Fierce Chicago quintet the Orwells hit the Late Show With David Letterman on Wednesday night to play the title track from their Who Needs You EP. Performing at the vaunted Ed Sullivan Theater, the band blasted through the song while frontman Mario Cuomo writhed and did some slow pelvic thrusts, then plopped down in a chair normally reserved for the show’s guests. It was utterly out-of-control, utterly compelling, and even weirdly divisive.
— Steven Hyden (@Steven_Hyden) January 16, 2014
But what did Dave and his longtime bandleader Paul Shaffer think? Well, they both immediately demanded an encore, though in classic Letterman fashion it was almost impossible to parse the levels of irony and sincerity. By the time Late Show band launched into their own rendition of “Who Needs You,” during which Shaffer came out from behind his keyboard and mimicked Cuomo’s hip-wriggling as the Orwells looked confusedly and bemusedly on, you had what is already sure to be one of 2014’s televised musical highlights.
The day after the performance, we caught up with the band’s guitarist Matt O’Keefe:
What sort of reactions to the performance have you read so far today?
It’s been good and bad. Which is normally what we get.
Were you nervous going into Letterman?
Leading into it we weren’t nervous at all. But being onstage to record the thing, and you see Letterman there and you’re doing it — for about 10 seconds you’re overcome with fear. Then once we’re into it, we’re like ‘We’ve done played the song a thousand times’ and we just did our thing. Now looking back, it’s funny reading all these things and seeing what people are saying, because what we were like is what we’re always like. It’s just that more people see you when you’re on TV.
So your performance on the show was basically representative?
That’s how it usually is. You come out to see us live, we’re not going to play the entire song correctly. We would’ve been faking it if we’d played every single note and were perfectly on time.
Did you see Dave before the show?
No. There was no walking in the green room and saying “hi.” None of that.
Immediately after you guys finished playing, what was your sense of what Dave thought of your performance?
We did talk to Letterman for a bit after we finished and it came off to us like he genuinely enjoyed it, but who knows? I could see how someone could see it as going either way. We feel like he liked it.
What’d you think when Paul started mimicking Mario’s moves?
I’d walked off the stage by then. Once Paul and his band kicked into the song, I was like, “I don’t know what to do.” I put my guitar on the floor and I didn’t want to just be standing there looking like a blank-faced dumbass. So I just kinda walked off. But when they cut into the song, I came back on. Paul was up off the floor by then. I thought it was cool. When he and Dave were asking us to do it again, we kinda figured that they meant play “Who Needs You” again. I think we were like, if we played again, what version is gonna get used on TV? We’d rather just give ’em one version. We didn’t want to play it again.
It was pretty confusing to watch. But that’s what made it interesting.
Yeah. By the end of it, I’d literally broken every string on my guitar. I physically could not play the song again. We felt like, ‘That was the one we gave you,’ and like we were getting led into giving a more “perfect” performance. We did not want to do that.
When did you realize that people were talking about the performance?
Well, I woke up to 25 text messages about it. Then I went on Facebook and all my friends I went to high school with were sharing a link to it. I didn’t read too much stuff, but I got both sides of the argument.
Even from your friends?
Did Dave say anything to you after the cameras stopped rolling?
Right before he was left the stage, he was laughing and he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “That was exactly what we needed.” Then he walked off.