Robert Schwartzman of Rooney
How do you measure the true character of a band? Is it the success they have with the backing of a major label or their ability to bounce back once they’ve taken full creative control back into their own hands? Either way, Rooney (Robert Schwartzman on vocals and guitar, Louie Stephens on keys, Taylor Locke on guitar and Ned Brower on drums), know that staying true to their music and their core fanbase is their highest priority.
On June 8th the band returns with their third full length album “Eureka”. After their up and down experiences with previous major label releases the band decided to go the indie route with this one and shoulder the full responsibility. The album is 100 percent Rooney from start to finish – written, produced and released on their own label California Dreamin’ Records (through Warner Music Group’s Independent Label Group).
Since their major label debut in 2003 the band has felt a bit stifled by the suits and this album gave them the opportunity to do things their own way. Mixing their old soul with new tricks the result is an album that has all of the Rooney charm that we’ve come to expect. Sharing the writing duties this time allowed for the songs to cover a broader range of sounds and styles. Their influences are widespread but they’ve pulled together a cohesive collection of songs that deliver on all marks – clever wordplay through honest storytelling, well-crafted catchy choruses, and the throwback addictive beats.
We recently caught up with Robert Schwartzman to talk about the new album, the long road getting here, the departure of bassist Matt Winter and of course we had to throw in a little West Coast/East Coast sports rivalry courtesy of the NBA Finals.
Interviewed by: Mary Ouellette
So this new album, “Eureka”, has been referred to as your “declaration of independence” because you recorded it and produced it yourself and it was released on your own label – how did that freedom impacted the music and the overall process for you?
Right away the whole process changed how we felt about it. Mixing it up and doing it a whole new way both on our own as producers and engineers and also away from a big label. I don’t think anyone was afraid to step into the studio alone because we’ve all been into recording music, we all have studios and we’re all gear freaks so it’s always been a part of our lives. I’ve always demo-ed songs before I presented them to the bands so I’ve always made recordings and I always feel that there’s been some special moments in those demos that never made it on to the finished version of the recordings. The biggest difference was that we had a room that had everything we needed and helped us feel like we were making a real record rather than just demo-ing things. That’s all sort of subjective now because you can make a record on anything but it’s a personal thing – what makes “you” feel like you’re making a record. I think for us it was having a space that was creative with our gear in it and sounded good. Sonically it was solid. Once we had that all together we just ran with it and had the confidence to keep going. It sounds cheesy but you know how like a fraternity kind of breaks you down and rebuilds you? That was a little bit of our experience with our last major label. There was a little bit of being broken down and then feeling like you rely on them, and I think they want you to feel like that. We’ve always been resistant to that feeling of them wanting too much control. I think for all of us it took a second just to feel confident in the new way that we did it. We were fueled by the change of the industry, there’s so many new things happening that I’m excited about – how to put music out and how to market yourself. I really think its fun and make it more of a challenge as opposed to just “getting signed” and thinking “wow you’re going to give us money and we’re going to be stars.” I think that was the mentality that we had as 18 year old kids.
Yeah but like you said, you were young then and you were really put through the wringer so to see you come back with a new album that you’ve put out independently is pretty refreshing and I’m sure inspiring to other bands who may be in a similar position that you were in.
We’ve met a lot of bands and really talented people who are just sort of trapped in a bad situation. I think we’ve always encouraged people that they don’t need to do it that way. It all has positives and negatives but I think the main thing was that we all had a big “high-5” moment when we got out of our deal because it just wasn’t healthy anymore. It was like “Let’s just do it, let’s make the record – we’ll find someone to put it out.” It was more of just the doing mentality and we knew going in we had catchy songs, we had Rooney material that we felt our fans would really love, that we really loved, and I think it was just really executing that. The biggest hurdle and my biggest fear for the record was “will we all get along in the studio without a ‘coach’ there? Will we play nicely?”
I kind of wondered about that. As far as production goes, was it a group effort? How was it broken down?
We established that we were going to record the album at my place, and since everyone has a studio that was the first hurdle. I campaigned for it because I had made a record before we recorded ours in my studio and I felt it offered up a good example of what could be accomplished. So far all of the Rooney records have had had just my songs on them..
Yeah! In the past, you were the primary songwriter but on this album we have “Into The Blue” written by Louie and then “The Hunch” that Ned and Taylor wrote, so that’s pretty exciting. Do you foresee everyone being more involved in the writing process moving forward?
Yeah that was sort of the biggest difference going in, it’s our third record and everyone wanted to have songs on the record. Everyone wrote songs and sort of threw them on the table and we had a much bigger pool to draw from at that point. We had a bunch of Taylor/Ned songs, they became a co-writing team, Louie had a few songs that were really good and one of them popped out right away as the winner (Into the Blue). The Taylor/Ned songs were cool but some of them were not…
…”Rooney-fied”, yeah exactly. It’s also hard too because the songs that I’ve written in the past have sort of shaped the band and it’s hard for me to separate myself from that a little bit. It’s a delicate issue as far as what you think fans are going to like and what’s going to represent us best. Everyone had their own critical comments to make about each other’s songs which is really kind of difficult because everyone becomes sensitive.
Yeah but you’re talking about your art, so it’s easy to get defensive right?
Yeah totally, but the truth is, for me, I’ve had my songs criticized since the beginning. I’ve had lots of songs that never made it on records, I’ve had labels tear songs apart, and it’s been something that I’m so use to but I think for them, as new writers for Rooney, I don’t think it was as easy for them to deal with the criticism. My biggest fear going in was picking songs. We do majority voting to help us steer through some of the songs and I think everyone was happy in the end because we were able to give everyone’s song a shot because we didn’t have an A&R guy who was “No, No, No-ing” us. We had unlimited studio time so it was just like “okay, you really love your song, you want to do it, let’s just record it, and if it doesn’t sound good, let’s be honest and say it doesn’t sound good. So there was a little bit of the honor code going on.
Well I think you made the right choices, all of the songs sort of fit under the broad umbrella of what fans might expect from the band and now I’m assuming that moving forward everyone will be involved in the writing process?
I don’t think we have any plans for the future just yet. I just like records that have good songs on them – catchy songs that are well-crafted. I don’t care who wrote them, I just want them to be really good, and that’s what I’ve been telling the guys. I’ll be honest when I don’t think a song is really good. Whatever happens next, my message has always been the same – let’s just make good music. If Louie is going to play a guitar solo because it’s more his personality and works better for the solo, and then let’s do that. I like when bands mix things up. Even on a lot of The Beatles records, Paul McCartney is playing drums. We don’t really think of that, but he is. It has a different feel and a different vibe. I’ve always heard producers say “I don’t have rules”, but everyone has some rules. I do like the “let’s try new things” approach with staying within the context of our band.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on Eureka. I wanted to talk about “Stars And Stripes” because lyrically it’s really positive and could really bring people together and then sound wise, it’s not something we’d typically expect from the band, do you feel like this was one of your more experimental/out of the box tracks?
I don’t know. I know it’s different than the last stuff and if someone asked me to play the most different song on the album, that’s the one I’d play them. What I think is really cool about the record is that there are those bridge songs that bridge you from record to record. So people that liked “x” songs on the last record will probably like “x” songs on the new record. I think this record has a lot of the stuff that people responded to on our first record. The quirkiness of the stuff that people liked lyrically on the first record, I think that was honed in better on this one. For “Stars And Stripes” I was inspired by the song “Family Affair” by Sly Stone. It’s got this flat, low, smooth funky feeling to it. It was mimicked after that. The chords and the style of the piano playing and the singing were inspired by Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. It was kind of a Steely Dan/Sly Stone mix. Sometimes I try to tone it down musically where it’s more simple and straight and sometimes I really want it to be musical and the chords to be exciting and different – stuff you don’t hear on a lot of new pop records. So, that song I really fought for to be on the record. I had some resistance from some band members who thought it might be “too jazzy” but to me I love jazz and that was a good thing. People like Rooney because there’s a jazz flair in the music underneath the rock n roll stuff. That was always my argument – we do jazz! It’s not like John Coltrane but we have jazzy voicings. That song really makes me happy because I like the message in it. I’ve always shied away from political lyrics and I felt like this was my chance in a more poetic way to say something that would end up as a powerful “we have to work together” message.
Let’s talk about the song “Holding On” – lyrically it sounds like it’s pretty autobiographical and then sound wise there’s been comparisons to Tom Petty– what can you tell us about it?
So here’s how the song came to be – we were in Europe touring, and I was writing a little bit here and there. I was demo-ing ideas on Garageband and was playing notes on my keyboard. I looped a beat that sounded a little techno-y. It was fast and different and I liked the melody, I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, I thought maybe a dance song for a different project but I really liked it so I slowed it down and played it on acoustic guitar. I was watching the Tom Petty documentary “Running Down A Dream” and what I was inspired by was that his influences are the same as mine – early 60s, pop, rock, late 50s singer/songwriters. Songs that are simple but well-crafted. It made me want to go write and tell a story from the heart. I started writing to those chords and I the story started spilling out. I was inspired to tell a story in a more direct, simplified songwriting and I thought that was really effective for me. I was really inspired to write after watching that documentary.
You’ve always been great at writing songs that really tell a story, that’s always been a strongpoint for Rooney songs – do you feel like you accomplished that throughout this album?
I feel like all of the lyrics tell a story and are from a meaningful place. There’s something that happens when you write music and you write about something you’re feeling. It’s really a satisfied feeling to feel like you’ve just created musically and lyrically what you’re feeling. I felt very satisfied writing these songs because whether it was band frustration and the song “Holding On” comes out or brotherly love and disconnect that inspires a song like “Go On”, they come from that place. Even on “Stars And Stripes”, I’ve been more involved in political affairs and certain things that take place just blow my mind and I feel that song is about the bigger picture without being very specific.
So I have to ask about Matt, he left the band in February after recording this album with you. For your upcoming tour you have Brandon Schwartzel playing bass, are you planning on finding a permanent replacement for Matt or has that long term decision not been made yet?
We weren’t shocked when Matt left, but we understood his position and couldn’t really argue with that. We’ve always wanted to keep all our original high school friends together in this band and we’re adjusting to it. Were feeling good about it now because we did find someone that we all love. I’ve known Brando the longest because I produced his old band Castledoor, and that’s how I met him. Immediately when he started playing bass, just his whole vibe and personality, I thought this guy would be great in Rooney if Matt ever quit. I was expecting it to happen, eventually, he’s been pretty open about his lack of enthusiasm for music. Right around the time Matt left, Brando’s band broke up so it was really good timing. To be honest, he’ll be playing with us on this tour and will probably join the band. We’re going to ease into it but we all love him.
As a whole the band has always had an old soul and what I mean by that is that from day one we could feel influences from 60s 70s and even the late 50s in your music but with a modern twist. Do you find yourself most connected to music from that era and how do you take those influences and turn them into something that’s more modern? Or do you think that those elements are adaptable to all eras of music?
I like a lot of early pop music but I was pretty heavily influenced by a lot of 90s bands. Like Oasis sounded kind of ‘60s, so if I’m inspired by Oasis it’s going to sound kind of retro-y but they had their own modern spin on it. The recordings were bigger and heavier. My list is really mixed, I like a lot of older music and I find it to be the most satisfying to me. I feel like its challenging and it impresses – everything from songwriting to musicianship is just insane on a lot of old classic records.
They didn’t have the modern technologies that we have now to alter them so much.
Yeah! To go back to the production end of this, we just wanted to play on this record. We didn’t want to use computer techniques to enhance ourselves and that was a conscious effort. We felt like if we controlled it it wouldn’t be tampered with and we wouldn’t over-edit ourselves (and I mean computer-wise.) I just write what I feel and I think it just has a certain thing to it, I hope it has a certain thing to it. I don’t really think too much about how I can make things more modern, it’s definitely not a conscious effort. There are a lot of retro bands around, and even though there are retro things about Rooney, we’re not a straight up retro band. We didn’t get into a time machine in the ‘60s and just drop into the planet right now. There are a lot of bands like that; they want to make a super specific record to a particular time. You know what I think is interesting in music today, I feel like production and tricks have really dominated the indie-pop scene. It’s all about the way things sound garage and mixed up with tons of reverb on the vocal.
Yeah a manufactured garage sound which is kind of ironic.
Yeah exactly. Isn’t it just as “cheesy “ as any super pop band if you’re putting that much effort into making it sound it a certain way. The whole idea of indie to me is genuine sincerity in what you are, not trying to be something. I feel like in today’s indie music, people are so overly-conscious of themselves that I feel like it’s not genuine. I think that’s why my whole feeling about not wanting to get caught up in what’s hot and what’s not, I just want to write good songs. That’s what I think a good record is. Songs that people are going to sing to and get excited about.
With the release of this album it seems like you’ve really embraces social networking and used it to your advantage, do you feel more connected to your music fans in anticipation of this release than you have in the past because of it?
Totally – looking back on our entire career, we’ve always been a fan-friendly band. Even when we were just playing local L.A. gigs there was a scene-y kind of thing where after the shows we’d hang out with all of our fans and that sort of spilled into touring. I can recall many many nights after shows sitting outside the venue with a group of fans talking all night. It’s something I genuinely like to do because I really love talking to our fans, everyone is really supportive and I care about their opinions. If I’m making music and people are coming out to support me, I’m really thankful of their time and enthusiasm towards our music and it makes me want to keep doing it. After the show it’s nice to look someone in the eye, shake their hand and share that bond. In the beginning there really weren’t too many social networks so we just used the Rooney website as a social network through blogs and message boards. I would say there was a moment between when Shakin’ was on the radio and we were playing shows like Lollapalooza where I felt like there was a bit of a disconnect with fans. I’m not happy that there was that, but when you go and play a shed, it’s a huge venue and it’s hard to find the right place to hang out with fans, it’s like a circus.
But even when you played sheds you were really good about being available for your fans. I remember going to see you play in small clubs and hanging out after shows and then going to see you open for Kelly Clarkson in a huge venue and even then you still came out and met with fans. The line was a lot longer at that point but you always made the effort.
I think as much as we could make the effort – whenever the opportunity was there we definitely took it. Now I realize more and more how important it is to have that core fan base that stuck with us and sometimes I wonder what happen to particular fans who we use to see at all the shows, you go through fan withdrawal. I really do like talking to fans on social networks; I try to do everything I can to make everyone feel like I appreciate them –because we do. I want to make people happy, I want to keep making music, and I want to sell it directly to them. They are the people that I want to make music for when I’m a little old man, the fans who want to stick with me.
Like you said, over the years you’ve built that core fan base and sure there are some people who might not come out to every show like they did in the past but they’ll still be there.
I’m just so into online networking sites because it brings me closer to fans and I think that’s what it’s all about. There are a lot of bands that don’t use it, I’m so shocked. They don’t use the opportunity to talk to people – they believe in the fourth wall, but I don’t.
So in closing, I wanted to ask you something off topic – I know you’re a Dodgers fan, and I was born and raised in Red Sox nation so we have the common denominator of one Manny Ramirez – do you want to give me a World Series prediction?
Well, I feel like the Yankees are pretty in at this point. They heat up and are a solid team but the team I’m really excited about is Tampa Bay, they’re so good. So maybe The Phillies and Tampa Bay? I would even say the Cardinals too, I don’t know how they look right now but I think they’re such a good team.
And let’s talk Lakers/Celtics?
Yes, I was at the game last night. (Game 1).
So obviously you think the Lakers are going to win so what’s your prediction?
Dare I say sweep? Dare I say it? To be honest, I wouldn’t have been bummed if Phoenix beat L.A.
(Sorry Robert, NO SWEEP!!)
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