Photo by Rūta Smith

Opening doors

Slaphappy, the new album by Charleston rock band Orange Doors, is perhaps the most aptly named release of 2020. It’s a startling, disorienting funhouse where nothing is as it seems, and everything is constantly shifting, stretching out, contracting or transforming.

Take “No Following,” the opening track: It’s 2 minutes and 40 seconds of field-recorded industrial clanging, psychedelic sound effects and demonic moaning that suddenly explodes into a Beach Boys-style crescendo before an extended fade-out with a wailing brass. 

That’s merely the intro to a multilayered maelstrom of an album featuring choppy guitars, offbeat percussion, angular song structures and unexpected tonal shifts. You’ll find hard-rock, indie-pop, psychedelic madness and unwieldy horns in this music. It simultaneously makes no sense and all the sense in the world. It’s the work of mad musical scientists throwing everything but the kitchen sink at their songs but somehow making them infectiously melodic at the same time. It’s demented and beautiful.

And that’s just how multi-instrumentalists Ian Russell and Michael Ewens intended it. They spent the last two or three years meticulously layering and constructing the 13 songs on Slaphappy, creating the illusion of chaos through careful composition.

“I think it’s definitely an intentional thing to try to make the songs different by having an unpredictability to them,” said Ewens, who generally handles bass and keyboards. “It makes it more fun and engaging for us to play as well.”

In terms of influences, the duo cites acts like Radiohead, Neutral Milk Hotel and the Dodos, but Russell also draws on his time in a marching band. 

Wait, what?

“I did marching band for four years,” said Russell, who sings and plays guitar and drums. “And I took a lot of inspiration from the way that music was written. I kind of tried to put that into this album. For example, with the brass hits, we’ll have big builds, a big melody and then it will switch to something else. There are a whole lot of different rhythms going on in a marching band, and it’s basically about tension and release.”

One thing’s for sure: At the very least, Russell and Ewens spent a lot of time making sure that Slaphappy sounds as big as a marching band. Every song on the album is like an aural mosaic; you can hear something new every time you listen to it. According to Russell, each track has at least 50 different layers of vocals, synths and field recordings.

“We both tried to put a lot of ambient sounds in the background to fill it out,” Ewens added, “and in order to get that bigger brass band sound, we’d have to do like four tuba tracks and six trombone tracks.”

The musical alchemists who form the nucleus of Orange Doors met in high school at the Governor’s School in Greenville. 

Ewens and Russell’s friendship has led to a prolific six-year run of releases. Starting with 2014’s Silver Sun, the band released nine other albums and singles leading up to Slaphappy. Given the level of work the duo puts into their recordings, it seems fair to ask if that meticulous approach ever leads them to burnout.

But Russell said that their method actually keeps them from getting tired of their songs.

“Every time we add something to it, it’s more exciting, because it will completely change how that section of the song sounds,” he said. “And when you start thinking of other things that could go into that new layer that you added, you realize it could work in a different section of the song or even a part of a different song.”

So if these two are adding stuff to a song that they thought they finished a year ago, how do they know when they’re actually finished?

“It’s done when we stop working on it,” Ewens laughed. “When we feel like that’s enough.”

As studio bound as Slaphappy seems, the five-piece version of Orange Doors has been playing most of the songs live for a couple of years now. So whenever they’re able to play live again, Ewens said that you can expect to see them playing a lot.

“It’s not a very advantageous time to release a record,” he said. “But as soon as we’re able to play shows, we’re planning on touring pretty hard.”