Milwaukee native Jayke Orvis reached a crossroads in 2007. While his band—the .357 String Band—was beginning to garner attention outside of Wisconsin, his personal life was crashing around him. He was going through a divorce, battling depression, and struggling with a growing list of bad habits. In order to save himself, he had to leave the town he loved.
“I knew all the wrong people,” Orvis says. “I was very, very self destructive. I really honestly feel that if I didn’t move to Pittsburgh, I would not be here anymore.”
Eight years later, Orvis still calls Pittsburgh home, but a big part of the lightning-fast mandolin picker’s heart belongs to the city where he grew up.
“It’s my hometown. I love it there,” Orvis says. And he’s looking forward to visiting on Sunday, November 2, when the Minimum Overdrive Tour featuring Orvis, Austin Lucas, Jon Snodgrass, and Northcote hits Orvis’ favorite Milwaukee venue, Linneman’s Riverwest Inn. “For this awesome tour to end in what I consider an awesome place with a lot of friends, it’s going to really feel good.”
Concertgoers will be treated to a unique performance when the innovative roots musician returns: a solo set. When Orvis’ band—Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band—played their final show together in August, Orvis decided to take some time off. But an invite from Lucas to join the Minimum Overdrive Tour was too good to pass up.
“I was a little nervous, especially since I was used to always having a band,” Orvis says. “These guys are like singer-songwriter types, and I am not. I’m not even close. At least I don’t feel like I am. Maybe band leader at best. So, I was pretty terrified. But it’s been going off really well. It’s been working, and we’re getting along fucking awesome. I’m really glad that I’m doing this.”
Although the musicians start their sets alone, the other members of the tour typically join each other on stage over the course of the night. Orvis, who spends about half of his set on mandolin and half on guitar, said the change of pace has been a blast. “I get to do a lot of songs I never really got to play with the band, which I like,” he says.
He’s also had to re-work some of The Broken Band’s classics, which commonly featured intricate exchanges between the guitar, fiddle and mandolin. “I’ve had to rearrange a couple things here and there,” Orvis says. “I’ve still got a lot of energy up there, so you still get the effect.”
Energy has never been an issue for Orvis, who grew up listening to metal before becoming a fixture in Milwaukee’s punk scene in the late ’90s and early 2000s. The heavily tattooed Orvis sported a big green Mohawk while playing guitar with Milwaukee punk bands Penalty Box and Schwill Rotten. “It was crazy,” Orvis says of the scene at the time. “It was really fun though.”
And at the center of the craziness was “The Booth House,” a duplex on Booth Street in Riverwest where Orvis and a hoard of other punks lived. A separate cottage house behind the duplex housed even more people.
“We had punks living downstairs, punks living upstairs, punks in the back,” Orvis says. “We had two killer basements. We put shows on constantly. There were always like 30 people at the compound for years. Pretty much every night, if we weren’t having a show, we were hanging down at Quarters or Mad Planet. It was a really good time. Also, I don’t remember a lot of it.”
While playing in Oshkosh with Penalty Box in 2000, Orvis met a 17-year-old from New London who would cross paths with him again down the road.
“After seeing his band play with their big Mohawks and raunchy punk rock—something I as a small-town kid thought was the coolest thing ever—I couldn’t help but think he was a fairly tough dude, and I immediately wanted to be able to hang with him and his buds,” Joseph Huber says.
Huber, who also met Derek Dunn, of The Expletives, that night, would go on to form the .357 String Band with Orvis and Dunn four years later.
Turning to streetgrass
Orvis eventually had to move out of the Booth House when he had a son, got married, and started working full time to support his family.
“It’s hard being a young parent as it is,” Orvis says. “That scene wasn’t very conducive to that lifestyle, so eventually I just had to start kind of tapering down. I was never very good at settling down. I always had that itch to just keep going and playing. I guess the best thing I could’ve done was start playing bluegrass.”
As odd as that sounds, that’s exactly what Orvis did in 2004. He had been messing around with a mandolin and knew that Huber, who had moved to Milwaukee in 2001, played banjo. Combined with Dunn on guitar, the trio became the founding members of the .357 String Band. Upright bassist Rick Ness completed the lineup a few months later. The band members drew from punk, bluegrass and country influences to create a unique style they dubbed “streetgrass.”
Huber and Orvis quickly refined the fast-picking styles they’re known for today. Orvis’ aggressive mandolin sound, in particular, stood out.
“We didn’t get into this music until way late,” Huber says. “I think by the time Jayke was absorbing standard mandolin methods that we came in contact with playing bluegrass fests and jamming and such, he had already defined his own way of playing mandolin that has stuck with him since. And that playing style directly influences the writing style, just as your language and vocabulary influence how you see and interpret the world.”
When Orvis started piecing together the parts for “Raise the Moon,” a haunting song on the band’s 2006 debut album Ghost Town, Huber knew Orvis had found a special niche with the mandolin.
“I think we were all pretty excited when that song was first coming together,” Huber says. “It was a great riff, and the combination of the mandolin and fiddle lines doing two completely different riffs but still intertwining was a feat. I think by the time it was all finished, we knew that was a great song, and obviously it’s one he still played constantly up until The Broken Band’s finale. That song is a sort of archetype of Jayke’s mandolin playing.”
It was Orvis who encouraged Huber and the rest of the band to push the envelope with their music. “Jayke has the personality that brings people outta their shells,” Huber says. “As far as the early .357 days go, he’s largely responsible for pushing me into taking chances with music and taking it to the outside world in any way possible at a time in my life that I might have just buried my head in a book and merely talked about living.”
Slowly, the .357 String Band started building a following as they joined an underground roots revival that was growing from punk scenes across the country.
“I think there are a lot of similar elements,” Orvis says of punk and roots music. “They’re all true stories. They’re all hard-living stories. It’s one generation’s version of folk music versus another generation’s version of folk music. It’s still got the raw emotion. It’s still got the feeling. A lot of it still has the abrasiveness or aggression that the punk scene or the metal scene has.”
The Broken Band
After he parted ways with the .357 String Band, Orvis landed with the Goddamn Gallows, a psychobilly country band from Detroit. The Goddamn Gallows was building a devoted following behind a reputation for inventive songwriting and wild live shows. Over his five years with the band, the Goddamn Gallows encouraged Orvis to pursue his solo work. In fact, Orvis often opened for the Goddamn Gallows on tour with several members of the band serving as his backing band. Orvis’ debut album It’s All Been Said came out in 2010.
Eventually, Orvis put together his own band featuring Bob Wayne & The Outlaw Carneys touring veterans Jared McGovern and Liz Sloan on upright bass and violin, respectively, and roots veteran James Hunnicutt on guitar. Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band released Bless This Mess in 2013. Orvis left the Goddamn Gallows to focus on the new group, which toured religiously. Despite building a strong following over the last couple years, Orvis and the band realized earlier this year that it was best for everyone involved to part ways.
“James has already had his solo thing for a while,” Orvis says. “Jared and Liz are a couple, and they started doing their own thing as well (The Urban Pioneers). And all they want to do is just stay on the road. They want to do just tour nonstop, and it’s perfect. Now they can do that. James can get back to just doing his own thing. He was doing double duty every night for almost four years straight.”
And Orvis can finally take a break.
“It got to the point where I needed a break,” Orvis says. “I had been doing between 200 and 250 shows a year for the last four years for sure. Before that, I was gone seven months out of the year for roughly six years and nine months out of the year for the last three or four years.
“It was getting to the point where I was just like, ‘Okay, I just need to slow down. I’m going to lose it if I don’t just take a break. I can always do this, but I need some time to break free from it, kind of collect everything and sit down and write again, come up with new material.’ I want to keep doing this, and I can’t keep doing it if I keep doing it.”
The next step
After Orvis gets home from the Minimum Overdrive Tour, he’s going to take time off to relax, write and spend time with his son. He’ll also be starting a podcast called “Closing Time With Jayke Orvis.”
When he’s ready to record again, Orvis thinks the result could be more aggressive than what Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band fans are used to.
“It’s still going to have all of the elements that everybody is used to just because it’s me,” Orvis says. “I can’t defer too much. I can’t just change into a different person. But, you know, my life is changing. My mind is changing. My tastes are changing. And I really feel like it’s definitely going to be going in a little bit more of an abrasive route, I guess. I don’t know. It’s hard to say. Maybe that’s what I think now and the final product will end up like Emerson, Lake & Palmer.”
The Minimum Overdrive Tour featuring Jayke Orvis, Austin Lucas, Jon Snodgrass and Northcote comes to Linneman’s Riverwest Inn on Sunday, November 2. The show starts at 9 p.m. and admission is $8.