For Love Or Monkey
You must pay tribute," says Jason Russell, gently grasping the base of a coconut adorned with red hair and fake eyeballs, "to the monkey head."
The head in question hangs from the rafters of a northwest Denver garage, the practice space for the Orangu-Tones, a quintet bent on reliving the glory days of frat rock. Russell, the band's 27-year-old drummer, releases the imitation cranium from his hand, freeing it to momentarily bob to an imaginary beat. In its pendulous boogie, the grinning souvenir coconut is ideally cast as an idol for the monkey-fixated Orangu-Tones.
Beyond the band's Borneo-influenced name and the swaying head in the garage, the primate theme extends itself into the music that surges from the Orangu-Tones' vintage Fender amps. Besides tight, note-for-note covers of frat standards like Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business," the 'Tones' originals -- which also tend not to stray very far from the sounds of the early '60s -- are more likely than not to have some sort of reference to humanity's knuckle-dragging forefathers. Exhibits A, B, and C on this trend: "Ooga Booga," "Mighty Joe Young," and "The Orangu-Twist."
Of the ape motif, Mike Molnar, the Orangu-Tones' lead guitarist (and youngest member, at 21), says, "I think there's some kind of subconscious connection between [monkeys] and what we're playing. I mean, it's kind of stupid. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to play this kind of stuff. I think the monkey theme goes a long way."
And besides, as a succinct Garrett Brittenham, the rhythm guitarist (formerly with the now-defunct Denver punk outfit Boss 302), points out, "Monkeys are cool."
But the Orangu-Tones aren't just about monkeys. They're also about beer. And chicks. And motorcycles. Above all, they're about religiously re-creating a sound and a performance philosophy that has, for the most part, gone by the wayside in the last thirty-some years. On stage, the band is a sight straight from 1962 (wearing matching blue blazers, red ties and khaki pants), five guys happily rocking their way through a set list of songs that were written before any of them were born. The bandmates all credit their bassist, Kurt Ohlen, with being the catalyst behind their frat-rock trajectory.
"I have this bad habit of liking a lot of different kinds of music and creating a band for each one," says Ohlen, a onetime Dalhart Imperial who also plays with Russell and Molnar in a country-swing outfit, Chester Everett and the Ranch Rhythmaires, and in a rockabilly act, the Blue Ribbon Boys. Luckily for his already hectic schedule, Ohlen is incorporating his passion for surf music into the Orangu-Tones' musical brew and doesn't plan to start another act to accommodate that love. The same goes for R&B and soul, which the Orangu-Tones also plan on eventually working into their set list.
The Orangu-Tones' genesis was in the works for quite some time before the band first took to the garage as a unit in February. "I think [Garrett and I] both have a common appreciation for old rock and roll, late-'50s/early-'60s rock and roll and R&B, that kind of thing," Ohlen says. "We used to do a lot of shows together when he was in Boss and I was in, well, whatever project I was in at the time." Those shows led to a perpetual conversation, and, come Y2K, the pieces started falling into place.
"It's something I've wanted to do for a long time," says Brittenham about playing in a frat-rock band. "Kurt gave me the chance to do it."
So with his Rhythmaire/ Blue Ribbon cohorts and longtime friend Brittenham in tow, Ohlen had the Orangu-Tones nucleus in place, but one element was missing: They needed the squawk of that requisite horn. Enter "The Mysterious Kenny" (aka Kenny Davis).
"We decided we needed a sax player to kind of complete, both sonically and visually, the picture of what we've been going for with this group," Ohlen explains. "And I've known Kenny for quite a while. To be honest, I didn't even know he played saxophone. I approached him purely because I thought he looked real cool. And we were drunk."
"At the time, there was about ten years of dust on [my sax]," Davis says. "I had to go get it out of my father's basement." After brushing away the mothballs, however, Davis found himself a cozy spot blaring underneath the Orangu-Tones' racket.
And, like Ohlen says, Davis's look is up to frat-rock code. The same goes for the rest of the Orangu-Tones, where the rule of thumb is that clothes help make the band. The garb is definitely an eyeball-grabber: It's hard to miss five guys in matching coats and ties, especially when you're at the Raven or the Lion's Lair.
"I'm kind of a dorky snob about this," says Ohlen on the topic of the 'Tones' stage dress, which conforms right down to their argyle socks and penny loafers. (They might even take the matching look one step further with requisite band tattoos reading Omni Fermentum Bonum, which in Latin means "All Beer Good.") "You gotta look good," Ohlen continues. "If Limp Bizkit all wore cool suits, it would go a long way toward me maybe listening to their music. I just hate that, [when] one guy's wearing shorts and a T-shirt, another guy's wearing ripped up jeans and no shoes. I mean, inject some professionalism."
Echoes Molnar: "That's something else that's from the early era of rock and roll. You didn't see anybody playing out that was wearing jeans and T-shirts."
As Ohlen, Davis, and Brittenham were frat-rock fanatics long before the Orangu-Tones took root, it was their collective neural encyclopedia of music history that shaped their set list to include covers of songs by vintage '60s artists that are often overlooked, such as Bobby Fuller, the Trashmen ("Quite possibly the greatest band ever," says Ohlen), and those legends of Boulder surf, the Astronauts. Molnar and Russell credit the elder three-fifths of the 'Tones (the aforementioned trio are in their early thirties) with helping them get to cruising speed.
"These guys had really done their homework," says Molnar, who moved to Denver from Cleveland in January to be a part of Ohlen's various musical projects. "Before I came into this band, Kurt and Garrett and Kenny were the only guys I knew who put a lot of time into researching frat rock."
"It was Frat Rock 101 for me," adds Russell, a Berkeley transplant who has been drumming for more than half his life. "I think as a drummer today, it's so tempting to play like a modern-day drummer, but it's just inappropriate for this kind of music. It's been a real challenge for me to go back and listen to recordings and, in some way, try to emulate what those guys back in the '60s were doing. It's so easy to overplay this stuff."
"In our quest to be a true, authentic -- as much as I hate that word -- frat band, we've got to listen to what the frat bands then were listening to, not necessarily listen to the frat bands themselves," Ohlen explains. In his mind, the practice of tweaking cover songs for no reason other than to modernize them often amounts to sacrilege. "I get mad a lot when people try to do that with old songs, because the songs are so fucking good. Why mess with them?"
The answer to this question lies somewhere within the Orangu-Tones' knack for playing like a rock-and-roll time machine. While five beer-swilling white guys playing R&B, surf and rock standards might have been an everyday sight in 1962, it's miles from the modern norm. And if you can play these songs like the Orangu-Tones can, there's very little reason to mess with them.
To be precise, the Orangu-Tones' musical sights are set squarely on the "pre-British Invasion" era of music, circa 1960 to 1964. Nationally, there are a handful of bands specializing in frat rock: Columbia, Missouri's Untamed Youth (featuring Deke Dickerson on guitar and vocals) and the Bay Area's Saturn V -- but the 'Tones don't see it as a bandwagon soon to be jumped on to death, like swing. Says Molnar, "I would hardly call it a revival."
Regardless of the recent emergence of terms like "post-rock," the Orangu-Tones see their brand of music as timeless, based on the audience reaction to date. "Some of the 'punk,' indie kinds of kids we get [at our shows] like it because it's rock," says Ohlen.
"All the best punk rock is just lowest-common-denominator rock and roll," adds Brittenham, noting that the prime difference between a Boss 302 audience and an Orangu-Tones audience is that the latter is more prone to dance. "We're kind of mining the same territory."
"I think something that modern pop music has gotten away from is [the ability] to entertain people," interjects Ohlen. "It's so concerned now with making a statement. Maybe there's a place for that, but the whole function of bands back [in the '60s] was to entertain an audience. To do that, they had to play songs that people wanted to hear and make people dance."
The scene from a September gig in Keystone pounds this point home. "[The crowd] just came alive," recalls Russell. "Before we knew it, they were all out on the dance floor dancing."
"When the snowboarder burnouts started dancing," Davis laughs, "that was perfect."
Although the 'Tones have yet to perform at a fraternity, they "really, really want to," says Ohlen. "That's one of our goals: to actually play frat parties. To actually play a toga party. We just want to have a good time, and we want everyone else to have a good time. To that end, we'll play pretty much anywhere, anytime, for anyone."
"I want to do a chili cookoff or a car rally," says Brittenham.
"We've been kind of sparse and sporadic in our live appearance over the past few months, but we do intend to start playing more," continues Ohlen. "Not necessarily here in Denver, but we'd like to get a regular circuit going along the Front Range."
Besides touring more, the bandmembers are also preparing for their first recording projects: They intend to release a seven-inch record by Christmas and a full-length album next year, both on Hillsdale Records (the label of Johnny Bartlett, from the aforementioned Saturn V). After just a handful of practices, the Orangu-Tones inked a recording deal with Hillsdale in March, auditioning via a phone call in the middle of the night. While their live shows tend to consist predominantly of covers, the recordings will be centered on the band's originals.
Things are going pretty well for the Orangu-Tones, so don't look for them to abandon their roots anytime soon. Saxman Davis points to a common request that validates at least one of their stylistic directions: "More monkey songs. We get that a lot."
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