Rogue Wave: The Ups and Downs that Create the Rogue Wave Sound

Future Bible Heroes ed RogueWave_byTerriLoewenthal After taking some time off between Rogue Wave records, Zach Schwartz (aka Zach Rogue) and company are back on tour supporting their recent LP, Nightingale Floors, their fifth full-length, and first on Vagrant Records.

While Permalight, Rogue Wave’s 2010 release was seen by many to be a marked departure from the band’s signature sound— including Rogue, himself, Nightingale Floors is a return to form. Together with longtime collaborator, Pat Spurgeon, Rogue Wave are back with that summertime sound that has come to define the band’s catalogue. But look deeper and you’ll realize that the poppy hooks and inherent hopefulness that ease into their breezy melodic instrumentation often mask the melancholy of the lyrics that lurk underneath their swooning harmonies. No strangers to bad luck and tragedy, besides his own personal health problems, Rogue lost his friend and former bassist in a complications following a house fire, and Spurgeon almost lost his life from kidney failure.

I was able to catch up with Zach Rogue as he set off for tour to talk about his new record, and the ups and downs that lead that amazing Rogue Wave sound.

roguewave-nightingalefloorsHello, Nolan? Sorry I missed your call I was at this gas station. My phone sucks and when I get a phone call and a message my phone freezes up and I cant get a call right back. It’s really weird.

That is strange. Where are you at right now?

I’m at a gas stop somewhere near Minneapolis. There’s a bumper sticker in there that says, “I Love my country, but my president is a moron.” And there’s another one that says, “Sorry about your face, but nice tits.” That’s another one. It’s a really highly evolved country. Wow!

You don’t think the president one is from 8 years ago?

It looks shiny and new. What can I say?

It seems you took some time between touring and recording since the last record. What were you up to? I know you had a solo project…

Yeah, I did. I needed a break in general, you know. I did this band called Release the Sunbird and did a little touring and an album and EP with them. It was a really amazing time and the people I recorded with were ridiculous musicians, and the band I toured with was a whole new set of friends and I got to sing with a new set of singers that were amazing. I also scored a TV show for HBO [On Freddie Roach] and that was really nice. I did a lot of ambient music and stuff I wanted to do for a long time. I think both of those experiences are what led me to make Nightingale Floors.

You said you needed a break, how did you mean that?

Just from everything. Just being on the road. With Permalight, to play those songs live was not really easy to do and it didn’t seem like it sounded like us too much. I felt like I didn’t like the trajectory of where we were going live and needed to take some time away from that and get some perspective. If we were going to keep going as a band, I needed some perspective and it needs to be more closely aligned with us.

What do you think led the songs from Permalight to take that departure in sound?

Everything is a reaction to something else. We started to do Permalight and I had all of these physical problems where I couldn’t move my body and I had lost feeling in my hand, so I felt that I wasn’t able to do any playing. At the time I wanted to make really rhythmic dance-beat music because I was excited to be playing again. The problem is we are not really a dancey band. Live, trying to have click-tracks and trying to have sequenced stuff—it’s great, but it’s not great for us. It’s a great experiment for us when we’re in the studio and heading that direction, but we landed up spending too much time on that record. We landed up spending four months tracking it. That’s too long. We’re not supposed to have a bunch of control in the studio; we’re supposed to be a little more loose. That’s our sound, and it ebbs and flows. That’s how we play, we don’t have any perfection; we have expression. It was an experiment and I’m glad we did it, but I think Nightingale Floors was much closer to how we play and the production values are more in line with what we like.

So is the label change just part of the restart for you guys? What was that decision based on?

I love the people at Brushfire and they’re great people and we have a great relationship with them. I consider them friends. It was a definite amicable separation. They have a deal with Universal that made it impossible for us to stay there. I don’t want to have anything to do with Universal. Not, Brushfire—I love them. It became clear that when we all got back together and were working on new music that it’d be good to go somewhere else where there would be a clean slate and wouldn’t be any fancy Universal-like accounting practices, where you’re under the sum of some unscrupulous corporation.  We just really like Vagrant and they’re great people who put out good music. We have been in touch for years, so it seemed like a good idea. They’re very supportive of us as a band and we just really like them.

There are new players on this record as well, right?

Yeah. There are, but there always is. Ha, there always is.

So the bands ever-changing, but you always have the core?

Yeah, it’s always about me and Pat and that happened ever since we met. Mark who played bass on the record toured with us before, so he’s not that new. Then we just brought in some friends. Pete, from Peter Wolf Crier is one of the best guitar players I know. Our friend Jules came in and I knew we wanted some beautiful female voices in there. So me and Pat and Mark spent month demo-ing stuff and did a lot of live tracking. The way it usually works, no matter what we’re doing, it’s me and Pat messing around with songs—either on parallel or if I’m doing a vocal track he’s on some weird instrument tracking onto his computer or 4-track machine. We pull all the tracks together we like and mix them up… like salad. We’re a salad band. A quilty, salady band.

So you wouldn’t say there’s anything that ties them all together besides time and place?

You mean is there any reason that all of these songs are on this record? That’s up to you. You’re the writer, it’s up to you to say whatever you want about that. These are songs about letting go—of the past and trying to have control over things that you can never, ever control. You can’t control the fact that you’re going to die. Everyone you know is going to and all you can do is just accept it and really live. And it’s okay. I think there’s a lot of that. Every song has some little thing. They’re not completely linked like that, but I think ultimately I think it’s about trying to let go.

Do you find it hard to fit these deeper messages into songs that sound inherently summery and happy?

The way something comes out… happy is a relative term. When I hear certain songs, I wouldn’t necessary that I’m feeling happy when I hear a song. You can’t set out to know what the end result is til its done. You don’t know the overall feel of a song until it’s done. I don’t think you know where the plot is going to go when you’re writing a book. You don’t know, and you don’t know until you find your way around. That’s how these songs are. Maybe I was crying in my whiskey when I was writing it, but maybe it ultimately ended up different than that. With music there’s always a duality of what’s being said and how it’s being said—or what’s being said and how the listener feels when they hear it. You can hear a sad and brutally honest song, but it can make you ironically feel good. It’s like Elliott Smith is sometimes. You can feel happy through someone’s misery, so if you feel that these songs sound happy, I’ll tell you that’s crazy because I wasn’t talking about happiness. Maybe the melody feels good if you like those melodies, but those are different things. But that’s why music is interesting. That’s why people like music and that’s why we play music, because it has that duality and multiple perspectives and you want to hear it over and over.

What’s the significance behind the album’s title?

Do you know what that is?

What a Nightingale Floor is? No I don’t. I thought it was just your term.

Well if you do some research you’ll get an idea, I imagine.

Is that Thomas Campbell’s art on the cover?

No, it’s Andrew Schoultz. I’ve actually been asked before if it’s Thomas, and I love his work as well. Andrew Shultz is amazing. Go to his website [http://www.andrewschoultz.com]. He has some great books and is a super-talented dude.

Is it strange when people focus on the bad luck/tragic occurrences of the band’s past, or do you think that helps people identify with you and the idea that bad things happen to everybody? Or do you think it takes away from the music?

I wonder about that. I think it’s a little of both. I think when people write about music there’s a tendency to cling to a narrative thread that’s easier to talk about than talking about how you feel when you hear the music. But those things are intertwined with us and our records. So if we didn’t have those things in our lives, we probably wouldn’t have made the music that we’ve made. Everything is a reaction to what we see or feel around us. I would hope that people are more interested in the music than the stuff that’s happened to us. I’m not really sure what to say. I can’t lie and say that didn’t happen, but it’s also the stuff that gives us strength and makes us want to go on, even though it’s a shitty business to be in. What happens is you travel around and you meet people who have had things that happened in their life and sometimes if they like our band then that music helps them and you can build a community and relationships and understandings that all make it worthwhile.

Do you still have the physical pain when you’re playing?

Yeah, but I try and bandage it. It’s not as bad as it was, which is great. There are some things—my hand is still numb, but I’ve learned to deal with that and I’m not bedridden—well not yet.

 

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The Past and Present of The Future Bible Heroes

FutureBibleHeroes_smallBack in 1996, a few years before the Magnetic Fields went from an indie band with a cult following to the critically acclaimed collective that they are today, Stephin Merritt and Claudia Gonson became involved with a Boston sideproject headed by Chris Ewen called Future Bible Heroes.

After releasing two LPs and 3 EPs in 7 years, the band remained dormant for a decade. Now, 11 years since their last release, the band returns with Partygoing, available on Merge Records, on its own–or even more appealing– as a box set with all of their previous recordings together in one package.

Picking up where the band left off, Future Bible Heroes’ sound is still steeped in analog synths, and while the band dives into darker and dancier terrain, Merritt’s signature whimsy and witty sarcasm provide some humor to their seemingly somber tales. With song titles like “Digging My Own Grave”, “Keep Your Children in a Coma” and “Let’s Go to Sleep (And Never Come Back)”, the Future Bible Heroes remain scathingly satirical and inherently fun.

I was especially lucky to catch up with the band’s founder, Chris Ewen for a rare in-person interview at the MIracle of Science in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just a day before tour and a few hours before the masses crowded the streets to jockey for positioning for that evening’s 4th of July fireworks. Below is the conversation that transpired.

FBH2What is the timeline history of Future Bible Heroes? Is this an official Boston band? I know Stephin lived here for awhile.

Yes it was. It started in Boston and it evolved when he moved to New York. It started when my own band Figures on the Beach broke up and I was still writing… which is funny because one of the members is now touring with Future Bible Heroes. But when that band broke up I was still working on a lot of instrumental things and one day Stephin said, ‘why don’t you just have someone write lyrics and sing songs to your music,’ and I said, ‘well then why don’t you do it because you’re a great lyricist.’ So we messed around with some songs and wrote some songs.

What year did this take place?

I want to say 1996-ish.

So your band broke up, you were doing instrumentals and then Stephin came into the picture? And then Claudia? The first EP sounds like it’s mostly Stephin and the second seems like it’s mostly Claudia…

Well the first one is definitely boy/girl. It alternated. Stephin and Claudia alternated each track. At that point it was an approach to differentiate them from the Magnetic Fields, where at that time Stephin was singing most of the songs because it was pre-69 Love Songs.

And how did Claudia become involved?

It was weird because Stephin and I put together a bunch of songs and one of then got picked up by a friend of mine– Steve Lau– who used to be in a band called The Ocean Blue. He had a record label through Warner Brothers and through Reprise called Kinetic. He was putting together one of those “Red Hot” compilations and he asked me for a track. So Stephin and I submitted a song called “Hopeless”—a really early version of it. They accepted it, put it out on the comp and someone who was at another label called Slow River, which was associated with Ryko, heard it and wanted to sign us with just that one song. At that point this thing went from being a fun little hobby to being a real band. When we recorded everything for the first record with Slow River, Stephin sent me a recording with Claudia singing and I thought it sounded great. So suddenly she was the third member of the band. So from then on we started writing songs with her in mind as well as Stephin.

So was it just you doing the instrumental parts, or has it changed over the years?

It’s changed over the years. Stephin has always added a little Stephin magic, but most of the instrumentals are mine though.

Does it start with instrumentals and you write with their lyrics in mind or is it a more collaborative process?

In the past it was very much me sitting at home with a bunch of keyboards plugged in. The first two albums were basically me programming MIDI synths and recording live onto a two-track recording… DAT or something like that. Stephin would then write around them or come at them with melodies that mimicked or complimented what was in the tracks. And then occasionally he would add some extra things. It was really hard to change things though. We didn’t really collaborate on the musical end of it. Since everything was recorded live all the time we did it, and it would have to be redone much differently. This time around it was much more collaborative. I would send him demos this time around instead of completed, finished tracks, so he would say change the key or add choruses there, and we would build things up together. Or he would send me different versions of him singing things and we would work around that. This time around he would actually send me lyrics and we would go from there. We were a lot more collaborative this time around.

Would you say the band has always been made up of the same people? Or would you say this is more YOUR band, with guest singers? Or has it evolved from one to the other?

When it initially started out, it was Stephin and myself. When we started getting serious about it and recorded our first record, Claudia was definitely involved and I always thought of this as a band with the three of us. Maybe it’s not a band; maybe it’s a project. It’s definitely not just me and guests. It’s the product of all of the things that each of us brings to it, which keeps it different from the Magnetic Fields. It is it’s own entity.

FBHHow are Claudia and Stephin able to differentiate and step out of the roles together in the Magnetic Fields to make this different?

Even with Stephin’s other bands like the Gothic Archies or the 6ths, he basically writes all the words and the music.

When is the last time you actually toured?

Well we haven’t done an album in 11 years, so we haven’t toured in ten. I realized the last live shows we’ve played were in London with a few shows in Spain.

What is the live show setup this time around? And how does the live show differ from the early incarnation of the band?

The first tours we did, Stephin and we brought out all old synths and hardware sequencers and brought out all of our delicate equipment and just did it. The stage always looked great because it was chock full of all these synths, but it was really a pain to carry all of these heavy things around, they were really delicate, they were breaking a lot. So we had to scale that back a bit. Actually, the very first time we toured we had all these synths and had Sam and John from the Magnetic Fields play with us too to flesh things out. Then we scaled it down a bit, as best we could. By the time “Eternal Youth” came out we decided that touring that way was totally impossible. So we scaled it down to a piano and a synthesizer and maybe a drum machine. And Stephin played ukulele and guitar. We basically did an electronic band acoustically. And that was really fun. So this time around, it’s been awhile, we decided to bring out some synths again. There are four of us now. I’m playing synthesizers and drum machine tracks. Claudia is playing synths. I’m playing soft synths. Claudia is playing synthesizer and singing. Shirley sings—she was with the Magnetic Fields. She also plays ukulele and this great electronic autoharp called omnichord. The fourth member of our touring band is Tony Kaczynski who was in Figures on the Beach. He’s playing bass and singing. So we’re playing a lot of stuff live.

In the in-between times did you know the band would pick up again? What brought it back together?

Earlier when I said we like to impose a lot of rules on ourselves… a lot of the rules we impose upon ourselves weren’t rules that we put on ourselves… it was technology at the time and the fact that we lived in different cities for a long time. I mean we were doing the Postal Service thing before the Postal Service. We would send tracks back and forth. A lot of mail, a lot of DATs and cassettes and a lot of phone calls, so it was a pretty unyielding way to work. Now we both have our own fully operational recording studios and can send huge files back and forth. I think that’s made it really easy to actually do it. It was a good time to do it, because it became easier for us to do it. The second album was a real pain to record because digital technology was not at its peak, lets say. We were both using different formats of recording devices so it was tough to synch things up and convert things to each other’s formats. I don’t think it was a pleasant experience. This time it became much easier. This time when we decided to write again, and that is largely based around the Magnetic Fields and his other projects, it seemed like a good thing to do. It just started coming together really quickly.

Was Stephin supposed to be on this tour?

I don’t think it was ever decided that he would be on this tour, but I know from him that touring with his ears is not a good thing. I think the last Magnetic Fields tour really took a toll on his ears. So when we discussed putting this tour together, from the beginning we tried to figure out how we could tour if Stephin can’t tour. That’s why we listed Troy and Tony from the very beginning. Shirley was obvious. Claudia had worked with her for a long time. I had been aware of her since Buffalo Rome, Stephin’s pre-Magnetic Fields band. Tony I knew, and he’s a great musician. It was never something where we wanted to make Stephin tour. I knew it would be impractical for him for medical reasons. Personally, I’d rather make another record with him than have him go out for a month of tour and then lose more hearing.

What made you decided to re-release all of the old work as a package with the new record? Was everything out-of-print at this point?

Yeah, a lot of it was really unfindable and it was all on different labels. We had one EP on Merge, something on Slow River, licensing deals in Europe for different things that had come and gone. The second record was on Instinct records and I don’t think they’re around. We owned the rights to them all. So it seemed like a good thing to do to make all of our stuff available again and have it all on one label and to have Merge do it. It’s worldwide and it’s all available again.

With the new record, the title seems to be tongue-in-cheek. The songs are quite dark, but they also are quite humorous at times too. Is this always a conscious concoction with FBH?

I think that we have always straddled that line of being really perky and fun with lyrics that maybe aren’t as upbeat. I love that juxtaposition and Stephin does too. I think it brings some depth to the songs. Maybe part of it is that Stephin will write lyrics to counteract the perkiness of the music. The last time we toured we put together a setlist and we put all the songs in a row and we looked at the list and it was so horrifyingly depressing that we burst out laughing. It was so ridiculous in a really fun way. And we don’t really think about that until we see all the songs listed in a row. We realized this in Hudson when we were playing “Hopeless” and then there was “Lonely Days”. It just made us laugh.

Is it meant for humor? Is it storytelling? Or does it seem real when you’re doing them?

In some cases, maybe especially on “Eternal Youth”, Stephin got a Sci-Fi vibe from the instrumentals, so I think his lyrics tended to reflect what he was getting. Then the theme developed around an album. Was it supernatural, or human, or one versus the other with this whole Sci-Fi vibe he was getting? I think the albums have tended to be loose concept albums. The first one was love songs or anti-love songs. The second was about people’s obsessions with death, youth and beauty. I think that carries through now that we’re a little older and now people are even more obsessed with beauty and youth and youth culture, and maybe even more divorced from reality. I’m not saying we are feeling our age, but we have a different perspective than we had 10 years ago. Maybe “Partygoing” is our reaction to who we are, as opposed to people we were when we would go to parties, or what parties are like now and us vs. the youth culture. Stephin may disagree with me here though.

Because it was so long in between, were some of these songs ready a long time ago?

We started talking about this two or three years ago, so I started writing for whatever the album was going to be. Whereas in the past I would send Stephen a certain amount of tracks and he’d pick the ones he wanted on there and sculpt his melodic bits, this time we had more freedom and I sent him a LOT of demos that were very loosely arranged to see what he liked and what he could work with. Then he’d work on them and send them back and I would work more on them and send them back. It didn’t take us as long as it has in the past to come up with an album, but there was a time when it was much more of a loose process. Once we got done to recording and making it final, it happened very quickly.

Do you complete all of the finished product and post-production in your studio?

I have in the past, but usually the vocals have been recorded wherever Stephin is living, usually New York. I don’t think we did stuff when he was in LA. This year we did the final mixes in New York, so he took control of that. We could actually have different tracks this time around, so I sent him all the stems. They were mixed much more sympathetically in the past I will say.

You were saying there was a lot of analog stuff and trading things digitally, but have you changed the way you record and the instruments you use?

For a long time my studio has been a hardware and software hybrid. I love the sound of old analog synths and I like to use as many as possible. There are some software things I’ve used, but since we’re so multi-tracked we can use the old analog synths with some updated software as well.

When you’re trading tracks, you are here, Claudia is in New York. And Stephin…

Stephin’s in New York. He lives in Hudson now, which is kind of upstate.

Obviously right now you’re dealing with the present and the current tour and recent record, but do you ever think about whether this project will happen again?

I would like it to happen sooner rather than later. I’d like it if it happened before another decade passed. Besides Stephin’s schedule, I think one of the major problems was how hard it was to make “Eternal Youth”. I think that now we have proven to ourselves that we can have fun making a record together and it’s easier than it was in the past. We can come up with something we’re really proud of. So I think it will happen again sooner rather than later. And I think it’s gotten me back in it as well. It’s one thing when you’re not producing something, or when people are living in different parts of the country– it’s difficult to get in the mindset. But with the ease of this new process, I’m not going to stop now. I’m going to keep writing when the tour is over and catalogue a bunch of new demos for the next time we start recording.