The musicians in Rogue Wave look like Muppets. Guitarist-vocalist Zach Rogue (né Schwartz), his soft features framed by golden, surfer-boy hair, is the Kermit of the group; multi-instrumentalist and Houston native Gram Lebron, with his cheery grin and shaggy curls, is Rowlf; bassist Sonya Westcott, cute and easygoing, is Janice the hippie chick (though Westcott has considerably more tattoos); and drummer-guitarist Pat Spurgeon, who's tall and thin and sports a giant Afro, is unmistakably Animal. Aesthetically speaking, the group is worthy of Henson.
But this isn't Los Angeles; here in the band's San Francisco base, looks will get you only so far. Fortunately for the members of Rogue Wave, theirs is more than just a superficially winning formula. A real, honest emotion galvanizes the music they make together. It's called love.
Yes, love. It sounds stupid, but it's this band's magic feather. While there are lots of groups that get along, I've never met one whose members love each other as much as those in Rogue Wave, and who profess that love so fervently. Over the course of a two-hour conversation in a suburban diner, it's practically all they can talk about. [Warning: The following quote, like a Valentine's Day card from your grandparents, is jarringly sentimental.]
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"I've never looked forward to practice this much before," says Lebron, as his bandmates sigh, giggle and blush, half embarrassed, half smitten by his confession. "It's true, though! I mean, it's kind of weird, it's kind of geeky, but we really get a high just being around each other. It's nerdy, isn't it?"
Yes. Yes it is. And under different circumstances, it would probably make me reach for my vomit bag. But remember, these guys look like Muppets, and when Miss Piggy seizes Kermit and confesses her affection, you don't turn away and puke. You say, "Awwwww." Add to this Rogue Wave's music -- an effervescent blend of the Byrds, the Kinks and Simon & Garfunkel with the sounds and textures of today's winsome indie rock -- and what you've got is the musical equivalent of Breakfast at Tiffany's, a band that's as smart as it is sappy, as stimulating as it is endearing. It's not just a one-night stand, but rather the real thing, that rare blend of heart and mind, the kind of relationship, er, band that some musicians spend their whole lives looking for.
A few years ago, Zach Rogue was a frustrated man. Like many of his fellow players in the dot-conomy, he was spending most of his time putting together Web sites; whatever was left over he devoted to a band called Desoto Reds. Neither pursuit was fulfilling.
"You know that feeling when you just gotta leave?" Rogue says. "I needed to have an outlet other than that band to be able to make songs, because I wanted to really flesh out the songs that I was writing I had been working at that job for years, three years, 80 hours a week. Crazy, you know? And I was totally miserable doing it."
While the dot-crash was unlucky for most, for Rogue it was a blessing. When he was laid off in late 2001, he took his severance pay and hightailed it to his buddy Bill Racine's place in New York to cool out, rest up and record a few songs. What started out as a few four-track demo recordings evolved into something neither expected.
"Something happened," says Rogue. "We started recording, and I didn't even really know what I was doing, but we just kind of hit it off, so we just started tracking. We just kept recording, and [Racine] was like, 'Well, let's just make an album.' "
Rogue was onto something. When he returned to San Francisco with the tracks, he fleshed them out further with drums, hand-claps and keyboards before going back to New York to mix what would become Out of the Shadow. The singer-guitarist christened his new project Rogue Wave, after a passage in the book Cryptonomicon. Rogue even changed his last name from Schwartz (well, not legally, but for all practical purposes) to signify the break he'd made with his former self. Next he put an ad up on Craigslist, seeking band members. Sonya Westcott responded first. The two met in a bar, started talking and were rehearsing together shortly thereafter.
Then came Pat Spurgeon, a veteran of countless acts (Antenna and Lessick, to name a couple), who confesses that before he met Rogue, "I was at the end of my tether with music. There's no way I was gonna quit playing, but I was just gonna quit trying real hard and just do my own thing."
Nevertheless, "I listened to the record," says the drummer. "Then I listened to it again. Then I couldn't sleep 'cause I was like, 'I better call him right away. He's probably already got a drummer 'cause this record is so good.' " When Spurgeon showed up to audition for the band, he had already learned all the songs.
"I was like, 'Holy shit,' " says Rogue. "I didn't want to freak him out, but I didn't want him to leave without saying, 'You're in the band.' I just felt like, 'You have to do this with me.' "
When Schrasj and Ojet Records veteran Gram Lebron heard the album, he had a similar reaction, so he showed up at Rogue Wave's first gig at Berkeley's Ivy Room (when the band was just a trio). There, he explains, "Something clicked, and I realized that I have to be in this band." A few weeks later, he was.
Hearing these guys talk about finding one another is like listening to a pair of 40-year-old paramours ooze clichés: "I had all but given up on relationships." "I never thought I'd find true love." Blech! But combine their confessionals with the music they make together, and a bad episode of The Newlywed Game becomes Gone with the Wind.
The best songsmiths make translating complex emotions into three-minute pop songs look easy. Their songs are checkers, not chess: predictable but captivating. Zach Rogue has a similar gift. His hooks caress you like a lover, rather than clobber you like a bully; he can craft a tune from one long, drawn-out meditation on a single chord or a dozen dazzling progressions. Added to this base is his voice, which can sound as vulnerable as Nick Drake's or as sturdy as Paul McCartney's.
On Out of the Shadow's "Be Kind + Remind," he sprinkles his sweet, whispered vocals over little more than a delicately plucked guitar, urging the gentle notes into an even gentler chorus of "Please be kind / And remind." (Rogue's lyrics have a pleasantly obtuse quality no more off-putting than, say, "Within the sound of silence.") In welcome contrast to this warmly personal feeling is the skipping rock of songs like "Endless Shovel" or "Kicking the Heart Out," which playfully layers sound upon sound, verse upon verse, making you wait for what's ultimately an epic celebratory chorus.
While Rogue's record is stunning on its own, it's amazing to see what his assembled band has done with the material. "We've taken those songs," says Spurgeon, "and just torn them all down, taken them down to just basically the vocal part and then built them back up, keeping a lot of the elements of the recording, but then reinterpreting stuff. The album isn't really a rock band. It isn't a band at all."
"Right," adds Rogue. "It's nerd boy in the basement."
Since its first show in February of last year, the group has added keyboards and backup vocals, drum fills and bass lines: It's taken Rogue's already captivating songs and made them even better. And together they've worked out dozens of new tracks. "Love's Lost Guarantee," a chilling four-minute power-pop anthem, is one of them, as is "Interruptions," arguably Rogue Wave's finest work yet. "Interruptions" builds to a glass-shattering finale that features the quartet pulling off a four-part harmony like a gospel choir on a sugar high, amid swirling swatches of distorted guitars, crashing cymbals and warm organs. Hearing the voices melt into one another for the song's climax is as heartwarming as any Audrey Hepburn movie, especially when the music recedes suddenly, leaving Rogue's charmed tenor alone and pleading, "Leave the light on / Leave the light on."
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In the past two years, Rogue Wave has gigged hard, and the rewards are rolling in. It has toured the West Coast with much-hyped British retro-rockers the Clientele and toured elsewhere with the Shins. Back home, the East Bay Express dubbed Out of the Shadow one of the year's ten best CDs, and across the bay in San Francisco, SF Weekly officially named Rogue Wave "the next big thing." Early this summer, Sub Pop picked up Out of the Shadow for national release, and the band has since played The John McEnroe Show, and last month "Kicking the Heart Out" was single of the week on iTunes.
The group's waxing appeal is based on its enchanting songs, which in turn are based on the nurturing environment the members create for one another. "When I first started playing guitar, I hid my guitar in my closet because I didn't want anyone to know I was playing, because I was embarrassed," relates Spurgeon. In Rogue Wave, he's encouraged to pick up an ax whenever he's got something to play; his guitar harmonics on "Love's Lost Guarantee" make the song.
"It's like this," he says. "We're all boyfriend and girlfriend. And that's a huge responsibility, when you have two boyfriends and another girlfriend on top of that, ya know? It's like, 'Damn!' So we have to be really open with one another."
"I think there's a feeling of like, 'Wow, this is moving at kind of a quick pace,' " says Rogue. "But at the same time it's like -- honestly, it sounds kind of silly to say -- but I liken the experience of just getting to know these guys, the feeling we have, it's like falling in love. The feeling that we have for each other is so strong."