The Orwells’ frontman, Mario Cuomo, loves saccharine-sweet pop music. More specifically, he loves the saccharine-sweet pop music by the self-described “cardigan rock” band The Walters. This Chicago based five-piece sounds equal parts ‘60s pop-rock and ‘90s power-pop.
Cuomo often tweets about them and he name-checked them in NME, saying their first record Songs for Dads “has some of the most solid songwriting I've heard in years, matched with harmonies that would make The Beach Boys nervous.” His praise stretched farther as he also brought them out for The Orwells’ current tour.
One of the The Walters’ three singers and guitar player, Michale Jameson “MJ” Tirabassi, said this is their “first real tour.” They just hit the road and they’ll be back in two months to unwind before playing Lollapalooza later this summer.
Amid their hectic tour schedule, they recently found some down time in between shows to speak with POND. They may be goofy and charmingly cheeky, but underneath our conversation with guitarists and vocalists Luke Olsen, MJ, and Walter Kosner lied sincere excitement.
You guys have about two months of touring ahead of you. How do you feel?
MJ: The energy is feeling good so far. We haven’t made it far yet, but we’re looking forward to it since we’ve had no grind experience.
You have been playing with the Orwells. How are the shows going?
MJ: Things are going well! We’re playing to a different audience and to play for people who don’t know us can be hard because they’re expecting something more grungy or punky.
Right. They’re wearing black t-shirts and jeans while you guys’ have described your music as “cardigan rock.” And how was your tour this past winter?
MJ: We’ve been on four mini-tours but this is our first real tour. We did a tour with The Symposium and we’ve played just four or five shows at a time, like going to the East Coast for a week.
So how did the band form, and how long have you guys known each other for?
MJ: Luke [vocalist and guitarist] and I met in elementary school and we stayed friends. When I left for college, I went to DePaul with Walter [lead guitarist] and Charlie [drummer]. Luke originally went to New York for acting. Later, by the time he got back to Chicago, we came together through having a good time.
Did you make music while in college with Walter and Charlie?
MJ: Charlie and I were roommates so we made rap beats! [laughs] But it was nothing serious. When Luke and Walter started making music together, it all was just happenstance that everyone filled in with their own skills. Charlie records all our music and we found out that Walter is a super guitar player.
What is your songwriting process like? There’s quite a few of you, so how do you share ideas?
Luke: We all do it together, sometimes one-on-one, but we bring them to Charlie who starts the recording.
MJ: We usually continue the songwriting as we record it and don’t write the end until after we start recording it.
Are you guys doing that in Charlie’s apartment?
MJ: Yep. Right out of the bedroom. It’s pretty crazy — I don’t think a lot of people [here in Chicago] — have that setup. It’s nice, because if you’re paying for studio time you’re on the clock and you can be restrained by that.
Right, you can take your own time.
MJ: Yeah, and then when you’re waiting around or wasting time you’re also wasting money.
What music did you guys grow up listening to?
Walter: I think my biggest musical influences were the Beatles as a child, but then I started getting into Elliott Smith.
I can definitely hear those influences. You guys went to school in Chicago, you’re from the area, and you’re playing with The Orwells. Who are some other Chicago bands you’ve seen recently?
MJ: Joe Bordenaro and also The Symposium. We’re friends with those guys and Joe’s really talented.
Does having the band name The Walters give you an alter ego or adopting a character while on stage?
MJ: I don’t exactly remember how we got the name The Walters, but I do remember getting sick of super long band names. And I feel like The Walters is a classic name that isn’t bound by genre.
And your name wouldn’t become dated.
MJ: Right, but I think it’s already dated!
I don’t know about that! What was it like to work with Phil Ek in Seattle? And was that only for one single, or is there more music that’s on its way?
MJ: Just one song.
Walter: All of us are big fans of Fleet Foxes and the Shins. When we had the opportunity to work with someone whose helped make some of our favorite music and to work in a professional studio, we wanted to jump on it and we wanted the experience. We wanted to test the waters of recording of a radioesque song to see how it goes. We all enjoyed it. But at the end of the day we wanted to go back to our roots. It was a good thing because we realized when we create our next full-length we want total control.
Since Charlie is both a member of a band and also your producer — kind of like your Tommy Ramone — what about it do you like having total control? Did it feel less comfortable for you guys to be under a time crunch?
Walter: I’ll say first that it had nothing to do with Phil since we all got along and really enjoyed the opportunity. But for us when we’re out there, we’re spending money on studio time and we’re spending money to be out there. We also have such little time.
MJ: It’s just like what we were talking about earlier, we don’t like time-crunches.
Walter: And for us, sometimes we’ll add a part to a song last-minute. We like having creative control and not worry about having the recording done by Saturday.
I’m curious since you guys played pop songs in front of audiences before The Orwells: What song, or songs, do you think your audiences have reacted strongest to?
MJ: Traditionally, “Hunk Beach.”
Walter: “New Girl” has been a big one. And “I Love You So” because that’s the song that a lot of people listen to when they find out about us. But for a lot of our shows, we’re playing to the people who haven’t seen us live and who want to hear our old stuff.
They’re almost like your hits, at least for this time.
MJ: “We miss the old stuff!” [laughs]
Walter: In Chicago, maybe we need to play a new set. It’d be nice to complete an album, tour on it, and then start a new record. Just like ending a chapter.
Speaking of hits, what was your reaction to being added to Spotify’s “Global Viral 50” chart? What was going through your mind at that point?
Walter: We’ll have Luke take this one.
Luke: Just so happy, man. It was so unexpected because we released song a year prior to that. But it was cool because it grew organically to the point where enough people were listening.
What about performing the songs is different from recording for you?
Luke: I love to perform. I came from a theatrical background — and I can be over-the-top in my everyday life. But I also grew up playing competitive sports and I learned to always go hard, to perform hard and to work hard. I always perform as if my dad is in stands, because he was our the varsity baseball coach. And whether I was playing basketball or baseball, I was looking out there always trying to make him proud. And I think I bring that attitude of performing hard to the group.
Walter: Yeah, I think it’s starting to rub off on the rest of us.
And it gives your shows heart.
Luke: Right. Since we’re playing more shows on this tour, I’m going to be infectious. I want everyone to feel like they’re bouncing with energy. [laughs] But we make laid back records, so the audience going in will expect us to be laid back or to be chill on stage. But, if anything, it’s important to rock ’n’ roll. In this age when people say that “rock ’n’ roll is dead,” we need to tap into that personality. And when we want to be a band you can see a bunch.