Interview by Avinash Mittur
San Francisco-based doom rock quartet Orchid released their new album ‘The Mouths Of Madness’ via Nuclear Blast Records earlier this year, an album our writer Avinash gave a stellar review around the time of its release. Even though the band continues to have a much larger fan following in Europe as compared to their own country, they do play occasional hometown San Francisco gigs to packed venues. Last Friday at Slim’s was one such occasion, and prior to the show, Avinash caught up with vocalist Theo Mindell, guitarist Mark Thomas Baker and drummer Carter Kennedy for an in-depth chat about all things Orchid. Enjoy the conversation below.
This is Orchid’s first hometown show in about four months or so. Last time you played the DNA Lounge but now you’re at Slim’s, a much bigger venue. Has it been odd seeing your popularity grow so rapidly?
Theo: We’re not convinced there is an increase yet. [laughs] We’ll tell you after tonight! Last time we sold out that room, we had to turn away fifty people! That was good, you know?
Mark: If we could fill this place halfway up tonight, I’d be pretty happy with it.
That’s pretty amazing though, having to turn away fifty people at the DNA Lounge.
Theo: Yeah, even if it was a small room. Better to play in a crowded restaurant than a huge but empty place.
You all recently got back from a European tour with Witchcraft, right?
Theo: Witchcraft actually cancelled at the last minute due to some illness stuff, so we went out with a band called Free Fall. We ended up with the headlining spot, which was a little precarious, especially because it was twenty-four hours before we were supposed to split! We were a little nervous about it. Also too, the promoters had us over a barrel because they lost the headliner and got us cheap. [laughs] It all worked out, it was fine. The other bands were super cool, and two of the guys from Witchcraft had another band called Troubled Horse, and they’re all kind of from the same town and they grew up together along with the Graveyard guys too. They joined onto the tour and they were total sweethearts, it was cool.
Do you guys play bigger rooms in Europe than you do at home? Or perhaps the other way around?
Mark: It’s kind of a mix! There’s some bigger clubs… besides festivals, I think the biggest place we played there had a capacity of 500 and then there were smaller ones that held a couple hundred. We did real well in the big cities, Munich and Stuttgart, places like that.
Theo: It was pretty surreal because we’d do a real big show that was in a place with great sound and lights, and the next night it would be like Monday, or Sunday or something like that and we’d have to do a show in between just to keep the wheels turning and we’d end up in a rec center with a hundred kids. [laughs] That happened a couple times because we had to add shows because others got cancelled on the tour. It’s just part of the deal you know?
Mark, you brought up Germany and that brings to mind the Rock Hard Festival. That must have been a pretty awesome show.
Theo: Oh yeah, that was like 8000 people or something. That was pretty surreal. [laughs]
You two have a bit more experience under your belts compared to other new bands like the openers tonight. Do you think that having that experience playing in bands for a long time has made it your music more accessible for a larger audience? Or possibly made it easier for Orchid to break into the industry because of your experience?
Theo: I kind of feel like with us, timing was everything. We’ve both played in bands together and separately for… I’ve known Mark since was eighteen or nineteen. Sometimes you’re just swimming and the waves catch up behind you and you catch it. You kind of luck out like that. I think we write good tunes and we enjoy what we do, I think people can feel that sincerity.
Mark: It actually makes it a little more difficult because we have to pass on a lot of opportunities that get offered because this all happened a little bit later in life. We’ve already established our lives with homes and things like that. I have a family, so I can’t just get up and leave to go on tour like I’m twenty-five or something like that. [laughs]
I guess what I meant to say was does your experience make songwriting easier, now that you have years of trial and error over with?
Mark: Oh! Yeah, I think so.
Theo: Mark and I have been in bands together long enough with all different kinds of music. We have a certain idea of what good classic songs are, and not so much that there’s a format or formula, but I think we know what’s cool when we hear it.
Like knowing what works and what doesn’t?
Theo: Yeah! We’ll try to do a song, bang our heads against it for a while and then a year later something will shift, we’ll do it again and it’ll work. It’s just like sometimes a song is better than what you’re capable of offering it in that moment, and it takes a while to follow through and figure it out.
You two have known each other for years and years, but there’s another guy with a history with you two: the engineer on Orchid’s albums, Will Storkson. What is working with him like, especially since he’s now done two albums with you guys?
Mark: Yup, everything we’ve ever done we did with him.
Theo: Shit, three EPs and two full lengths. Yeah I mean, Will’s awesome. I knew him back in high school in the whole thrash metal scene in the mid-80’s. Later on we both worked on Haight Street in the late ’80s. He’s a huge Sabbath fan and he’s super into early Metallica and all that stuff that we grew up on, so nothing gets lost in translation. If I say something, he gets it and it’s intuitive for him. When you grow up with someone like that, you don’t have to explain why you’re feeling the way you are about something, whether it’s sound or a song or whatever.
Do you think Will’s experience with movies and soundtracks helped out Orchid in a way?
Mark: I think so, especially when we were chasing a vibe or a sound because his whole business is breaking down specific sounds, listening to the frequencies and figuring out what they fuck is going on.
Theo: If there’s a weird effect on the voice or a weird guitar thing or whatever, Bill’s instrumental in nailing it.
Mark: He’s real good at editing. [laughs]
Theo: Yeah if you’re kind of clunky in a spot, he can smooth you out. [laughs]
Theo, you own a tattoo shop, Spider Murphy’s, and you also work there as an artist. Has the artwork from your tattoos ever translated into imagery for your lyrics?
Theo: No, not really. It’s such a different thing, tattooing…
Mark: Wait, what about ‘Wizard of War’?
Theo: Oh yeah! Okay, that was one tattoo that a song title came from. That’s true. So yeah, okay it’s happened. [laughs] I don’t think it’s a regular thing. I’m so vested in tattooing, it’s a really disciplined art form. It’s really about repetitive themes, eagles and hearts and banners and daggers and you know, Japanese dragons and all that stuff. It’s pretty case specific you know? Growing up, looking at old ’70s and ’80s comic books and horror movies I’d say is what goes in the bank more than the tattoo work.
(Drummer Carter Kennedy joins the conversation here)
Mark, a question for you. You played acoustic guitar on ‘See You On the Other Side’. Do you think Orchid would be able to incorporate acoustic guitars live?
Mark: Not at this point, but never say never! On the level we’re on, I don’t think it would work. We’ve got to keep the show going and keep it high energy but hey, maybe somewhere down the road when we’re playing two hour sets.
Theo: People ask us to pay ‘Albatross’ and ‘Falling Away’ but it’s like I don’t know, I don’t think we’re at a level where we can play a show where we could do that and feel confident about it. [laughs]
Mark: I don’t think I’ve seen a crowd at our show yet that’s been ready to mellow out. [laughs]
Theo: We’d need a lot more people smoking weed and taking Quaaludes before we could do ‘Albatross’. [laughs]
Carter: We’d need a really long set to really bring it down. It would be cool though!
Since you guys don’t tour very heavily, can fans expect Orchid albums on a more frequent basis compared to other bands?
Mark: Whew! We’ve been averaging one a year so far I think.
Theo: More than that would mean more EPs and stuff. It would be like Jimi Hendrix where we’d crank out five in a year or something. I think to do that, we’d still have to be in a position where we don’t have day jobs.
Mark: Right, we’d have to write every day and rehearse every day.
Theo: That’s why the young bands of the ’60s and ’70s were able to do that. It was cheaper to live back then too, they didn’t have to pay today’s rent in San Francisco… [laughs]
Mark: We’re planning on trying to have another full length out next year I think. That’s the plan.
Theo: Oh yeah, for sure. By summer hopefully.
Earlier during soundcheck, I saw that you guys brought a Moog synthesizer onstage. Are there any other cool instruments that you’d want to incorporate into Orchid’s songs?
Mark: Well, the Moog is the only one we can play with our feet. [laughs] When we first started out, that used to be a standard part of the show but then it just got too hard to worry about setting it up, especially when we’re rushed for time.
Carter: The clubs are still a bit too small for it, we’re not quite Rush yet. [laughs]
Mark: Basically the reason we’re doing it tonight is because we want to play ‘Heretic’, and that one has organ on it. We just wanted to get another sound in for that song. We set up in practice and I started using it for other things where it sounded good. When I was up there setting it up tonight I remembered why I didn’t like having it. “Fuck really? I have to do this again? Is this thing on?” [laughs] It’s cool though, I love the sound of good synthesizers. I really dig the sound of those ’70s analog synthesizers.
When you guys were going into the studio for the follow ups to ‘Capricorn’, the ‘Heretic’ EP and ‘The Mouths of Madness’ and I guess I should include the ‘Wizard of War’ EP too-
Theo: Oh, they kind of made that one up.
Mark: Yeah, that one was never a planned separate thing.
So were your goals with the new material to incorporate the new instruments like the Hammond, the acoustic guitars and the harmonica, and expand Orchid’s sound?
Theo: I don’t think we had a goal, rather we just go for what the song calls for.
Mark: Actually you know, going in we did try to do things we haven’t done.
Theo: Yeah, sure! We like to keep it interesting, like in ‘Falling Away’ there’s a nylon string, the medieval flute and stuff. We’re always trying to do cool stuff, something different so that all the songs don’t sound the same with all the same sonic blueprint.
‘The Mouths of Madness’ is now a couple months old, so you’ve had the chance to see how Nuclear Blast has handled the release. Have they met your expectations when it came to promoting the album?
Mark: They absolutely exceeded it.
Theo: Yeah, holy shit. It was definitely humbling.
Mark: We’re pushing 20,000 copies worldwide on it, which is absolutely mindblowing to me.
Carter: If you told me five years ago that we would sell 20,000 records I’d have called you crazy!
Theo: Seriously, when we started Orchid, it was just a bar band. When we all got together, it was just like “oh, let’s play some kind of heavy Sabbath and Pentagram-y sounding songs, drink some beers and hang out.” We wanted to be the coolest band we could be, but I don’t think any of us thought until later in the game that hey, maybe we could do something with this.
Mark: It started out as a kind of fun hobby, but now it’s a pretty serious hobby. [laughs]
Carter: It was Church Within Records that went out of their way and found us, before we even released anything!
Theo: We weren’t even up on MySpace! [laughs] The whole thing was totally not pursued by us, we never even thought about any of that. It was just for fun. It’s funny that people like it a lot, or even if they just hate us. I’m always just like, fuck man! We never intended for it to even see the light of day.
Carter: It’s always funny when people hate it and they think “they’re trying to cash in on Sabbath!” Well I say, what cash? [laughs]
Theo: Yeah man, we’re all huddled up in a dark room coming up with some scheme! [laughs] Fuck man, I’m just a total Sabbath geek. I just wanted to write a bunch of Sabbathy songs and play in bars and stuff, fuck I don’t have any scheme. “They’re riding on the backs on Pentagram, Sabbath and Trouble, fucking bastards!” [laughs]
Carter: Taking money right out of their hands, the bastards!
Mark: Tony Iommi’s totally hurting because of us. [laughs]