MODEST MUSE: “It wasn’t so much that we were good as that we avoided all the things about our previous bands that had sucked.”
Jeff Robbins is something of a rock star — just not the kind who plays Super Bowl halftime shows or collects Grammys. But he appeared to be on his way to that kind of rock-stardom just a little over a decade ago, when the band he then fronted, the Boston trio Orbit, were riding high in the wake of their A&M debut, Libido Speedway.
“In 1997, I did the Lollapalooza tour, I played live on MTV, our album came out, and we had a Top 10 modern-rock single,” he recalls with a laugh over beers at the Independent in Union Square. “Now I run a company — Lullabot — that basically creates free open-source software. We work with really large clients — companies like Sony/BMG. And we built the Web site for MTV UK. It’s a different kind of rock star. I mean, the people in that world refer to me as being a rock star. And every once in a while, someone will make the Orbit connection. Like, I had one guy who’d been working for me for three or four months and then one day, out of the blue, I get the fan call from him. Like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got all your albums . . . ’ ”
Now, years (and many Web sites) later, Robbins, founding Orbit drummer Paul Buckley (who’s also played with Kay Hanley and Dear Leader), and bassist Linda Pardee (a veteran of Ad Frank’s many projects who joined Orbit after they’d been dropped by A&M in ’99) are toying with reviving the band. They played two Sheila Divine reunion shows back in December, and they’re gearing up to headline T.T. the Bear’s this Friday.
“Most bands get together and say, ‘We’re going to pay our dues and it’ll eventually pay off,’ ” Buckley explains. “But with Orbit it happened really quickly. I met Jeff in ’93, we started the band in ’94, and one year later we were signed. We were fortunate that some of the songs we had were timely, and we’d learned from the mistakes we’d made in previous bands.”
“Yeah, it wasn’t so much that we were good as that we avoided all of the things about our previous bands that had sucked,” interjects Robbins.
But music-business bullshit eventually caught up with Orbit when, in 1999, the Seagram/Universal merger in effect made A&M part of Interscope, a move that left a lot of artists homeless.
“Pretty much, A&M was decimated, from the A&R people to the president, so there was nobody there to champion us,” Buckley recalls. “The A&M people had told us that they felt really, really good about us; they wanted to keep the momentum going by sending us back to the studio to do another album. But by the time we delivered that second album, we were dealing with a totally different label. And they didn’t want to keep us around. It’s funny, we played 150 shows in 1997 and 700 shows all told when the band was together. But the last 300 of those were after we lost our deal. It was actually harder then because there’s a stigma attached to you when you’ve been dropped. It’s like, the window opens and shuts and then you have to figure out another way to open it. Every band has its own little story from that period. So we ended up paying our dues at the end.”