Thursday, April 22, 2010

Rogue Wave interview

A version of my story originally appeared in the North County Times. The band plays the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach on Tuesday and the El Rey Theatre in LA on Thursday.

Photo by Lauren Dukoff/courtesy Brushfire Records

Rogue Wave has had its fair share of problems over the past few years.

Drummer/multi-instrumentalist Pat Spurgeon’s kidney transplant and front man Zach Rogue’s neck injury resulting in severe right arm and hand pain were among the problems they faced.

So it wouldn’t be a surprise if Rogue’s material on the solid new album “Permalight” took a more serious turn than usual. Instead, the singer/guitarist started to craft urgent, danceable tunes (“Stars & Stripes,” “You Have Boarded,” the sci-fi story inspired “Good Morning”). The buoyant title track is another key example.

“That was the first thing I wrote. I hadn’t played guitar or written any music in awhile; I was in a really bad place,” admitted Rogue, from a Topeka tour stop.

“I wanted to do something simple, not frivolous, that reminded me of the feeling when I was a little kid and got excited after the Oakland A’s won a game. They’d always play ‘Celebration’ by Kool & the Gang…it’s just a song about being present and thankful to be alive.”

Spurgeon would agree with the latter sentiment.

The subject of “D Tour,” a thought-provoking 2009 documentary produced and directed by longtime friend Jim Granato, Spurgeon shared his personal journey encompassing daily dialysis treatments done on tour, the search for a living donor, receiving an organ transplant from a deceased young man and meeting the parents who gave their permission.

It made the rounds at various American film festivals and was shown on PBS’ “Independent Lens” series (go to for more details).

“Pat’s been able to speak at events and talk with people who have [similar] kidney issues. I think he’s been a real inspiring figure for people who thought their lives were over,” said Rogue.

“When you receive an organ from someone else, there is an [implied] promise: you’re going to do something with your life that’s not self-serving.” The National Kidney Foundation appears at many Rogue Wave shows. The band also talks with different organizations about getting involved and the importance of donor sign ups.

“It’s been great to be part of that and see how Pat’s story has been a comfort to others and helped us process our crazy history.”

Rogue Wave originated as a solo project for Oakland native Zach. After losing his web site development job amid the dot com bust in 2002, the musician went to New York to demo songs. Upon returning to the Bay Area, folk/pop debut “Out of the Shadow” was self-released. Zach recruited band mates to tour and found Spurgeon first via Craigslist.

Sub Pop Records reissued the lo-fi collection in ‘04 and put out follow up “Descended Like Vultures.” A label switch to Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records resulted in the sleeker sound of 2007’s experimental “Asleep at Heaven’s Gate,” featuring minor alt-rock radio hit, “Lake Michigan.” The group had a cameo performing it in the Jennifer Anniston/Aaron Eckhart flick “Love Happens.” The band’s music has been heard in a few dozen soundtracks and TV shows.

For “Permalight,” they teamed with producer Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse, Cracker, Elvis Costello) down in Oxford, Miss., took in the area's rich literary history and hung out at William Faulkner's gravesite on occasions of having "one too many" drinks.

“As Lou Reed said [in the Velvet Underground song “Some Kinda Love”], ‘between thought and expression lies a lifetime.’ I was trying to bridge that gap. Dennis seemed like a good fit” and proved to be very hands on in the studio, playing various instruments and adding background vocals. Rogue welcomed the collaboration.

“That’s always been my policy in our band: ‘if you can do something better than me, please do it. I’m far from an expert.’”

A distinct New Wave vibe envelops several tunes, thanks to retro Casio effects and programming. No surprise there; Zach cites such 1980s era influences as Echo & the Bunnymen, New Order, Depeche Mode and the Cure.

“There’s a lot of really incredible music to draw upon from the ‘80s.”

Just don’t call it a dance album like some ill-informed music critics. “I don’t think it’s that much of a departure for us. We’ve used synthesizers and drum machines on all our records…a few songs have that sensibility, but “Sleepwalker,” “Per Anger” and [ethereal highlight] “Fear Itself” do not. I wanted visceral, physical music; shorter songs and more direct lyrics.”

When Rogue Wave plays the Belly Up, it will be a homecoming of sorts for Zach, who lived on Cedros Ave. in Solana Beach for a couple years. “I’m looking forward to stopping by Pizza Port, for sure.”

Earth Day is this week and like many bands, Rogue Wave strives to help the environment. Besides supporting the 1% For the Planet organization with Brushfire and Johnson, they attempt to eliminate food consumption waste in tour catering, use energy efficient LED lighting and ban plastic bottle usage at shows.

“The most important thing I’ve done is change my eating habits and become a vegetarian,” Zach said.

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