Orson give the Guardian's house band a lesson in success

Orson had one morning to teach the Guardian's house band how to follow them to the top of the charts. Could they succeed? Simon Hattenstone reports. And once you've read the article, you can listen to some clips and leave your own verdict here

Last year Orson were an unknown five-piece based in LA without a sniff of a record contract. Today, they are a multi-million selling rock band. Last year the Whatcha-Gonna-Do-About-Its were an unknown five-piece based in London without a sniff of a record contract. Today, they are still an unknown five-piece based in London without a sniff of a record contract. On a good day - a very good day - they could just about describe themselves as the Guardian's house band, given that all of them work, or have worked, at the newspaper.

Why did Orson make it? Why did the Whatcha-Gonna-Do-About-Its, or the Ws, for the sake of brevity, continue to flounder hopelessly? We are hoping to find out. Orson have kindly agreed to give the Ws a lesson in success. They will take them into the studio, help them record a song (a version of Orson's hit, Happiness), advise on matters cool, and by the end of the session inspire the band to new heights. Well, that's the plan.

At 10am, Orson are waiting for the Ws at the west London studio. They look rock'n'roll - all hats, tattoos, skinny jeans and innate cool. Four-fifths of the Ws arrive. They look like ageing techies who've had a night on the real ale. The drummer is missing. It's cold, and it's raining. I ask lead singer David Marsh, the paper's production editor, why he is wearing shades. "Rock'n'roll," he says. The Ws go inside to practise, sans drummer.

Orson are outside in the rain, smoking and talking about their years of failure. Until recently, they all held down full-time jobs at home in Hollywood. Bassist Johnny Lonely built sets, guitarist George Astasio and drummer Chris Cano worked in TV behind the scenes, guitarist Kevin Roentgen was in telesales, and vocalist Jason Pebworth was a pet masseur (truly).

Every night they played their brand of soft rock, and every night they'd wait for the A&R man to sign them up. But he never came. So they went over to England, played the In The City festival in Manchester, and after six years' struggle became an overnight sensation, with record companies fighting to sign them.

They are perfect role models for the Ws. "We're a model for not giving up, that's for sure," Lonely says. "A lot of our friends have nice families and wonderful jobs in Southern California whereas, of a year ago, we were still eating Pot Noodles and trying to pay our rents, and practising in a band as if we were 17 years old."

How old is he? "I'm old enough. I like to say I'm older than Britney Spears but younger than Madonna." Great, I say, that will give a lift to Marsh, who doesn't look a day over 50.

Cano looks at his watch disapprovingly, as we wait for the Ws' drummer to arrive. Has he any advice for the band? "Yeah, be there on time." The Ws' drummer, Toby Manhire (the Guardian's deputy comment editor), arrives half an hour late. He looks the worse for wear - he's had a late night knocking out headlines. "Punctuality necessary," Cano says, tapping his watch. Manhire gives him a look.

This is the first time the Ws have been in a studio. Marsh sings Happiness with terrifying intensity. His eyes are shut, his mouth is wide open, and his tongue has turned purple. He is giving it his all. Manhire is half-heartedly tap-tapping at his drum kit like Ringo on downers. Marsh's voice and the primitive guitar of Lisa Darnell (the publisher of Guardian Books) dominate.

Orson are loving it. They have never heard another band play their music. "This is fuckin' great," Pebworth says. "Particularly the singer. He's putting a whole new spin on it. He's singing with his heart." Marsh is virtually hyperventilating when he puts the mic down. He shouts ecstatically: "I spoke to Jason and he said that sounded good, so that's great." He stops, hit by a surprise wave of depression. "Unless he just said that to make me feel good."

I ask Manhire who are the best musicians in the band. He points to bassist Rick Peters and keyboard player and sub-editor Chris Borg. And the worst? "I'm aspiring to be that person." To be fair, he doesn't have to aspire that hard. We discuss the band's name - the Whatcha-Gonna-Do-About-Its doesn't trip off the tongue. "Terrible name," he admits. "Disaster. Mind you, Orson's a terrible name. What is that? Orson Welles?" At least Orson fits on a CD label.

Orson play Happiness - tight, funky and head-thrashingly loud. It's only now I realise how endearingly crap the Ws are. "Lordy-dee," says Darnell. Each Orson member has something distinctive about his appearance, whether it's Astasio's groovester's belt, Pebworth and Lonely's Blues Brother hats and shades, Cano's Mohican, or Roentgen's tattoos. They also have attitude, a sense of their own worth. The Ws disappear into a mulch of faded denim and comfy cords.

Mark Friend is Orson's manager. If he had not met the bands, would he be able to tell which is the successful one? "Yeah. You can tell Orson are used to having photos done." Well, at least the Ws have time on their hands, I say, trying to accentuate the positive at the expense of the truth. He nods. "Yep, as a group, it may take six months, six years, or 10 years. Or, in your band's case, 60 years."

Do the Ws still dream of being rock stars? "Totally," says Marsh. "Always have. It's the only reason I do this." Who would he like to have been? "I think I would have been Sting." Manhire laughs. Marsh doesn't notice. "Same sort of age. Same sort of style. Blond hair. And I'm into tantric sex. Actually that reminds me, I did once write a song that included the lines 'My girlfriend's getting rather vexed, she isn't into tantric sex.'"

It's time for serious advice. Are the Ws wedded to their name?

Manhire: "It's up for discussion."

Darnell (quietly): "I don't like it."

Borg: "It's always been there."

Peters: "We quite like the name. We're a rough and ready outfit."

Manhire: "Well, rough."

Just as things could get nasty, Orson's Pebworth steps in. "What's in a name, man? If you rock, you rock. There is a band called U2 after all."

How important is image? It's not, Pebworth says. "You can wear what you want, so long as you do it with conviction." And songs? Ah, songs are very important, Orson chorus. They agree the Ws' lack of original material might be a barrier to global success.

"Yeah I think we could do with writing a few songs," Marsh says. "We try to play songs people won't have heard, then they might think they're ours." Have fans come up to them and said, "Wow, that's brilliant"? "They've been up to us and said they've not heard that song before, and I leave it open," Marsh says.

More important than image and name is initiative, Orson say. When label after label turned them down, they went and made their own album for $5,000.

Most important of all, they say, is the hunger. And hunger, Pebworth says, can present itself as blindness or obduracy. "We always thought that if we put our music out to the people, they would respond. That was our delusion. I never wanted to admit that I was going to have to think about my life again."

"Denial took us a long way," Lonely says. "It carried us for five years."

That hits home hard. "It's a good point," Marsh says, "because we've got pretty good jobs. So obviously we are not starving, and hungry for success in that sense." He comes to a stuttering stop, before reasserting himself: "I mean, I'd trade the day job to be like them without any hesitation." But Orson's Cano can smell the uncertainty, and he's not impressed.

"My mom always told me to have something to fall back on. But there's something bad about having something to fall back on, because most of the time you will. You know, you need to have that fire, that fear. I'm completely screwed because I don't know how to do anything else. It has to be your life, your passion."

As we leave, the Ws are presented with the CD of their first recording. There is a bug going round, but the Ws look somewhat paler than when we started out. Orson were lovely, helpful, unpatronising, the Ws say - but they seem deflated. "There's more to life than drumming," sulks Manhire. They retire to the pub to discuss the future.

A week later, I receive an email from Marsh. "There is a twist to the story. We have decided to break up the band. We are going out on a high note - literally in my case, and one in fact I couldn't reach properly. There was a feeling that having met Orson, and realised we would never be a fraction as good, it was time to call it a day."

· You can hear how the Whatcha-Gonna-Do-About-Its' version of Happiness compares with Orson's original here. Orson's new single, Already Over, is released on November 13 on Mercury.


Simon Hattenstone

The GuardianTramp

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