The history of the band Orbis Max is long and a bit complicated. They are the longest surviving band you’ve never heard of, prolific, but not regularly receiving much in terms of the spotlight. They are the band that could, in defiance against time and a music business culture that wasn’t ready for them.
Today, they don’t need to be. Members of the group are cast around the world, but technology allows them to still record. Online platforms give them an ability to deliver their music – single by single, usually – and not be pulled apart by the stressors that lately have come to typify the modern musician’s life.
More intriguingly, they’ve released an album: A Pocket Full of Tunes, now available from CD Baby. It collects their many singles into one place, offering a “greatest hits” for a band that not many actually knew. Perhaps that will change.
MusicTAP sat with longtime band members Craig Carlstrom and Don Bakke in early-fall, in anticipation of the release of A Pocket Full of Tunes. (Please note that the responses are a combination of Carlstrom and Bakke unless otherwise noted.)
Give a sense of the history of Orbis Max. How long has the band been in existence?
Orbis formed in the early ’70s, around ’73, with the current founding members being Dick Winter drums, Craig Carlstrom on bass and vocals, Don Baake on guitar, and Jonny Viau on sax. The first grouping was a seven-piece band consisting of the above-mentioned members, plus Dale Breeden on guitar and vocals; Rick Miller with guitar, piano, and vocals; and Rev Treptoe on drums.
We wanted to be The Allman Brothers Band. We had twin guitars, and two drummers and a series of ever-changing lead singer/front men. The list of lead singers we had is too numerous to mention.
We played songs by The Allman Brothers, Eagles, Little Feat, Boz Scaggs, Johnny and Edgar Winter, Jackson Browne, Todd Rundgren, and Steely Dan.
Growing up in Poway, which is one hour north of San Diego and 2.5 hours from Los Angeles, we were very influenced by what was coming out of L.A. We were part of the ever-growing Southern California rock scene, embracing many styles of music.
We gained our reputation from playing huge outdoor “parties.” Set up on a flatbed truck with a generator, in a field out in the middle of nowhere. Playing for 1500 people who showed up by word-of0-mouth…something you couldn’t get away with doing nowadays. These gatherings often ended with an onslaught of various law enforcement from the surrounding communities showing up and shutting us down. People still talk about those parties.
We were either hated or loved: hated because we refused to play what was on the radio, but loved because we played stuff other bands didn’t have the balls to play. Deep album cuts, etc.
We were unsuccessful at trying to get club gigs, because we couldn’t fit into small club stages with two drum kits, and we didn’t play top-40.
We decided to go with one drummer, but things were changing. This would have been around 1976, and the disco scene happened, which didn’t relate at all to what our aim was. We wanted no part of that. Don left the group, got married, and returned to college to pursue a computer science degree.
At that stage, we were now the core five, with various front men. We started learning what was popular, pursuing club work, and doing some road work. Some of the guys in the band were starting to get offers to join more consistently working bands. Nobody wanted to get a day job, so as you can imagine, the prospect of earning a living playing music was hard to resist. We finally disbanded in late 1979.
I started a group called Robyn Banx in ’81, made up of refugees from other disbanded rival bands. We played the ’80 s circuit extensively for six years. We disbanded and I retired from playing music. By then, I was married with a child to raise.
But that wasn’t, in fact, the end of the band. Specifically, even though you all have physically gone separate ways, Orbis Max now employs a recording process that could only take place now, being that you trade audio files over the Internet and develop the songs one member at a time. Could you explain how you accomplish that?
The songs start out with usually a phone recording I make, of me singing la-la melodies and playing acoustic guitar. I’m good for the chorus /hook and starting the first couple of lines to a verse.
Dennis George (vocalist) and others help fill in the blank lyrics. Then, Don usually helps me come up with a bridge.
Once we have a general idea and arrangement hammered out, Don makes a basic track with rhythm guitar and fake drums. I’ll add any bass or guitar parts I have, and then we send it to Dennis for vocals and the rest of the guys to start overdubbing ideas and parts on it.
On our most recent song, “Ride,” the group and recording crew is:
Rod Bennett on vocals and guitars, Dennis on vocals, Craig with bass and slide guitars; Don handles acoustic guitars, string arrangements and programming; Dick Winter on drums, and Bruce “Sky” Walker with keyboards. Alec Staples handles mix engineering and mastering. You’re looking at a recording that spans San Diego, CA; Dallas, TX; Vass, North Carolina; and Rod is in Liverpool in the U.K.
(Don and Craig) basically give the other guys a blueprint to work from and encourage them to do their thing. They’ll record several idea tracks, and we choose the ones that work the best.
Once we have all the tracks, we add the real drums, and then send them to Alec, who owns a studio. He assembles and mixes the tracks, then masters the song. It takes a while this way, but we have no schedule to keep. Everyone records at their leisure until they are happy with their tracks. After weeks of planning a song, they come together rather quickly once we start recording.
I like recording this way. It’s kind of magical to wait to hear what each guy is doing on a song. With each overdub, the song takes on a life of its own. We trust each other’s gut. At this age, all the egos have been checked at the door, so it’s all about the song’s needs, not the player’s egos. We were tight as friends back then, and that bond is still strong today. We still have a chemistry.
There could easily be instances where being together in a single place might be a benefit, like when a song is coming together but there’s one part that needs to change. In a studio, that could be communicated immediately, whereas this process has an obvious lag time. What have you done as a unit to overcome these?
Don Bakke: There was one time where we did record live together with the four primary San Diego members. We were doing one of the blues tunes and our sax player came out and made us speed it up. He said it sounded like a funeral march at the tempo we were at. But other than that, we have everything planned ahead and no need to change things on the fly in a studio setting. In fact, we have made tempo changes ahead of our recording based on the demos I make. I send that out and someone will say it needs to be a little faster or whatever. So I speed things up and we go from there.
As you mentioned, the latest single is called “Ride” and is the most recent recording to be included on the new collection, A Pocket Full of Tunes. Tell me a little about it.
Craig Carlstrom: I have a hard drive full of bits and pieces of song ideas. I was going through it and found the demo Rod made for “Ride.” We had started working on it a few years prior. For one reason or another, it got put on the back burner and forgotten about. I sent it to Don and asked him to record a new basic track, playing along with Rod’s demo because all we had was Rod’s two-track mix.
Don Bakke: It was a demo done by Rod in Liverpool. I made another demo version for us to work with using a drum loop and me playing acoustic guitars and I used a bass track Craig had sent me. We sent it to the others and worked on more tracks, including keyboards and I did some string parts (programmed) along with an electric guitar part. Our singer Dennis did the vocals on it and we sent what we had to Rod. He decided to add to it as well with another guitar part and he did some more vocals, including the bridge with the “Strawberry Fields” bit. I made a mix of that without the drum loop, and send that to Alec along with a click track. We then got our drummer in to record last. This is typical of our process, drums come last. Our drummer is very good at doing that.
Craig Carlstrom: We’re really pleased with how it turned out. I sure didn’t envy Alec’s task of mixing and balancing it. There were 46 tracks to mix. It took him a couple of weeks to complete it, but he did a terrific job.
Where can people find Orbis Max music?
We currently have several more collaborations in the pipeline: two Motown-flavored girl-group styled songs with a dynamite female blues/soul singer. There’s a new song by Dennis George coming, and replacing some of my lead vocals on some previous blues songs we released with my old friend and singer from Robyn Banx (Rich Staples). Rich will also be guesting on some future rockers and pop rock songs. Also recently, a couple of artists in this internet community we are part of, have reached out, indicating they would like to collaborate with us. I can’t mention any names right now. I don’t want to jinx it. (Laughs.)
Is there something you are working toward that, while it might not be immediately attainable, is where you would like the band to be in five years?
Basically, we’re concentrating on just doing singles. I think albums are dead these days. People don’t want to buy music anymore. And people have short attention spans these days. We’ll stick to singles and once we’ve gathered enough together, we’ll put them on a compilation album. The latest one is our third such release and it joins Net Tunes and Orbis Max and Friends.
As far as five years from now? Most of us are in our early to mid-’60s. I can’t imagine pushing 70 and still doing this. It would be time to hang up the spurs and leave it to the youngsters. Bottom line is, we’re just a bunch of old crazy bastards enjoying playing together again. We proved to ourselves that we can still run with the big dogs.
We’ve gotten tons of internet radio play and had nice things written about us, and a lot of the really big artists have been very kind and supportive of Orbis.
We’ll probably keep going until we run out of tunes, or one of us croaks! (Laughs.)