Updated: Sep 18, 2019
Luke Worle is the brainchild behind the Swedish band Sea of Orchids. After leaving Los Angeles to form the Leeds, UK band Distortion Mirrors, Worle enjoyed a few minor hits on the college rock scene. He's headed Sea of Orchids since the folding of Distortion Mirrors in 2015.
Retro Injection spoke with Worle about his move to SONY, changes in the music industry and Sea of Orchids' debut album, Washed Out Colours.
Describe the creative impetus behind Washed Out Colours. How did the record come to be?
When I moved back to sleepy upstate New York in 2017 after some time in the Portland, Oregon area, I created a makeshift studio in an old house and turned the entire upstairs into this living, breathing bohemian pad. My friend Joseph brought in all his hardware and gear with lots of tasty vintage flair. I recorded about twenty songs in a lightning heat burst of a few weeks or so, and ended up keeping about four which made the record. The rest of the record was recorded in an old lakeside Victorian bed and breakfast that I rented out and turned into a studio. All the bits and pieces were assembled, many songs junked and the songs with ample staying power kept. I finally pooled everything together here in Sweden over many a listening party walk, and here we are.
The album has a 1980s feel to it, yet still manages to not be decade confined. How did you manage to negotiate that artfully and tastefully?
Well, I think there's nothing worse or fad oriented than to ape a formula and repurpose it as say, "The Cure lite" or what have you. The 1980s had some of the best record production: Remain In Light by Talking Heads, So by Peter Gabriel and Disintegration by The Cure all come to mind, but an artist today should never recycle the stalwart tricks of the greats as their own bag. If you can't build on the past, but merely crib from it, you're dusting off someone else's diamonds and pawning them off as your own. So, my creative agenda was to pay tasteful homage to the decade with appropriate approximation. I let my heart wander and allow inspiration to take me wherever the boxcar was headed. I didn't seek out the '80s, but I realized my love of the decade infiltrated the undercurrent of where to go musically, at least initially.
There's a heavy synth presence on some of the album. What synthesizers and gear-instruments did you use? How do you know when a song is done?
Fundamentally, the backbone of the album was built around Lin drums played in real time to a battered synth drum kit, run through all measures of trippy lo-fi distortion, intentionally clipped in the red, with the blurred darkness of the Roland Space Echo reverb mixed in to give it some wash. The Jupiter 8, Prophet 5, Minimoog, Oberheim Ob-Xa and the classic Mellotron were the keyboards of choice. Trade secret, but the "guitars" on the album are actually treated synths run through guitar pedals and amps (namely the Orange cabinet and the Ratt pedal). It's nice to get complimented for my alleged guitar prowess by fans, but I can't even play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on a battered acoustic guitar. I played the basslines, added percussion and layered vocals using a pretty standard formula of the Roland Space Echo, Eventide Harmonizer, and sometimes an amp. Much of the final mixes went through the EMT 140 reverb plate. Any sonic magic was simply the happy accident of pruning away the layers and letting the wall of sound be built of mortar and not cardboard. You only reach that point when you listen to playback and are satisfied that it's not about wrangling random sounds, but rather utilizing sounds as expressions of emotion. If the song is as important as the sonic backdrop and both are in love with each other, presto. Jack Shirley mastered the album, running everything through tape. I think it's got a nice dynamic range as well. I never quantized anything, never programmed anything and never tried to use modern tricks or trends. I was alone with gear, keyboards and empty walls. It was done when I put together a running order after about seven to ten false starts and found interlinking songs that all added up to a cohesive record.
What artists inspired Washed Out Colours?
It may not be on the tastemaker's cool list, but certainly Tears for Fears' Songs from the Big Chair was a starting point. The fusion of organic and synthetic was a big reason why that record still feels palpable and holds up. On the modern frontier, The Horrors' Primary Colours was another strong influence. They took inspiration from the torchbearers, but made it their own. The Smashing Pumpkins' Adore was another huge influence. In fact, the mixture of some of my folky acoustic guitar-led elements or piano ballads were indebted to that record. I'm a pianist, classically trained, but wanted to make a dream pop-psychedelic rock record. Billy Corgan is a blisteringly great songwriter and guitarist, but he wanted to make an ambient electro-acoustic record. I was deeply inspired by his daring approach and that album is simply appreciating itself as time goes on. Everyone now can see how forward thinking and ahead of the curve it was. Lastly, Keith Green inspired me. He was a great pianist, but also an emotive songwriter who wrote about pain, love and utter dependence on God. That sentiment reverberates as a core cause.
Some of the songs lyrically tackle some incredibly honest and deep subjects. How did you reconcile that vulnerability with artistry?
I think the two are interdependent. In my old band, Distortion Mirrors, I was cautioned by former management against certain songs being recorded or talked about because they dealt with ugly truths. I was sexually assaulted at the age of fifteen, and had a breakdown, being put into a mental ward for children. That's what the song "Teen Machine" is about and that's what "Blue" is about. I went through toxic and abusive relationships years ago as well. I don't cringe at experience being reexamined and sanctified through the lens of restorative anthems. Maybe PR focus groups, label chiefs and money changers do, but not me. I don't say that flippantly and callously, but experience has become taboo in many spectrums of music. I weep for the creative drought and oftentimes disingenuous songs of the modern music making industry. Music should incorporate experiential distress and testimony more into its industry. That's what the Psalms and many enduring works of art spread across all mediums were built on. You have to be vulnerable to share about abuse, abandonment and lovelorn tragedies, because ultimately the journey is built on broken bones and blood. For me, Jesus and my faith saved my life. I would have ended my life a number of times in my shattered past, but I turned to the Bible and to my piano. Through letting pain surface, you can let it drain and scab over. Then, you can heal and hopefully inspire or encourage the brokenhearted who have endured like-minded experiences.
What are your thoughts on being a new artist in today's music scene and on the state of affairs in the industry overall?
I don't think today's music matches a pale shadow of the inherent quality of the Golden Age of popular music, which would be the 1960s and 1970s. Obviously, the 1980s and 1990s hold some significant artists and records, but I think beyond that you have a much smaller crop of artists that will be for the ages. I think a problematic issue is that melody has been sacrificed. The Beatles, Paul Simon, The Brill Building and Brian Wilson were the obvious frontrunners of great melodies. Today, laptops, overprocessed sounds and technology sort of converge to "create" a demographically-assigned product. Songs are engineered for streaming platforms where listeners cherrypick what they like. The age of the album as a front to back medium is drying up to some degree. Another irksome factor, is that with a laptop, anyone can make music. In theory, it's a quantum leap for musicians everywhere, but not everyone is inspired for the right reasons. Lots of plug ins at your fingertips do not a great song make. My final issue is that many blogged-about buzz bands, are wearing the smoldering corpse perfume of older bands or artists without offering any unique deviation or addition. However, recent artists like Tame Impala, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, Deafheaven, TV on the Radio, The National, Sufjan Stevens, Janelle Monae and Arca are brilliant in taking the past and turning it on its head. Having a crop of bands like that gives you some hope. I hope newer bands and artists will tread lightly when it comes to borrowing the past. Use it, but repurpose it. I also hope they won't play the industry game of compromise. When the hype machine stalls and dies down, your music will be measured by how good and how honest it was. Keep it as good and as honest as your heart's agenda. For me, Keith Green, The Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead and The Beatles are still my all-time favorites though, with a rare wealth of creativity that will always inspire.
You recently signed with SONY, and they will be putting out a new record of yours on September 16th. Tell us about that.
It's a funny story. Not haha funny, but funny in how happenstance, God and the unexpected converge. When I moved back to L.A. a few years ago, I started Sea of Orchids, and eventually asked Jack Shirley if he could record us. Jack is not only a great producer but also an all around grounded and kind guy. I deeply admired the emotional and sonic depth he captured with Deafheaven and Jeff Rosenstock, so I reached out and he said yes. The band and I rehearsed for months straight, getting a taut rock and roll swagger, and being able to bring a real energy out. My brother, a brilliant classical pianist, funded the rest of the record after my paltry scraps working in an L.A. data headquarters went only so far, and we headed up to Palo Alto to record with Jack. Taking inspiration from the recording simplicity of raw albums like Black Sabbath´s Master of Reality and the Ramone's debut, we cut the whole record in one "step on the gas" type of day and mixed the day after, with just Jack, myself, his dog and his insurmountable collection of root beer bottles looking on. After that, the band and I drove straight back to Hollywood, with a dreamy buzz from how great and effortless everything went down. Now making the record was intentionally self limiting, because it was all cut live to analog tape, mixed on an API console. There were a few overdubs, but essentially it's simply a raw tour de force of a rock band playing like the world was ending, and with the studio clock ticking, we played like it was. I was so excited and then shared the unmastered album with an L.A. friend who managed a successful band at the time. I was crushed when he said it sounded like drunken frat boys making a demo on a lazy college weekend. I was pretty hyper-sensitive and after that, I essentially junked the whole record, to the dismay of the band, feeling low. My now manager Rick kept on telling me that it was a great record brimming with energy, but I was depressed and let that album slip away onto the shelf of broken toys with other canned music. It wasn't until my A&R management head Matt called me up a year later to say that he thought the Jack Shirley record was more than worth a pitch, and that he and his staff loved it. He then sent it to SONY in New York and they loved it too. I guess the lesson is to walk away from Debbie Downers and that when you capture honesty on record, it will always shine. I'm immensely joyful with that record, called Silvergirl and thankful I had genuine impartial ears to give needful feedback. I could have continued to pay attention to the few cynical Greek Chorus members with their boos and crickets, but nothing worth fighting for makes sense to everyone. I've learned to accept that.
What direction do you feel your music will take in the future?
I have a double album concept record already written called Penny Pain that's about a rebel biker in the 1950s in love with a Catholic schoolgirl. Things get volatile and dangerous in old-school Hollywood as this gang war heats up, and it's sort of Quadrophenia meets West Side Story, but not. It's highly melodic and the songs were really well received in the industry. It's a big, sprawling pop opera and more tuneful than woeful. But before that, Jack Shirley and I are going to make a beautifully trashy fuzz rock record with lots of Phil Spector's influence. I'm in Sweden currently, but will be living in Southern England this fall for a while. I aim to be playing live next year as well so everything in good time.