Two hours before Orgy are due to perform at Philadelphia’s Trocadero Theater, guitarist Ryan Shuck is as restless as a fourth-grader the day before summer vacation. “Hey, is there an after-show party?” he asks. “Yes? Let’s go there now.” This plan is greeted with silence, so he continues to complain: “I don’t feel good. I’m well rested, but I feel sluggish.” His solution: “I better get drunk. My personality’s in this bottle someplace.”
The other members of Orgy ignore him; they have problems of their own. Take drummer Bobby Hewitt and his pre-show crisis: “Does anybody have any black nail polish?”
The only member of the band not present is lead singer Jay Gordon, who gets ready for the show on the band’s bus, carefully teasing four Alfalfa spikes out of his hair and then using a blow-dryer and vast quantities of hair spray to immobilize them. “OK, let’s get into these soggy, mildewed clothes and go do the rock show,” he sighs. He pulls on his stage outfit — a white lace top, a white vest and white bondage pants. He then covers his tennis shoes with swaths of masking tape to make them look more like moon boots. Next step: He applies white lipstick, draws eyebrows with ironically crooked arches and adds what looks like eye shadow. “Actually, this is more of a matte to lay the eye shadow on,” he explains.
Wearing makeup puts Orgy at the end of a rock & roll genealogy that begins with the New York Dolls and extends through David Bowie, Cinderella and Marilyn Manson. “A lot of people look at the makeup and think Duran Duran,” says Shuck. “Fuck that. Makeup, clothes, music — it’s all art.” And Orgy take their art seriously enough that each member lugs a large case of cosmetics from one city to the next.
But there are some things Orgy can’t cover up with lipstick and powder; although they look like teen goths out on the town, they’re actually closer to their thirties. (Shuck is twenty-six, and Amir Derakh, who plays the guitar-synth, is thirty-six and has a twelve-year-old son.) Each of the five band mates spent a decade on the fringes of the L.A. music industry before forming Orgy and being signed, in 1997, as the first band on Elementree Records, the label run by Jonathan Davis of Korn. But powered by heavy play on MTV’s Total Request Live, Orgy’s cover of New Order’s “Blue Monday” became a hit; it was followed by their own “Stitches.” Now their debut album, Candyass, is on the verge of going platinum, Shuck and Gordon have done print ads for Calvin Klein, and a large crowd of teenage Philadelphia girls is gathered outside Orgy’s bus, waiting for a glimpse of Gordon.
Showtime: Orgy stalk onstage in the darkness, and each member holds a pose, like it’s a game of freeze tag. Then the lights come up and the band launches into the grinding attack of “Dizzy.” Derakh has the herky-jerky movements of a Kraftwerk marionette, while Shuck is flailing around in a manner that suggests his guitar is electrocuting him. Gordon steps into the spotlight, holding the mike in his right hand and the stand in his left, posing with it like the master of ceremonies at some Weimar Republic cabaret. The bass is loud enough to purée vegetables with, while the melodies help the crowd turn despair into mass liberation. Orgy finish an hour-long set with “Blue Monday,” Gordon screaming at the crowd, “How does it feel/To treat me like you do?” and whipping his mike cord through the strobe light. As the crowd chants, “Or-gee, Or-gee,” the quintet marches offstage looking sweaty and dour.
I visit the dressing room a few minutes later and discover that the mood offstage is somewhat more cheerful than on. Most of the band members are busily throwing things at one another, specifically Coca-Cola, ice and an acoustic tile pulled loose from the ceiling. (They are careful not to squander the beer, however.) Shuck is clad only in a towel; somebody has written “My butt” on his lower back with lipstick, along with an arrow pointing to the relevant part of his anatomy. “Check it out!” he yelps, waggling his tush at me. “It’s my butt! It’s not yours!”
I retreat to the bus, where Gordon is stripping off his now even more sodden clothes. He tells the band’s road manager to stash the garments “in the closet with the vacuum cleaner.” I wonder out loud who does the vacuuming on Orgy’s tour bus. Gordon brightens: “Actually, this morning I did. At 5:30 A.M., I went up and down the hallway, making sure everyone was awake.”
Although Gordon has only recently ascended to the showbiz glamour of early-morning Hoovering, he has been around the music world all his life. His father, Lou Gordon, was a Bay Area manager who worked with Tower of Power and Sly and the Family Stone. In fact, Sly Stone is Jay Gordon’s godfather. “I was onstage with Sly and the Family Stone at age two,” he says, “shaking a little tambourine.”
Gordon’s parents split up after his dad got busted for drugs, and he was raised by his mom in the Excelsior area of San Francisco. Like most kids, Gordon periodically ran away from home. “Once a week, for fifteen minutes,” he says. “I’d go home as soon as I got hungry — I didn’t want to be a trick on Santa Monica Boulevard. Running away is not for street-smart kids.” Gordon was a big kid — he’s six feet four now — and in about eighth grade, he started playing sports. His favorite was football, where he switched off between quarterback and tight end. “I went through the sports thing,” he says, “but I found out I was a better criminal than any of that.”
In a vivid illustration of the pitfalls of the criminal life, at thirteen, Gordon got shot in the left leg when he was walking home from school, and he claims that the attack was completely unprovoked. He says the bullet remains in his leg to this day. “That was enough to make me think, ‘Maybe I associate myself with the wrong people,’ ” he says. “Although I’ve still been known to hang out with the biggest fucking goons in the world.”
Around this time, Gordon discovered heavy metal, sneaking out of the house to see Metallica at the Stone in San Francisco in the early Eighties. He sang in his own band until he screwed up his voice, presumably from too much screaming. At sixteen, he had laser surgery on his throat and assumed that his singing career was over; he started learning to play bass guitar instead. He says that he once had a range of two octaves and could handle the vocal parts of Freddie Mercury and Prince. Today, Gordon’s voice remains growly — he is convinced that people constantly misinterpret his speech as being hostile, simply because of his deep vocal timbre.
After high school, Gordon moved to L.A. “I was your basic, average glam-rock Sunset Strip kid,” he says. “I had reddish hair and a white, gothy face.” He was a big fan of Poison and, especially, Ratt. But he never joined any glam-rock bands; instead, he went to school and studied to be an audio engineer. And so he made his living on the edge of the music world, sometimes DJ’ing or promoting a party, sometimes producing and, in recent years, trying to put bands together. (One of those bands, Lit, went on to success of its own recently; Gordon claims that his only connection with the group is that the guys in Lit bought the name from him.)
Shuck, meanwhile, grew up in the dull environs of Taft, California. “Even as a kid,” he says, “I knew it sucked.” At eighteen, he moved to nearby Bakersfield to attend beauty college and befriended Jonathan Davis, who was working at a local mortuary. “I used to cut his hair at beauty college — he was my guinea pig,” Shuck says. “He came in once from the coroner’s office where he was working, and he had blood on his sleeve. He was trying to roll up his sleeve and hide it, the disgusting bastard.”
In 1992, Shuck and Davis played together in a band called Sex Art; their repertoire included a song called “Blind.” A few years later, “Blind” became a hit for Korn, and Shuck sued for a song-writing credit. When I ask him why, he is embarrassed and pleads extreme naiveté, saying that he wanted only to have his name on the album, so the credential would help him professionally, and that he didn’t realize money would also be involved. (The case was settled out of court — Shuck is now listed as a co-songwriter and periodically gets royalty checks.) “It’s not cool to sue your friend,” he concludes.
Shuck moved to L.A. and cut hair for a living; he still styles the coifs of everyone in the band. “I charged fifty dollars for a haircut — I was ripping people off,” he says. “It was a great fucking job. I got to go to band practice every night, and I had a shitload of money to spend on equipment. I’m sure that if this whole thing drops out from underneath me, I can do it again.”
Derakh played guitar for several L.A. bands, including Rough Cutt, which had some success in the Eighties. Over the years, he shifted his focus to producing and DJ’ing. Hewitt was drumming with a Chili Peppers-style band called the Electric Love Hogs and was supported by his wife, porn star Shane. Bassist Paige Haley was painting houses for a living.
“Jay’s definitely the best-connected one of us,” says Haley. “He runs his mouth a lot, and he’s always around everybody at all times, so he meets a lot of people.” In 1997, Gordon decided he was ready to sing again and started calling up friends from the L.A. scene, inviting them to work on the demos he was putting together with producer Josh Abraham. The ad hoc sessions became a group, and the group came up with the name Orgy, which was intended not primarily as a sexual reference but as a description of their various influences — drum-and-bass, hair metal, funk grooves and Eighties synth bands — all getting it on together. Those dystopic demos caught the ears of several major labels; the band went with Elementree and Davis, who apparently held no grudge over Shuck’s lawsuit.
Orgy rented a large house in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, and basically invited the whole town over to party: Kids jumped off the roof on bicycles; Hewitt crashed a car and abandoned it in the snow. The group recorded Candyass — whenever it could take a break from throwing furniture off the balcony. “The funny thing,” says Derakh, “is that we destroyed this guy’s house and we never heard anything about it. He must have known, I guess, that we were going to wreck his house.”
While Orgy were recording the album, they visited a local used-record store and saw a cassette of New Order’s Substance collection. Their minds boggling over the idea of somebody selling such a classic record, they bought it and promptly began working on their own version of “Blue Monday,” following New Order’s blueprint faithfully but adding guitars to the chorus. It ended up spookier than they had originally intended. “I didn’t say, ‘Whoa — let me make my voice all satanic,’ ” cracks Gordon.
AFTER THE PHILADELPHIA SHOW, Orgy dutifully sign autographs for the hundreds of fans waiting outside. Bored and antsy sitting on the tour bus — which they have dubbed “the human fishbowl” because of the way crowds peer through the windshield — they play some Nerf basketball and then decide to head across town to party with their friends in Coal Chamber, who have just finished a show with Insane Clown Posse. Unfortunately, this “party” is on another tour bus.
No matter: Judas Priest are on the stereo, joints are passed, and Gordon, Shuck and Haley head into the bus’s back room to do some speed. The only unhappy member of the band is Hewitt, who sits in the bus driver’s seat, away from the noise and smoke, pining for his domestic California life with his wife and their three dogs.
The next day, I meet with Gordon in his Washington, D.C., hotel room after he wakes up, at around 3 p.m. There’s a beautiful, raven-haired girl lying in his bed; he introduces us, and we shake hands. Before we talk, Gordon plays me a demo he’s really excited about: It’s by the Wonder Girls, an L.A. supergroup that includes himself, Ashley Hamilton, Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland, the Cult’s Ian Astbury and Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath. The song is called “Drop That Baby,” and it’s insanely catchy. Gordon says no label wants to sign them because of the nightmare of untangling their individual contracts and fear of drug abuse.
Gordon won’t discuss his age, but he’s apologetic about his reticence, saying he wants to keep some sense of mystery around the band. I ask him to tell me something about himself that would surprise people, and he sits up straight, which makes him look as tall and stovepipe-thin as Ichabod Crane. “I’ve done so much silly shit, I don’t think people will be surprised by anything I do, you know?” he says. “If I shot a fifty-foot flame out of my ass, it would make no difference to anyone.”
Candyass‘ mordant lyrics range from “You can’t escape what makes you tragic” to “Here to save the freaks again.” But when I ask Gordon which lyric means more to him now than when he wrote it, he breaks into a wide grin and quotes a line from “Dizzy”: “‘Dum-dum-dizzy-dizzy-dum-dum.’ That means more to me now than anything. Because I wrote the songs for people to put their own imagination to work.”
What does he like to think his fans are doing while they’re listening to the record? “Running away from home, probably,” he says. “There was this distant feeling I always had when I was making my record, about not being in such a good state of mind to have fun. So I think the record’s about running away. I could see kids all over America listening to that on their way out of nowheresville.”