Hardcore punk goes orchestral – an interview with Luke Kelly!

10 mins read

Luke Kelly is a nrave young man from little town of Ukiah, who has recently released an orchestral (!) hardcore/punk album. As orchestral punk isn’t very common, we decided to dive a bit deper into this crazy? idea. The mindset behind the experiment is so sophisticated that it almost traumatizes the listener experiencing the album.

Let’s appreciate some of the DIY ethic behind this one-man project and find out a lot more about Mr Kelly. Whoever he is, this interview offers a bunch of clues.

Hey Luke! How are you man? Thanks so much for reaching out! What made you to submit to IDIOTEQ?

Hey Karol. I can’t complain. Thank you for grabbing my hand as I reached out. That’s always reassuring. IDIOTEQ seemed like the kind of webzine that’s interested in actually good music, respects the artists on its platform, and gives no-names like me a chance to be heard…..and maybe I like the name and how the website looks (don’t judge me).

Thanks man! That’s really kind of you.

You are hailing from Ukiah, California, a place that was once ranked the #1 best small town to live in California and the sixth-best place to live in the United States. How come? What’s so special about it?

Aw, you’re welcome.

WHAT?! Almost everyone here says they hate this town! In fact, the band AFI originated in Ukiah, CA (the original members as well as most of the current members) but they wouldn’t dare admit if you were to ask them that. They would say they’re from the East Bay. The only thing I can think of that would make Ukiah so special is that it’s in Mendocino County. Mendocino County, for whatever reason, has a climate and environment that’s most conducive for growing decent marijuana compared to the rest of the world (at least, that’s what everyone tells me). So besides being a town within the (supposed) weed capital of the world, I’m not sure what makes Ukiah so special.

Where the hell did you pull that bit of trivia?

I’m a bit of a geography nerd, so if you find me shooting some crazy facts about your area, don’t be surprised.

I’m curious about that weed story you mentioned. Is this why you came up with the name “orchestral hardcore punk”? Why did you decide to desecrate the good old punk genre? Wasn’t there anybody to stop you?

Ah, that’s good to know. I welcome any facts you have to throw at me.

Ha. This is my first interview about this album and I’m already being accused for defiling hardcore-punk. My career’s off to a good start.

Unfortunately, I can’t blame weed for my bad idea. It was a very conscious decision to combine orchestral instruments with hardcore-punk (or genres that are arguably related to hardcore and punk). This album was more or less a reaction to a frustratingly unsatisfying Google search I had a while back. If you Google “orchestral punk” or “orchestral hardcore punk”, you won’t find much (besides orchestral versions of Daft Punk songs). This is odd because almost every other genre has had an orchestral off-shoot at some point (symphonic death metal, for example). Here are the closest things I could find:

-The now defunct Punk Rock Orchestra from San Francisco where they did somewhat full orchestral covers of punk classics

-Sid Vicious’ rendition of Frank Sinatra’s My Way.

-The genre Gypsy (or Klezmer) punk (as they incorporate a violin, clarinet, or tuba but people would hardly classify the sound as orchestral punk).

-The incredibly awesome band Cardiacs (more saxophones, organs, and cartoony effects than so much orchestral instruments).

-The occasional novelty string ensemble covers of punk songs.

Maybe I didn’t search hard enough but that’s all I found. So, it seemed like a gap in music that had yet to be filled and my curiosity got the best of me.

And unfortunately, no. There was no one to stop me as I plotted in secret.

Apart from the shitty Google search results, what have influenced this idea the most?

When I was a snotty, self-righteous little kid, the first style of music I tried playing in was punk because it was easy and I had a false sense of angst (so of course I was attracted to it). I love the gritty, snarling energy that seems to be unique to the spirit of punk, hardcore, and whatever subgenres that are loosely related (mind you, I’m talking about more of the sound similar to ZEUS!, THE LOCUST, and DEAD KENNEDYS rather than, say, THE RAMONES [not that I have anything against THE RAMONES so please spare me your wrath]).

But I always had an outsider’s admiration and love for orchestral music as well. When I was just old enough to shit in a toilet without help, I remember seeing the movie Fantasia and hearing Modest Mussorgky’s Night on Bald Mountain (the more popular Rimsky-Korsakov version). It gave me the chills then and it gives me the chills now. The immense variety of beautiful, almost otherworldly textures only an orchestra can offer astounds me and I always wished I could make music like that.

Anyway, the short answer is that I love the mood, high-energy, and personality that good hardcore and punk music exhibit and the incredible textures found in an orchestra. For some reason, these two groups hardly ever mingle in the same room so I decided create an awkward situation where they have no choice but to acknowledge each other.

Have you thought about adding harsh punk vocals to these tracks?

Yes, I have. Normally, I’d go ahead and yelp and holler for my own projects but there were a couple things stopping me for this one. First, where I currently live has thin walls and the neighbors are very close by. So, I have no appropriate space to scream my head off without having the cops called on me. Second, I’m just really lazy.

Maybe this would be a good time to welcome anyone who feels compelled to record their vocals for one or two of these tracks. Maybe I could release a collaborative vocal version of this album for free. Who knows.

Luke Kelly!

What is your instrument of choice?

The most generic one: guitar.

Ironically, I didn’t play a note on this album. It’s all virtual instruments and sample libraries. I painstakingly clicked note-by-note in my computer….though I sure hope people wouldn’t come to that conclusion on their own without me disclosing that.

Having said that, what were the most valuable lessons you learned whilst composing and recording these crazy tunes?

That throwing an orchestra on top of a punk song will not make magically make it sound better. You have to put that much more effort into the arrangement and composition to make it sound half-decent. Otherwise, it’s just one boring mush of sound. A seemingly unique or novel combination of sounds may initially attract the listener but the composition is still the biggest factor in keeping them engaged through the entire piece.

Also, I never realized how much I took for granted in regards to the undeniably human nuances in actually playing guitar. That goes for any instrument for that matter. However, I thought it would be easy to fake real guitar playing because the samples would be so smothered in distortion that no one would tell the difference anyway. I’ve never been so wrong. It’s a painfully forced and tedious process to make it sound remotely natural. Next time I have rock-related recording project, I’m going to dig my guitar out of the closet and hand my wife some earplugs.

Ok, so what are some of the most important points in writing music this way? Any tips for the rest of the wicked fellas trying to conduct more forbidden experiments similar to Luke Perry’s Flying Circus? Tell us a bit about your process approaching your compositions.

This album was a first time experiment for me so I’m afraid I don’t have enough experience to qualify informally instructing people with tips on what to do or what not do. However, I will be glad to tell you about my various processes and let any fellow bedroom producers/composers decide what works for them and what doesn’t.

I went about writing half of the songs on the album like this:

first focused on what just what the band (drums, bass, and guitars) would play. Basically, I tried to make sure the song would be good enough to stand on its own if it was stripped down to just the rock band. That way, when it comes to writing the orchestra, the mood has already been firmly established. Everything’s already in motion and the idea is well on it’s way to becoming fully realized. That’s the first half of it.

The second half of this process is writing the orchestral parts (big surprise). This probably isn’t the best analogy but I sort viewed the orchestral response to the band as a really elaborate vocal part. The drums play the rhythm, the guitars play the chords, and the vocals (or the orchestra) sings the melody on top. If a vocal part sounds weak, you double it up or have back up vocals (brass and woodwinds playing the same melody). Maybe the chorus needs some harmonies (strings and woodwinds playing different parts). Maybe you don’t want the vocalist to sing and prefer him to shout or scream (effects and textures like brass rips and overblown staccatos on the flutes). Anyway, I viewed writing the orchestral parts as an opportunity to make a rock instrumental (hopefully) better.

For the rest of the album, I had varying processes on a track by track basis. For Wolfgang Rotten’s Recital, I wrote the piano and clarinet first as if it was a stand alone piece. For Plagued With Intrusive Thoughts, I wrote just the drums first and fooled around with different orchestral ideas on top of it to see what worked and what didn’t. For Junk City, I just had a drum loop, threw over a bass part, started with trumpet melody and then had the big band brass harmonize over that. Sometimes I just made arbitrary rules like for Awkward Angst, I tried to see if I could make an aggressive, excitable sounding track with just drums, bass guitars, woodwinds, and brass (no guitars or strings).

I could go on even longer but I’m sure your poor readers have had enough.

Hello, Is there anybody in there? :)

Like, what do you do to stay inspired in a musical sense?

I haven’t thought too much about that. I guess it depends on what mood I want to establish, what artist I want rip off…I mean, emulate, and what instruments I want to use. Sometimes if I have writer’s block, I strictly focus on making the rhythm a little more lively and see if that inspires any melodic ideas in response.

Luke Kelly

Considering the final effect, have you decided to forsake the idea of creating more orchestral punk albums? :) Or quite otherwise? What do you intend to create next?

I haven’t decided yet. I’d like to revisit orchestral punk down the road but not for my next immediate project. I’m currently working on a hip-hop album for a rapper. For my own projects, I may do more generic, cinematic soundtrack music next. Maybe I’ll do a “junk punk” EP where you replace the drums with trash cans and found objects and make the guitars exceptionally unlistenable.

We’ll see what happens.

Ok, but seriously, have you ever wondered what playing these tunes with a full band and live instruments would feel like if set up as a proper live stage setting? Do you have any idea how cool that would be? How would you go about to make it happen?

I have wondered. But mostly I get preoccupied with the thought of everything going wrong that I don’t even begin to enjoy the fantasy.

I think of the impossible struggle of finding the right players (either they’re unenthused or incompetent); having to persuade all these people to be part of a mediocre punk orchestra; having to find someone to arrange the music in notation (because I can’t read a note of music); having to PAY all these people; finding a big enough rehearsal space; having the patience to TEACH everyone these songs; take time off from work for shows; having to find venues that can accommodate a whole orchestra; book the show; make sure EVERYONE shows up on time; having proper lighting, enough microphones, the dreaded 1 to 3 hour long sound checks; then the humidity in the venue makes the whole string section go out of tune, the guitarist breaks a string, the clarinet player splits a reed, the drummer busts a kick drum, the trombonist accidentally hits another player in the head with his slide and that starts a fight. All this happens and then the venue doesn’t give us our cut from ticket sales….and then no one can pay their rent that month.

This is what I think about when I hear the phrase “live orchestra.”

Haha, nice one. But I’ve tried to convince you, please mark it and remember to mention me in you inlay cover commentary for the SYMPHONY & LUKE KELLY DVD you’ll eventually release).

Do you have a music scene in Ukiah? Where do you have to travel to see a live show?

Haha. OK, I will. Now you have my agreement in writing.

There used to be a punk/metal/hardcore scene here but it kind of fizzled out (as far as I know). The kids grew up and got real jobs.

I hardly go out anymore. I haven’t seen a show for what seems like years. I think you’d have to drive about an hour away from Ukiah to see a live show with that sort of music.

Nevertheless, can you comment on the current state of hardcore punk music? Apart from all the extreme experiments in the vein of “Hooligans”, do you have the feeling that a kind of evolution is going on in this regard?

I’m afraid I don’t know enough about new hardcore punk bands to make a well informed assessment or an accurate observation. But with that said, I do get the impression that there are quite a handful of people (just perusing on Bandcamp and YouTube) who are experimenting with fancy-schmancy guitar effects and musical complexity with hardcore punk. There are always some handful of bands who find (whether intentionally or not) some seldom explored gaps in genres. And there’s always the chance that those bands may influence future generations. I think experimentation in texture or composition, for any genre for that matter, will always continue to expand. I also get the weird impression that people in general have more eclectic tastes now so that tends to show in their songwriting in one way or another.

Ok Luke. I guess that’s about it. Would you like to add anything else before we part our ways?

I’m sorry to say but I don’t have any profound words of wisdom to share with the world. Just a generic “thanks for having me.”

I’ll be sure to bug you again if I ever get around to that junk punk EP.

(Shrugs shoulders).

Thank you! It was a pleasure. Good luck mate!

Luke Kelly Facebook
Luke Kelly Bandcamp

Karol Kamiński

DIY rock music enthusiast and web-zine publisher from Warsaw, Poland. Supporting DIY ethics, local artists and promoting hardcore punk, rock, post rock and alternative music of all kinds via IDIOTEQ online channels.
Contact via [email protected]

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