The Rogue Wave mainman
steps out with a solo project. Just don’t call Release The Sunbird a “solo
BY RYAN REED
As Zach Rogue’s plane landed, fresh off his final tour
supporting Rogue Wave’s Permalight, something didn’t feel quite right.
That album itself had been a bitch to put together. Rogue,
confined to a hospital bed from a debilitating slipped disc in his neck, longed
to work on new music: something more upbeat and danceable, something sculpted
and physically engaging. But he struggled to move, let alone play the
guitar and write songs. After months of surgeries and recuperation, he hit the
studio with longtime Rogue producer/drummer Pat Spurgeon assisting,
meticulously crafting Permalight, the band’s fourth studio album – their
glossiest, most heavily melodic most sugar-coated work to date.
Stepping off that plane, though, Rogue found himself
disaffected, itching to scratch a creative itch he didn’t previously know
existed. Armed with only an acoustic guitar and a handful of rough, bare-boned
song sketches, he called up some musician buddies (vocalist Kate Long, bassist
Kenny Childers, and drummer Peter Shreiner) and relocated to a Bloomington,
Indiana, studio where they banged out 13 new tracks. The resulting album, Come
Back to Us, is a total 180 from Permalight‘s spit-shine electro-pop
focus. Here, the guitars are almost strictly acoustic; effects are used
sparingly; tracks were recorded as a full band, and the results you hear are
typically first takes, replete with breathy intakes and the sounds of fingers
scraping guitar strings.
The process was a revitalizing one for Rogue, who dubbed the
musical project Release The Sunbird. Come
Back to Us was issued this week on the Brushfire label, and meanwhile, Rogue
recently took time out of his schedule to chat about his experiences with
BLURT: The album’s coming out soon. Do you feel relieved?
What are your thoughts?
ZACH ROGUE: I was relieved when we started tracking because
it had been a long time coming, and I was relieved to have found the right
people to do it with, so it was kind of a special moment in time, and what it
allowed was for some of the dark and the light to come out. There’s been this
perception that it’s been all kinds of sunkissed, happy vibes, and there is
some of that, but there’s also some dark, ominous moments, too, and I was able
to go in both directions.
I’m sure you’ve been asked this in every interview you’ve
done so far, but is Release the Sunbird simply an homage to the Robert Pollard
song, and either way, why did you choose it?
(laughs) well, you
know, I think when we choose a name for anything, when we title something or
name a child, we choose a name and arrive at that point for more than one
reason. I’m not going to lie – I’m an incredibly huge Bob Pollard fan, and he’s
been incredibly influential in my life and musically, and it is one of my
favorite songs of his, and it was on his first kind of album outside of Guided
By Voices, so there’s obvious connections.
But I think, detaching it from who wrote
that song, I think it’s more about what it means and what the symbolism of that
type of action means, and that’s kind of taken on a life of its own. And a lot
of Bob’s writing is very stream-of-consciousness anyway, and I think that’s why
people continually go back to his music. Like other great songwriters like Neil
Young or whoever, the circle isn’t totally complete. You can kind of keep going
back and interpreting it in any way that you want to. Or Dylan or whatever. I’m
sure it means something entirely different to me; I’m sure if you were to ask
Bob what that song means to him, who knows what kind of answer you’d get?
How much stock do you put into something like a band name
or a project name? Do you feel like operating under Release the Sunbird
actually affected the mood of the songs or the feel or the project?
You know, it’s kind of strange, but whenever I’ve worked on
any kind of musical project, always without exception, I’ve kind of known what
I want it to be called ahead of time. It’s almost like that happens before the
project. The Rogue Wave album Asleep at Heaven’s Gate, I knew it was
going to be called that before I even wrote a song. I knew what that was going
to mean to me. For this project, it was clearly something I needed to do – allow
part of myself to be free to explore things. So yeah, I do think it sets the
tone, you know? And actually, I met Doug Gillard awhile back, and I told him I
was thinking about calling the project this, so at point, I had to commit
because I told him! My word is my bond, right? (laughs)
Definitely! I know that one of the main objectives of
this project was to do it quickly and not overanalyze what you were doing too
much. I know you got the songs recorded really quickly, but did you also write
the songs at a similar speed?
Yeah, definitely with some stuff. With the song “Come
Back to Us,” I was basically writing it the day before we went to record.
And there was other stuff – I worked on the record knowing that this stuff
wasn’t really finished yet, and I didn’t want to be finished. I didn’t want to
feel like every single thing was arranged because that wasn’t really the point.
I wanted it to be a moment; I wanted it to be that I was playing with these
musicians and we were feeling our way around. Some of my favorite records have
that sense of the record trying to figure out its own identity, and I knew I
didn’t want this to be a “solo album” because that’s not what it is.
I wanted it to be a moment where these musicians are in a room figuring out the
best way to interact with each other, and with a lot of the songs, like
“No Light,” we had these little moments where we didn’t know how the
song was going to start or end. I wanted it to be where we actually had to
trust each other, use body language and eye-contact and actually have it sound
like people playing live music together, not going back and finishing
everything but letting things be a little more… on the “rough”
side. But these are all really good musicians, so they don’t really have a
“rough” side! (laughs)
But I knew the
songs were kinda half-baked, so that’s why I was terrified when I left because
I knew it wasn’t really ready, but looking back and reflecting on my timeline,
every morning I went through the same mental exercise, like, “Oh, man, I
really don’t know what I have here,” but sure enough, every day would be
this wonderful experience.
recording is like crawling your way out of a rabbit hole, putting all the
subtleties together. Because any song you will ever write, whether it’s
individually or with a band, you’ve kinda already written it in your mind. All
the things you need to make music, all the tools, if you’re in the right
environment, it’s not like you really have to prepare. It’s more like you have
to be in an environment where you allow that side of yourself to come out.
Certainly things need to be written beforehand – I’m not saying it’s a totally
blank slate, but I think half of it is the songwriting, and the other half is
the other side of yourself, the spiritual side, allowing it to be channeled a
You just have to allow it to come through you.
Yeah! It has to feel right. It’s the whole Lou Reed
expression of, “Between thought and expression lies a lifetime.” You
have to imagine in your mind what a song is, but so many times, I’ve done that
and when it becomes “real” with a band, the mystique is gone because
it’s no longer in my head, and it can’t sound as perfect as it can sound in
your head. So when you don’t totally finish it and don’t totally demo the thing
to death beforehand, you leave it rough, and it exceeds your expectations
because it’s like a movie trailer instead of a complete movie.
Right – you don’t have these pre-conceived ideas of what
a song has to be. It can just become its own thing.
Right, exactly! And then you can be totally electrified and
excited by the input that others can bring-and the unexpected. I didn’t expect
Kenny to bust out the bassline he did for “Running Away from Me.” I
didn’t expect it to go in that direction, and maybe if I had mapped it all out,
he would have felt sort of confined by all of my direction. And the way I
wanted to do this album is that I wanted to be more like a movie director. When
Kate and I would sing together, we would kinda position our mics facing each
other, and instead of giving her all the direction in terms of what the melody
would be, I was more telling her how I wanted her to feel. I wanted her to
think about being more like a character in a play or in a film, and I wanted
that to be her guide. We relied more on emotion than on explicitly mapping out
every single musical note.
This album is definitely a stripped-down affair, as
opposed to Permalight, which was a lot more constructed and layered, and
it just felt more pieced-together, more a studio album. Is this Release the
Sunbird album just a flat-out reaction to Permalight?
I think absolutely! Unquestionable. Come Back to Us is like the exact opposite of Permalight, everything that Permalight isn’t. There’s so much space on Come Back to Us. I wanted to hear vocals
– there were no guitar picks allowed in the studio while we were making this
album because I wanted there to be a real warmth. There were so many room mics
set up in the studio that you barely had to play. You could hear everything, so
I sang differently. I wanted everything to be heard, and I wanted to go back to
just making music and not editing everything. If the drum take was good, then
the drum take was good. I didn’t want there to be a drum take and then edit a
perfect drum take for a day.
We took Permalight to the extreme in terms of sculpting stuff, and while I think it was a good
exercise, it kind of led me to the realization that that’s not really me, and
that’s not really where my strengths lie. If there’s gonna be another Rogue
Wave album, I can tell you one thing: It’s gonna be fuckin’ messy! (laughs) There’s gonna be a lot of
floods, I would imagine.
So yeah, and
everything we do in life is a reaction to the thing we did before. Asleep at
Heaven’s Gate was a reaction to all our life experience. That’s the beauty
of music – you can kind of have an idea, but you don’t know until all your life
experience just kinda thrashes you around. And that’s the great thing – if you
can make more than one album in your life. And I’ve been very lucky. This is
the fifth record I’ve been able to make, and if you’d told me that I’d been
able to do that, I would have laughed at you! (laughs) That’s the great thing, that we can continually start over
again. And Come Back to Us, that’s the whole point of the title of the
album and the song, and when I say “we,” I mean “me.” And
so, there’s always a chance to try something different, even in this age of
digital technology – and there’s a reason why Pitchfork is called
“Pitchfork,” you know? You can be annihilated in seconds, and you’re
an old man when you have a single that’s been out for two weeks.
And even in
this short-term era where nothing is cool unless it’s brand now, I still think
I want to make a quieter album, and maybe it’s not in-step with everything
what’s coming out now these days, but I want to ignore that. We can still start
over whenever we want to. It’s up to us, not just the blogosphere.
One of the things that strikes me about the album is
that, while it’s not a “difficult” album, it’s one that took me a few
listens before it really clicked with me. It’s a slower album, a quieter album,
like you were saying, and I think maybe that’s why. It really makes you slow
down and pay attention to what’s happening, and that’s one of the things I
really like about it.
You know, I spent probably three or four times the amount of
time sequencing the album than actually recording it. I want it to make sense
from song to song, and I want it to have purpose. It’s not a very long record,
and if someone took the time to listen to the whole thing, I want it to make
sense, and I want it to be slow music for fast times.
I really feel like “Always Like the Son” is the
heart, or the centerpiece, of the album. I feel like everything revolves around
it, if that makes any sense. Would you agree, and could you talk a little about
writing that song?
Yeah, well, I kinda had the riff and was playing around with
it, and it was around the time that my grandmother passed away. I was with her,
kinda around the last stages when she was dying, and we were talking about
dying. She was telling me that she wasn’t ready and that she was scared, and I
kinda saw the child in myself feeling those roles reversing and looking back,
wondering if I had been there enough and been good and the right kind of
grandson/son/child, and I was feeling a sense of guilt that I think we all feel
when someone we love dies, because no matter what you give, you never feel you
give enough, and I probably didn’t give enough.
So I think it
does make sense that it’s the centerpiece in the sense that I know that I
wasn’t enough, but I know that, at a certain point in our life, we have to let
go. We have to let ourselves make mistakes because, if you don’t – if you can’t
acknowledge and move on, it will just crush you. It’s OK; part of accepting
your failures is acknowledging what they are and to be able to have the
strength to move – and forget, just move on. There’s one thing you can’t
control: Life is furiously hurtling in one direction, and if you don’t get on
it, you’re gonna miss it!
So yeah, I
will acknowledge that I think it is probably the centerpiece of the record in a
lot of ways, and for that purpose, that’s why I wanted “We’ll Begin
Tomorrow” closer to the end of the record because we all say we’re going
to make those changes that we need to, and we usually put them off! (laughs) We all have those moments where
we go, “I absolutely need to do this!” But do you follow through?
It’s very hard to follow through. It’s very hard to focus…But yeah, I think
you may be right.
What are the plans going from here? Are you planning some
kind of tour? And finally, what is the future of Rogue Wave? Are you even
thinking that far ahead?
I’m in contact with those guys, for sure. I really want to
perform these songs, so we’re going to be doing some touring. It really depends
on if anyone listens to the record – you know how that goes. But if there’s an
audience for the record, then I do want to just focus on this for right now,
but if the stars align for Rogue Wave to continue, I hope that can happen. But
it’s just so hard to know – the record’s not even out yet, so we’ll just have
to see at that time.
All I can say is that I couldn’t be happier
with the record and who played on it. And I’m just starting to get ready to
perform this stuff live, and I’m weirdly excited… to bring this crazy huge quiet sound! (laughs)