Videos by American Songwriter
Oakland, Califonia’s Rogue Wave was one of the best things to rise from the ashes of the dot-com bubble. Frontman Zach Schwartz started the band after losing his tech job, coming onto the scene with 2002’s self-produced, aptly-titled Out of the Shadow. Fourteen years later, Schwartz found himself back in the producer’s chair for Delusions of Grand Fur, the band’s latest album, which pokes a little fun at the ideas that some young musicians have about life as a musician. We chat with Schwartz about production methods, writing love songs and Modern English.
Much like your debut album Out of the Shadow, you produced this album yourself. What led to you deciding to take the entire process into your own hands once again, and how do you think it influenced the work?
Similar to Out of the Shadow, the approach to arranging was completely spontaneous. On our last album, Nightingale Floors, we worked on demos for about eight months – really highly detailed demos. After that, we tracked the album with John Congleton. In retrospect, we started feeling like it was somewhat silly essentially making the record twice. So, this time around, we decided there would be no demos. No running through songs together as a band. And the only way to really do that would be to do it in our own studio.
Since it was mainly just me and Pat in the studio for most of the tracking and rough mixing, it allowed us to be pretty spontaneous and build each song, one at a time. I think we were much more willing to experiment with ideas in a way that we never would have in an expensive studio with an outside producer, and I was probably more willing to bring some songs to the table that I would have otherwise thought were unfinished fragments.
What’s your typical songwriting process?
There’s no real process. I mostly begin with my old Martin guitar or with an electric in the studio. I try to let my mind wander and see where it takes me with vocal melodies. Other times I sing into my phone when I am outside or driving in the car. On rarer occasions I will write at the piano or with a synth in the studio. I’ve even tried writing more with lyrical concepts first. There have been times when I have been reading the news and it has made me want to start with the words.
How long have you been writing songs?
I was beginning to write songs in about 4th or 5th grade. I didn’t really think they were songs until I was in college and some of my friends would ask me to play some of the ideas I was messing with in my room. I remember being sort of stunned that they wanted me to play them something I had made up. It was really something that was more for me. I had never really viewed it as something for someone else to hear.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote? What was it?
I was in 5th grade. It was basically a complete rip off of “Last Train to Clarkesville” by the Monkees.
How do you think your songwriting process has changed since you started?
I don’t know if the way I arrive at vocal melodies has changed much, to be honest, but the advent of the iPhone changed me a lot. It allowed me to remember so many more ideas. I had a way to have a mobile recording device with me at all times. Some of the weirder and more raw exciting ideas can come at inconvenient times. But overall, the general process is that I tend to write melodies in the morning when my mind feels open and lacking somewhat in self-awareness. I find it is, in general, easier to write lyrics late in the evening, when things feel the most quiet and I seem to be at my most hyper aware. It is then that my biggest fears, regrets, dreams and desires all come to converse in my brain.
What are the best and worst things about songwriting?
I love that there is no formula for writing a song. I love the fact that we just put out the sixth Rogue Wave LP and I still feel like I have no actual idea what I am doing. I get to live so much of my life in an improvised state. Finding a hook never ceases to be a thrilling experience. The worst part is that most ideas never feel worth remembering for very long – I move on pretty quickly and leave most ideas in the trash bin – so I spend about 90% of the time feeling like a waste of space with no new ideas.
Which song on the album are you most proud of and why?
I’m pleased with how “Curious Me” turned out. I’ve struggled in the past with writing more direct love songs. It almost always feels like it’s too much – too sentimental or lacking enough subtlety. When we first tracked the song, it sounded like an unemotional mess, so we removed the rhythm guitar and used a piano with a slap delay instead. I added some synths and Pat added some quiet spoken word stuff and shook a happy apple kid’s toy. After a little while, the song had transformed into a more sensual and nostalgic-sounding song. To me, a good love song isn’t just pure fantasy. It is multi-faceted, since love is an ever-changing thing.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
Neil Young, Robert Pollard, Robert Smith, Harry Nilsson, Elliott Smith, Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, Ray Davies, Chan Marshall, REM, Loudon Wainwright III, David Bowie, Lennon/McCartney/Harrison, Martin Gore, Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, Bill Fox, Wayne Coyne and Steven Drodz, Bjork, Randy Newman, Tom Petty, Stephen Malkmus, Robyn Hitchcock, David Byrne, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, Frank Ocean, Elvis Costello, Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin of Boards of Canada, James Mercer, Ian McCulloch, Radiohead, Britt Daniel, Jose Gonzalez, Brian Eno and Kurt Vile.
If you could co-write or collaborate with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose?
Otis Redding in the late 60’s, Neil Young in the early 70’s, REM in the mid 80’s, Guided By Voices in the mid 90’s, Radiohead in the 00’s and Kendrick Lamar now.
What’s the best song ever written and why?
“I’ll Melt With You” by Modern English is my favorite song. It’s timeless. That song will sound good 100 years from now. It is dark, joyous, emotional, unbridled, and the perfect expression of the visceral feeling of falling in love.