Approximately three years ago, Zach Schwartz lost his job at a Bay Area dot-com, split for New York on a one-way ticket, recorded some music with his engineer pal Bill Racine, and ended up forming Rogue Wave — a nifty little indie rock act that’s become a hot commodity among the same people who allowed the Shins to change their lives. This was a good move for Schwartz; he now goes by Zach Rogue.
“I didn’t get much pleasure out of it,” Rogue says of the long-hours, high-pressure dot-com work, on the phone from his band’s tour van. “I was really unhappy. And I wasn’t an unhappy kid when I was growing up, in high school and college. But something had changed. I felt like I’d become a 50-year-old man.”
In Racine’s one-bedroom house, Rogue and Racine would stay up all night recording songs, often until four in the morning. Then they’d collapse on the floor and listen to what they’d done. “It gave me this sense of when you’ve climbed a mountain,” says Rogue. “I’d get to the top and just lay there, really exhausted, with this sense of satisfaction that I’d never felt in my life.”
After returning to Oakland, Rogue self-released that music in 2003, tellingly calling the album Out of the Shadow. Tuneful and quirky, it’s full of fuzzy guitar-pop songs that pay homage to the fuzzy guitar-pop heroes of your choosing: The Zombies, The Kinks, The Beatles. What distinguishes the music from that made by zillions of other record-collector nerds (which, make no mistake, Rogue is) is the sense of release Rogue builds into his songs. As a former Web technician, he obviously gets off on tricking out his tunes with details: slide guitar, bird whistles, radio static. But he derives more satisfaction from blowing all that preciousness away with the occasional blast of pure rock action. That’s the sound of him getting out of the shadow of his former life.
Figuring that it’d be easier to sell a CD by an unknown outfit if that outfit played some shows, Rogue set about finding bandmates to bring to life the music he’d made in Racine’s studio. Craigslist was his method — which, he admits now, opened the door to “some people that kind of scared me.” He eventually found the three guys who now make up Rogue Wave: guitarist Gram LeBron, bassist Evan Farrell and drummer Pat Spurgeon. “We have this connection that really works,” Rogue says. “I’m not in any way a virtuoso in anything that I do, and they didn’t seem to care. It just felt really comfortable; I can be vulnerable and relaxed and silly and passionate around them. It’s like dating, you know?”
In September of 2003 the newly formed group played four West Coast shows with the English twee-pop trio the Clientele. Sub Pop A&R rep Tony Kiewel, who’d dug the music streaming on the band’s Web site, checked out the show at Seattle’s Graceland. By the end of the following January he’d signed Rogue Wave to the label, which has been experiencing something of a post-grunge renaissance of late, releasing widely acclaimed (and commercially viable) records by the Postal Service, Iron & Wine and the Shins, to whom Rogue Wave immediately earned comparisons (for good reason). Last year, the Emerald City indie reissued Out of the Shadow, and in October released Descended Like Vultures, Rogue Wave’s second album.
Unlike Shadow, which was essentially a Zach Rogue solo affair, Vultures is the fruit of these four guys working together. Rogue says his songwriting process hasn’t changed as a result of their participation, but the mechanics of recording have. “I think there was some trepidation beforehand,” he says. “Like, ‘How are we gonna do this? I’m used to being the control freak.’ But it ended up being really fun, and we really bonded.” They recorded with Racine for about 10 days at a studio outside Portland “in a beautiful, forested environment,” Rogue says. He describes the process as “basically what Bill and me did, just expanded. It wasn’t just me saying, ‘What should we do right now?’ It was all of us.”
You can hear that collaborative spirit on Vultures, which is darker and looser than Shadow. There’s a sense of discord lurking beneath the strummy surfaces that helps to counterbalance Rogue’s boyish vocals and his natural propensity for the indie-pop bounce. Some of the new music is prettier than the stuff on Shadow, but it also rocks harder, especially live. The singer-guitarist says he didn’t want Shadow to have a supermeticulous studio-project sound, which is a goal he’s gotten closer to realizing on Vultures.
He’s also nearer to his goal of never going back to his dot-com job. “It’s a dramatic change,” he laughs, considering the differences between office life and touring life. “But I do feel younger now than ever. When I look in the mirror, I see myself instead of someone I don’t wanna see.”