Wild Orchid Children: What a long, strange trip it’s been

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Photo by Haley Young Photography

Everyone loves a good backstory to go with a record.

If you want to call the events surrounding both Wild Orchid Children’s long-anticipated LP The Wild Orchid Children are Alexander Supertramp a backstory, it would need several volumes to tell, and not all of them are happy ones.

The origin: their psilocybin-tinged inception, a trip out to Black Diamond to record the Elephants EP with producer and friend Tom Pfaeffle in 2007, armed with some song ideas and plenty of mushrooms. The rising action: Returning the studio to start work on the full-length between tours with Kay Kay and his Weathered Underground, another project that includes multiple members of band. An unforeseeable tragedy: Pfaeffle’s murder at the hands of a gunman who has since skipped bail and disappeared. And finally, the triumphant climax: rising above the adversity and finishing the album, then signing to Equal Vision and releasing The Wild Orchid Children are Alexander Supertramp earlier this month.

So how does a band feel after living out all of that and emerging victorious with a debut LP to show for it?

“It’s awesome, it’s just amazing,” said lead vocalist Kirk Huffman, freshly home from work on a Sunday evening. “It was a really long process and in that way it feels super liberating. It’s good to have it out just in a sense, ya know, for Tom as well. It’s been kind of the goal to work toward something ideal like this – out of all of everybody’s projects this is the first thing to really get a full label backing so we just feel awesome about it.”

While the band is already known around Seattle for their hard-rocking, wildly percussive and American-flag-decked live shows, Alexander Supertramp acts as recorded proof of Wild Orchid Children’s psychedelic assault. The album is a journey in itself, a trip through a countless array of tones, tempos, moods and styles. The sound is distinctly aggressive and hard to swallow for some, a far cry from the flower-power chamber-pop a few of these same members put out with Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground.

“We had been doing Kay Kay for almost two years when we started Wild Orchid, and we had always talked about the idea of it – Thomas, Kyle and I,” said Huffman, referring to guitarist Thomas Hunter and keyboardist Kyle O’Quin, bandmates in both Kay Kay and Wild Orchid Children. “It mostly came out of a desire to be back in a loud band and thrash around onstage and stuff, that was the initial spark, and it kinda came about from just jamming with each other.”

And while splitting time, effort and energy between two bands may sound like a complete headache to some, Huffman says that it helped rather then hindered their creativity and output.

“When we all first started playing together most of our other previous musical efforts had kinda been put on hiatus, so for a lot of us the goal was just to play as much music as possible. With everybody in Wild Orchid and extended throughout all our different projects, we just feel very fortunate because of how easy it is for us to get people together to make music. It’s super positive and feels good to accomplish putting these records out.”

Both bands have their own sound, but Wild Orchid Children are especially unique.

The tracks on Alexander Supertramp draw from every musical style from ‘60s and ‘70s rock to experimental jazz, afrobeat to punk and hip-hop. On the album’s first nearly 19-minute opus of a track, the Tom Wolfe-referencing  “Black Shiny FBI Shoes,” they touch on almost every single one of those styles.

The intro is all eerie tinkles and effects swirls until some thunderous drums usher in the sneering, pull-off guitar riff, the organ stabs and cymbal crashes hitting so hard that everything has to take a brief pause before Huffman comes in with his distinctive rap-style bark. From there they spiral off into a trippy psychedelic jam with a bongo pulse that gradually adds in more and more layers of instrumentation, including some heavy percussion that echoes the “Jingo” intro that Santana made famous, building up again before combusting into the unbelievably heavy outro, with some savage shrieking – “Where are you? Where the fuck are you?” – from Huffman taking it home.

And although Wild Orchid Children’s songs draw from all of these different styles, most reviewers focus on the vocals from Huffman as the band’s central point, citing “Sabotage”-era Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine as comparisons to their sound. This only bothers the band slightly, however, as Huffman explained.

“It’s just the whole ‘spin’ of the reference … sometimes it bums us out, but we can totally understand because it’s just the press ‘spin’ of everything. Those are just the super easy ones that everyone can identify with. One of the things we definitely tried to draw influence from was the way a lot of the vocal tracks sound on The Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head, but that’s about as far as we were actually thinking them out,” Huffman explained.

“There’s other bands we listen to like, ninety-five percent more of the time than those bands that are way more of a reference and an inspiration. There’s this great band that was having their records put out on Dischord back in 2001 that’s called Black Eyes that have a couple vocalists in the band that we really liked, so that was even more a reference for [the vocals].”

Thomas Hunter of Wild Orchid Children at Bumbershoot 2010. Jason Tang photo

Huffman also detailed some of the band’s other less-discussed influences. The first idea for the band was formed after watching a newly restored DVD version of Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock performance Huffman received as a gift from a friend. The MC5 were an inspiration more than just musically, but in a sense of attitude and political content – an easy explanation of the abundance of American flags displayed onstage and in their cover art and press photos. The abundant, soul-shaking percussion they’re also known for? An idea they got after seeing The Budos Band live. Huffman also stresses guitarist Thomas Hunter’s playing – some serious jazz-influenced, effects-laden experimental shred that’s one of the album’s focal points.

“Most people are just like, ‘Yeah, these guys fuckin rock!’ and really have no idea what he’s drawing upon. There was a Kay Kay show we did a couple weekends ago and during one of his solos I just sat down. Like fuck, alright, I’m gonna sit here and watch. It’s just insane that he’s like, a guy we play music with. He’s just an incredible talent, it’s intimidating as hell.”

Huffman also details one source of inspiration that is more unexpected, but readily apparent when considering things like Alexander Supertramp’s intro, in which he rattles off a string of nicknames for the band (aka The B-Boys on Acid, aka The Electric Kool-Aid Sound Machine, aka The Peyote Coyotes, etc. etc.) reminiscent of, you guessed it.

“Wu-Tang, yknow, they’re completely punk rock in every essence of the word, in terms of the spirit. Like when those guys started there was nobody else involved, they were in extreme poverty, and what they did actually changed the sound of everything and how everybody operates. Being this giant mass of people and doing a record, then splitting it out and everybody doing solo records, I mean shit that’s exactly what we’re doing. Just having these localized bands and then having all these other ones branch out of it, having this giant ensemble of 13, maybe 15 people doing this one project then having a bunch of solo or other group records.”

And while “The Kay Kay and his Weathered Underground collective are the Wu-Tang Clan of the Seattle indie rock scene” may be an outlandish-sounding statement, the sentiment isn’t too far off base. Just like the Wu did their own thing, both Kay Kay and in this case Wild Orchid Children are doing their very distinct own thing as well, something that Huffman credits partly to the Seattle music scene.

“Everything here just kind of revolves in and around itself. Not just from bands, but musical tastes. I remember being a kid … bands like These Arms are Snakes and The Blood Brothers were performing, and just being completely blown away by the musicianship and just the complete newness of sound that those bands were making. If you weren’t trying to do something different and you weren’t trying to really be a band who was doing something different musically and challenging yourself and everybody else, people just wrote it off.”

And at the end of the story, it goes back to the title of this album that Wild Orchid Children put so much of themselves into. Alexander Supertramp was the moniker that a 24-year-old Christopher McCandless took on as he hiked into the Alaskan wilderness on a self-imposed search for meaning, fed up with normalcy and searching for something more, something beyond a traditional realm of thought. Being a Wild Orchid Child, Huffman says, is along the same lines.

“It’s essentially anybody who embraces this way of living, just capturing this punk rock spirit. It sounds kind of cliché, but it’s the same thing as Ken Kesey with the bus, getting a bunch of people together and dubbing them the Merry Pranksters. It’s any sort of profession of faith in this kind of knowing that human beings have this infinite amount of potential,” Huffman said. “We’re completely uplifted by playing music. Music is a much bigger force and people have totally taken that for granted. We’re hoping to try to bring that back.”

Wild Orchid Children play The Columbia City Theater Friday, Nov. 19 with See Me River and Magic Mirrors. Their album The Wild Orchid Children are Alexander Supertramp is available now on Equal Vision Records.

Mike Ramos

About Mike Ramos

Mike Ramos is an awful person who was born in ancient Hong Kong. He is over 3,000 years old and remembers the names of all the forgotten gods. He is 90 stories tall, and his adventures are legendary.