At times, Rogue Wave’s brand of folk-pop seems to smear sunshine everywhere you look. From the iTunes home page (where their song “Kicking the Heart Out” was a free download-of-the-week back in August), to your local venues, to the John McEnroe Show, no location or media is immune. Hell, not even the weather can resist.
It’s an unseasonably warm fall evening in Emeryville, California, and Rogue Wave frontman Zach Schwartz is enjoying a hearty plate of macaroni and cheese from Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café (a hipster joint rumored to be owned by Mike Dirnt, Green Day’s bassist). He’s worried what untold havoc the influx of lactose will wreak upon his system, and he’s worried about the prospect of an upcoming back surgery that forced the cancellation of October tour dates. But he isn’t worried about Rogue Wave.
Since the Sub Pop re-mastering of the band’s self-released 2003 album, Out of the Shadow, Schwartz and his band mates — guitar/keyboardist Gram Lebron, drummer Pat Spurgeon and bassist Evan Farrell (previous bassist Sonya Westcott left the band at the end of last year) — have enjoyed their share of success. Enough, at least, that Schwartz can afford to refuse freelance Web development contracts (his “day” job) even though the band is in between tours (they’ll set off for Europe this spring). And with his wife at work during the day, Schwartz has the house to himself and plenty of time to work on music — which is exactly how he likes it.
“There’s nothing better,” he says, “than waking up in the morning, getting a cup of coffee, sitting on the hardwood floor, experimenting with the four-track machine, and working on new ideas.”
For Schwartz, songwriting has long been a solitary endeavor. He wrote and recorded Out of the Shadow by himself, with only the occasional helping hand from friends. And most of his lyrics come to him during nights riddled with insomnia. “During those hours, you can often see things for what they really are,” he says. “There’s something about the silence of night and knowing that my brain is refusing to play ball and let me rest.”
Once Out of the Shadow was completed, Schwartz played some shows by himself, but fearful of “getting screwed,” he never sent it out to any labels. “I was happy just sending it to friends,” he says. Instead, he turned his attention toward fleshing out the tunes with the aid of a full band. “I didn’t know many people,” he says, “so Craigslist seemed to be the way to do it.”
He put up an ad, got some responses, and arranged auditions with the most promising candidates. “I (didn’t) care much about skill,” says Schwartz. “I’m not that great a musician. It (was) more about personality and being able to relax with each other, be creative, and let go of everything, like ego and inhibitions.”
And “it just felt right,” he says, when he met Lebron, Spurgeon and Westcott. His intuitions have been affirmed by the fact that after months of touring, they still haven’t tried to kill each other. “Touring is where is you realize whether you’re going to make it or not [as a band],” Schwartz says. “I mean, eighteen or twenty hours a day you’re hanging out with someone in a van. It’s not natural to be around [anyone] that much. Fortunately, we’re good friends. Our relationship continues to grow.”
And it’s that open, easy-going relationship that allows the band to turn Schwartz’s intimate material from Out of the Shadow into a shared experience onstage. The album fluctuates from disarmingly simple and clean to astoundingly complex and lush. The band’s challenge for the live incarnation of Rogue Wave was to find a middle ground that was both entertaining for audiences and practical for a quartet to perform.
“We didn’t try to reverse-engineer the sound,” Schwartz says. “There were so many layers, we wouldn’t be able to replicate them anyway, so why even try?” Furthermore, the record was personal for Schwartz, and he wanted each member of the band to react to the music like he did. “I didn’t want them to be mimicking the parts,” he says. “I wanted it to be (their own interpretations).”
They must have done something right. While playing a show in Seattle with Brit-poppers the Clientele, an A&R rep for Sub Pop Records grabbed Schwartz after his set and said he’d gotten a copy of Out of the Shadow. Schwartz gloomily characterized his band’s performance that night as “iffy at best” before Dan Bejar’s band, Destroyer, hopped onstage and started blasting away. Unable to hear much of what the rep was saying, Schwartz finished the conversation with a lot of vacant nodding and agreeing, and thought nothing more of it.
But not long after the Seattle show, Sub Pop bigwigs Jon Poneman and Tony Kiewel flew down to a Bay Area show to see Rogue Wave for themselves. Shocked, but open to possibilities, the band members hung out with and got to know the Sub Pop staff in the following weeks. “Everyone was really friendly,” Schwartz says. “It felt like a family. It seemed like the perfect balance between really strong distribution and letting their artists go as far as they want to go.”
Warm fuzzies continued to flow as the particulars about the band’s direction fell into place. “I told them that if I was going to work with a label, I wanted to reissue Out of the Shadow first,” says Schwartz. “I wanted it to be the starting point, and they totally agreed.” They ruled out including newer material on the reissue. “I wanted it to stay in one piece,” he says. “I like the album concept, and I like sequencing mattering. That’s how I wanted to create the record, so I wanted to keep it that way.”
What the band’s next creation will sound like is still up in the air. The band is currently rehearsing a wealth of new material, some of which they play live. But the studio remains a chamber of mystery for Rogue Wave — which Schwartz relishes. “I know how we play them live,” he says, “and I know what my ideas are, but I don’t really want to know yet (what the new album will sound like).”
Schwartz believes even the slightest variation of a melody on one instrument can completely determine a song’s mood, something you simply can’t predict. “Even if you think you know (what the new album is going to sound like),” he says, “you don’t know until you start tracking it. I like the nervous energy of, ‘Shit, what if we can’t figure this one out?’ That’s part of what forces you into being resourceful and making decisions and taking chances.”
Rogue Wave will begin that process in the near future, and this time around, Schwartz will do so knowing that he and his band will have label support. “It’s really cool to work with Sub Pop, knowing that people will have access to hearing (our music).”
They’ll also have a more solid fan base awaiting the album, a result of their demanding tour schedule in 2004. Outside of that, Schwartz offers no forecast for Rogue Wave. “Honestly, I have no idea what the future holds,” he says. “All I know is, right now, I have some mac ‘n’ cheese, some Tapatio, and a PBR. Life is good.”