At first, Chicago-based group The Orwells seemed like just a young, charmingly mischievous garage rock band. With scuzzy guitars, half-shouted vocals, and catchy hooks, the group’s sound meshed well with the other indie-rock bands of Chicago’s booming DIY scene. Founded while its members were still high-schoolers in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, The Orwells were often described as a family affair: singer Mario Cuomo (no relation to the ex-New York governor) is the cousin of guitarist Dominic Corso, with twin brothers Grant and Henry Brinner playing bass and drums, respectively, and Matt O’Keefe rounding out the lineup on guitar.
While most of their peers in Chicago’s indie scene have maintained a relatively low profile, The Orwells quickly gained a reputation for raucous, vulgar live shows. Stripping, sexually suggestive dancing, and the occasional brawl all became hallmarks of The Orwells’ live performances; for a time, Cuomo was notorious for removing his pants onstage and throwing mics into the crowd.
The band seemed to take their reputation as Chicago’s brattiest rockers in stride, however, even titling their most recent album Terrible Human Beings. In an interview with Noisey pegged to the album’s release in February 2017, Cuomo acknowledged, “We’re not the most liked boys on the block, for whatever reason that might be.” O’Keefe agreed: “Back in Chicago we do not have the best reputation around town,” he said, adding, “We champion the reputation we have.”
But a slew of rape and sexual-assault allegations have come to light, belying the band’s charmingly impish ethos—and eventually leading to their demise.
A tweet from user Riley Kmet (@rileyemmy) last month marked the beginning of the end for the band. “The Orwells is a band full of homophobic, transphobic, racist sexual abusers,” her tweet read in part. Kmet urged anyone who doubted her claims to message her directly for more details, she told The Daily Beast in an email. Her DMs were soon full of messages from women who allegedly had unsavory, at times predatory, encounters with members of the band and wanted to share their stories.
She and a handful of other women on social media began to compile the allegations—the most serious of which accuse Cuomo and Henry and Grant Brinner of rape and sexual assault; none accuse Corso or O’Keefe of misconduct—into a single, shareable Google document that was eventually posted to Reddit. “Once we made the Google document and started sharing it, I began to receive countless messages on Twitter and Facebook,” Kmet said. “Old friends I had made through Orwells shows and the Orwells fan community online began to come out of the woodwork and share their stories with me.”
The document includes nearly 30 pages of screenshots and anonymous testimony, many from accusers who identify as former fans of The Orwells and allege that members of the band victimized or preyed upon them. One woman described Cuomo allegedly taking her virginity in the band’s tour van: “I was 17 at the time and the night I hooked up with him, he didn’t have a condom so we ended up doing anal.” While she says the experience was consensual, she emphasized that she was young and starstruck. “[Cuomo] didn’t ask me, he just kind of did it,” she wrote.
Another woman claims Cuomo forcibly kissed her and stuck his hand down her shorts during a show in spring 2014 when she was a junior in high school; yet another claims Grant Brinner assaulted her in the backseat of The Orwells’ tour van while she was blackout drunk in fall 2014, referring to it as an act of “dirty manipulation.”
The document also details disturbing allegations of rape and statutory rape against Cuomo, as does an alleged victim who came forward to The Daily Beast but chose to remain anonymous.
The Orwells have denied all allegations of sexual misconduct. In a statement from their manager, the band said, in part, “We’d like to first state that sexual abuse in any form is abhorrent. We do not take these accusations lightly and consider this matter incredibly serious. We emphatically deny these baseless allegations brought as a personal attack against us.” After acknowledging the band’s history of “callow altercations and vulgar language,” the statement claimed, “No member of this band has ever acted without consent or maliciously taken advantage of anyone.”
Allegations against Cuomo for soliciting sex from underage fans on Snapchat, and allegations from women who claim they were coerced into performing oral sex on Cuomo or the Brinners at house parties and after-shows comprise the bulk of the document.
Most accusers in the document are anonymous, but a few have gone public with their stories. Kirin Toyota-O’Brien took to Instagram to share details of her alleged sexual assault. “When I was a freshman in college I was raped by Henry Brinner,” Toyota-O’Brien’s account begins. She alleges that after a drunken night out together, Brinner, whom she was casually dating, invited her back to his hotel room. “I vividly remember stating that if I were to go home with him that I did not want to have sex. I clearly said ‘no,’” she wrote.
The last thing Toyota-O’Brien remembers, according to the Instagram post, is suggesting to Brinner that they watch a movie. Instead, she claims she woke up the next morning to find herself naked in bed with him. According to Toyota-O’Brien, Brinner frequently boasted to mutual friends in subsequent months and years that he made her orgasm during the assault.
When reached for comment by The Daily Beast, Toyota-O’Brien said the document and subsequent social media backlash against the band “definitely” made her feel more comfortable sharing her story on Instagram. “After the Google doc was created, it became evident that so many women were deeply and horrifically impacted by these men,” Toyota-O’Brien said. She called the band’s reputation in Chicago “public knowledge,” but said she still experienced “an intense fear” speaking out against them.
Madeleine, a 20-year-old based in New York who asked that her last name be redacted, echoed that hesitation. In an email to The Daily Beast, she claimed that during an Orwells show in San Francisco in March 2014, Cuomo repeatedly “assaulted” her: “Throughout the set, Mario, in front of an entire crowd, choked me, put a microphone between my breasts, and kissed me.” She was 15 at the time. The Orwells’ alleged behavior “was common knowledge in our friend group and in our circle of Tumblr friends, so it was talked about privately,” Madeleine said. “But this was before the age of #MeToo, so no one went public with allegations during the time of these incidents.”
Bess Connelly, a 21-year-old from Illinois and co-creator of the Google document, called The Orwells’ toxic behavior one of Chicago’s worst-kept secrets. “I first started hearing stories about the Orwells a few years back, just like most people in the Chicago music community,” she wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. She never directly interacted with Orwells members but said the band’s reputation “wasn’t hard to believe, given Mario [Cuomo]’s public persona and onstage behavior.” After learning that an Orwells show had been scheduled for November at the Chicago concert venue Metro, Connelly said she “felt like I needed to do something.”
“I connected with a few other angry women on Twitter,” including Kmet, she wrote, and “made a group DM appropriately named ‘Fuck the Orwells’ to plot together how we could get the Metro show canceled.”
On August 27, The Orwells announced that their scheduled hometown show would be canceled “out of respect to our friends at the Metro.” Two days later, another tweet from the band read simply, “The Orwells have disbanded.”
Chicago-area bands have been swift to denounce The Orwells in light of the allegations. Jack Dolan, a bassist for the band Twin Peaks, distanced his band from its former tour mates: “We don’t affiliate, condone or support anything about these dudes,” he wrote on Twitter. “They have a lot to answer for.” A statement on Twin Peaks’ official Twitter page claims band members “were unaware of the Orwells’ actions during the short time we toured with them, but learned about several incidents through private discussions within the Chicago community in recent years. We never felt it was our place to make public these stories that were not ours to tell.”
When reached for comment, former Orwells manager Larry Little said that band members are now speaking only “as individuals.” The Daily Beast was unable to reach individual members for comment at press time.
Reactions from alleged victims and the women who spearheaded the social media campaign have been mixed. “Seeing that [the Orwells] actually broke up was such a good feeling and felt like such a win,” Connelly said in her email. But other women were more ambivalent. Madeleine said she was “relieved” but felt that “the members still need to take accountability.”
Kmet shared a similar sentiment in her email to The Daily Beast. “Of course, when I first saw the Orwells’ post saying they disbanded, I was completely stunned and filled with pride that so many women made this possible,” she said.
But she was quick to temper her relief: “The damage is already done and lives are already permanently changed and traumatized. It makes me wonder if ‘breaking up’ is enough.”