Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Instant Orange...Sweet and a Little Acidic

Instant Orange, of San Bernadino, California, were certainly in the right spot to play sprightly, chiming folk-rock…but perhaps were in the wrong time.

Essentially a group of friends playing music they liked, Instant Orange had discipline and ambition but little chance at the opportunities that flashier or more well-connected bands might have had. So Instant Orange played dances, bars, restaurants, parties, live gigs at radio stations, and county fairs, and every so often put out a record when they could afford to make one.

By the time the band released its first recording, a 45 containing “You I’ll Be Following” (an original, not the song by Love) and “Reflecting Emotions” on its own Margacado label in 1968, the original California folk-rock style was long gone.

The Byrds had re-emerged with a weird take on traditional C&W, Love had moved to heavy rock, the Beau Brummels had run through country and baroque styles without regaining chart success, and the Turtles had become one of the land's best straight pop groups. Even Bob Dylan’s bootheels had wandered to Nashville.

But in spite of car trouble, mediocre equipment, day jobs, draft worries, and the like, Instant Orange—usually, but not always, a trio—kept at it. Their approach could be haphazard, but effective; prior to their first gig, at the March 1968 San Bernadino Orange Festival, the group realized it needed a name...instantly. And so it was.

The group eventually issued an album, Five Year Premiere, on Margacado Media in 1973. With no ideas of how to distribute the record to a greater audience, the band simply had local stores stock them, or vended them at gigs, or handed them out to local radio stations or friends. The initial pressing of 100 copies has been whittled by time and inattention to probably fewer than ten. Those who have them want them badly, so they rarely come up for sale.

Many of the album’s songs are arresting in their directness and fragility. While nobody in the band was a virtuoso, each member had a homegrown approach and they played pretty well together. The overall sound transcends the easy characterization of them as simple copyists of well-known acts.

This is the album’s opening track, “The Visionary (Reactive)”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFp866WsSkA

Their record was re-discovered in the 1990s by a collector in New Orleans named Scott Bubrig, who after some effort was able to contact members of the band—by then scattered to the winds—and with their permission and cooperation re-released almost the entire Instant Orange catalog (which included several EPs and singles besides the album) on CD and vinyl. In particular, the two-record set on the Shadoks label is gorgeous, with photos, a band history, and full discographical information. The remastering also gives the songs more punch than is heard on the original vinyl.

Not all of the IO output is great, but all of it is interesting, running the gamut from pop, garage rock, folk, and country and even working in some jazzy excursions. Some of it is as good as hit music on major labels.

Terry Walters, IO’s chief songwriter (the band’s other songwriter, Randy Lanier, sadly passed away after a series of physical problems in the 1990s), was kind enough to answer some questions on Instant Orange’s history. Thanks, Terry, and I hope we hear from you again…

Q.What got you into playing guitar?
Initially, I was going to play trumpet, but that didn’t last too long. My brother, who is older than me, convinced my Mom that guitar may be the way to go. This was 1963, and I was drawn to surf music. In the beginning, I had a Stella acoustic guitar, and I was playing melodies. Eventually, I went electric and graduated to a Fender Mustang. A few lessons and learning bar chords, I was working songs off the radio.

Q. Were the fellows in IO friends before being bandmates?
It was friends first. The fact that we had music as a common bond was almost coincidental. If we had friends who wanted to do music, we’d teach them enough to get started. Being friends first probably kept the tensions to a minimum and the egos in check.

Q. What were some of the bands you enjoyed as a young musician?
I was listening to the Beau Brummels in ’64, and eventually, it was Love, the Byrds, Lovin’ Spoonful, Moody Blues, and Procol Harum, all of whom played a part in my writing and playing style. I was fortunate in that Randy Lanier had the same basic musical tastes. That was what got us going; we started as a duo and later as a band.

Q. Instant Orange went on a long time with different memberships. What was it that made you want to continue with the IO concept?
Randy came from a folk music background [and was] an acoustic guitar player. I was on the electric side. We fused the two. We decided to approach the music as a hobby. We were doing folk-rock, a style whose shelf life had already elapsed. We continued with the style, almost as a folk-rock preservation society, as a core, while exploring other styles.

Q. How did songs get written and fleshed out for Instant Orange?
Randy and I wrote most of the material for the band. Joe Bianchi, our keyboard player, came up with ideas for instrumentals and we did have guys like Bryon PrudHomme and Jim Brown who had contributions. Usually, Randy and I would get together and bring ideas to the table for material. Sometimes we would co-write a song and other times we would bring in something we had done individually. We would work the vocal and guitar arrangements and then take them to band practice. We had an agreement that whoever wrote the song would be the one to have the final say for the song, but guys like Joe and Lynn volunteered ideas that worked well for us.

Q. Is there something about San Bernardino that contributed to Instant Orange’s sound?
San Bernardino was considered by most to be part of the Los Angeles market, but there was a lot of local talent. Several bands charted locally with records that were well produced: The Light, The Good Feelings, The Bush, The Caretakers, [and] The Torquays were the some of the local groups. Groups like Touch were great in live shows, but made no records. It seems as though there was a band on every block. We didn’t sign with any of the major labels—we simply did our own—but we managed airplay through student stations like KVCR and KSDS in San Diego.

Q. Were timely concerns—the War, drugs, political protest, the sexual revolution, etc.—a part of the scene surrounding the band?
The war was a major concern as we had the draft hovering over us. Some of our friends were wondering what to pack for the Canadian winters. I can speak for myself and say that I didn’t get into the drug thing, but there were friends and band members, some of whom were in transition, who were into it. Oddly enough, it was probably the music that kept me away from the stuff, which worked to my advantage career-wise in the long run. We had opportunities with the sexual aspects, but Randy and Lynn were married and I was looking for something a little more long-term. My Christian value system was at work, sometimes to my irritation.

Q. It appears from photos that a lot of your equipment wasn’t name-brand. Was money a concern?
None of us came from money. Randy and I were in college and working menial stuff on the side. Joe toured with the U.S. Army for a couple of years, so he was doing alright. Lynn worked nights doing mobile fuel delivery. When we started, Lynn had a no-name drum set. Randy’s bass was made by Liro and an acoustic guitar made by Orlando, a Japanese copier of fine instruments. In fact, I had a Rickenbacker copy by the same manufacturer. One day, Lynn decided we needed better stuff. We emerged from the music store with a double-bass Slingerland acrylic drum set, two Aims amplifiers and an Aims P.A. system. (Aims was a company founded by a former Fender employee who sold a product guaranteed for life. Randy’s amp had to take the train ride from San Bernardino to Arizona three times, which probably helped destroy the company.)

Q. When you released Five Year Premiere, did you think it had resonance with what was happening in America during 1973?
Other than the Vietnam War, which ended in ’73, I recall all of us being somewhat politically apathetic. We had probed in different directions, including country and, to a degree, jazz, but we remained committed to our core musically. We released “Genesis II” and “Same Old Thing” in January. By springtime, two of the members had left—Dennis Hoff on guitar and Bryan McDonough on vocals, harmonica, and piano. We were more electronically oriented than we had been, meaning recording and effects, but incorporating our original style.

Q. Atypically for the hard-rock era, you continued to plumb a sort of folk-rock sound. Was that decision conscious?
Yes. Hey, I was still making payments on the Rickenbacker. I recall when Thomas Hartlage called from [his label] Shadoks Records in 2007. At first, he said the album sounded like nothing more than a spin on the Byrds, but then he realized that the Rickenbacker gave it that flavor and decided that we were more than a tribute item…not that the Byrds were a bad thing at all, but just because someone played acoustic guitar didn’t make every song a campfire sing-a-long.

Q. The live recordings on Five Year Premiere are especially good. Were you generally a hot live band?
We played a wide variety of venues. There were private parties, dances, the county fair circuit, the battle-of-the-bands gigs and even an occasional bar or frat-party gig. Bob recorded several of our live performances which Lynn had put on an 8-track tape. He found this tape in a horse trailer years later, which we had restored at a lab in Orlando, FL. In listening to it, I would have to say we were not all that bad. We were able to get the crowd moving. And Bob knew how to capture an audio moment.

Q. What would a typical Instant Orange practice session be like? Did you have a discrete space?
Although we began in our garages, we were rehearsing in a house in Crestline, which is a mountain resort community. Lynn lived in a house that was occupied by three drummers, each in a band. Oddly enough, we never had a conflict of schedule for practice, but these were some strange times. Later, Lynn moved to Cedar Pines, another mountain cabin, where we began work on our last two records.

Q. When IO recorded, was any one band member in charge? How did recording generally proceed?
We used studios for everything other than Five Year Premiere. Randy and I were telecommunications majors, so we already had an idea as to how things worked. When we arrived at the studio, I would go to the engineers and explain our setup, microphone needs, song order, and logistical aspects. The guys in the booth always commented on our preparation and execution of material, but we were limited in time and money and we knew what needed to happen. Randy would coordinate the floor plan.

For the album, Bob conned his parents into letting us use their home as a recording studio. We were crammed into corners and Bob was buried with his gear somewhere up against a wall. Bryan McDonough played piano on a cut, and had a song he had written recorded: however, his cut was somehow erased, and he had to leave to go to work. Lynn was irate, as he felt this song was the best thing on the album. Randy and I were somewhat elated, as the song didn’t fit well with the flow. So Lynn took Bryan to work and Randy and I did multi-tracking on the cuts until Lynn got back.

The album music was done in less than eight hours. The following day, we returned to listen to it. Only one cut had an intro by design, “Silent Green,” but then we started getting other segue ideas. By the end of the day, every cut had something.

Q. It seems that IO had its share of car trouble. Were you guys sort of perpetually trying to make ends meet?
Joe has this ’57 Chevy, which he maintained. He was actually pretty handy with that stuff. I was driving a ’58 Chevy, a far cry from my first car, which was an Austin Healy Sprite. I didn’t do a whole lot of maintenance on mine. Maybe that’s why it fell apart? He was still driving that car the last time I saw him. Yep, cash was tight.

Q. What led to the decision to dissolve Instant Orange?
What became our last project was initially was slated as an acoustic project. We met at Bob’s apartment for a pre-production meeting. We brought Jim Brown (formerly of TNF) in and decided that we would have Bob do a synthesized string section. We were operating a six-man line-up. So, Jim, Randy, and I were meeting at Jim’s place, but then the cracks started happening. By this time, Jim was engaged, and there were time conflicts and the chemistry was getting acidic. So, Jim left, and we began thinking this was it. Jim, I believe, was thinking Air Force. We eventually recorded the Ghirardelli EP, and I was now thinking Florida. I told Randy that we could keep this thing going as a recording band, but he wasn’t interested.

Q. Do you still talk to any of the other living members of the band?
We were reunited via e-mail and phone for a period of time when the album was released in 2007. Once in a while, I hear from Lynn. We actually had a reunion album planned, but interest waned. But things were always on friendly terms.

Q. You wrote a bit about how you were involved in other music projects during IO’s time. What were they?
When Instant Orange was going, I was with a hard-rock band called Moon Grass, but that was done by the end of the summer of ’68. From ’68 until ’72, when we brought the band back, Randy and I formed the Walters-Lanier Folk Experiment. This was an acoustic approach. Then there was TNF, which was an acoustic trio. Jim Brown was a high-harmony singer-guitar player. I believe we had our best vocal approach during this time, actually doing three parts.

Q. What are you doing now?
I retired from careers in law enforcement and the military reserves. These days, my wife and I live near Weeki Wachee, Florida. I still do music. I’ve done some CDs and distributed them through thrift shops. My theory is that if they sell it, at least they can keep the lights on for a few more minutes. I play the clarinet for house concerts and in performances here in our community. I’ve done some Praise Team efforts, starting from my days in southern Florida. I’m a Church elder and I somehow ended up on the board of directors where I live. I have a list of hobbies and activities that are physical, mental, spiritual, and hopefully creative. I keep busy, thank you.

Q. When you think back on the days of IO, is there anything you wish had gone differently?
Considering what we had available to us, meaning finances, equipment, and talent, overall, no. I believe we did the best we could with what we had, and we managed to exploit our means overall. It would have been nice had the acoustic approach to the final album come to fruition, but I believe we managed to accomplish what we set out to do. I did do a CD which added instruments to the initial tracks, such as strings, but I never released it.

Q. How would you describe Instant Orange to someone who had never heard the band?
We were your typical Southern California band whose hobby extended to the studio, had a great time “doing our thing,” and lived to tell about it.

Q. When you wrote about having put out other recording projects, I was wondering whether these were post-Instant Orange projects. I'd love to hear about them.
The idea behind the solo projects came when my wife bought me of the first generation multi-track cassette recorders. This was January, 1999. I took ten tunes—two of which were old Instant Orange songs, all of which were instrumental—and went at it.

Since then, I've completed five other projects that I've done the same with. They vary in style from ambience to light jazz to clarinet versions of Tin Pan Alley tunes as well as hymns. Thanks to friends that travel, copies have made it to Massachusetts, Maine, Alabama, and California, as well as England, Japan, and Ireland, all to thrift shops. It's fun.

The Instant Orange material I had done in '99 I shelved, because at the time, the equipment was really ultra-lo-fi, both from the recording side and the keyboard standpoint. That could be a future project.

There was also material recorded for an Instant Orange reunion album. There were some song fragments that Randy and I had worked on, some of which was for the acoustic album that never quite happened. I recorded beds for nine songs and sent them out to the guys. The production style was what Randy and I had planned for the album, but apparently the rest didn't like it too much. Oh, well. That may be issued some day with a different group. I have people here that I deal with that liked it, so…