Arbor Labor Union
Can You Hear Me Now?
Arbor Labor Union Throw Thoreau and Rearrange
“Art is like a wave, man. A wave itself is perfect, every time. You don’t need to change a wave.”
Upon hearing such a peak-trip pronouncement emerge from the mouth of Bo Orr, one might mistake him for a SoCal surf stoner, presiding over the soft Pacific Ave. parade like some mumbling modern day Jim Morrison, though he’s a Georgia boy through and through, and prefers Van to Jim. (But, still, man… think about it, man… he’s right!)
Orr isn’t really like that, although sometimes he sort of is in his own way, which is why I put that quote right at the beginning of this story. Because things like that do jump out of his mouth pretty often. But he’s not being pretentious or purposely – grrrrr – ironic or sarcastic. At least I don’t think so. I feel like he’s completely sincere. And it’s refreshing.
There’s a refreshing sincerity to Arbor Labor Union, the band he sings and plays guitar in along with his longtime friends Ben Salie (drums), Ryan Evers (bass) and Brain Atoms (or maybe it’s Brian) (or maybe just Bird to Ryan’s Nerd) (guitar), all now hovering around 27 years of age. The sound they summon somehow sounds like a celebration of existence itself. It’s exuberant and it’s powerful. But there’s also an air of intentional abstruseness, a mystery to it all, as if they’re playing solely for themselves, and may or may not be hesitant to let it be known to the outside world that they’re just four scruffy skater dudes from the South who listened to Lungfish. If that all sounds convolutedly contradictory and confusing, then you’re right. That’s this band, baby. But if you just say “fuck it” and crank up I Hear You – their (technically) second album and first for Sub Pop – as loud as you fucking can, so the walls begin to crack and glassware vibrates to the edge as the waves engulf you (or better still, if you experience their organic ferocity on a stage directly in front of you), then chances are you’ll be like me and stagger away proclaiming Arbor Labor Union the most exciting band to emerge from our humble humid parts in ages.
I’m betting that the two high schoolers who made up the entirety of the audience at the band’s tour-opening gig in Columbia, South Carolina back in May went home that night with their innards rearranged into balloon animals. Yep, two people at their tour kickoff date! The best crowds on this, their first-ever cross-country adventure? Probably 35 to 40, they estimate, in Boston and Minneapolis. For a band newly signed to a solid, respected indie label, pumped up about their freshly released album, such low attendance had to have been disheartening. But, to hear the band tell it, they didn’t let it bother them. Sitting around a table backstage at the 40 Watt Club in Athens last month, a few hours before the homecoming show and last date of a tour that also included, naturally, their van’s transmission going kaput in the bustling metropolis of Yreka, California, they exude positivity, telling me that they had “a great time,” with “no regrets.”
“I feel like you have a choice to make when something like that happens. You’re like, ‘Am I going to let this affect my ego, or am I going to move past it and remember the thing that we’re here for?’” says Orr. “And I feel like, honestly, we’re pretty egoless, as far as some people go.”
In all fairness, their first nationwide trek might have been a bit premature, as I Hear You only came out the day before they set sail, and even if anyone had previously heard their debut (last year’s Sings For You Now), it was released while they still went under their original name, Pinecones. But Orr continues to stress the positive: “[The tour] did make us change the way we were playing a little bit. And I think in a really amazing way. We developed a way to let the music take us away from whatever [the] situation was.”
“Playing to each other the entire tour,” is how Evers describes it.
“Which is a good armor, you know – to have the music itself be fulfilling, whether or not anyone [is there],” stresses Orr. “I think before we had this harder vision of the band, when we were Pinecones, that ‘this’ or ‘that’ was a Pinecones song. It was about deconstructing a rock song to its barest form. And now, with the name change, there’s almost an invisible fence I didn’t know existed that was torn down, to where it was even freer. We’ve found more freedom in what we’re doing. This tour changed the music in a way that I would have never known could’ve happened had we not gone on tour. It was totally amazing, for that alone.”
Bo, Ben and Ryan have been pals since their mid-teens, bonding over a love of punk rock and skateboarding. Brain/Brian’s from St. Simons originally, but met the others through a mutual friend once he moved to Atlanta to attend Georgia State. They’ve been in various little-known bands, often together in various combinations, such as vegan grindcore outfit Dead in the Dirt (in which Orr played bass, releasing an album on Southern Lord), Whale Colony (which included Ryan and Brian and sounded like “Syd Barrett meets Leatherface,” according to Orr), minimalist punk band Mosaic (Orr, Salie and Atoms) and Blue Heeler, a long-distance GarageBand collaboration between Salie and Orr, who at the time was briefly living in Massachusetts recovering from a skateboarding injury.
“That was actually when I first started playing guitar,” Orr recalls. “It was cool, ‘cause Ben is an extremely talented musician, and at the time, I was [an] even worse [guitarist] than I am now, so it was like I was sending him pencil drawings, and they would come back as really beautiful paintings. Looking back on it… it helped sculpt how I wanted to play, and how we would play together. I would say musically, it was closer than anything else we’d ever done to what has become this.”
Pinecones coalesced in Athens some four years ago, influenced, it’s been said, by the writings of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, although you don’t really need to know that to “get it.” After gaining local recognition through dynamic live shows and a cassette (Plays Cosmic Hits, recorded live on WUOG), music publicist Alyssa DeHayes issued Sings For You Now on her small Arrowhawk Records label.
Though noticeably rawer, a blade’s shade more abrasive and less sprawling, that debut LP ably established the band’s basic sound, now refined to even more enriching payoffs on I Hear You: Bold, deliberate riffs building upon themselves, locking into stubborn repetition past the breaking point of dizzy delirium (“You don’t need to change a wave”), as Bo barks and bellows and wobbles off the rails as if his larynx is in danger of exploding – he’s all in the moment, no holding back, as if no one, thank God, ever took him aside and said, “That isn’t how people sing.” The lyrics are either nonsense or profound, I haven’t figured out which, but they have a poetic, spontaneous quality, and while Orr’s pontification rarely follows expected form, still it cascades over the songs like an avalanche.
“In my mind, I sing like Van Morrison, but the translation is, I’m just not as gifted. I can actually sing like an angel, I just choose to sing like a banshee!” Orr laughs. “I never really sang in a band, or in my personal life. I think if you don’t open your mouth and immediately have some sort of gifted voice, you feel ashamed to sing. Like, if you saw a man walking down the street singing in public, and he sounded bad, you’d be like, ‘Oh, that guy sounds bad!’ But really, that guy’s just feeling his own freedom out. And so, I was exploring that, I think, vocally. It’s come to a point now where I actually am figuring out how I wanna sing… and that I’m not so worried about being heard. I’m not trying to ram what I’m saying down anyone’s throat, at all; in fact I would want them to come to it in their own way, rather than being forced, sounding like some preacher or something like that.”
Musically, the band marries the atonal squall of Sonic Youth, et al, with the full-on, sweaty hair-flinging, flannel-flying crunch of Crazy Horse and the hypnotic, precise interaction of Television…with balls.
“I’ve said this before,” Brian pipes in, “but I think it really comes out of us just loving the sound of guitars. Or doing the same thing over and over because, ‘Oh, I wanna play that again! I like that!’”
“I think it was just a culmination of all the basics of what we liked in songs,” adds Orr. “We realized that…the strongest skeleton behind music was repetition. You listen to a soul record, like a Marvin Gaye record, and it’s essentially a jam in one key. And the drums are just this, like, heartbeat the whole time, and it’s all about what goes on top of it.”
The realization of a Canadian band with the name Pinecones prompted the name change, but they had already considered Arbor Labor Union as an “idea umbrella” banner under which they had vague notions of releasing zines and other projects besides their music. So it was an obvious choice for their new band name. It was Salie who came up with it, and although there’s a similar thing in a particular Lungfish lyric, he claims to not remember whether he was fully cognizant of that at the time. Regardless, he says he “really loved the whole idea behind when Jason Molina took Songs:Ohia and made it Magnolia Electric Company – just the sort of little hint within that that now he’s an electric band. And the band name as a job, like it was work. I liked that a lot. It’s just an interesting way to approach naming your artistic output. It’s your labor, your work. I think I just wanted to have that kind of feeling to it.”
As with this band and their music, the name sounds powerful, and it’s poetic, but also vague and mysterious. Like I Hear You, the bottom line is: it just sounds cool.
“It’s a very invincible name to me,” offers Orr. “Like, you could throw stones at it and it would never fall over!”
Photo by Dorothy Stucki.