erasing clouds

Sunny Power Pop: An interview with California Oranges' John Conley and Verna Brock

by dave heaton

California Oranges' self-titled debut is the summer album of 2001, and it came out in January. The trio play upbeat, catchy-as-anything-you've-heard power-pop songs about love, roller skating, superheroes, pop stars, movies--all the good things. And, most importantly, the two vocalists/songwriters (John Conley and Verna Brock, both also in Holiday Flyer) sing in a completely honest, straightforward way that's sure to touch your heart. Since their CD has so far been heard from my stereo speakers more than anything else this year, I thought I'd ask them a few questions to find out more about the band. Both John Conley and Verna Brock (half of the band; the other two members are brothers Ross and Matt Levine) kindly answered all of my questions; their answers are here for you now.

First off, please help me understand how the band came together, and how it's related to the bands you were each in previously. I know two of you were in Holiday Flyer--has that band broken up or is it just taking a break? Are you all still in other bands besides California Oranges?

Verna: I used to do a solo project called Beanpole, in which I played all of the instruments and released 4-track recordings. On my last 7", I recruited John and Ross to play bass and drums. I guess you could call that record an early incarnation of the California Oranges. I did Beanpole for about four years, but by then I was feeling lonely and wanted to play my songs with other musicians. John and I thought it would be fun to start something new in which we could write songs together (John takes care of all the songwriting in Holiday Flyer). Besides the fact that Ross is an amazing drummer, he's also a very close friend of ours, so he was the natural choice for drums. We've recently added Ross's twin brother, Matt, on guitar. It's worked out really well, and we're more excited about the band than ever now since Matt has joined us. Holiday Flyer is actually getting ready to record a new album-- we'll be in the studio in April. We've added a drummer and bass player to that band, so the new recording will be a little more full-sounding than previous recordings.

Holiday Flyer is the one of your previous bands that I'm most familiar with. To me, California Oranges' music seems similar to Holiday Flyer's in terms of emotion and melody, but California Oranges is more of an energetic, rocking thing. Was this a conscious decision to start a power-pop group, to rock out more?

Verna: I definitely wanted to do something more uptempo. My favorite pop recordings are the ones to which you can't stop yourself from bopping along to, and I've always wanted to do something like that.

John: I've always been a fan of pop bands that "rock" a little more, like Weezer and the Posies.

Have you guys been playing live, either in Sacramento or elsewhere? Do you have touring plans? In general, what is your attitude toward live performance?

Verna: We've played two shows in San Francisco and two in Sacramento so far. We're playing two shows in Sacramento next month: March 10 at Old Ironsides and March 23 at Capitol Garage. We enjoy playing live when we can, although sometimes it's hard to find the time between work and our other bands. We're determined to do it, though. This band seems to work well live, and it's really fun to do.

John: We'd like to tour ... it's just a matter of finding the time.

Darla Records' promotional paragraph for your current, self-titled album says that you're already working on your next one. What can you tell me about that? What shape is it in at this point? How would you compare the music on it to the music on this one (which I absolutely love, by the way)? What other upcoming plans do you have, as far as releases, etc.?

John: We've been working on some new songs. We debuted one at our last show. The style of the new songs will be similar to the ones on our CD, but the new songs will be a little more dynamic and the guitars more textured (now that we've added Matt to the band).

Verna: We recorded the last album very quickly-- with the next album we'll hopefully have a little more time to fine-tune things and up the production.

A couple questions about specific songs on your CD. First off, I love the songs "John Hughes" and "Olivia." With those, were you putting yourself in the places of big John Hughes and Olivia Newton John fans, or are you or have you been really big fans of them? If the latter is true, what do you think of their more recent work (Reach the Rock, Back With A Heart, etc.)?

John: I got the idea for the song "John Hughes" from a scene in the Kevin Smith movie Dogma, in which the characters Jay and Silent Bob were talking about searching for the town of Shermer (the fictional town in which a lot of John Hughes's films take place). I thought it would be a cool idea to write a song from the perspective of one of the local Shermer town teens. I wasn't aware of any of John Hughes's newer movies until I saw something about it online. Now that you've reminded me of that film, I'll have to remember to check it out.

Verna: I was a huge Olivia Newton-John fan when I was a kid. I haven't really kept up with her current releases, but I still love listening to the music she released in the late 1970's and 1980's.

I have a related question about "So Much to Do," which is from the perspective of Spiderman. Are you comic book fans, Spiderman fans, or did it just strike you as an interesting point of view for a song to take?

John: All of the above. I've been an off-and-on comic fan since I was about 14. Spiderman's always been one of my favorite characters, because he was a regular guy before he became a super hero. He was always conflicted about dealing with his secret identity. Verna came up with the idea of writing a song from Spiderman's perspective.

Verna: John had written this great song, but he was having a mental block about the lyrics. We were quickly approaching our recording dates, so the two of us had a brainstorming session and worked out the words together.

Your album is about 26 minutes long--it's a length that in theory might seem short for an album, yet I think it fits your album perfectly, since it's filled with quick, catchy songs. I'm wondering if people ask you why it's a full-length album instead of an EP, and I'm curious to know how you determine whether what you've created should be considered an "album" or an "EP." Does it have more to do with feeling than length?

John: We definitely made a conscious effort to make the album under 30 minutes long. We wanted to have 10 very concise pop songs. It's easier to listen to an album of this length in one sitting. A lot of the great pop records from the 60's and 70's were 30 minutes or less.

Verna: I think that an album can be eight songs or eighteen songs, as long as they all work together to present some sort of unified picture.

I've noticed and admired John's artwork for the Darla 100 CD, a Little Darla compilation (I believe) and in Magnet magazine once (I think). Do you paint often when you're not making music? Do the three of you have other careers outside of making music?

John: I go through phases with painting--sometimes I paint a lot, and then I'll take a break for a few months. I'm getting ready to start working on some new paintings: one for an upcoming Little Darla comp., and some for the new Holiday Flyer record. Outside of music and painting, I work as a manager at Raley's (a Northern California grocery chain).

Verna: I work as an environmental chemist for a private lab, and Ross has just started a new career as a financial planner. Matt works for the public TV station, KVIE.

Mark Robinson did the artwork/design for your CD. I think it looks great, and was wondering how you decided to go with him for it. I don't recall seeing his designwork on non-Teenbeat releases before.

John: Actually, he's done artwork for several non-Teenbeat bands. He did the art for our friends' band, Barcelona--that's how we got in touch with him. I've been a huge Mark Robinson fan, both of his music and his art, for a long time.

"Where did your band's name come from?" is maybe the most over-asked question in interviews, but still, since I've hardly been to California before, I'm wondering if you come from an area especially known for oranges? Is your name a play on the California Raisins, I'd assume?

Verna: You know, we kind of forgot about the whole California Raisins thing!

John: We actually came up with the name of the band a few years ago. I brought a produce box home from work for Verna to put some of her 7" records in... it had a cool-looking 70's design on the side of the box. It said "California Oranges" in block letters underneath. We thought that that would be a great band name, and we decided that if we ever started another band that that would be the band's name.

Verna: Sacramento isn't really known for oranges, but a lot of garlic and tomatoes are grown in this area!

One last question, the one I ask everyone: if there's an album, live performance, or film that's really blown you away recently, please tell me what it is.

Verna: We saw Travis play in Sacramento a few months ago. They were so amazing, and the singer was having so much fun being in this country and performing his songs that you couldn't help but love them. Elliot Smith blows me away every time I see him live. I've been listening to Barcelona's new album, Zero-One-Infinity, constantly since it came out.

John: I'm always looking for and buying new music. The CD that I've been listening to non-stop lately is the self-titled debut release by a band from Dublin, Ireland called jj72. I will have to agree with Verna that Travis was one of the best live performances I saw last year. That show definitely made me want to play live. My favorite movie of last year was Unbreakable (big surprise!).

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