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"Songs are alive," Zach Rogue tells me. "You can warp them into different things. It's like Tinker Toys." He's talking about Rogue Wave's recent session on Daytrotter.com, for which the band entered a studio and performed new versions of four songs that are now available on the site for download.
"We've been trying to do it for a year," he says. "[They're based] in southern Illinois, so it's hard to get to. We went in and just winged it. It's cool because it encourages spontaneity."
Rogue even led the Oakland-based band through a song most of them didn't know. They also stripped down three tracks from the band's third album, Asleep at Heaven's Gate, from their original syrupy lushness to a sparer framework. "It's just returning to the original idea. We've always liked using the studio," he explains, "but when performing, like, that song '10:1,' we've played it in 10 or 15 different styles." He cites the cover of the Pixies' "Debaser" that Rogue Wave did for The O.C. Mix 6. They did both a rock version and an acoustic one, but the latter "was more us," he says.
The funny thing about Asleep at Heaven's Gate, as Rogue tells it, is that the band went into the studio with a "super-bare-bones" album in mind. After drummer Pat Spurgeon had a kidney transplant, however, he returned to the studio reinvigorated, picking up dozens of instruments to play. In the same year, Rogue and his wife welcomed a baby girl, keyboardist Gram LeBron's father died, and ex-Beulah keyboardist Patrick Abernethy came on board as bassist. (The band's longtime former bassist, Evan Farrell, died days before this past Christmas in an apartment fire; Rogue, understandably, wasn't comfortable with talking about the tragedy.)
"I didn't know all these things would happen that would feel so grandiose," Rogue says, quietly. He explains that it took him a year to figure out how to record the song "Harmonium," while "Missed" was captured on 8-track in his mother's dining room with just him and Spurgeon playing, and "Own Your Own Home" features 30 of their friends playing the same note at once. "So it runs the gamut. The way an album can work is that you can have a song that's one take or one with 100 Pro Tools tracks, and they can make sense. It's one complete thought to me."
Asleep at Heaven's Gate, following Out of the Shadow and Descended Like Vultures, was the first Rogue Wave album released on a label other than Sub Pop. The band is now signed to Brushfire Records, run by surfer/songwriter Jack Johnson, whose wife, it turns out, is best friends with Rogue's wife. After Rogue Wave's contract with Sub Pop was fulfilled, the band began the unglamorous process of looking around for a new home.
"It's not really fun talking to labels because you don't know what you're going to get," Rogue observes. He had considered simply doing a side project with Brushfire, but he wound up really liking everything about the label, from its employees and distribution to its contract structure and offer of creative freedom. Even its environmental policy appealed to him. "That's all very attractive to us. In every single way, it was a step up."
He acknowledges that Rogue Wave, a dynamic and moody indie-rock band that's been compared consistently to the Shins, doesn't seem like an obvious fit at Brushfire, home to such laid-back dudes as G. Love, Matt Costa, Money Mark and Johnson himself. "Brushfire doesn't put out bands that sound like us, but that's not necessarily what a label is about, we've learned."
Rogue Wave has always had good luck licensing songs, with several tracks on The O.C. and one on the indie-tastic Spider-Man 3 soundtrack. The single "Lake Michigan" from Asleep at Heaven's Gate is already being used in Zune MP3-player commercials that, from Rogue's perspective, pop up a lot during episodes of The Office. "It's weird," he says of hearing his songs on TV. "It's very surreal, like time stops for a second."
So has songwriting gotten any easier after three albums? "It's more like coping with what's going on in your life," explains Rogue. "The more complicated life gets, the more difficult it actually becomes to untangle the knots."
Rogue Wave perform with Midnight Movies at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (714) 647-7704; www.theglasshouse.us. Mon., 7 p.m. $12-$14. All ages.