The Kids Are Alright 

In the household of a hit songwriter, strange sounds are coming from his sons’ basement

In the household of a hit songwriter, strange sounds are coming from his sons’ basement

Few subjects are off-limits when you’re talking to Jake and Jamin Orrall. Ask about their publishing company, Leen Coozine Books, and they will happily produce boxfuls of homemade texts and zines. Inquire about their library of home recordings, and out pours a saga of three-disc concept albums and one-off side projects recorded for their label, Infinity Cat. The filmmaking career is going fine, thanks: Here’s a reel of self-produced stop-motion animation.

If you want the two brothers to clam up, though, just ask them about school.

“Uh,” says Jake, 16 and rail-skinny, who suddenly finds the tip of his sneakers the most interesting thing in the room. “Uh” will be the extent of his thoughts on the matter. “I dunno,” adds Jamin, 14, after an uncomfortable pause. “It’s school.” What seems like an hour passes before the subject mercifully changes. Across the room, their father shakes his head, witnessing the low point of his sons’ first honest-to-God interview.

Dealing with idiot interviewers is a hazard of the family trade. Jake and Jamin’s dad, Robert Ellis Orrall, burst out of the early-1980s new-wave scene to record three albums of spiky pop for RCA. However, it was his second career, as a Music Row tunesmith, that proved to be his calling. He racked up more than 150 cuts, including several No. 1’s. And yet, as with many of Nashville’s sharpest songwriters-on-demand, he balances music as vocation and avocation. On his upstairs console rests a copy of Music, Money and Success; in his basement sits a treasured stash of Elvis Costello bootlegs.

More and more these days, his thoughts stray toward the basement. The bottom floor of the Orralls’ home, in a hilly, wooded West Nashville enclave, has been given over to Jake and Jamin’s multimedia complex. Here, amidst a vibrant clutter of vintage amps, family paintings and pasted scraps of pop-culture flotsam, the two teenage brothers are producing hundreds of hours of recordings—and some of the city’s most intriguing underground art.

In the time they don’t waste at school, the Orralls indulge an almost profligate creative streak. They have a band, The Sex, a furious stop-start hardcore trio with bassist Jesse Weilburg. They have countless “side projects,” including Snug, an hour-long wave of hypnotic space-rock. Their experimentation knows no bounds: Jake’s girlfriend, Sarah McDonald, even wired her guinea pig for sound. Even so, these recordings sound less like dilettantish DIY mess-arounds than steps in the progression of daunting, omnivorous talents.

That much is clear from Jeff, a remarkable album-length CD Jake and Jamin recorded with their dad. He was quickly demoted from producer to engineer after the usual creative differences. “I thought my 25 years of producing and performing would count for something,” Orrall says, “but after an hour of arguing I just had to walk away and lie down.” Any familial tensions are absent from the finished product, a mix of jangly math-rock, catchily erratic beats, nonsense lyrics à la the brothers’ hero Beck, and expertly deployed white-noise bursts and synth blurts.

The Jeff record “hit me real hard,” says family friend Gary Burnett, a local producer and guitarist. “They have figured out a way to organize noise music so it becomes accessible, without writing just boy-girl songs. There’s a real maturity—they know exactly how long to keep doing something before it gets boring.” Burnett compares Jeff to Sonic Youth, Talking Heads 77 and the sonic improvisation of Sonny Sharrock and Ornette Coleman.

High praise for two guys who snicker when one slips up and says “shit” in front of his dad, and whose interests include self-described “dork stuff” like Magic cards and medieval role-playing. One minute Jake is eloquently describing sound frequencies, and the harmonies produced by the sound of an amplified blender. The next he’s giving shout-outs to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

It’s tempting to peg Jake and Jamin Orrall as the latest Music City prodigals rebelling against their country-music birthright. From early new-waver Pam Tillis to sometime headbanger Bobby Bare Jr., Nashville has a history of second-generation talents who lean more toward rock and punk—at least initially. But the Orrall brothers are strikingly different. Musicians now for more than half their lives—Jamin has played drums since age 7, and the brothers have been recording longer than many Music Row acts—the Orralls have access to a range of influences their dad would have found unthinkable at their age.

“I find stuff mostly in mail-order catalogs or online,” says Jake, a Hillsboro High student whose brown hair forms a shockwave across his face. Jamin, the smaller and slighter of the two, who wears a Clash Sandinista! shirt older than he is, says he rarely runs into people at his Abintra Montessori School who like the same music. Instead, the brothers find kindred spirits in Nashville’s “underground underground hardcore scene,” at unpublicized basement venues like the Septic Tank.

As Burnett observes, the Orralls were lucky to have a household where spontaneity and creativity were actively encouraged. “They grew up in a house paid for with royalties,” Robert Ellis Orrall says. “They have a cellular intuition that their creativity is worth something.” Their mother Christine helped instill a love of art as well as music: The walls are hung with folk paintings and collectibles, and father and sons participated in a recent “Untitled” exhibit. And Jake and Jamin’s little sister, Justine, has the same innate musical ambition—even if the budding pop singer pokes her head in just long enough to say she can’t stand the racket her brothers make.

Yet as much as Jake and Jamin say they’ve learned from their father, he insists he’s the one who’s learning. “After 25 years of making music, they’ve opened my heart back up,” Orrall says. “They’ve rekindled my love of making music just for pleasure.” Inspired by their off-the-cuff approach, he premiered a pop song called “Plastic 350” last week at the Bluebird that he dashed off after a midday walk. He’ll also release recordings on their Infinity Cat label that would never make it past the Universal South mailroom, including “Al Gore,” a snappy tribute that architect Manuel Zeitlin reportedly passed along to the newly Nashvillized Veep.

As for Jake and Jamin Orrall, they have already disavowed their “early” recordings. For their upcoming show Nov. 1 at The Muse, they plan to sit across from each other at a cardtable and swap samples and swatches of electronic noise. Somehow, though, even their most offputting ideas have a sense of showmanship. Their father notes that by their second gig as The Sex, Jake and Jamin had a full table of T-shirts, buttons and stickers for sale.

“That was their second show!” Robert Ellis Orrall exclaims. “I didn’t even have merchandise for my second album.”

Jerianne Thompson’s 10 Music Zines That Matter

(Recently relocated to Middle Tennessee from San Francisco, Jerianne Thompson is editor and publisher of Zine World: A Reader’s Guide to the Underground Press , a review zine that can be found at Halcyon Books in Nashville, Pressure Drop in Murfreesboro, or in your mailbox if you send $4 to PO Box 330156, Murfreesboro TN 37133. She also plays in the band Uva Mala.)

1. Razorcake Picking up where Flipside left off, and going even further; between the insightful interviews and reviews are a bevy of thought-provoking columns and articles on politics, society and getting things done. PO Box 42129, Los Angeles CA 90042, www.razorcake.com, $3

2. MaximumRocknRoll The granddaddy punk zine, publishing interviews, reviews, and biting columns on a monthly basis longer than I’ve been making zines. P.O. Box 460760, San Francisco CA 94146, www.maximumrocknroll.com, $3

3. The New Scheme Interviews with musicians and other interesting people that I actually want to read, amusing tour diaries and a good smattering of varied reviews. Stuart Anderson, PO Box 19873, Boulder CO 80308, www.thenewscheme.com, $2

4. Scram Exciting, intelligent coverage of all things rock ’n’ roll; quality writing. Kim Cooper, PO Box 461626, Los Angeles CA 90046, www.scrammmagazine.com, $5

5. Copper Press Covering current indie music and pop culture with excellent writing; free CD included. PO Box 1601, Acme MI 49610, www.copperpress.com, $5

6. Ad Hominim Punk zine, minus the newsprint and plus a sense of fun, enhanced by a free CD. Nate Dogg, 175 Malcom Ave SE, Minneapolis MN 55414, www.abrahamsasians.com, $5

7. Metal Rules! Magazine One of the best metal (maga)zines out there. Delightful interviews with bands and various people who have nothing to do with music. Jeff Rappaport, 2116 Sandra Road, Voorhees NJ 08043, www.metalrulesmagazine.com, $5

8. Popshot Locally produced (!) zine with interviews/reviews of indie and punk bands, plus articles from a libertarian perspective. PO Box 158598, Nashville TN 37215, www.popshot.net, free

9. Black Velvet Rock zine from the U.K., interviewing/reviewing a variety of bands, with other interesting features. Shari Black Velvet, 336 Birchfield Road, Webheath, Redditch, Worcs. B97 4NG England, www.blackvelvetmagazine.com, $5

10. Mandragora In-depth, fascinating interviews of metal bands, carried out by people who are deeply invested in the scene, with lots of reviews. PO Box 19806, Seattle WA 98109, www.mandragora.ws, $3

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