Robert Ellis Orrall
By the time Robert Ellis Orral launched one of the 21st century's most beloved indie labels — Infinity Cat — from a house in downtown Nashville, he'd already enjoyed a milestone-filled career. A lifelong musician, he'd been a major-label artist and a behind-the-scenes songwriter, racking up Top 40 hits during the 1980s and '90s before co-producing Taylor Swift's multi-platinum debut album in 2006. Serving as Infinity Cat's patriarch allowed him to shift gears, guiding Nashville's punk-rock underground after spending two decades in the mainstream. It was a diverse history — one whose arc was as unique as his own music.
"I've had a really long career in this business," says Orrall, who returns to his solo work with 467 Surf & Gun Club. "As far back as high school, I knew I was going to be a songwriter and I hoped to make records. And that's what I've done ever since. All those years spent at 467 Humphrey Street were a high point for me — a lesson in what happiness can truly mean."
He's talking about Infinity Cat headquarters, the shotgun-style home on Humphreys Street that offered its occupants a place to conduct business, create music, shoot BB guns, grill steaks, watch surf films, and forge lasting memories. Bands like Diarrhea Planet and JEFF the Brotherhood (featuring Orrall's two sons, Jake and Jamin) launched their careers with Infinity Cat, while countless artists and curiosity seekers spent time inside its infamous walls. This was more than a label; it was a community, with the back room of the now-demolished house at 467 Humphreys Street serving as the community's epicenter. That space lives on in 467 Surf & Gun Club, whose songs reimagine the back room as a neighborhood dive bar, with Orrall as the bartender.
"467 was a safe place for a bunch of young adults, artists, and fans to run wild," he remembers, "and I was the old man — 30 years older than everyone else — watching it all happen, getting swept up in the energy and music. When I began writing this album, I imagined myself as a bartender who soaked it up from his side of the bar…but the album is also a metaphor for my career as a songwriter. I've probably written songs with more than 500 people. I've loved the experience of meeting my co-writers, getting to know a little bit about them, and creating something together. I've realized my life as a songwriter really parallels what my life could've been as a bartender, because both jobs are all about meeting people and finding what their story is all about."
Robert Ellis Orrall's own story begins in the rock clubs of Boston. Back in the 1980s, when he first began making rock records for RCA Records, he proudly wore his influences on his sleeve. "All three of my early records for the label were influenced heavily by Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe," says the Massachusetts native, who scored a Top 40 hit with "I Couldn't Say No," his duet with Carlene Carter, in 1983. He later moved to Nashville, where he wrote three Number 1 hits for country acts like Shenandoah and Clay Walker while continuing to enjoy Top 40 success as a solo artist. Orrall focused on artist development, too, guiding the early careers of Taylor Swift, Love & Theft, and the punky, left-of-center acts signed to Infinity Cat's roster.
Things have changed since those days. Orrall now lives in seaside Massachusetts, and Infinity Cat’s 125th release will be their last. What hasn't changed is Orrall's ability to breathe modern life into timeless influences. He returns to his pop/rock roots with 467 Surf & Gun Club, a self-produced record whose sunny melodies and thickly-stacked vocal harmonies nod to the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and Todd Rundgren.
Mixed by music industry legend Steve Marcantonio (John Lennon, Vince Gill) and featuring performances from the same bandmates who appeared on Orrall's early-'80s albums, 467 Surf & Gun Club tells the story of a legendary hangout where the nights were long, the lines at the bar were short, and the music lasted forever. It's a mix of fact and fiction, glued together by a singer, songwriter, and lifelong genre-bender who's still leaving his unique stamp upon the music industry.
"The Surf and Gun Club was home to young thinkers and old drinkers, more than a few regulars, and curious visitors," he says. "And even though the sign above the door said, 'You can’t come in unless you’ve been here before,' everyone was greeted like an old friend. Anybody who ever walked in the place has a story to tell, and this one belongs to the man who watched it all from behind the bar."
JOHN HIATT: “Very sophisticated and relentlessly appealing sunny SoCal folk pop a la Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, the guys who invented it. Fully realized. Absolutely joyful.”
AMERICAN SONGWRITER: ”The melodies, counter melodies, and killer performances constitute a unique blend of ‘60s-pop-meets-modern-indie songwriting. With brilliant Beach Boys-esque arrangements (and harmonies) and a genuine sense of earnestness that is hard to find these days, the album is a delightful and touching listen.” MICHAEL MCDONALD: Robert Ellis Orrall is a composer who always says something we need to hear. In that way he remains relevant and timeless. His latest offering is no less.” GLIDE: The music throughout the record has the same vibe as Andrew Gold, Brian Wilson or latter career Elvis Costello, confident, comfortable and relaxed with nothing to prove and ultimately satisfying from start to finish. The first instinct on the closing notes of the (final) track is to immediately to go back to the beginning and listen to the album all over again.” JEFF THE BROTHERHOOD: “Melodic, colorful, emotional. A fun and bubbly trip through our dad’s cosmic mind”. TREBLE: “Good times are back in style,” he sings on fifth track, “Sunshine”. Exactly what the album as a whole seems to emulate: Happiness. Joy. 467 Surf and Gun Club reminds us of the good times—like singing along to the songs you remember from country radio when you were young.” BEEHIVE CANDY: “The summertime-ready single “Sunshine” is every bit as nostalgic as it is catchy-as-hell.” DADDY ISSUES: “REO has proved once again that he’s one of the best songwriters in Nashville. This album encapsulates the warm nostalgia of summers spent with friends at 467.” NASHVILLE LIFESTYLES: If the walls of a punk clubhouse could talk, they’d sound like this. Mixing Beach Boys-esque pop with East-Nasty nostalgia, Robert Ellis Orrall eulogizes the HQ of Infinity Cat records – which he founded and launched bands like JEFF the Brotherhood. Witness the big bang of Nashville’s DIY scene. Ian Bush, DIARRHEA PLANET: “If there’s been a better record to come out of Nashville in the past few years let us know, cause we haven’t heard it”