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Pulp Friction 

How the Orange Peels turned sour grapes into freshly squeezed pop

Wednesday, Feb 28 2001
Most bands have high expectations after they finish an album, and the Orange Peels were no different when they completed their first record, Square, in the winter of 1996. The quartet figured it might get a review in Rolling Stone, a few plum tour support slots, and some serious college radio play. After all, the record was being released by Minty Fresh, the Chicago label that had launched the careers of the Cardigans and Veruca Salt. And the band thought its debut was radio friendly, with a familiar-but-you-can't-quite-place-it West Coast sound.

Upon Square's release, critics from music magazines such as Option, Magnet, and Puncture weighed in with glowing reviews (Rolling Stone remained mute). The band received two Bammies nominations -- for Outstanding Independent Album and Outstanding Debut Album -- a remarkable fact considering that its competitors were major label monsters like Third Eye Blind, Smash Mouth, and Meredith Brooks.

Alas, the Orange Peels didn't win (Mr. T Experience and Third Eye Blind did). Then, when college radio play proved minimal and the band's members balked at the idea of quitting their day jobs for a poorly arranged tour, Minty Fresh's management threw up its hands, and the record died. Disheartened, the band returned to its Redwood City base and began demoing songs for its next album. When the Peels sent them in, Minty Fresh's brass weren't impressed.

"They'd say, "This is not going to further your career,'" head Peel Allen Clapp recalls. "Or, "The first album was nice but on this one we don't hear a single.'"

Disillusionment set in. Eventually, drummer Bob Vickers quit the group, and guitarist Larry Winther followed soon after. The band was disintegrating.

Yet here it is, February 2001, and the Orange Peels have just released their second full-length, So Far, a record that may be even better than their first. What happened?

The Orange Peels' story begins in Redwood City, where Clapp, 33, and Winther, 34, grew up. "It's a nice place until you're 12," Clapp says. "When you're a teenager, there's nothing to do." Bored with petty thievery, the duo started the Batmen, a garage band that played covers of the Amboy Dukes and the Dukes of Stratosphere ("Anything with "duke' in it," Winther says). In 1989, the group split, with two members forming a hippie jam band that later included future Counting Crow Adam Duritz and two others starting the Mummies, a high-concept combo that enjoyed some popularity during the late-'80s garage rock revival. Meanwhile, Clapp started a folk duo, the Goodfellows. "I spent two years trying to look like Art Garfunkel," Clapp says.

"What's amazing is he got his hair to recede like Garfunkel," Winther adds.

By 1992 the Goodfellows had imploded. Inspired by English wispy-pop label Sarah Records, Clapp began writing lighter songs. Maz Kattuah, drummer for the Batmen and the Mummies, put out Clapp's first single on his label, Four Letter Words. Upon hearing it and some other demos, the head of the Bus Stop label, Brian Kirk, asked to release a whole album. Clapp figured Kirk wanted him to rerecord the demos in a real studio, but Kirk wanted the homemade feel of the originals.

"I said, "You're insane. Some guy sitting around recording with a four-track and you want to put it out?'" Clapp remembers. "Some of the drums were recorded in a bus, some in a church -- basically, wherever I could go."

The subsequent album, One Hundred Percent Chance of Rain, was credited rather facetiously to Allen Clapp and His Orchestra. While many reviewers placed the album alongside lo-fi efforts from Guided by Voices, Lou Barlow, and Smog, the record was different: It transcended its recording limitations instead of embracing them. On songs like "Why Sting Is Such an Idiot" and "Something Strange Happens," Clapp captured the heady rush of viciously strummed guitar and scattershot drum rolls using a $20 Radio Shack microphone and a cheap Space Echo machine. An Australian reviewer called the record "the soundtrack to cocktail parties so cool that nobody is capable of hosting them."

"I hadn't seen Allen for years and got a copy of One Hundred Percent and I was floored," Winther says. "They were totally different songs than Allen used to write back in high school. Back then he had conceptual pop stuff but he hadn't figured out how to sing."

Winther was tired of the Mummies shtick and was hiding out in Concord, installing ovens for a living. After moving back down the Peninsula, he reconnected with Clapp and bassist Jill Pries, 33. With the addition of Kattuah on drums, the quartet played for a year as Allen Clapp and His Orchestra, eventually changing its name so that people wouldn't think it was a swing band.

For the Orange Peels' debut, the players decamped to Jeff Saltzman's Campbell trailer studio to record. Saltzman, who recently engineered ex-Pavement leader Steve Malkmus' solo debut, was recommended as a producer who could capture the band's desired '60s sound. Unfortunately, when it came time to record, Saltzman wasn't impressed with Pries' or Winther's playing, and even told Clapp he couldn't sing. Saltzman then hired Bob Vickers, 37, to complete the sessions as drummer (Kattuah had by this time quit). The only bright side of the experience was that Vickers got along with the Peels so well that he ended up an official member.

While Clapp's One Hundred Percent was bursting with fresh ideas, the Orange Peels' Square squeezed those ideas into tight song structures, inventive arrangements, and punchy playing. Winther's guitar leads moved effortlessly from surf rumble to country twang, adding depth and breadth to the songs, while Pries' bass playing and Vickers' drumming fleshed out the material further. Clapp's songwriting sounded more confident and his singing felt sugary in all the right places. In another time or place, songs like "Love Coming Down" would've been Top 40 hits.

Unfortunately, the band claims that the label had a laissez-faire attitude toward promotion. "Minty Fresh's philosophy was just "Put it out there and see what happens,'" Winther says.

""You guys will be just like the Cardigans,'" Clapp mimics.

Instead, the record spent a couple of weeks on the college radio charts and then dropped off. After hearing what the label thought of its new demos, the band requested it be let out of its contract in 1998, then sent the tracks to other labels. "SpinArt was the most compatible," Clapp states. "We said, "We want to record in our garage and own the record and just license it to you,' and they were OK with that."

The group rerecorded its demos minus Vickers, who had left to care for his newly born daughter. The band tried out a few drummers before settling on John Moreman, 31, whose similarly minded band had previously shared bills with the Orange Peels. "We liked his chops and his hair," Clapp jokes.

"John was seriously the savior of the band," Pries emphasizes. "After the Minty Fresh experience, it helped to have John around. We were all a bit down."

Winther was so depressed by the state of the band that he quit, despite Moreman's presence. "We weren't getting paid anything, nothing was happening. We were just playing these little shows," Winther says. "But then the record was about to come out and I thought, "I've got to be an idiot to quit the band right now.'"

"If it's any consolation, we still think you're an idiot," says Vickers, who also returned to the fold, making the band a quintet, with Moreman on drums, Vickers on organ, and Winther on guitar.

The band is comfortable laughing at its past revolving door policy. Now it can be. The completed album So Far -- which was recorded in Clapp and Pries' Sunnyvale garage -- sounds better than the Peels' last, studio-produced effort.

With the band's makeup in flux throughout the recording process, Clapp returned to his solo record's multitracking style, playing acoustic and electric guitars, Hammond organ, and even drums himself. Unlike One Hundred Percent's ramshackle feel, however, the new record is lushly orchestrated and vividly performed. "Girl for All Seasons" has the loping bass line and ringing guitars of work from '60s pop producer Joe Meek, while "Mazatlan/Shining Bright" moves from AM radio folk strums to '70s soul riffage. "Every Single Thing" glides on a disco beat, jangling guitars, and warm electric organ; "The West Coast Rain" applies a squirming guitar lead to a propulsive Chuck Berry rhythm.

The album's biggest surprise isn't the high fidelity, though. Whereas the first two albums were full of wistful longing and quiet spirituality, So Far is ripe with acrimony and simmering rage. "Redwood City" is a condemnation of a lousy landlord at the Peels' last practice space. "Every Little Thing" mourns the bad state of modern Top 40 radio as well as the band's poor treatment by Minty Fresh. On "The West Coast Rain," Clapp tosses dirty looks in the direction of fair weather fans and industry goons.

"A lot of these songs came from the bitterness of the last record," Clapp says of his lyrics. "We were thinking we're really valuable and worth something, and the label was always telling us we weren't."

Fortunately, the band's rich sound and Clapp's sweet singing make sure the songs don't descend into pitiful whining. And there are signs that the new record will outsell the last one: Already it's climbing the college charts in Japan, and "Mazatlan/Shining Bright" received commercial airplay there. As for further expectations, the quintet is playing it close to the vest.

"I have no expectations now; whatever happens, happens," Winther says.

"We don't want to go broke driving around doing our own headline tour," Clapp says.

"And John's pregnant, but keep that under your hat," Pries adds.

"Maybe we're a little different than a lot of bands. We actually like to be around each other," Winther says.

"That's kind of important, because when you're on the older side of the standard rock age, all the other stuff becomes a lot less important and just getting along becomes really important," Moreman offers.

"And when Larry's ego isn't getting in the way, it's great," Pries says.

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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