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Thirty-eight-year-old Jersey City, New Jersey native George Van Orsdel likes to think that he has learned a thing or two. At first glance George seems like a dip-chewing, cantankerous drunk. Appearances, of course, can be deceiving. He smiles at jokes that he could be twenty-year-old guitarist Todd Van Orsdel's dad. He makes the usual age complaints to stop his bandmates from the lighthearted harassment that has him, almost always, on the receiving end. He looks like he might be in his early thirties, and has a full head of thick, non-Grecian formula-assisted black hair. Pomaded, covered in tattoos, and garbed in blue jeans, he is, simply put, a nice Cuban boy.
Yes, boy. Despite all the things he has gone through, George has not lost the youthful spirit and attitude that propelled him onto the South Florida music scene in the Eighties. A resident of Miami since 1971, he grew up surrounded by alcohol and drug abuse while helming the drums for the legendary Fuck Boyz and never partook. He also did stints with the equally legendary Cell 63 and Fay Wray. Subscribing himself to an almost straight-edge mentality (his true and only addiction is to ice cream) has guaranteed him longevity.
After some years of inactivity following Fay Wray's demise in the mid-Nineties, George was back in the swing of things with Torpedo Lucas. Many gigs, one CD (aptly) titled Self-Propelled, and various guitarists later, the group disbanded. A few months later, at the now-gone Gables Pub in Coral Gables, he told a group of fans and friends that he was finished: no more music, no more drumming.
But you can't keep a workhorse down, can you? By late 2002 he was already figuring out a way to marry his musical tastes with his love for old monster and creature feature flicks. He found two willing accomplices who, because of their younger ages, go for newer American and classic Italian horror/gore films.
Formed in the spring of 2003, the Van Orsdels have sought to establish a niche for their brand of rock and roll within the local scene. It has not been easy, but according to Todd, "The public response [is getting] better." The group is rounded off by twenty-seven-year-old Bruno Van Orsdel (formerly with art punks Los Humaniax) on the upright (ergo double) bass. The Van Orsdel surname has been adopted by all of the members as a symbol of unity and succinctness à la the Ramones. They are the bastard child of laid-back roots rockabilly and the agitated charge of punk rock: psychobilly.
The Van Orsdels are infused by the traits of the personnel. George has the underground bones he made plus the calm vision of a well-versed player. Todd's lifetime of heavy metal dues plays the yin to Bruno's yang of classical jazz training. A listen to the band's self-released CD, Ain't Life A Drag?, displays their many elements. There's the straight-ahead attitude of Carl Perkins and Joe Wallace, the lurking evil of the Misfits and Nekromantix, Carcass/ Venom-inspired guitars, and the tonal and harmonic grounding of the bass, with a little Herschell Gordon Lewis and Boris Karloff sprinkled in for good measure. George's training/employment as a professional graphic designer lends the band's self-produced merchandise a clean, professional look inspired by Fifties-era monster magazine and poster art.
In addition to playing in the band, Todd is pursuing his collegiate dreams at Miami Dade College, and Bruno recently became the proprietor of his own restaurant, Bruno's Cafe, which is located in the mezzanine of the MetroBank building on 9350 S. Dixie Hwy. Bruno has been involved in the food service industry since he was thirteen years old, and cannot remember a time when he wasn't inside a kitchen. He does all the cooking and prep work with the flair of an Old World chef, and serves Neapolitan favorites. When asked how it feels to be a restaurateur, he quips, "Oh c'mon, none of that! My only goal here is to see people leave my place happy and satisfied." He understands the business aspect of his work, but prefers to dwell on more important matters, like having a "pomodoro Italiano vero" available for his dishes.
Unfortunately, the Van Orsdels' serious attitude and dedication to their craft hasn't kept them from running into personnel problems, particularly when it comes to drummers.
Since some drummers have come and gone, George is now sitting behind the skins for the benefit of the band. The problem lies in the complexity of maintaining a constant rhythm while singing lead vocals and the toll it takes on his voice. Though he wants to hire another drummer so he can switch back to the frontman post where he began, Todd and Bruno are more concerned with having a good drummer, a job they know George can fill. "With Bruno and myself going crazy onstage, it is very important for us to have a defined presence in the void between us and the drum set," says Todd.
Since psychobilly isn't an established genre in these parts, there isn't a pool of musicians for the Van Orsdels to choose from. It's a little like being a polka band booked for a three-month stint on a Caribbean cruise line. But likeminded bands such as the Old 97's, Demented Are Go, and Godless Wicked Creeps are proliferating across the country, a trend that helps Todd focus on the positive. "Our shows have been drawing from different scenes: gothic, punk, metal," he says. Bruno agrees, adding, "There's a lot of room for crossover." George hopes that this might attract serious drummers to inquire and join the ranks.
Until then, however, the Van Orsdels are moving along with their big plans. They received a warm and appreciative crowd this past May in Orlando at the Hard Rock Vault, where they supported Twisted in Graves. Ain't Life A Drag?has been selling well, and they've made plans to record a second disc later this summer for a tentative fall release.
Undaunted in their mission to bring psychobilly to Miami's airwaves, the Van Orsdels continue to carve out an existence in the swamp with the relentless energy of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's a film that all three members agree is great. Drummers? That's a different story.