Rogue Wave Tackle Our Delusions: “How Can You Even Function in This World?”
On this sixth LP the duo get experimental—Zach Rogue even let his toddler tune his guitar—but they're also pissed off. They're challenging you to listen up and draw your own conclusions.
Zach Rogue has been busy. So busy that he can’t quite tell me everything he’s been up to since the release of Rogue Wave’s 2013 LP Nightingale Floors. He’s trying, though. “I was bringing a new person into the world," he offers. "A lot of writing. There's some stuff I can't quite say, but there's some good other stuff that I'm really excited about. Also I was working on this record with this country folk singer in Nashville. I was doing some other scoring compositions and some other writing, non-musical writing…”
He has to get through all of that before talking about the making of Delusions of Grand Fur, his band’s sixth LP, out today, a record that took almost two full years to create with his longtime co-conspirator Pat Spurgeon. It’s a record that is, more than anything else in the band’s catalog so far, distinctly theirs. No producers, no mixers or engineers. Holed up in their Bay Area studio, they built every track from the ground up, toying with sounds while arranging concepts, throwing in unfamiliar instruments while new melodies cropped up.
All of which, while potentially liberating, was clearly a painstaking process. Rogue himself accepts that it’s “maybe not the most conventional thing to do, not a very effective use of time.” But in many ways, Rogue Wave had to make an album like this, had to stamp their mark on something without interference. Ever since the sun-splashed tones of their first two LPs, 2004’s Out of the Shadow and 2005’s Descended Like Vultures, pushed their music to playlists and festivals, they’ve been searching for something. The charming Asleep At Heaven’s Gate, on which their most famous track “Lake Michigan” was cut, seemed to push them in one direction before 2010’s Permalight, a dancier, more saccharine indie record, ditched the whole thing. There, more than ever, they seemed uncomfortable and unsettled.
Delusions of Grand Fur isn’t a strict blueprint for the band’s future—it’s playful and experimental, jumping from one theme to the next both lyrically and sonically. But in spite of its variations, it’s a cohesive and rewarding record, something that paves the way for yet another incarnation of their sound. The album’s opening one-two of “Take It Slow” and “In the Morning” refine the folk aesthetic of their earlier albums, but “What Is Left to Solve” is a different prospect, all pulsing synths and reverberating vocals. Then there’s the striking “Look at Me,” a lazily sinister song that obliquely tries to pull apart gun violence, which in turn brushes up against “California Bride,” a sweet guitar-pop song with a perfect hook. They pull darkness and light apart, but they don’t separate the two by much. I spoke with Rogue from his home in San Rafael, just across the bay from San Francisco to find out more.
Noisey: You had more control than ever over this record, mixing and mastering the whole thing. What drove that?
Zach Rogue: We didn't know exactly what we were doing when we first started. We knew that we didn't want to make demos and then rehearse a bunch of songs and then go into a studio and make a formal record. It seemed like we wanted to make something that sounded more spontaneous. We felt the only way to do that where we wouldn't have any hang-ups was to do it in our own studio, because that's where all our gear is anyway and we've been building our studio up. It seemed to make sense that if we were going to do something that was really spontaneous and off the cuff was our weird, personal way of arranging music, it kind of had to be done that way. No producer could tolerate the hand-wringing and hair-pulling and our fucked up way of arranging music. It's too esoteric, the way we work. To me it was exhausting on our last album, demoing for eight months these really extensive, very, very ornate demos, and then turn around and step into the studio with John Congleton and make a whole album, right after we'd just made the same album, basically. I just wanted to get away from trying to chase sounds, I'd rather just discover sounds and then your song is done and it's just a moment in time. And that's what this record is, this record's just a moment in time of trying to figure out what the songs were and then just leave them alone.
So you were just detailing things in real time?
Yeah, and we knew we weren't going to perform it live as a band. We knew it was going to be very improvised arranging which meant we kind of had to play each instrument one at a time. There was one song where we played as a three-piece, we did Endless Supply” as the three of us. But other than that, it was pretty much one instrument at a time. "What shall we play next? I don't know, how about a violin. How about a synthesizer?" It was just making it up as we went. So that spirit of recording felt like it made the most sense to do it on our own because we didn't know where it was going.
Six albums in do you feel like your desire to experiment keeps showing through?
I think so. It’s maybe not the most conventional thing to do. It's not a very effective use of time because it takes a long time. I was actually kind of terrified when it was time to mix the record because we had spent so much time working on one song at a time without much thought about whether or not these songs would sound like a collection. We'd been working so long, I thought it was going to be a double album or something. We recorded so much music, probably enough for three albums. I was concerned. What if it's too disjointed to flow like a record? And as we started mixing, the pieces started really falling together and I have hoped that “Memento Mori” would be the last song, that was my vision. I had hoped that "Take it Slow" would start things. I had these markers in my mind where I thought things would fall. I didn't know if it would really feel natural and feel good from song to song. But the more we started mixing, the more I started to feel, "OK, this isn't a colossal fuck up. This isn't as much of a fuck up as I thought it would be." It started to feel great.
Thematically, when you’ve got so much going on and it’s so spread out, how do you drill down on something?
It's difficult. There's some themes and some concepts of songs that are, I think, angry. There's a lot of anger in some of the songs that I didn't put on the record. Some lyrics that were pretty vicious, speaking to a side of me that is, occasionally, filled with rage. Some of the songs that have some of that rage, I omitted and they may surface in another form. There's still some on the record, but not some of the real going for the throat stuff. It remains to be seen how that stuff is going to surface, but I like how there still is a real pendular swing in terms of the rawest form of intimacy and a direct narrative of love and making love and making love work. And then utter disgust with my surroundings. Utter disgust with the sign of the times. There's a lot of contrast of really melodic music and more deconstructed, dark, angular music too. There's a lot of experimentation and psychedelia and there's some straightforward melody. All things that I like.
What was the process with the less acoustic work? Did you start things like that or did you just find what fit naturally with different instruments.
Well, depending on the song. A song I started talking a little bit as of late is "What Is Left to Solve" which was actually the first song we released. When I wrote it, I thought it was going to sound like "Africa" by Toto. I thought it was going to be this rolling floor tom, churning acoustic guitars. I thought it was going to be really playful in its delivery and we started tracking it and it sounded really bad and I didn't like it. I was just sitting there, banging my head on the wall saying, "Why do we hate this song? Why is this a bad song right now? Why does it sound so boring?" So sitting there, I had a synth in my lap, Pat had a drum machine on his lap sitting by the computer, and we just started playing the song on a drum machine and a synth to see what that would sound like. Before we knew it, it became sort of a folk song by way of Gary Numan. It became a different thing. And a lot of those new wave sounds, those are the sounds of what we were raised on. The sounds of the 80s, synthesizer music and all that, when I was a child, those were the sounds that I was hearing—Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, a lot of that kind of dark synth-pop. Even Human League. I really loved that music. So it would be impossible for it to not find its way into what we were doing. Our studio is filled with synthesizers, a lot of them just don't make it onto the record the whole time.
There are tracks here that have a sense of dread about them. How much of all this is because you’re patently a grown-up now? You’ve got kids to worry about, stuff that you didn’t have to think about six albums back.
It's funny, when I was working on the record, when I was writing, my son—he's two—when he was little, the past year, I would have guitars laying around my room and I would get frustrated before when he'd throw my guitars and he'd push them, he'd tune all the knobs and everything. I was kind of resisting and worried he was going to break the neck and step on the guitar, snap the strings or whatever. One day I decided to do an experiment where I'd let him. I wouldn't tell him no. I'd let him take this one guitar of mine, this baby Taylor, this small acoustic guitar, I'd let him just tune the knobs to his heart's delight. Then when he left the room, I would tune each string to the nearest whole note and I would try and write songs based on tuning that he created. So I'd try and write songs based on his creative tuning. And it actually really worked. So the song "Frozen Lake" on our record, that is my son's tuning. It's weird, every string is an F or something. I don't even know what the tuning is called, but I started to just go with the flow and accept. So, to answer your question, it affects everything. It doesn't just affect writing songs, it affects what time I get up in the morning, it affects what I eat, it affects how I view politics and how I view my community and what kind of a world I want. When I'm dead and at my funeral, what do I want my children to think of the life I led and how it will inform them?
So on a song like “Look at Me” where you’re starting at a topic like gun violence, is that coming from the same place?
That song is angry. That song is pissed off. It's disgusting. It's horrific that it's gone on this long, that it continues to grow. So that definitely is there. But no, I'm an adult like everyone else. I read the paper. I read from different sources. Look at this political season. It's hard not to be just completely horrified and disgusted. The kind of devastation that is happening around the world—there's so much violence. There's so many tragic things that happen every day. That is exactly why the album is called what it's called. If we don't have some form of delusion going on, how can you even function in this world? How do you keep going with your days when you look at what's happening. What kind of world are my children walking into? What is their life going to be like going forward? What is going to happen to their children’s' world? It can't not affect me. And that is what makes music so precious to me.
You can only fit so many songs in one record. People have such a short attention span. How do I make the most of my time on this Earth? What's the good I can do given my skills as a human being to make the world better or to make some impression to try and leave something good behind?
How much of it is you trying to figure stuff out for yourself and how much of it is you trying to bring stuff to other people?
I don't think that by me writing a song about gun violence... I'm full of myself on some level because otherwise I wouldn't tour. But I'm not full of myself to think that it's going to have any impact on the debate about guns. It's more about writing about music that I feel passionately about. I think the ways to advocate for things is by partnering with others. We work with this group called RPM and they do a lot of non-profit stuff. We're doing some work with them and I feel that's a more effective way of using resources and organizing and trying to counteract some of the stuff that we feel is really damaging. So I think, probably, it's mostly just personal. It's me trying to express what I think. But I've never been the kind of person who wants to tell people what the lyrics are about, that's not for me to do. If somebody likes our music, they may not give a shit about the words. They may not bother, and if they do, they can think about the words in a way that's totally different in the way to what I think about them. If our music matters enough to them, hopefully they'll derive some meaning.
I've talked to the band before about songs and about the narrative within the song and they all have very different opinions about what they think the songs are about. I feel like they're about as close to the songs as possible and if we can't even agree, inside of our own band, about the lyrical content of a song, then that tells me that that's great. That means people can find words and find meaning in them in different ways. I'm not writing a manual. It's meant to be art and it's meant to evoke feelings and people can take it in the way that best suits them.