The last time I saw Wild Orchid Children, the Seattle band was tearing the 2009 Capitol Hill Block Party a new one early in the p.m. Lead singer/percussionist Kirk Huffman looked like a combo of Andrew W.K. and Axl Rose in his Welcome to the Jungle prime, barked indecipherable imprecations like Ad-Rock at his peak, and sported a fly Run-D.M.C. T-shirt; guitarist Thomas Hunter whipped his flowing locks and Doug Henning–esque mustache as if he were headlining at KeyArena, not performing on the humble Vera Stage. Both members of this local sextet totally embodied the group's name on that blazing hot day with a volcanic rock performance that made most everyone else on the bill seem as if they were suffering an energy crisis, a passion pit, and a charisma deficit.
But for our mid-December interview at Oddfellows Cafe, Huffman and Hunter (who also toil in Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground) look almost unrecognizable from that memorable summer gig. Huffman is shorn and clean-shaven, looking ready to shoot an ad for a high-end clothing line. Hunter still has the handlebar mustache, but his mop is newly trimmed and he appears more ready for a job interview than for an interrogation with The Stranger.
"I was tired of swallowing my hair," Hunter says of his new 'do. "On tour with Kay Kay," Huffman recounts, "I woke up with Jolly Ranchers in my hair. So when I got home, I decided it was time to clean it up. I was listening to Chet Baker Sings and thought I wanted to look like that album cover." "Minus the missing teeth," Hunter helpfully adds.
Wild Orchid Children—which also includes keyboardist Kyle O'Quin, drummer Andy Lum, and percussionists Aaron Benson and Ryan Van Wieringen—have roots in Gatsby's American Dream, a melodramatic pop-punk band with hardcore and metal undertones (they're now on indefinite hiatus). And, as stated, Huffman and Hunter, along with O'Quin, play in Kay Kay, whose ornate orchestral pop is more about nuance and filigree than it is about adrenaline and hedonism. In this sense, Kay Kay serve as the superego to Wild Orchid Children's unfettered id. Huffman, Hunter, and O'Quin accept this reductive Freudianism.
"All our moms love Kay Kay," O'Quin says. "Although when [Wild Orchid Children] played that all-ages show, the kids' dads loved it: 'Man, that was fuckin' rad; brought me back.' One kid said, 'I didn't even know music could sound like that.'"
"We did set out to get that 'holy shit, what the fuck?!' reaction, and we have gotten that most everywhere we've gone," says Hunter, who studied guitar at USC under Joe Diorio. "I think people go 'what the fuck' when they see Kay Kay, too," Huffman notes. "But they instantly enjoy it because there are strings and horns. It's nice to have a balance like that."
"One's passing through a field of flowers; the other's like passing through some heroin den," Hunter concludes.
Much like Wild Orchid Children's cyclonic psychedelia and bruising blues rock, Huffman and Hunter speak in eloquent torrents. It's as if this is their first shot at articulating their artistic intentions and they're maximizing the opportunity. I asked maybe four questions; they spoke for over an hour. For example, here are Huffman and Hunter on WOC's MO:
"We started this because Kay Kay stuff is so pop structured, and it has its technicalities, but in a sense, [Wild Orchid Children] is way more about trying to push everybody's technical proficiencies. Live, that has been more emphasized. If Kyle and Andy start pushing tempos, it goes back to that [Elephants] EP thing where it's the chaotic BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM knock-'em-out stuff. People always say, 'You guys are so tight when you play.' We've come back to that emphasis more than trying to shake our heads around."
"We've definitely gotten more delicate," Hunter observes. "There are parts that border on pretty, which we never set out to do. Maybe we're getting older, guys. Maybe we're growing up."
"Those pretty sections emphasize those wild sections," Huffman counters. "They make those sections seem so much bigger and more intense. You look at a song like [Led Zeppelin's] 'No Quarter.' It's such a beautiful, dark song, but that riff when it comes in, it's so gnarly and grizzled... it's a technical proficiency thing. We're trying to bring in more elements. It adds to the psychedelic, sci-fi space thing, too."
Wild Orchid Children recorded the four-song Elephants EP (now sold out of its 1,200-unit run) at Tom Pfaeffle's Tank Studio in one weekend in 2007 while ingesting prodigious quantities of mushrooms; Hunter says he barely remembers it. They started recording the follow-up full-length to that release this year at Tank, but work on it halted about a third of the way through after Pfaeffle was tragically shot to death in July. (These Arms Are Snakes' Chris Common will finish producing the album at Tank. Clearly still shaken by the loss, the band profusely praises Pfaeffle for his incomparable technical and motivating abilities.)
"We're redoing those songs because we added everybody's improvisational sections to them," Huffman says.
"Between working on the EP and the LP we're about to do, there was the rawness of the first time we were playing together," O'Quin says. "The LP [which will be titled The Wild Orchid Children Are Alexander Supertramp] still has everything that was raw about the EP, but we've had so much time to settle in with each other as musicians. Now we can do these 20-minute jams live, and we all come back in together, because we've been playing the songs so long."
WOC originally envisioned Supertramp to consist of 10 short, intense, thrashing songs that would merge punk and hiphop, but they've revamped that idea to reflect their immersion in Afrobeat and what Hunter calls "Stellar Regions jazz," after the John Coltrane album.
"It's turned into such an improvisational thing," Hunter says. "You can explore whatever tonality, whatever weird nooks and crannies of music. It's just coming off your dome. It's so much fun."
Also inspired by Nigerian funk and the Budos Band, the new album will feature lots of massed backing chants and percussion. "Everything's crazy effected and really strange," Hunter says. "It kind of all moves together as this one big instrument. We're all one giant drum, with this momentum that's consistently going forward. It's definitely a band for open ears. It's almost like we're communicating on a totally different plane. I'm so intuitively connected with these guys. That's why we don't ever fucking practice."
Showing his commitment to WOC, Hunter quit drinking and smoking three months ago and bought tons of effects pedals with the money he saved. Come to the show at Neumos on January 3 and watch him figure out what they do in real time.
"When we first started recording the album, the emphasis was to have this apocalyptic, punk-rock, tribal, sci-fi thing," Huffman says. "With Thomas's pedals and the stuff he's doing already, with him being such an awesome guitar player, with those pedals it adds this whole trippy element, it sounds so robotic and futuristic and at the same time archaic."
Without a label, a manager, a practice space, or a bassist, Wild Orchid Children enjoy maximal freedom, if not financial stability. They revel in playing no set the same way twice—kind of like the Grateful Dead.
"I think people should start getting together in groups and taking psychedelic drugs and following us around," Hunter proposes. "It would be awesome to be that kind of band, where people trip balls and watch us shred."
Warming to the idea, Huffman says, "Early on, my deal was to be the crazy shaman who makes you feel weird with sounds. The point is to give people a chance to experience being completely wrapped and warped in sound and visual elements."