Santa Monica alternative rockers Opus Orange play a free show at Touch Vinyl before touching down at South by Southwest
By Michael Aushenker
Last year, Santa Monica-born alt rock band Opus Orange performed informally at the influential 10-day South by Southwest music, film and interactive media festival.
They return to Austin next week under slightly different circumstances.
“This year is the first year we’ve [actually] been invited,” said Paul Bessenbacher, the group’s front man and core songwriter.
Guerilla SXSW gigs included, Bessenbacher has worked hard for the ticket. The group formed in 2010 as basically just Bessenbacher (who goes by P.B.) and his ukulele, but Opus Orange has since evolved across various incarnations to arrive at six members, including guitarist Bernard Chadwick (previously on drums), co-vocalist/keyboardist Lauren Hillman, bassist Carlen Walth and percussionists James Neil and Piper Denney.
On Saturday, Opus Orange performs a free show at the West Los Angeles record shop Touch Vinyl — what Bessenbacher is planning as a sort of warm-up, acoustic version of the big set they plan to unleash on March 13 at Esther’s Follies in Austin.
As evinced by the lush depth of the song “Balance,” melodias and toy glockenspiels round out Opus Orange’s wall of sound, which is at times akin to quirky, experimental alt-rockers Modest Mouse and The Arcade Fire. Noting “careening, siren-like backing vocals,” bitcandy.com reviewer Daniel Rudzinski writes that “Balance” is “a classic indie-pop song, with excellent instrumental backing and a rhythm track that seems primarily composed of woodblocks and a 36-inch bass drum.”
Bands such as The Cure, The Pixies and Jane’s Addiction informed Bessenbacher’s musical imagination while growing up in Sacramento. He picked up the electric bass in junior high school and nurtured his musical instincts on jazz as well as classical music, which he studied in-depth during college. Early Bob Dylan, Nick Drake and ‘90s boundary pushers Elliott Smith and Radiohead also streamed into Bessenbacher’s musical DNA.
“Paul owns a recording studio [Emoto] in Santa Monica, and it’s kind of like our clubhouse,” said guitarist Chadwick, who is also a fine artist. “It is a center where a lot of us filter our [artistic process]. Everybody is so good and fluent with our instruments.”
A constant re-configuring of band members — and sometimes their roles within the group — has been intentional.
“I am always open to change and keeping it fresh,” said Bessenbacher — adding, however, that he is happy with the band’s current configuration.
“This particular group, there’s a great synergy with it,” he said. “With a band of this size, everyone is also doing a lot of things. The live thing isn’t a priority as making music and trying to get it out there.”
Hillman, whose is currently mastering an electronic dance music-flavored, synth-centric debut EP, enjoys the organic counterbalance of playing in Opus Orange with a full band.
“He’s got a really good instinct,” she said of Bessenbacher. “In rehearsals, he’s there to shape whatever’s there to bring to the table but he’s also super-open-minded.”
With “Balance,” the latest of several EP releases (“Almost There,” “Surface”), Opus Orange is getting some online recognition, but building awareness for Opus Orange has proved challenging within the disarray of the music industry’s digital transitional.
“It is a hustle,” Bessenbacher said. “It’s that constant feeding the machine. A lot of it is word of mouth. That’s hard work, and it’s a slow, slow process.”
Key to his strategy has been videos: four out of five of the “Balance” EP’s tracks have accompanying clips.
Bessenbacher, who lives in Santa Monica with his wife Kit, loves the immediacy of dispatching new work via the Internet. And though he is very committed to his craft, Bessenbacher is no perfectionist, meting out his output by “EPs that are sort of bite-sized; you can focus in a window of time, finish it and move on,” he said.
The Westside band is working to crack Silver Lake strongholds such as the Echo and the Satellite, but first comes South by Southwest — an engagement that, even before it’s happened, has already won Opus Orange some positive attention.
Touch Vinyl owner Sebastian Mathew said he discovered the group through the festival’s website.
“I love post-rock where there’s a slow build up or a cinematic feel,” Mathew said.
With the SXSW invite, Chadwick believes Opus is ready to ascend to another level.
“I think we’re all anticipating what that might be,” Chadwick said.
Meanwhile, Bessenbacher said his brain is trained on this weekend’s Touch Vinyl performance, when Opus Orange will deliver “a deconstruction” of its Austin show.
“It’ll be cozy,” Bessenbacher said. “We’ll bring less stuff and sing really loud in that room. I love playing to an environment and making it work.”
Opus Orange performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Touch Vinyl, 1646 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles. Call (310) 933-5540 or visit touchvinyl.com.