You might know Robert Ellis Orrall for a variety of things.
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In the ‘80s and ‘90s, he was a country artist who released a plethora of albums, a duet with Carlene Carter, and more. Then, he branched out and wrote for others, penning hits for the likes of Reba McEntire, Shenandoah, Clay Walker, and Lindsay Lohan. At some point, he was even introduced to a young aspiring songwriter in Nashville—he helped her write and record a few songs and set up a show at the Bluebird Cafe… in just a few short years, nearly the whole world knew her name: Taylor Swift.
But if you asked Orrall, out of his entire career, where and when was he happiest?, the answer would be an easy one: at 467 Humphrey Street in Nashville in the late 2000s. It was there that he and his sons, Jamin and Jake—who are the duo, JEFF the Brotherhood—set up the headquarters for their record label, Infinity Cat.
Home to artists like JEFF, be your own PET, Diarrhea Planet, Daddy Issues, and more, Infinity Cat became a staple of the Nashville indie scene, seeping into the underground currents of other scenes across the country… and the headquarters—dubbed 467 Surf and Gun Club—became the center of all the action. There was music being made, surf movies playing on the TV, BB guns hanging on the wall to shoot cans in the backyard, a grill, and a kitchen for big meals—it was a true “pad,” as Brian Wilson would say.
Eventually, the years rolled by and, as all things do, Infinity Cat grew and adapted with the times. They moved out of 467 and, as of this past spring, are no longer putting out new releases. Regardless, the memory of those halcyon days at 467 Surf and Gun Club are as bright, vibrant, and meaningful as ever… which is what led Orrall to write and record his latest, and perhaps most meaningful, solo album: 467 Surf And Gun Club.
With brilliant Beach Boys-esque arrangements (and harmonies), a tenderhearted storyline comparing the life of a songwriter to the life of a bartender, and a genuine sense of earnestness that is hard to find these days, the album is a delightful and touching listen. Musically, the melodies, counter melodies, and killer performances—provided by the same band members Orrall recorded and played with back in the ‘80s—constitute a unique blend of ‘60s-pop-meets-modern-indie-meets-solid-country-songwriting. Thematically, his effectiveness in capturing his love for 467 Surf and Gun Club serves to become a wider, more universal celebration of life, love, and community.
Hopping on the phone with American Songwriter, Orrall told the story of the Infinity Cat headquarters and pulled back the curtain on how he made this new record. Forged in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the album is a testament to his commitment to his craft, demonstrating the talents he’s harbored over his long and colorful career. Read more about it in the conversation below:
American Songwriter: Tell us about the Infinity Cat headquarters at 467 Humphrey Street—what was it like?
Robert Ellis Orrall: Well, somewhere between 2007 and 2009, Infinity Cat was looking for a new place to be. Before we were down in the basement of a Music Row publishing house and we had no windows, so we were looking to rent something but all the prices were high. At some point, I was picking up records at United Records Pressing (which was where we had our records made) and across the street was a house that was for sale. Rent was going to be $1,200 for a couple of rooms, but the mortgage on the house was only $413, so it was a no-brainer to buy it and move Infinity Cat in.
All of a sudden, we had all of this space. There was a big main room that connected with a kitchen, a screen printing room, a vinyl storage room. There was even a room that Jake lived in until he bought his house. My office was in the front and we eventually opened the Infinity Cat Visitor’s Center and Gallery, so that kinda put the finishing touch on it and opened it up to the public. Really, it just became a place to hang out, somewhere I couldn’t wait to go to every day. It was so full of energy. The people who worked there were mostly younger and they were so full of optimism and hope and they just loved being there. Then, I have family from Hawaii who were all surfers (like my cousin Frank, also known as Poi Dog Pondering). We started watching old surf movies from the ‘70s there and eventually got the name “467 Surf And Gun Club.” The gun part came from BB guns we had on the wall—like three or four of them—that anyone could grab and use to shoot tin cans in the backyard.
So, we’d be out there, just grilling food, shooting BB guns, playing music… it was just an amazing place to be. Of my whole career—which spans around 40 years—that was one of the happiest places I’d ever been.
AS: At what point did the idea to make a record about it come to you?
REO: Well, Infinity Cat began selling merch—we got the logo designed with the surfboard and the BB guns. It became, like, a real thing and we started selling merchandise all over the world. Around the same time, I started writing songs like “Morning Song.” For that one, I was literally putting the key through the door, the sun was coming up and I was thinking about how lucky I was to get to go there every day. I went inside, sat down, and wrote that song in real-time. That was the first song I wrote for this record.
That’s where I began the idea of the Surf and Gun Club being a bar people can go to. I was feeling sorta retrospective, looking back at my career and thinking about all of those things… but it wasn’t time for that record yet, so I put it on the back burner.
Then, COVID happened. In March 2020, I was down in Florida—I have an immune disorder that requires me to take these really heavy-duty pills that suppress my immune system, so I was petrified that I was going to get COVID and die. The first thing I started thinking about was, “Well shit, where’s my music? I want to leave something behind!” I realized that, although I spent all those years in Nashville being a songwriter, I really put my artist career on the back burner. It just was never what I was focused on. I made five albums, but I never promoted them or sold them, I just made them for fun. So, I said, “First, I’m going to get those records up on the internet.”
But then I started thinking more and I realized, “Oh my God, I could leave the best songs I’ve ever made just sitting on a hard drive, unfinished.” That’s how I knew I needed to get to work. I wrote “Life Behind Bars” and “Welcome To Paradise.” I needed to start filling in all the holes of the Surf and Gun Club story. I wanted the songs to feel a bit like a fever dream, while still speaking to this experience that was so real for us.
AS: Yeah, “Life Behind Bars” is one of my favorites—the comparison between songwriters and bartenders is great.
REO: That was a song I pitched to a couple of country songwriters, but no one would take it. I guess they thought it was too corny or something, but I’m like, “No, songwriters are like bartenders.” We meet hundreds of people over the course of our careers, but we don’t really get to know them beyond their names. We might only see them a few times—or even on a regular basis, like regulars—but when we do, they spill their guts to us. As songwriters, we really get down to the essence of who somebody is, where their sadness is, where their happiness is. So, that feeling is what informed my approach to this song. I wrote it on the piano in my little studio in Florida. I sent it off to my friend Dave as just a piano and vocal and asked him to go nuts with the orchestral parts. When he sent it back, I was blown away.
AS: Tell us a bit about the musical style of this record—there’s a lot of Brian Wilson-esque stuff happening here, but not in a novelty way. How did you approach utilizing some of those techniques while staying true to your unique sensibilities as a writer?
REO: That’s When I finished it, I knew I couldn’t just leave it on my hard drive. I knew it was really good. I had spent many, many, many hours and days singing—like, 24 to 32 vocal tracks for a single song, just me by myself with the microphone between my knees, just thinking, “Okay, now I should do this part, then triple that,” and so on. I felt like Brian Wilson with his feet in the sandbox! I just got into that zone. I’m not saying it’s nearly as good as anything he wrote, but I wanted that vibe.
When I was younger, I was definitely inspired by Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and all those British acts. That’s how I ended up doing the duet with Carlene Carter. But for this record, I wanted to focus on my other major three influences: The Beatles, Brian Wilson, and Todd Rundgren. So, sorta just kept everything in those lanes.
AS: How does it feel to have it out now, especially looking back on that initial “I can’t leave it on my hard drive” feeling?
REO: You know? Here’s the thing: I haven’t worked with a PR company since I was on a record label back in the early ‘90s. So, I just kept throwing stuff out there, like my previous albums. But this time, I really want people to hear this… it might be the last thing I do. I don’t even know how people make money in the record business anymore. I know that Infinity Cat sells a ton of vinyl and cassettes and we do a lot of digital stuff, but this is a whole different audience. This is the kind of record that sounds like the stuff I grew up listening to. So, in the end, I thought, “Well, let’s see if I can get some people to pay attention to this and listen to it.” That’s the greatest reward to me, just getting it heard.
It’s funny… I felt like this would never get finished! Now that it is finished, I love it so much. I feel like, “Well, why wouldn’t I do another one next year?” There’s a bit of me that said, “Why wasn’t I doing this all along?” I mean, I was so focused on growing my “songwriter garden” that I totally neglected my “artist garden.” I realized it didn’t have to be that way. Now, I know that I can just keep doing it till they put me down. I’m already starting to write down thoughts and titles for something even more personal, maybe something even more introspective than this. So yeah, I feel very excited right now. I’m so glad to be putting this album out into the world.
Robert Ellis Orrall’s new album 467 Surf And Gun Club is out now—watch the music video for “Anthem 467” below:
Photo by Ricardo Fernando