By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Michael A. Erlewine.
The two met in Chicago, albeit in a different time and place musically. They were younger men who were feeling out living in a city with a certain history of Eastern European influenced music.
Naturally, this is Aaron Klein and Serge van der Voo of Orpheum Bell we are speaking of. The Ann Arbor, Mich.-based outfit plays a style of music which is inherently American, a genre they call “Country & Eastern.” “American” can have a certain flag-waving connotation but in this case, it’s really about the culmination of the music that Eastern European immigrants brought over to Midwestern cities with the tunes borne out of the American South. BTR was able to speak with van der Voo and Klein as they were quite nestled in the college town they live in.
Orpheum Bell was started in 2005 when van der Voo and Klein were living in Chicago, playing in a different project. Klein describes it as “mostly instrumental music, I guess a similar instrumentation; we were always headed in this direction.” Klein moved back to Ann Arbor, where he says he had been living since he was a “young adult” then got in touch with van der Voo, saying that he too—in the words of Phill Lynott—was back in town. Being back in town, Klein said the two “still had the same interests and the same desires.”
Those desires came from Klein’s background, as he was born in the Ukraine and lived there for seven years; what he describes as his “formative 0-through-7.” It’s a strange circumstance because he is from a country that has music similar to the style that he plays now yet he says he was “largely Americanized pretty quickly.” He grew up on “MTV and the 80’s stuff,” and not really the ethnic music of his home country. He recalls a sensation he had when music first hit him.
“That would’ve been like ‘86, Meadowbrook Theater; Thompson Twins. I had a new Izod sweater, red. My mom and dad were on either side of me so it was like a perfect combination of unexplained joy at a scale concert that size combined with that terror that can only come with watching a joint being passed between your parents,” says Klein on his slightly traumatic first musical moment.
Klein says that at that moment he knew he “needed to get into show business” as a way of “dealing with those emotions.” At the time, watching the Thompson Twins on stage was something he wanted to have all the time. However, he said he “didn’t know where you get the rule-book” for actually making exactly that happen. In a way, Klein romanticized the very notion of being in a band as it didn’t actually happen for him until he was in Chicago “well into [his] twenties.” He asserts that he gets the same kind of rush now as he did back then “even playing some shitty little show somewhere.”
The band prides themselves on being able to play anywhere, as the Eastern waltzes and country music that influenced them comes from an “underdog” perspective. According to the band’s website, early shows included “taverns, lofts, a puppet show theater, a speakeasy, a concrete cattle bunker once, and a beautiful wedding on a cherry farm in northern Michigan.” The band tells the story of how they got the gig at the cattle bunker:
“We got the call for the gig and in those days we didn’t turn anything down. It was different. They had a buffet-style meal and all these farmers were wandering around eating. They had us separated from all that in this bunker where the animals were. We were playing and they would wander in and check it out scratching their heads, then go back and get some more food. At the end of the night you get a couple people that were blown away like they’d never seen anything like that. That makes up for it. We were used to having an audience sitting there and listening to the music. This was different; we were more in the background which was good in a way because you harden up a bit,” says van der Voo on their unique choice of venue.
Playing such an eclectic style that they do, one might wonder how they even went about finding members who play violin, banjo, ukelele, trumpets, mandolin, and glockenspiel; with members often “doubling up.” Van der Voo jokes that in finding members they “capped the town out, we’ve had to go and get members from Detroit now.” Luckily, being in the college town of University of Michigan, the music program there provides a cultural context to bring in members with diverse backgrounds. They snagged an Armenian classical violinist who “really gets what [they are] doing,” though for the first gig he was supposed to play with Orpheum Bell, he had to bail due to a prior engagement at Carnegie Hall. They say he’s a “showman,” open to play instruments such as “violins that have horns on ‘em.” Those are the kinds of musicians the band associates with.
Though the band is from the Detroit Metro Area, Ann Arbor in a way seems like it has its own ecosystem that is independent of the Motor City. They’re happy about the planned revitalization of Detroit but van der Voo says that “when you’re here (in Ann Arbor), you’re a bit isolated from it because we got our own thing.” Though Ann Arbor is only a half hour outside of Detroit, the problems that face it don’t really seem to follow them as both of them agree that in Ann Arbor “the economy is much easier.”
In the same way that Orpheum Bell is aware of a rebirth of Detroit but uninvolved, they felt like they were on the outside of the mid-2000’s boom of “gypsy-punk” music with the success of New York City’s Gogol Bordello. You may ask, “Is that some kind of Eastern thing?” because it was at this time that heads were really turning towards an unorthodox slant towards punk rock with the singer Eugene Hutz of Gogol crowd surfing on a bass drum and “knocking out the light system”at the Subterranean in Chicago when van der Voo was living there.
“I knew that they were coming around but when we started this, we actually were trying something very different and although there was that Eastern European influence, our early days were really quiet. We were all sitting down and we were trying to really capture this aesthetic in a really sparse way; real melodic and sparse. It wasn’t until we started getting better and bigger shows that we realized, ‘You know, we gotta step it up a bit. We gotta work on our whole stage dynamic.’ We all started standing up and along the way we started adding percussion and drums. I would say it started out in the opposite direction of Gogol Bordello,” says van der Voo.
With Orpheum Bell’s last release The Old Sisters’ Home in 2012, which is what they described as “a little more accessible, a little more poppy,” this new release which promises a dozen or so songs will feature what van der Voo calls “closer back to our roots of some old-time country and folk.” And as with most of everything else in Orpheum Bell’s history, this new release should offer some of that outsider’s outsider chutzpah.
As Aaron Klein puts it best, “I think we’re an American band. We have all these influences and people from all over the place and the only limitations are the ones we place on ourselves.”
To rise above the limitations with Orpheum Bell, click here.
Check out Orpheum Bell’s music and interview on the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.