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Rogue Wave

Asleep at Heaven’s Gate Album Preview

Jul 02, 2007 Rogue Wave Bookmark and Share

Rogue Wave’s third studio album, Asleep at Heaven’s Gate, due in September, finds the band with an unlikely new home—Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records. It’s the end result of a tumultuous year marked by loss, kidney replacement, a lineup addition, and fatherhood. Frontman Zach Rogue (real last name Schwartz) calls it the best thing the band has ever done.Under the Radar spoke to Zach on the phone about the album, the process of recording it, the meaning of musicianship, and the art of assembling 30 people to play a single note in the studio. Rogue Wave’s members also include drummer Pat Spurgeon, guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Gram LeBron, and new bassist Patrick Abernathy (who recently replaced Evan Farrell).

Under the Radar: I haven’t heard the album yet, I should note.

Zach: It is one big pile of crap, let me tell you. [Laughs]

UTR: Naturally. So can you tell me a bit about the title, Asleep at Heaven’s Gate? I know Descended Like Vultures you had mentioned in some interviews kind of hinted at the political climate of the day, and this one seems even more caustic as far as that…purple shrouds and all.

Zach: [Laughs] Well where have we gone since the last record? Things haven’t exactly gotten better, you know?

UTR: Yeah, far from it.

Zach: I think it’s that, and this feeling of inertia—this feeling of things being anticlimactic, or disappointing. How do you feel when you pick up the paper and you see 150 people blew up, it’s like, the saddest thing. It’s not just the feelings of outrage anymore, it’s the feelings of—you’re exhausted, you’re inert, you know? You feel powerless. But, it’s not necessarily supposed to be a political thing, you know. I mean, I think the death that surrounds us—it’s not just Iraq or Afghanistan or Venezuela or where have you—it’s not supposed to be about that. It’s supposed to be a little bit more—just contemplating mortality a bit more, and contemplating insomnia a bit more, and those things. You know, kind of, getting to this moment that’s supposed to be the peak of all moments, the great moment, the real looking-at-the-reflecting-pool moment, and being a little bit bored, or a little bit let down. You know, there is no quintessential moment, there is no peak, there is just this moment.

UTR: You guys had a pretty heavy year last year. You had a daughter, Gram [LeBron] lost his father, and Pat [Spurgeon] had a kidney transplant. Did that affect the writing and recording as well?

Zach: Yeah, it affected everything. It felt like a very urgent record to me. I mean, there’s some quiet, restrained moments, but there’s also some moments of fury. It’s a sign of the times, too, but it’s also just our personal lives and kinda feeling like, “We survived! We made it! We’re still here!” I remember I got a reference disc back a couple weeks ago. We remastered, made a few changes—just a few decibels here and there, that kinda thing. I was just listening to it and I had to call up Pat and just tell him how I felt about him, and that I’m just so glad that he and I—you know, that all the heaviness he’s had, and that I’ve had and whatnot—and I’m so glad we’re still doing this together, because it’s such an outlet for us and makes our lives make so much more sense. And it’s such a gift to be able to have people to play music with, people that you care about and that are on the same page as you. You’re only at your best when you’re together, you know? That kind of feeling is such a salvation for our lives, to have this thing that we do together. I think a lot of people who play music or make art, a lot of it is because they felt like they didn’t fit in when they were younger. They never fit into the plan, you know?

UTR: The mold.

Zach: Yeah, so when you find these people to play music with, it’s like you are this unit, and when you find those people it’s like, “Oh, I’m not completely lost! I’m not, because these people are the same as me.” It’s a very lucky feeling to have.

UTR: Not to mention a more realistic or admirable intention than being a rock star?

Zach: Yeah, and I think that feeling of excitement about being together, and fear because we have a fascist dictator as a president, you know, all that—I felt like this record was an explosion for us. Just an explosion of sound, and experimenting, and just going for it. Really trying to make the best record we could possibly make. I’m very happy with how the record came out. I’ve never felt that way before, I’ve never felt excited, like, “Hey, please listen!” You know, I’ve always been kinda like, “Well, I guess…if you want to hear it”—you know, this kind of hesitation. But this, I’m happy with the record, I’m proud of what we did, I’m proud of how hard we worked on it, and I feel like it’s the best thing we’ve done. I’m happy with the results and I want people to hear it.

UTR: That brings up a common question for you, just the transition from a one-man-band to an actual live band. Out of the Shadow was you, largely, and then Descended Like Vultures you had the band. It was a little more raw, a little more live of an album. Part of that was the songwriting, but a big part I think was playing with a band. Should we be expecting even more of that band focus? Are you still writing the songs?

Zach: I still wrote everything, but the cohesion between me and the band—on some of the songs you’ll hear this core of total live rhythm section: bass, drums, rhythm guitar, even some vocals—all done in a take. And then, all this other experimentalism kind of surrounding it. It’s the bubble that surrounds it, the experimenting and the noise and just the absolute love affair with the four-track machine, and using it as an instrument, really playing a lot of different stuff through it. I really feel like it has both worlds, you know. Certainly there’s some introspective, restrained songwriting moments, and there’s some other moments that I feel like are just kind of bonkers, dark, and weird, and explosive, to me. I feel like there’s a fury there, a real hunger. I feel like the record starts off with the most ambitious song we’ve ever done. I tried to have it go in a lot of different directions. I feel like it’s a real step up for us. In a lot of ways—sonically, songwriting. The last record, we were really tired, we’d just been touring. This one, we had some time off, and we just went in—I feel like we did it proper.

UTR: So, you switched labels here as well. I wondered if you could talk at all about Brushfire, and how that possibility came about, and why you guys rolled with it?

Zach: Well, I’ve known a lot of the people there for a while, just through friendships and stuff like that, and I’ve always admired the kind of business that they run. They have a real ethic to what they do—obviously, environmentally, they have a real strong ethic there. But you know, just business ethics and responsibility, and nurturing artists, and letting the artists do what they want to do. Just having faith in their artists and letting them kinda do whatever they want to do. Certainly our music doesn’t sound like anything that they’ve put out before, at all.

UTR: Yeah, I think that’s why everybody asks this one.

Zach: Yeah, but at the same time, they recognize that. We see it as an opportunity, and so do they, because they clearly want to be able to put out different kinds of music now that they have the ability to do so. They have Universal at their disposal. It started off as a vehicle for Jack [Johnson], for sure, and some of his friends, and now it’s kind of blossoming into this thing where they can do whatever they want, within reason—they don’t want to sign a million bands. They want to keep it small so that they have the resources to really promote every single thing they do wholeheartedly. I like that, because we want to go somewhere where it has an indie kind of vibe, where they’ll let you make any music you want, but it also has the resources to really promote. To truly have the power to promote and to market. As an artist that’s exactly what you want—you want the creative freedom, and the marketing effort. I really trust those people because they’re my friends, they’re not out to get me. And also, I knew that, creatively, I could spend a career there doing whatever I want to do, any kind of record, and knowing they have that faith in me and the band. That’s a real hard thing to find. They gave us the best offer of any label. I mean, they gave us everything we wanted, and it’s a real great opportunity. It’s great to go to work with your friends, anyway, but when everyone’s doing stuff that’s kinda—it’s neat, you know. I’m excited to see where the label goes, what kinds of artists they’re talking to, and how they’re going to grow. They just moved into a really cool new space in L.A., great studio. They’re good people.

UTR: Nice, nice. So you recorded with Roger Moutenot. He’s done Yo La Tengo, millions of other indie classics. How did that come about? Did you meet him through the label?

Zach: No. He knew some people that I knew, and his name had come up. I’m a huge Yo La Tengo freak [laughs]. I love their music so much. I had met him years ago. I was a little drunk when I met him, so I didn’t know if he’d remember the exchange, but he knew our music and his sons actually listen to our band and stuff. When people’s names had popped up, when I was talking to management about it as a possibility—he’s done other stuff; he’s worked with so many bands. He’s been around for a long time, with a lot of great artists. I wanted to try working with someone new. His name came up, and he and I just kinda started getting friendly, we’d talk on the phone. He flew out here from Nashville and hung out with the band for a while. We kinda played music and he kinda played with us. We just got along with him really well, you know, it just seemed like a good match. He seemed to respond the way I wanted him to, to all of the demos of stuff that I’d sent him. I’d sent him some pretty dirty demos, like really rough. He understood what I was saying, and he could see where I was trying to go. He had the right attitude, you know?

UTR: Did you guys go down to Nashville or did you record out here?

Zach: We started at this studio in Forestville, California, which is about an hour and a half north of San Francisco. We did some basics there, and then we came back to our studio in Oakland for about five weeks. He was here for a little bit, but it was mainly just the band kind of holed up, and just messing around in our studio, and then we mixed at his studio in Nashville.

UTR: I read an article in TapeOp with him, where he mentioned on one of the Yo La Tengo recordings, he actually brought people into the studio to watch them, and tracked the vocals live, to really get that feeling of their awesome performance. Did you do a lot of live tracking, more overdubs?

Zach: It’s truly all over the map. We tried so many different things. There’s a song called “Phonytown,” the second to last song on the record, where it’s just basically, me and Pat and Patrick jamming, you know, just a one-take-wonder. There’s a lot of other stuff we did on top of it, but there’s a lot of stuff where we tried to get a live vibe, and really have the bass and drums, and some rhythm guitar, and some vocals happening—just capturing that moment. That’s what recording is—it’s not necessarily the mapping out of everything, all your waveforms aligned. It’s capturing a moment, a feeling that you can only get at that time.

UTR: Yeah, and happy accidents and so forth?

Zach: Yeah, but there’s some of those moments for sure, that were just unbeatable. It probably had something to do with—we were in Forestville, we were on 200 acres, in the middle of nowhere. So, there was some of that creepy “we’re alone in the woods” feeling, you know? That’s definitely there. And we did some other stuff too—there’s this song “Own Your Own Home.” We had like 30 people come into the studio in Oakland, and we told them they all had to bring an acoustic instrument that could play D. So we had everybody playing at the exact same time and yelling in key at the same time and all this stuff. So, we tried to go—on the other end of things—having just tons of people. And added some other friends—Matthew [Caws] from Nada Surf, he sang on a couple songs. John Vanderslice sang. We never brought anyone in to play with us before, to sing with us or play an instrument, so we did a little bit of that too. We tried to go in all different directions, whether it’s the live type of feeling, just off-the-cuff, and then there’s the going completely nuts in the studio, going back and forth with that. At first I thought it was going to be super raw, nothing happening—just bass, drums, guitar, vocal. Just nothing, total minimalism. That was what I had set out to do, and then we just got so caught up in the moment we just went crazy.

UTR: Next thing you got forty people with acoustic instruments…

Zach: Yeah, next thing, there’s flowers blooming all over the place.

UTR: So, when you are in the studio, I know you engineered the first album and all. Do you kind of step back? With this record in particular, did you step back and trust Roger, or are you still actively engineering, grabbing faders and so forth?

Zach: Well, I’m a pretty bad engineer. I can do some stuff, but that’s really not my area at all. Actually, Gram is a much better engineer than I am for sure. Gram’s a really good engineer. For me, producing, or co-producing, whatever—it’s not about the engineering component at all. It’s like, “Where’s the song going, what is missing, is this performance right, or is this the sound we want type of thing?”—that’s my focus, for sure. I’ve realized over time that you can’t do anything on your own, and you have to have faith. The more trust you put into them—people that are capable—the better results you’re going to have, because they feel like they have something to make, they have an incentive, because you’ve put that pressure on them. Some of the stuff that Pat was doing on this record—he just went nuts, you know, he just did so much cool stuff. And it required me to let go. Patrick [Abernathy], some of the ideas he had, he really transformed some of the songs. Before, I’d be kind of guarded—“well, that’s really my domain.” It wasn’t that way at all. I was really open to what people were saying, the more the merrier type of thing. I think it shows. Bringing in other people to play and all those things, I think it broadens the palette, you know. I think it made the songs sound different—different than we’ve ever sounded.

UTR: So it looks like we’re due on, what, September 18th? Are you gonna be right out on the road right after that?

Zach: We may do some stuff for a couple weeks in September, but I think our headlining tour will start in October. October, November, I think we’ll be out.

UTR: Any plans to contribute to more superhero movies [Rogue Wave contributed a song to the Spider-Man 3 soundtrack]?

Zach: Well, if they do a movie about the Green Lantern, I’d like to at least be consulted.


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Transfer Tests
September 4th 2010

The album has some sonic parallels with vintage Built to Spill, especially in the way the vocals are layered, but it’s not quite as direct as that band’s more classic rock-derived songwriting…Transfer Tests