night of the taping, and didn't think much of it until the next day. They were glad Letterman wanted another song and that Shaffer imitated Cuomo's antics. O'Keefe awoke the next morning with 25 text messages from friends and family, followed by an interview with Rolling Stone later that day.
Most young bands would be overwhelmed by all of the attention, but everything's happened pretty quickly for the Chicago garage rock band so far in its brief career. Formed a few years ago while the members were all in high school — Cuomo, now 20, was a sophomore and the rest, currently in their late teens, were freshmen — The Orwells have already performed at Lollapalooza, SXSW and the Austin City Limits Festival. They released one official studio album in 2012, Remember When, and two EPs in 2013, Other Voices and Who Needs You, whose title track they performed on Letterman. The band is currently putting the finishing touches on its next full-length album, due later this year.
After Cuomo graduated in 2012, the rest of the band graduated one semester early in 2013, so they could focus on music and touring. "We knew if we graduated early, we could go on tour when there was first some buzz around us, instead of waiting five more months," O'Keefe says. "Luckily enough, we all had enough credits to do it. It's a hard thing to get your parents on board with. Once we had gotten our first label offer, our parents said we could graduate early and take a year off. Now, college isn't really on their mind anymore."
As for that Letterman appearance, O'Keefe says people should get used to the band not playing its songs perfectly on stage.
When the group first started, they tried to do everything by the book, but things slowly became more raw as the band played more shows. Nowadays, it's more about being in the moment than hitting the right notes — something that's become more natural over time.
"If we had done it by the book and hit all the right notes, we wouldn't have gotten 25 percent of the reaction that we did," O'Keefe says. "When people focus too much on musicianship, they tend to look like twigs. After the Letterman taping, people who work on the show were saying they haven't seen [Dave] that excited in a while. They said, 'Get ready for tomorrow.' We figured they say that to all the bands. We've seen some of the reviews, but we don't read too deep into it ... We don't want to freak ourselves out."