With their best, freshest album just out, Zach Rogue talks '80s music, theremins, and fatherhood with PopMatters.
Though their creative union has been an enduring one, and their career a prolific one, Rogue Wave's 2013 album, Nightingale Floors, was met with indecisive reviews. Some heralded the Oakland group's efforts as being as strong as ever, though more often than not, the album was criticised for its morose, apparently uninspired tunes. Whether or not you bought into these appraisals, one thing remained clear: Rogue Wave were ripe for change.
Change is exactly what has come three years later. On paper, the band's makeover is certainly noticeable: while the creative architects remain singer-songwriter Zach Rogue and drummer/engineer Pat Spurgeon, the group have picked up guitarist Jon Monahan and released their record on a new label for good measure. In addition, they've returned to their roots, opting to work without a studio producer for the first time since 2002.
Beyond these structural changes, however, the band have made a conscious effort to change the way they catalyse and think about the creative process: "Don't overthink it, don't try too hard, just make an impression and see what happens," says Rogue, admitting that perhaps they should have taken a more experimental, personal modus operandi on their previous records. Indeed, the band are certainly reaping what they sew from this on-the-run, "honest" approach. In short, Delusions of Grand Fur is the work of a revitalised band finally achieving their full potential. It's career best work for Rogue Wave. Period.
Ironically, other than their obvious structural changes, the changes they've made have been influenced by familiar methods. They've had the gear literally sitting in Rogue's home studio. Spurgeon and Rogue are bouncing ideas off one another as they've always done. Rogue is still inspired by the same '80s colours and still operates under a similar songwriting process. It's just been a matter of small tweaks, a willingness to back themselves to experiment and "look around the room" for creative inspiration. We're left wondering just how much more of this inspired, galactic brand of music Rogue Wave has to offer in the future.
PopMatters sat down with the man who has been at the helm since it all began in 2002, Zach Rogue, to talk '80s music, theremins, and fatherhood.
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It's been three years since your last record, which is the longest gap you've taken between albums. Was it a planned decision to take such a big break?
No. I know that it's technically a long break but it doesn't really seem like it. We put out our last record and we were touring for a while. So you kind of factor in that time, and then I had a son that was born so I was bringing him into the world. Pat and I were recording in our studio. We self-produce so we just spent more time. I kind of thought we were making a double album; there was a lot of material and a lot of things we wanted to try. [There is] a lot of stuff that hasn't been released yet. I made a record in Nashville with this country-folk singer so I spent a little time doing that as well. That's not out yet. And then, when it was done, mixing took a little while and we were trying to find the right label. All of those things just collectively have taken three years. Time just kind of went by.
You mentioned that you felt like you were making a double album. Do you think the material that didn't make the cut for Delusions of Grand Fur will end up on a later album?
We're talking about it. But we're so focused right now on touring and rehearsing. [Touring] is coming up really soon, so we kind of want to see how it goes and how we're feeling when the record comes out and if our people are enjoying it and how busy we'll be. I mean, I'd like it to; there's some songs I really love doing that aren't going to be on this record, but right now I'm interested in having good shows and connecting and re-connecting with our audience.
It seems like you've tried to experiment on this album, but you've described your songwriting process as just you "alone in a room". How did you reconcile the songwriting method that you know and trust with trying to move into uncharted waters?
The beginning process, the spark and the meaning of a song and its lyrical content and melodic structure come from me, but it's not really Rogue Wave until it's with Pat. He's a very experimental musician. He likes a lot of scoring music and a lot of experimental, unusual music. He's very open-minded in terms of instrumentation and concept. I'm that way too but I also write structured music. [But] that's the beauty of collaborating. That's the reason why I don't do it by myself. The songs wouldn't be as good if I didn't have that sense of collaboration. It's all about my world colliding with Pat's world.
We had other people as well, Sam [Hopkins] from Caveman played synth on a handful of tracks and we had Mike [Deni] from Geographer who sang some harmonies in a couple of songs. We had guys from our band. John played some guitar and Mark played some bass. We definitely had friends involved but the source of it is kind of my creative partnership with Pat and what happens when the two of us have this really fun, musical argument. The best kind of argument, a good argument.
You mentioned that you worked with Mike Deni from Geographer on the album. What led to that collaboration?
I think initially we were doing this David Bowie song, "Modern Love". I needed a harmony that was high and I knew it was beyond my range and we had just done this benefit show together in San Francisco. I knew him and I really liked the guys in the band. He's a really talented singer and it seemed like his voice would just work really well on that Bowie song. So he came in to do it and I was talking to Pat and there were a couple of other songs that we were working on for the new record. He nailed the Bowie part so quickly that we were like, "Man, what's some other shit that you can do?" So on "Ocean" it seemed like a no-brainer for him to sing that bridge. His voice is so perfect for that. He also sings that counter-point melody on "Take It Slow".
He has a very different style and delivery and it's in a range that's above mine. He's so versatile with his harmonies that he can just kind of do anything. I don't know, he's such a sweet guy and he's local and was interested in doing it with us. I'm always interested, on records, in bringing in a small handful of other people to inform it. John Vanderslice, Matthew Caws, and this other girl, Daniela Gusendheit sang on "Asleep At Heavens Gate". We always have a few people come in that we like just to colour a few things here and there.
Delusion seems to be a theme of the lyrics on the album, but this is pitted against a lot of influence from '80s music. Do you have a certain nostalgia for that time period specifically?
For the '80s?
Yeah. It's kind of like … you know how they say that the first time you fall in love that you will never experience love the same way as you did the first time? Well, when I was a little boy, that was the peak of '80s music. My parents were playing British Invasion stuff but what became my music that I identified with that wasn't my parents' music was the '80s: R.E.M., Depeche Mode, The Cure, and The Smiths. A lot of that music I feel like that was made for me. The frontmen for a lot of those bands … I just identified with so many of the things that they were saying and their reluctance of being out front but knowing they wanted to express themselves and questions about their own identities. I just love the dark melodies of a lot of that music, where it has a little bit of paranoia, but also feelings of sentimentality without being saccharin. I just really responded to that and I think it's a very special period in musical history.
A lot of the songwriters of that era are really underappreciated. Robert Smith is one of the greatest songwriters of all time and he's not really celebrated in the way that some other songwriters are. I think there's a real brilliance to a lot of that music and that experimenting with synthesiser sounds and drum sounds that were kind of discredited at the time and have come full circle to being recognised for what they are and how groundbreaking they were. I love that era and I'll probably always dip into it on some level.
I found the lead single off the album, "What Is Left To Solve" to be quite different in character from a lot of the other tracks. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, I mean, the way the record was made wasn't very conventional. We really did one song at a time. We didn't work on everything at once. We really would start over the instrumentation and everything with each new song. It started off as an acoustic guitar song and it became a synthesiser/drum machine song, simply because the acoustic didn't sound very good. It just sounded kind of stupid. We always have [the synthesiser and drum machine] out. They don't always make it onto the record but we always have synths and drum machines near us and so it seemed kind of natural. Who knows, maybe I was listening to Grimes or Gary Numan that day and it made me want to take the song into darker territory.
I mean, every song is the same when me and Pat are sitting there going, "Is this the song? How do we make it into a song? What would sound really fun right now?" With ["What Is Left To Solve"], I remember I was sitting on the couch in our control room and I was playing the synthesiser, making some noises, and Pat had a drum machine and drumsticks. Next to his chair was this metal cabinet where we have a bunch of stuff. and he was just playing and recording his sticks hitting the metal cabinet. So we had this really weird sound and that's just how we operate. We're just looking at what's in the room and what we should use. When we were doing it, it wasn't really like, "Oh this song feels like a departure from everything else;" it was more immediate. It was more like, "Should we go in this direction? Should we jump off this cliff?" Answer? Yes. It was as simple as that.
Was that freedom to be left to your own devices one of the reasons that you decided not to work with a producer for this album?
Yeah. I don't think a producer would be able to tolerate the process we were using. And nor did I think it was necessary [to have a producer]. There were no demos. Pat had never heard any of the songs before we started recording them and I'd never articulated them to anyone. They were just in my head. I thought it'd be more interesting to do something that felt spontaneous. The only way to really do that without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars is to use your own stuff, so Pat and I could spend weeks on a song if we wanted to. Or one day. There's a song on the record called "Falling" that was probably done in a couple of hours. I was just sitting with my guitar. I think maybe if we'd been working with a producer, maybe we would have felt the need to over-arrange and overdo it. But I was playing the guitar and I said, "Hey Pat do you think this is a song or is this just a fragment?" and he just turned on the reel-to-reel tape machine and set up a couple of mics. I recorded it and did the vocals and a little wurlitzer thing and one little synth thing and it was done. We didn't overthink it, we didn't try to make it a bigger song than it needed to be. I feel like we would have overdone it if we were in some fancy-ass studio and it would have had a different sonic quality. I remember on that one, I think we fed in the sound of the acoustic guitar through an iPhone to give it that kind of compressed sound. And also just other really strange stuff.
Pat would sometimes take a theremin and run it through really weird effects, really strange tape delays. On the song "Ocean", after the first chorus there's this really weird sweeping noise if you listen to it. That is the sound of a theremin if you can believe it. We wouldn't have done that with a producer. We did that because that's a piece of our gear that happens to be sitting there and he just saw it in the room and we tried it. That's really what I think we should've been doing for years, just using our own stuff because that's who we are. We're not some fancy band that uses really, really expensive gear that we can't afford. That's not us. I thought it was a much more honest way of making music. It's more true to when I did our first record, before I'd met Pat. That was the approach on that record too. There were some demos but there were no real arrangements done so the spirit was just kind of to go with your first instinct and see what happens. Don't overthink it, don't try too hard, just make an impression and see what happens.
You mentioned before that you have a young family. Has fatherhood changed your perspective on how you go about making music or thinking about the process?
I think if you're an active, engaged parent, it informs everything. It informs what I eat, it informs my views on sexuality and politics and what time I get up in the morning. Everything in my day is filtered through the lens of "How does this effect my ability to be a father?" There's a certain kind of risk-taking in your mind when you're writing music and you have to turn those filters off a little bit. I don't want to censor what I write. I don't want to make music that's unnecessarily G-rated, so it's a bit of a battle, but it's a good battle.
What I've learnt through being a father is that chapters in life are actually really exciting. It's exciting that things change in your life and you don't know where your life is going to go. I didn't know I'd be living in this house that I'm living in. I didn't know I'd be cleaning my son's ass at three in the morning when he has a dirty diaper or the way that he'd look at me in the eyes and tell me that I'm his best friend. These kinds of moments of being tired and being strung out on not sleeping ... yeah it effects my art, it effects my views on politics especially. So I think this record does revolve around some of those concepts, of finding the sacred in the time I get with my family, the time I get to be a dad. It's the greatest gift I could ever ask for, being lucky enough to be a father to these children.
You've got a new guitarist, Jon Monahan, working with the band. What's it been like to have a fresh face added to such a long-standing collaboration as your partnership with Pat?
Jon is so great. I love playing with Jon. He's actually a real guitar player. I'm a guy who can barely play, I'm just strumming along but he's really skilled. The tones he comes up with and his ability to remember different parts and different concepts -- it's really a thrill. He's so skilled that he has a lot of humility in his playing. He knows how to kind of take it back. He's actually started playing some synth too sometimes. He's so good that he doesn't have this need to just be shredding all the time. He kind of knows that that's not really his core function in the band. There are moments of him kind of exploding and soloing and all that. But it's more about how we can blend our elements and create a multi-layered scenario, so he's great. It's really fun playing with him and he's a really good person.