Left to right: McLam, Traynor, Malik, Cross
Their Downright Tragic Fate
by Pete Crigler
Orange 9MM were one of the most underrated bands of the '90's. Period. That's all you can say about a band who transcended the post-Helmet major label frenzy to sign anything and everything that was super heavy. By mixing rapped vocals on top of some of the fiercest hardcore and metal riffs one could ever hear, the band made themselves stand apart from the rest of the pack. Unfortunately, the fates seemed to be against the band at nearly every turn and when they disbanded in 2000 with nary a whimper, no one really seemed to care.
The band was formed by frontman extraordinaire Chaka Malik, fresh out of NYC hardcore veterans Burn. Looking to try something new, he hooked up with guitarist Chris Traynor, bassist Eric Rice and drummer Larry Gorman and started making noise as Orange 9MM. The band gained a lot of traction playing around NYC and garnering quite a fanbase, not just in the hardcore sector. The band appealed to a lot of different crowds and helped them stand out from a crowded field that included bands like Dog Eat Dog, Biohazard, Madball and others.
After signing a deal with Revelation Records and putting out a couple of seven inches, drummer Larry Gorman split the band, later to be seen in Glassjaw and Head Automatica among other bands. Searching for replacements, they eventually found journeyman drummer Matthew Cross as well as bassist Davide Gentile to replace the departed Eric Rice and solidified their classic lineup. Soon signing a deal with the Elektra distributed EastWest Records, the band hooked up with producer Dave Jerden and began work on their full-length debut.
When Driver Not Included was released in the spring of 1995, the album stood out from the rest of the pack like a diseased appendage. Here was Chaka rapping overtop of the some of the harshest riffs yet heard on a rock record. The band clearly had mad skills and were ready to show them off to the rest of the world. Tracks like the powerful "Glistening" and "High Speed Changer" earned them a spot in the pantheon of major label signings. Unfortunately, the sales weren't were they should've been and the band ended up getting lost in the shuffle at EastWest.
Around this time, as the touring for the record wrapped up, Gentile decided to leave the band, eventually became a business executive. Deciding to press on, at least temporarily as a three piece, the band were moved over to Atlantic Records and hooked up with Dave Sardy, then moonlighting as a producer in his downtime from Barkmarket. Realizing it was time to try a different approach, the band set about making one of the most fantastic records of the entire '90's hardcore scene.
Towards the end of recording, they figured they would need a new bassist for touring purposes. I'll turn it over to Mr. Taylor McLam to explain how he came into the band: "Chris asked me to join on bass because Davide had just left. I came back to rehearse and in the process, wrote the bass line to 'Failure.' We worked out the song and I went back to school. They ended up adding that track to the record after it was done. I was stoked when it became the single they went to radio with. It was probably the closest thing to a radio hit we had. It was different than the other tunes the band had ever done. I felt a little strange about that, like 'would fans dig this or think it was lame?' But part of me was just stoked to have a strong song included and I felt like it was the right time to try and take the band into more of a mainstream audience, instead of living in a purely hardcore fan world. After all, we were all trying to make this our living."
Chris Traynor was the unsung hero of the record, not only playing a hell of a guitar but also adding some of the most killer bass riffs ever heard in '90's rock. Upon listening, Tragic (from 1996) is not only the band's best album in this writer's humble opinion, but it's also one of the finest post-1995 rock records. The best tracks, which are the title track, "7," "Method" and "Take You Away," are some of the hardest hitting tracks ever heard from a post-hardcore band on a major label. Really funky one minute and then punk as shit the next, it really is quite the album to behold. Unfortunately, after taking all the press photos and doing interviews, Traynor got a call to join Helmet as a touring guitarist. Deciding to jump at the chance, Traynor left the band and never looked back. McLam: "I think Chris and Chaka were having difficulty getting along throughout the recording, and when Chris got asked to play with Helmet (one of our favorite bands and influences), he jumped at it. I was torn. On the one hand, I was super stoked that my best friend was going to play with one of my favorite bands. On the other I was like 'What? I just got here! This was gonna be rad!!' It was a bit strange. Chaka approached me and said, 'hey man, what do you think about taking over guitar and getting a new bass player.' I really didn't wanna fill Chris' shoes because he is such a monster on guitar. However, I didn't want this awesome new life I had going to just hit a dead end. So I did. To be honest, I never wanted to play guitar in a band! I was a drummer after all. I did the best I could to continue the vibe and give it all I had. I learned so much on those early tours about getting tones, and getting my gear straight, and developing some kind of stage presence. I was basically just thrown into the circus and had to survive. The blessing was we grabbed Chris Vitali on bass (of Supertouch), and he became and still is one of my favorite people on the planet and the best fucking bass player ever. We had a blast on tour together. That made things a lot easier."
After leaving the band and joining Helmet in time to help out on the Aftertaste tour, Traynor journeyed for a while after Helmet's 1998 split. Then in 2002, he hooked up with Gavin Rossdale to replace departed Bush guitarist Nigel Pulsford on their Golden State tour. After Bush broke up, he joined Page Hamilton in a reunited Helmet in 2003, recording their 2004 comeback album Size Matters. After fizzling out with Helmet, he rejoined Gavin Rossdale in his myriad of projects: from the alt-rock washout supergroup Institute to his Wanderlust solo album to the 2010 reunion of Bush, where he remains to this day, the most high profile former member of Orange 9MM still plugging away.
Meanwhile, Orange 9MM found themselves screwed once again. While critical favor for the album was high and the band landed a song on the soundtrack of Escape from L.A., sales were still light and Atlantic had reached the end of the line with the band. McLam: "In my opinion, they got spun around by all the typical music scumbags who tell you everything you wanna hear. I never liked the manager or the business manager. I couldn't really comment on why we left Atlantic, but I know the band was un-recouped a lot of money by that point. The way the business worked back then, if you did two major label records and didn't pay back tour support and all the other costs, you were so in the hole that you almost could never make it back to profit land. Basically I think that was the reason." Dropping them by 1997, the band stuck together and did weekend warrior gigs where they could and proceeded to begin work on a third record.
Digging deep into their roots and influences, the quartet began working on a more experimental record. Electronic elements and more began weaving their way into the music. This took up a good portion of 1997 into '98. During this time, they independently released the Ultraman vs. Godzilla EP and did a small bit of touring. Ultimately deciding to forgo the completed tracks, they parted ways with Chris Vitali and ended up hooking with local New York indie Ng Records and began working with a new producer on a different set of tracks. McLam: "We did demos before recording Pretend I'm Human that were really wild. We were all listening to a lot of stuff like Radiohead, Can and other progressive and experimental stuff like that. I thought those tunes had real potential. Not in a pop way, but in a totally artistic way. Unfortunately, when we went to record in LA with Neil Perry, Chaka wanted to start over and write new songs while we were in the studio. In my opinion, this led to a really rushed and shitty environment. I like a few things about that record but mostly, I remember being really stressed and trying to come up with and album of material, record and mix it in two months was kinda nuts. Whatever, a learning process. It was a great experience in terms of being in a great studio. I learned an awful lot about recording and such. I just never felt like we did that thing right."
Finally in the spring of 1999, their third full-length record Pretend I'm Human was released. Having a bit of a different sound than previous records, it was met by an indifferent audience. Continuing to tour, the band experienced a lot of positive vibes from crowds but the sales, again, just weren't there. McLam describes the way the band dissolved around 2000: "After touring like crazy, the band just sort of fell apart...We weren't feeling it. I didn't see a light at the end of the tunnel. It had been four or five years at that point of me touring and playing. I thought we were close with 'Failure' to turning a corner and getting ahead. But the music business can beat you down. Also, I was looking at band we were opening for, who had more sales, fans, money, and saw that they would put that back into there shows and production and were living as poor as we were. At that point, I decided I wanted a home life and to make a career, and not be a slave to the road. Things just got lame and depressed. We all felt it. We just kinda decided one day."
And so, Orange 9MM broke up and everyone went their own ways. Most of the guys went behind the scenes or into the private sector. Chris Traynor became the most prolific member of the band and other guys would pop up here and there. Chris Vitali was last heard from playing with Chris Volz, frontman of nu metal band Flaw. Chaka Malik last did a Burn reunion show and mostly disappeared until 2015 when he reemerged with a project dubbed Ghost Decibels, a very electronica inspired band. Putting a song called "Into the Wild" on Soundcloud and YouTube, he let his old fans know that he was back. Also releasing a five-track EP, he has started making music again. McLam ended up becoming a behind the scenes guy, writing jingles for commercials and doing occasional voice-over work. He and Traynor recently started a new band called High Desert Fires, whose debut album should be coming very soon.
In the end, Orange 9MM's legacy will hopefully be different from that of say, Madball, Dog Eat Dog or even Biohazard. They will be known as a band that bridged different genres and did it all on their own, not brought on by anybody telling them what was cool or hip.
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