Interview with Mark and Theo of Orchid

Posted 24 July 2011   Interviews

TBR:  The band is from San Francisco, but did you all grow up in the area?  Where are you guys all from individually? 

Mark: I grew up in a very small town on the California coast about 7 hours north of San Francisco. I moved to the bay area in 1987 after living in Sacramento for a year or two.

Theo: I grew up in San Francisco in the Haight Ashbury district and out by the ocean.

TBR:  Were you guys friends or know one another from way back or did you all meet up as the band was being formed?  (Go ahead and weave a good yarn!  Tall tales, embellishments, wild liberties with the truth — all are perfectly acceptable)

Mark: Theo and I have known each other since probably around 1989. We were in different bands that played all the SF Rock clubs. I didn’t meet Nickel or Carter until they joined the band. This is the second band I’ve been in with Theo. The first one ran from 1996-1999.

Theo:  Yeah… Shit, I think I met Mark when I was 19. We didn’t hang out all the time but we had a lot of people in common. Mark came out a few times in the morning to me crashed out on his couch next to some rotten rocker chick I met with his roommate in a bar.  We didn’t play together until ’96 or something.

TBR:  Would you say that San Fran – or any other place that you might have lived before – shaped your outlook on life or on music?  In what way?

Mark: That is probably very true for me. Since I grew up in a small town, I’ve always gravitated to that same feeling. I’ve never had any desire to live in San Francisco itself, but I’ve wanted to live close enough to go there easily. I live about 30 minutes north. I think because I’m not really from there, I’ve always felt like an outsider, or not really connected to any of the scenes that were happening there, even though I’ve been playing in bands there for almost 25 years. I probably still kind of carry myself with that ‘outsider’ chip on my shoulder if you don’t know me. I’m not very social around people that I don’t know, although not in an unfriendly way.

Theo: Absolutely! I think the first music I was aware of as a kid was because of my parents was The Beatles. But growing up in SF I saw bands like Santana in the park at festivals. I think the first music that I really felt was “my own” was early Metallica and local Punk stuff. The Bay Area Thrash Metal scene was such a huge part of growing up in San Francisco for me. That group of bands was the first that I could go see live in small clubs that made music seem real and like something I might be able to do. I saw Megadeth and Exodus on Halloween when I was 12. I think Kerry King was playing guitar for Megadeth that night. It was definitely a cool time to be a Metal kid in SF.

The great thing about that music is that it always conveyed the feeling that there wasn’t much divide between the band on stage and the people in the crowd. They were you and you could be them. Trying to imagine being Led Zeppelin when I watched The Song Remains the Same was pretty tough. It just seemed totally out of reach and unattainable, but seeing Metallica at The Stone when I was a kid, that seemed like something I might be able to do! I think that was a really great thing about bands like them, they kind of gave Metal and Rock back to the street again. Less theatrics and posturing, and more blood, guts and honesty. It got pretty oppressive after a while though and that kind of started to turn me off to that whole scene. Shows started to feel like you were in a gym locker room after a high school football game.

Metal just got really rigid in the bay area. If you didn’t fit in to this little tiny “acceptability box” you were called a poser! As with all things, there is a great moment in time when it’s free and creative, then you get a bunch of hangers on that are just in it to be in a “scene” and stand next to someone that other people think is cool. People like that might as well join the fucking army. It’s the same trip if you ask me:  Mental weakness.

Thrash Metal evolved into a more geeky technical form of music that I just couldn’t relate to. It felt like a bunch of jocks trying to out run each other with guitars. Fucking booooring.…I started to get really into English 80’s death rock bands like the Sisters of Mercy, Southern Death Cult, and Bauhaus. It just seemed more real and musical to me at the time. I wore pointy black shoes, quit my high school metal band I was in with my two best friends. One of them still fucking hates me for it. They thought I was a fucking weirdo. I never seemed to be able to play along and take the easy route.

Towards the end of high school I had one friend, this goth girl, she started going out with this older guy that lived on Haight St. and was in a band that played the bars in SF.  He gave me a fake ID and I started to go to different kinds of shows that were what I guess was the beginning of post punk/alternative rock, anything from Jane’s Addiction to the Melvins. That stuff kind of led me back to 60’s and 70’s rock because it was dark and psychedelic.

TBR:  When you all first sat down, what sort of ideas did you guys exchange around the sound you were going after and the band’s musical identity? 

Mark: Theo already had all that planned out, and then he tried to find the players to meet that vision. It was more like, “This is what the band will be like, are you into that?”  He had about 6 songs written so I started playing those with him and then we started finding the other people who could do it with us.  He had and still has a pretty strict vision of what we are, although it has loosened up and morphed a bit in the last year as we’ve carved our own space out in the world.

Photo by Taylor Keahey

Theo:  Yeah, I hadn’t wanted to be in a band for a long time. I was really in a phase of getting back into the music that I’d grown up on:  Sabbath, Zeppelin, Rush, Iron Maiden, Mercyful Fate, Venom. Then I started to really dig deeper into some of the stuff I listened to a lot when I was in a band called Loaded… 60’s Psych, Hawkwind, the Stooges, the MC5, a lot of garage rock. I discovered Pentagram and a bunch of other stuff that was being re-released for the first time since the early 70’s. Plus with YouTube people were putting up their obscure vinyl collections so it was just limitless what you could find. All that undiscovered music I’d never heard just blew me away.

I was getting super excited about heavy rock for the first time in a long time. I started to write songs on guitar – really sloppy.  I was so rusty it was like learning to play again. In the band Mark and I were in before, I played guitar and sang. But I knew I didn’t have the ability as a guitar player to play the kind of stuff I wanted to do. Nor did I want to play guitar and sing. I really wanted to do the classic four piece band that all my favorite British bands from the late 60’s early 70’s did. I wanted to be able to express the things I was singing about without a guitar to focus on. I felt like I always sacrificed a little of my singing ability to play guitar at the same time. I only ever picked up guitar to write music because no one would take me seriously when all I could do was hum them chord progressions. I wanted to be in a band that could do those kind of “free form but thought out” extended jams.

Mark was the only guitar player I knew who would be able to hold down that kind of trip and make it sound full. At first he laughed at me when I told him what I wanted to do and that I had a hand-full of songs. I tried jamming with a couple of other people but I knew none of them would work. I just kept bugging him until he caved in. Poor guy – I’ve tortured him for years now.

Photo by Taylor Keahey

The two of us jammed with a bunch of people but couldn’t find the right combination. Mark and I are funny together in the way that we always seem to know when the other one isn’t happy so it was just a revolving door of members until we met Nickel. He was really the glue and the true connection to the era we were trying to revisit.

Nickel grew up around the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. He’s totally a product of that environment. He brought a kind of earthiness and musicality that has proven invaluable time and time again. Carter came to the band through my work. One of the guys at the tattoo shop was tattooing him and it came out that he was a drummer. Carter is really the brutal back bone of Orchid. He just brings a kind of heaviness to the band that i don’t think we would have had with all the other guys we played with. He’s a great combination of fast chops and heavy groove.

TBR:  What would be the most significant way that you guys have grown as a band since things first began?

Mark: So much growth happened during the recording of Capricorn that it’s hard to say what the most significant thing was. Probably everyone learning to put aside ego or personal vision of what they think should be played on a song and instead playing for the collective good of making the song work. We basically learned how to be a band while we were making that album. There were a lot of trying times for all, but we came out stronger and more unified than we went in.

Photo by Chris Burton

Theo: Yeah, I think that’s about right.  Learning to play for the mood of the song  Learning to pull your punches and use dynamics. If you play as quietly as you can, when you do let everything go, it sounds like you’re ripping the roof of the place. I think we become more and more of a band all the time – mostly in the sense of understanding how each other think and anticipating what your band mate will play in a certain kind of musical situation.

Once a band starts to have that kind of ESP with each other, the real magic happens. You’re able to really let go and just trust that no matter what you might play or how out there you get, you’ll be supported by a great player. That’s what all the classic rock bands really had – the ability to play with each other instead of at each other. My favorite bands in history were probably not half as good of musicians when they weren’t playing with each other.  The sum of the parts that make the whole – that’s always been the secret in my mind

TBR:  One of the things that I think is so interesting about Orchid is that in spite of stating some very clear and obvious musical influences, the songs themselves are quite compelling.  For some bands, staying so close to such inspirations would be too much of a challenge but you guys really turn that problem on its head and make it work. 

Has there been much thought put in along those lines or does all of that tend to happen naturally? 

Mark: So much thought and hard work that you wouldn’t even believe it! Hahaha.

Theo: Ha ha!!! Yeah, nothing cool happens by accident. Don’t let the old masters fool you. They too found their way to some kind of plan eventually. It’s taken a lot of work. I always felt like if we were going to try to play a kind of music that was a celebration of the greats that came before us, we’d better get it pretty spot on or we’d just sound like a bunch of wankers that should have stared a cover band. We had to really live the part of a band that was thinking, creating, and playing in 1971. I wanted to have all vintage gear.  I wanted to give people a fucking show out of a time warp – no half-ass shit.

I knew from the beginning that what I wanted to be as a band would piss some people off. I knew some people wouldn’t take it seriously because it was derivative or not a “new” thing. But I also knew that if we could do it in a sincere way where it was obvious that we were fans of the greats celebrating the music we loved and grew up on, that it would reach the people that felt the way we do about that music. I just couldn’t see playing anything else. I try to listen to current music and some of it is cool. In the end, the combination of great songs and musicianship just forces me back to the stuff I grew up on. I’ve worn out all the same records everyone has and I started a band that might have the ability to make more of the music I wanted to listen to.

TBR:  Not to make any unfair assumptions or paint a picture of Orchid being some kind of a “retro” act, but obviously, you guys have an appreciation for the roots of Rock and Metal.  What attracts you – musically speaking or otherwise – to the 60’s and 70’s era of Rock?

Mark: Well, I like stuff from any era as long as it’s good. It’s really all about good songs. I think for me the eras you mention were still close to the genesis of Rock music. There was still a close connection to Blues, Jazz, and the other things which Rock was based on. The heavy bands of the late 60’s were still just overdriven Blues bands, sometimes with a Jazz influence as well. That has gotten so lost and twisted through the years that it’s not even really heard in most music these days, especially in heavy music or Heavy Metal of these times.

The heart and soul of Rock n’ Roll has been mostly lost. Of course there are many examples where what I’ve said is not true, I’m just speaking in general terms of the difference between eras. The 60’s and 70’s still had artists who wanted to write great songs that reached a lot of listeners. Black Sabbath wanted to sell as many records as they could, you know. My favorite records personally probably come from the early to late 70’s. Tastes and appreciations change throughout life though; I’m just at an age where I’m back to the things I grew up with.

Theo:  For me, it’s always been about three things:  Great songwriting, great musicianship, and a fucking band that wasn’t afraid to look like something that set them apart from the normal guy walking down the street.  The bands of the 60’s and 70’s got that. Hippies and rockers didn’t want to dress, act, or communicate like what they thought of as normal square society. They took pride in being “different”…that’s what being a musician was. I miss that in modern music. It seems like you’re either a total eyeliner wearing, side swept hair having joke or you dress like a bike messenger that hasn’t bathed in six months. It’s nice to see some bands like Electric Wizard and Graveyard that have an honest edge but still know what it means to look like a band. They look and sound like they belong together – a unified force. That’s a nice return to the days of the music that mattered to me.

I want to see people who can really sing not just grunt – who are able to show different sides of life in their playing, not just anger or aggression, but sorrow, love and confusion.  I want to remember a band’s music because it had different shades and colors. I want to have a song take me somewhere or make me feel something.  I want to feel like a little kid that is seeing someone who is a little special and different – someone that doesn’t just look like the guy who came and fixed my cable hookup yesterday.

Photo by Taylor Keahey

TBR:  For those who haven’t yet picked up the deluxe version of the album with the lyric sheet and everything, tell us a bit about some of the lyrical themes on the album.

Theo: I use different imagery to describe people, situations, history, conspiracy theory, or feelings…sometimes it’s about books or stories I’ve read. But I try to keep it about things that feel common to all people even if it’s fearful or paranoid. I’m a huge fan of old horror movies, Magick, and all things esoteric, but it can be dangerous ground to tread upon as far as song lyrics go…it can be pretty easy to get really silly really quickly if you sing about dungeons and dragons all the time. I definitely try to add equal parts feelings and life experience to the lyrics.

TBR:  To my ears, “Orchid” is a really well-recorded album.  What can you tell us about the recording sessions?  (Who was the producer?  Was it a quick session overall or did you guys take a long time?)

Mark: It wasn’t like recording an album all at once. We’d done some demos that we weren’t crazy about and one night at practice Theo said he’d run into an old friend of his from high school that did audio engineering now and had a studio and loved what we were doing and just wanted a chance to track one song with us and see how it sounded. If we liked it, we could keep working with him, if not, no big loss. That was in August of 2008 and that old friend was Will Storkson. The track we did was Cosmonaut of Three. It was our most recent thing that we’d written at the time. It worked out well. We ended up tracking 13 songs with Will over the course of 2 years’ time and those became the EP and the full length. Theo is basically the producer of Orchid’s sound, but Will has earned everyone’s trust and admiration and we’re never afraid to try anything he suggests as well as the other way around. Will has had much more influence on the next album, which we’re recording now. He’s really helped shape the songs up and help us make it all work.

TBR:  Let’s talk a bit about the production techniques and equipment used in recording “Orchid”.  Do you guys tend to use a lot of vintage gear or are you satisfied with using modern instruments and amps?

Mark: The gear is mostly vintage, although the studio is modern. I don’t think you could make a modern rig sound like our sound. Most if not all of the album was done on a ’65 SG with stock pickups that Theo has owned for a while now. It’s not the guitar I rehearse with or play live and the neck is much skinnier than my main guitar, so it always takes me a few minutes to get used to it, but there’s really no faking that sound.

TBR:  Maybe this is a good time for Mark to hit us with a run-down on his guitar rig.  What are some of the highlights in getting your sound?  

Mark: Well, it has to start with a Gibson SG. I don’t think I’ve ever tracked any Orchid sound with anything else. My main guitar is 2005 Gibson ‘61 reissue SG. It’s a beautiful, solid instrument. It’s pretty light and very easy for me to play. It’s a sexy fucking guitar. I love the way it looks and sounds. Live and at rehearsal I run through an Orange AD140 and an Orange Rockerverb 100. They each go into a 4×12 cab. I run a cord out of the slave of the 140 and into the Rockerverb on its clean channel. The 100 has reverb and the 140 doesn’t, so I’m basically running the tone of the 140 through the other one and adding its reverb to the mix. I don’t play with a ton of gain, so another guitarist might pick up my rig and think it’s a pretty clean sound. We’ve had a few different Laneys and Marshalls that we’ve used here and there, but I always end up coming back to the Oranges. They seem to have the best balance of all the things I need as well as being reliable.

I’ve had a lot of different pedals at different times, but the mainstays are a crybaby wah, and an analog delay. Sometimes I’ll add a MXR Phase 90 or an old Ibanez flanger as well.

Recording is a totally different trip though. Some of the main amps on the album were a very old Ampeg VT-40, a Vox AC-15, and a little 70’s Pignose, as well as the Orange. I’m always totally shocked at how amazing and classic the Vox practice amp sounds, especially tracking with its reverb on. It’s become my main sound for leads. A 15-watt solid state amp blows away all the classic tube amps. The Ampeg is probably what I’d call the main rhythm guitar tone. It has a tone that can’t really be matched by anything else we’ve tried.

TBR:  Question for Mark:  I think that some answers might be obvious so give us a few players who inspire you as a guitarist that might really surprise people. 

Mark: I think people would be more surprised to find out that I’m not a Tony Iommi fiend. I wouldn’t ever have considered him an influence. I never got that much into the classic Ozzy era Sabbath until I was in this band. I always thought he was great and I was into Mob Rules and Heaven & Hell because those were the Sabbath albums that were out when I was learning to play, but he was never one of the guys who I wanted to sound like.

Randy Rhoads got me started and then my favorites were Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Michael Schenker, Alex Lifeson, Fast Eddie Clarke, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest. Neil Young has been very influential on me as a musician as well, maybe even above the others that I mentioned. His songs have moved me since I was very young and heard them playing around the house growing up. I admire him greatly as a person as well as well as one of the greatest songwriters in history.

If my playing sounds like Iommi, it’s more likely that Theo has written a Sabbath sounding riff for me to solo over and the things that naturally come into my head bend my playing in that familiar direction. I don’t think my solos sound much like him at all, of course, I hear all the other guys in there. I play that same pentatonic scale blues based style that’s been done to death for over forty years now. It’s just what I’ve always done. I was never able to get the hang of any of the shredding style when it was happening, so I gave up pretty early on and just played the way that I could.

People may be surprised to find out that Theo writes the majority of the riffs. Although he doesn’t play guitar in Orchid, he’s a pretty good guitarist and writes some parts that are pretty challenging for me to play at times.

TBR:  I haven’t had the opportunity to see you guys perform live but even listening to the album, to my ears at least, the vocals are strong and there’s definitely a sense of “singer as front man” when I hear the recordings.

Theo, who were some of the vocalists that you most admire and may be different question, but who are some of your favorite front men?

Photo by Taylor Keahey

Theo: Well, the obvious:  Ozzy was a huge influence on me, surprise, surprise.  John Lennon as well. I have always been attracted to singers that had a kind of desperate and slightly wounded quality to their voice. I like to hear people just singing their fucking guts out and totally reveal themselves.

As far as front men?  Ozzy again, early Robert Plant, Otis Redding.  Andrew Eldritch on the early Sisters of Mercy stuff with Wayne Hussy on guitar.  Man, he had a presence – really dark and vibey.  Early James Hetfield – he was a huge influence on me as a kid.

TBR:  Question for Mark: One of the things that makes a good singer great is stage presence and a bit of ego.  All in good fun, but assuming that some of these stereotypes about lead singers is true, have you got any good stories about Theo? 

Mark: I wish I could tell you a big story about what an ass the guy is and how cool he thinks he is, but the truth is that he’s one of the best friends you could know. I have to save all the good stories for the autobiography and documentary…haha.

Theo: I did get all pilled up at the Gilman St. in the East Bay and I fell off stage. I get nerves sometimes and try to medicate. I took a little too much of something that night…ha ha…I think it must have looked like I stage dove or something because people kept asking me after the show what I was doing and saying how out of character it was.

TBR:  Have you guys toured much?  Give us a rundown of some of your favorite memories on the road.

Mark: We have not toured at all, and for the most part, won’t. We’re going to Europe for a few weeks in October and I think the label would like us to try to come back over there again next year as well. The level that we are on doesn’t pay anything. I have too good of a job as well as a wife and two kids in school to go out and lose my ass. If these kinds of opportunities would have happened twenty years ago when I had time and energy and nothing to lose, I would have done it, but they didn’t. We may do some US festivals in the future as a way to get to other parts of the country. We’ll see what shakes down.

So yeah, no great road stories.

TBR:  If you could hit the road with two bands – one from the modern era and the other one from any point in history – which two bands would you choose?

Mark: Rush on the Fly by Night tour for the purely selfish reason of getting to watch them every night. Oh man, I can’t even imagine. I’d probably be more jazzed for their set than I would for ours.  Haha!

Modern era? Hmmmm… dunno. That Soundgarden reunion tour would probably make us some new fans here and there. I don’t know man, I don’t think about stuff like that very much. I don’t go to a lot of concerts any more. That’s a tougher call because I get trapped into the “what would be a successful move for the band” mode of thinking instead of who I would enjoy seeing every night. Motorhead maybe? I still love them. That would be pretty cool.

Theo: For me, Mercyful Fate in 1983 would be awesome!!  As far as modern era stuff… shit!! I don’t know…I really like Jex Thoth. I think their music is really interesting. That would be a cool show because our sounds are really different but I think they would complement each other.

TBR:  Wanted to hear a bit about how you guys hooked up with Oli and Doom Dealer. Seems like it’s a great fit for you guys.

Mark: Oli’s great. He is truly passionate about the music and the label. A few years back in time, when people still checked out a band’s Myspace page, Oli came across ours and wrote me a note saying he liked our sound and we just kept in touch and around 6 months later we agreed to work with his label. He didn’t really bug us or pressure us about anything. Capricorn took a lot longer than anyone thought it would. That’s why we released the EP to get something out there. I dig the guy a lot. I’m proud to be on his label.

Theo: Ditto on all counts. We’re so lucky. We couldn’t have landed in a better place.

TBR:  Forgive me, but I gotta ask:  Give me your favorite Sabbath album and three of your favorite Sabbath tunes.

Mark: Oh man, that’s not fair. How do I pick a favorite?  Probably Vol. 4 for favorite album.  Songs?

  • Wheels of Confusion/the Straightener
  • A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village/Warning
  • Tomorrow’s Dream

Theo: Haha!  GAWD!! Noooo!  So hard for me.  Probably Vol.4 as well because it’s the bridge between their early sound and later sound.  Songs are…

  • Sabbra Cadabra
  • Spiral Architect
  • Wasp/Behind the Wall of Sleep/Bassically/N.I.B.

TBR:  Got any big plans through the summer and the rest of 2011?  If you’ve got any big announcements to make, now’s the time!!

Mark:  Currently hard at work on tracking the next album and then heading over to Europe in October for two weeks with Seamount and Serpent Venom capped off by playing the Hammer of Doom VI in Wurzburg, Germany.