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Ann Arbor based band Orpheum Bell has been nominated for several WYCE Jammies, including Best Roots album for “The Old Sisters Home,” song of the year for “Poor Laetitia” and outstanding male and female artists for singer/guitarist/ukeleleist Aaron Klein and singer/multi-instrumentalist Katie Lee.
Orpheum Bell’s country and eastern sound has a timeless and boundless quality. The band utilizes acoustic instrumentation and vintage recording equipment to create a sound that is, at times, warm and welcoming like an old afghan and a rocking chair, ramshackle and shambolic like a gypsy caravan, weaving intricate tapestries of melody and verse and rhythm, and always achingly gorgeous. And sometimes all in the same song.
In addition to Klein and Lee, the band is rounded out by Henrik Karapetyan – violins, Michael Billmire – accordion, trumpets, xylophone, glockenspiel, shepherd harp, mandolin, pump organ and Serge van der Voo – double bass, foot percussion. The band's latest release “The Old Sisters Home” is a taut 10 song masterpiece. It has the coziness of a well cluttered room, a lived-in-ness that is evident in the time and care the band put into creating it.
If you haven’t had a chance to see this absolutely unique quintet live, they will be mesmerizing the audience at the 13th annual WYCE Jammie Awards at the Intersection in the 8:20 pm time slot. This show is all ages and Orpheum Bell is a set not to be missed.
I corresponded with bassist and all-around Michigan music fan, Serge van der Voo, below:
Let’s start at the beginning. The core of the band seems to be you, Aaron and Michael. How did you all find each other and how did Katie and Henrik get involved?
Aaron and I met in Chicago in the late 90's and formed an instrumental folk group which lasted for a couple years before he moved back to Michigan. We stayed in contact and even worked on songs whenever I was back visiting family in Michigan. In 2005 my wife and I moved back to Ann Arbor and bought a house in the same neighborhood as Aaron. Aaron had several songs off the "Pretty as You" album sketched out and we started posting ads and having friends over to add to the songs. We knew from the beginning that we wanted female vocals, accordion, violin, and banjo to be a part of our sound. I met Mike in another band I was playing with here in town around 2008. His melodic and multi-instrumental abilities blew us away. Needless to say he became a core member during the making of "Pearls" on which he played a dozen or so instruments. In early 2010 the line-up changed when we added Katie and Henrik. Katie actually responded to a UM Music School flyer we posted in the hallways and Henrik we met through a mutual friend. We started writing " The Old Sisters' Home" songs around that time and by the fall we were recording the album at Big Sky Studios.
What music did you listen to growing up? Most bass players I know wanted to be Geddy Lee or Les Claypool…
Sure every kid wants to rock out and I was no different listening to AC/DC, Kiss, Led Zeppelin and the Stones. But my father loved listening to New Orleans and Hot Club jazz....like it was always on if he was home. I don't think I even realized it then but the bouncy, tight-knit rhythms of those particular styles got a hold of me. I started on percussion at school then got to play on a kit on loan from my dad's friend. I took lessons for about a year and just didn't have the discipline to keep at it. Switching to electric bass felt right and I locked into that instrument and joined my first band at 13. At that point The Clash, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, the Beatles, and The Replacements were the bands I wanted to sound like. They were all liquid-tight inventors.
Being nominated for a Jammie award here in West Michigan, how has the reception to the new album been on the east side of the state?
Real good....I think people appreciate that we branched out on this one and worked in some new sounds, instruments, and players.
Looking at your show schedule, you tend to play smaller towns in Michigan. It’s interesting that you stay connected to these places being your music seems geographically rootless in a lot of ways. Is there any desire to play bigger markets like Detroit or Chicago or do you prefer these smaller places?
We like to mix it up with the venues and places.....if we can do both and connect with the different audiences that's what we prefer. We did play Chicago last spring and plan on going back this summer to play with our Chicago friends Eastern Blok. We plan on playing at the NXNE Festival in Toronto this summer as well and are in the early stages of planning a trip down to the Asheville, N.C. area in the fall. You mentioned Detroit....probably our favorite show ever was playing at the Trumbull Plex....it was Katie's first show with us and everyone was dancing....we had a blast.
Can you give some background on the story with “The Old Sisters’ Home” as an actual place in Michigan?
The title "The Old Sisters' Home" was inspired by a fascination with the past settings and a shared visual aesthetic that group homes, hospitals, and asylum communities once had. The photos on the album were taken at The Village in Traverse City by our friend Michael A. Erlewine. We worked with Geof Innis who is the same graphic designer from our last album which was letter-pressed by hand.
Overall this album is more upbeat and accessible than the others. The line-up change in early 2010 pushed us to write songs collaboratively and try new things with our sound. Often Aaron and I bring in ideas/parts to get songs off the ground. On the song "Tosh" Aaron had the verses and chorus parts worked out on guitar [and] from there we all connect the dots and send rough recordings around until we find a happy medium with everyone's parts. It usually does take a while with a song like that. "Whatever Shines So Bright" also took a while. "Poor Laetitia" and "Daddy's Crying" came together surprisingly fast for us. On "Chain Stitched Heart" I came up with the verses and the slower tempo bridge part at the end and Aaron came up with the chorus part on banjo. Around that time we had both been to this amazing Mariachi performance at the Hill Auditorium with like 10-12 players which inspired the mariachi-like melodies of the violin and trumpet on [Chain Stitched Heart]. "Kembster's Laz" was written by Mike in a time signature that we had never before played to.
Old Sisters Home was recorded at Big Sky Studios. Can you give some background on why you chose to record there and some history of the tape machine for any audiophiles?
All of the songs were recorded to analog tape using vintage ribbon microphones. This allowed us to capture the full acoustic warmth of various instruments, particularly with the drums, upright bass, archtop guitars, pump organ, horns and vocals as well. The studio environment was perfect for us with a large room and plenty of isolation options plus all of the 20 plus years of experience that owner/engineer Geoff Michael brings with it. Recording "Poor Laetita" in big band style with back-up singers, a horn section, and drums was the most fun. During "Cuckolded Wren" we had to stop the session because Big Sky got a last minute call to record Tom Morello (from Rage Against The Machine) for an upcoming radio broadcast. We ended up moving our gear over to the storage area off the parking lot and serenaded Tom and his crew as they walked into the studio. Afterwards they stopped by and we got to talk before heading back to work. Recording "Daddy's Crying" was also memorable because of the melodic arrangements applied to an R&B chord progression using a string harp, pump organ, oboe, french horn and string section.
"Goodbye is the sweetest Word" is a favorite of mine. It really captures a multitude of emotions, resignation, release, longing and sadness. Can you give some background about how it came to be featured in a documentary?
Thanks. Brookbank Productions is based here in the area and they had heard our music over the years. They chose "Goodbye is the sweetest Word" for the closing credits of the film, "What if no sparrow Fell" for a road scene and "Sins and Flowers" for a sped-up section of the film where Chris Roberts-Antieau is working on one of her fabric paintings. We performed at the Michigan Theater opening night of the film's release.
Aaron Klein’s voice has been compared to Tom Waits in numerous press write-ups. Is there ever any concern that it could be construed as an imitation?
All music draws comparisons and similarities....some more than others but there's really no way around it. From Louis Armstrong to Captain Beefheart to Leonard Cohen to Tom Waits to Man Man... the list goes on.
Any recommended listening for the readers?
Taraf de Haidouks 'Live at Union Chapel' is some of the meanest live Romanian gypsy out there and it comes with a dvd of the performance as well. The time changes are simply ridiculous. We're all fans of Randy Newman and covered "Burn On" a while back. He writes pure and simple songs and then adds the most beautiful string and horn arrangements on albums like "Sail Away," "Good Old Boys" and "Little Criminals" to name a few. When we were in Chicago we got to check out Man Man at the Metro on their Life Fantastic tour. They put on a really energetic show and do all of their own stage props creating a maze of old computer monitors, bicycles and hardware.
After the WYCE Jammies, what is next for Orpheum Bell in 2012?
We will be shooting a video in Detroit soon, playing some northern [Michigan] cd release shows at the end of the month and have a couple trips in the works for Chicago, Toronto, St. Louis and Asheville, N.C. in the summer and fall.
Steven Davison was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Mi. He holds degrees in English, Environmental Studies and Geography.