Adam Brody's The O.C. put a spotlight on many pop-alt bands during its run, especially Death Cab For Cutie and a young musical tribe called Rooney. Named after Ed Rooney--everyone's favorite principal from Ferris Bueller's Day Off--Rooney has amassed major chart success, hit singles, memorable videos, song placement ranging from the Tiger Woods' PGA Tour 2004 video game to the soap opera All My Children and Gossip Girl, and three rowdy, unpretentious albums full of clever lyrics and hook-filled melodies.
Rooney's lead vocalist/guitarist Robert Schwartzman and vocalist/drummer Ned Brower offered the following observations in an interview about their new album Eureka.
Mike Ragogna: Let's start at the end of your new album, Eureka. "Don't Look At Me" seems to have the opposite message of the first track, "Holding On." Was it sequenced last for that purpose?
Robert Schwarzman: For me, sometimes it's like the energy of the song or the vibe of the song that affects sequencing on the record. It's not a concept record. There's no lyrical story, but I definitely see your point. I go more into what the song feels like or something like that as far as the last song's impression.
MR: Back to "Holding On." "No, it's not over yet, it's not even close. My heart is stronger than a hundred cowards in a row." What inspired it?
RS: Some of the songs are kind of autobiographical like "Holding On." More of our songs in the past sort of looked through the eyes of a different person, sort of saw what they went through, then tried to get into their skin, though some of these songs are kind of like that too.
Ned Brower: To me, I think the song is about the record business...sort of. It's kind of the story of the band a little bit. We're just having our 10th year as a band, and I think Robert wrote the lyrics about our story. Sound-wise and production-wise, I think we were enjoying Tom Petty for a little bit, it falls in that category. I don't know, it just seemed like an appropriate time to have a story, a song about the band. That's what it is.
RS: Yeah. We've had a lot of bumps in the road. We've had a lot of really great success looking back about everything. I'm really pleased to have had two records come out on major labels, to have had radio success on both records, to have sold a really good amount of records. We have fans. But with all of that, it hasn't been an easy journey because we've dealt with those stereotypical label issues in the past. We've also dealt with stereotypical band issues with like everyone's opinion--internal politics.
There's always something to have to overcome, whether it's internally or externally. It's really weighs on me a lot. I don't really like to put weight on other people, but making this record was definitely a great thing to have done, and to have done it independently. And we all feel really happy and proud of it. Getting there was very hard because getting off Interscope was an exciting thing for us, but was also scary because it's like breaking up with your girlfriend and all of a sudden, you're single and all you had was this one love. Then it's like holy s**t, now what? It's like if you were in prison from the eighties into the nineties, by the time you get out, there are new cars, new outfits, new music. You're like, "Holy s**t! Where am I?"
You know, I was 19 when we got signed. My band mates were 17, we're all young guys. It was our first impression of the business. We knew we needed to get signed when we were younger, but we didn't know what that really meant. We got a really good deal, and we were dealing with a lot of big shots, a lot of big egos, and a lot of politics whether we knew it or not. The game had begun. The clock was ticking.
MR: And on a very basic level, music biz story aside, it's a song people need to hear since it strongly reminds us to not give up in a non-Hallmark card way.
RS: Thank you very much. It's awesome. Hopefully it'll be a single.
MR: Ned mentioned Tom Petty, but this album is a stew of influences.
RS: Yeah, totally. And there's Harry Nilsson. I think "Only Friend" could have a little bit of Nilsson. "Stars And Stripes" has kind of a Steely Dan thing. I sort of got really into Steely Dan. I think I react to it, naturally respond well to it 'cause I like jazz chords and jazzy kind of changes, and the arrangements that are very smart and thought out.
MR: What's your favorite Steely Dan record?
RS: I really, really love what's it called? It's got "The Caves Of Altamira" on it. Shoot, I saw it live...
MR: It's called Royal Scam. I'm with you, that's my favorite Steely Dan record.
RS: Oh yeah, Royal Scam. I saw that live at The Beacon.
MR: What a great record.
RS: I love them all. I have pretty much every record and I flip through every song. I also love Donald Fagan's The Nightfly.
MR: Since a few of the songs have more of a Petty vibe, how did that come about?
RS: I've always loved Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and I watched the Petty documentary Running Down A Dream. I was directly influenced, it made me want to go write.
MR: Yeah, like "Holding On."
RS: When I sat down and wrote "Holding On," I had that (hums melody) kind of riff which I wrote. We were on tour and, sometimes, I do little demos as I tour. I have an idea here and there. That was like a little idea I had but it almost sounded more techno the way I had recorded it as a demo in my Garage Band. When I got home, I kind of wanted to write actual songs. I feel like today, everything's so production-influenced, it's about the production, not the songwriting. I just like traditional songs that come from an honest place, and they make you feel something and tell a story and they flow right.
On this record, I wanted to also try--which is something that I've tried in the past, but more of it happened on this record--having the song develop and evolve without changing chords. Like using the same chord progression, but always kind of melodically and lyrically having the song dynamically move ahead in a really healthy way and keep your attention as opposed to always kind of having to introduce new drum beats or new chords. I think that's a cool way to approach songwriting.
NB: We take pride in sort of our knowledge of the classics. We really like to study classic rock and listen to those old records and play records from the fifties and from today really. But then we try and put new spins on them, mix things together in different ways, and make a collage that's our own, that's modern and fresh. I think we do that on the record. I kind of lost track while we were making it 'cause we were so inside of it.
MR: I even love the fade on the end. Kind of retro.
NB: Yeah. I can't recall but we're always trying something new whenever we make a record, play with new sounds or come up with something that's our own. I think now we've done it long enough that we actually have our own sound. We haven't tried to be anything exactly, you know, obvious. That's an important part for us, to make something fresh.
MR: Each of your albums seem to have its own identity.
NB: Yeah, I think so. It's hard when you're making them 'cause we get so close to it, I don't know. I kind of forget there's going to come a time when people talk about it in a public forum. A few weeks ago, a blurb came up on my computer saying that there was a review on the record. And I was like, "Oh s**t, the thing's going to get reviewed." It's interesting to hear what people behind the scenes say about it because it's stuff you might not even think of. I think people think this album shows a little bit of maturation and a forward progression which I'm thrilled about, but I wasn't really even sure when we were making it.
MR: "All or Nothing" could have easily American Idol pop with standard issue over-compression, an over-saturated mix, and over-auto-tuned vocals. It could have committed genericide, but it didn't, plus it sounds as contemporary as anything that comes out of the more talented of that crew.
NB: Yeah, definitely. I think our goal from the beginning as a band has been to try and create good pop music because we like it and it's kind of lost it's meaning, kind of run afoul, I think. It's kind of like the best part about our band. It also makes it a challenge since it's like there's never quite a place for Rooney exactly in the time we've been doing this. I feel like we would have fit in great in some other periods of music, but we're kind of out there with our own team, not really part of anyone's game. We like our own game, we take a lot of pride in that, and I think it's great that people seem to think that when they hear the new record, they can hear that. I didn't realize that people are going to pick up on that or not. I'm glad you did.
RS: Thank you. From my point of view, as we made the record, there were songs we didn't have in the beginning, and there were songs that I had written but I kind of felt like, "Oh no, the boat sailed already. We already picked our songs for the record. I guess those have to wait for the next record." While we finished recording the 13 or 14 songs we set out to make, I had these other songs that I would send around to the guys when we thought we needed more songs. I don't think everyone was prepared to absorb new music and critique it and have to decide if we're going to record them or not. "All or Nothing" and "Can't Get Enough," they were the last to the party. I'm happy they actually made it on the record because I think they're strong songs. But "All Or Nothing" was a song that we were able to blend some new elements on. I liked the way it turned out.
MR: "Can't Get Enough," Rooney's horny dude song.
RS: Yeah, totally. Writing it was to give our record that side of the band because I think that is something for us as a band, as a live band. People really like that. It's more fun, it's got a cool lyrical swagger and delivery, and it's got a cool beat and a good riff.
MR: How does it feel to be on a label that's more focused on Rooney?
NB: It feels great. Geffen was like a two-sided thing: We gained a lot from them over the years, they put a lot of effort, especially in the beginning, into our band. We also watched that place deteriorate a lot while we were there. So, by the time we got to the second record it was a bit difficult. We were looking at other things that you just mentioned, you know, over-tweaking, things that we weren't really that into. It made it a constant battle. When we made this record, we weren't even on a label at all. We were basically in the process of getting off Geffen and making our own thing. We were able to do it with someone that believed in the product that we created, you know? That's great. So, now we have a new team around us, and so far, it feels really good, and they're excited about it and we're excited about it as well.
MR: It's unfortunate that the nineties were probably the last decade when labels allowed bands to develop naturally and basically A&R themselves as opposed to being fiddled with by record companies.
NB: I think that's actually an astute observation. We saw that very first hand, between the first and second record because we actually were in that transition. It's almost like when we came in, people made jokes to us, you know? "As the years progressed, you guys got the last great record deal!" That's what they'd say to us around people we'd work with and stuff, and it kind of felt like that. When we got in the door back then, things were still happening, and we were given a lot of freedom on our first record. It was very much just like us working with the producer. We produced demos, no one f****d with it, and it was a joy to make. When it came out, people really dug it, it was all good. And then a few years later, it's like we've made our second follow-up, record three, with tons of producers, tons of different...it got really insane. We saw a lot of over-A&R-ing, and it almost killed the band. I've seen it happen with so many other young bands on that same label and other labels as well.
RS: We're now an independent band. We got off the label we've been on for 8 years, made this record in my home studio that was once a garage. We produced and engineered it, which was something that was new, and I think some people might have thought we're out of our minds for doing that. But we also felt like why are we going to pay a ton of money to producers that, in the past, haven't really cared. There were producers that really didn't give a s**t about what they were doing. At the end of the day, the result wasn't great. So all that money later, we didn't have a great product. The records I'm referencing never came out, but I think it was a good way for us to just get in our skin, do something we felt was right 'cause we believed we could do it.
MR: You know, rumor has it that label over-dabbling almost killed Weezer.
NB: They almost sort of strangled the band, just becoming over-involved because they're scared of their own business model and all these other things that everyone knows about. So, there was a lot of pressure put on us, and I don't think it was really beneficial in any way. Now we're following our creative whims a lot more.
MR: You guys stuck together and survived which is hard to do with all the stress you went through. As a band, are you guys pretty tight?
RS: Yeah. We don't hang out as much any more, but we care deeply about each other. We're all there for each other whenever we need to be, but I think because we're a touring band, we're always away. When we get home, it's like we all kind of get in our bubbles. But we're all friends. When we go on the road, we have a really good time together. There's no like, "I hate these f*****g people. Why am I working with these guys!"
MR: You have another strong anthem, "Stars And Stripes." It's a very patriotic song from a progressive's perspective, but if it had come out in the Bush years, you would have been accused of being a Dixie Chick.
RS: It's true. I definitely care about what's happening in our country. I grew up in a family that was very liberal, and had very strong opinions about liberal ideas. I was around those thoughts and had conversations about those things and did the best I could to absorb what was happening around me and have my own opinion about it. But I was always wanting to be careful about my political views and like, "Oh, you shouldn't give your political point of view...you should just remain neutral. Don't go there."
To some degree, I get that, but I do feel that while we were on tour on the last record and this record, there have been a lot of great things that happened in the world. The one thing I can't stand is blame. That was the real idea for the song, blame. That would probably be the more appropriate title for it. As I see it, it's not only politically, it's with business too. I see people who work together, and there's always some kind of alibi, some kind of scapegoat. People point the finger at somebody and someone takes the fall.
I kind of feel like we're all humans, we all live on this planet. I kind of always wish there was more of a partnership--a really healthy relationship between people, working together to do things and make it good and change. I feel like that song came out of that feeling. You know, someone we worked with briefly who was looking out for our best interests felt the lyrics needed to change 'cause they were too preachy and political.
NB: I love that song. For me, when I think of the song, I get more excited by the tones and chords and stuff we're exploring a little. It was exciting for all of us. It has a nice message as well. It can be taken in any number of ways. It's a nice sentiment.
MR: Right, it can be taken different ways, but "We can do better. There's nobody left to blame," seems like a commentary on the previous administration. It begs the question, "When are we going to start fixing stuff for real?"
NB: And to me, I think it's like about environmental issues, which is something that's important to me. I think you can take it any of those ways. There's certainly plenty of s**t to fix right now.
MR: And Rooney's got an anthem to do it by.
RS: In a sense, it's like, it's a sing-a-long. Those songs are used to sort of transfer information, communicate. Songs were developed as a way to help you remember ideas. There's a reason why we turned educational ideas into songs for kids because that's how people remember things.
I think if there's any kind of "Kumbaya" moment on the record, it's this song, it's "Stars And Stripes." I also think the reason I defended the song as far as it being a political song was that I didn't feel that it was overly political. It wasn't like, "Take your bombs and shove 'em," or something like that. It wasn't specifically looking at one idea. It was just the whole idea of it's going to take everyone to really kind of start thinking as a "we" person.
MR: What's the major difference between then and now--the Rooney that Adam Brody's O.C. character loved and the Rooney with their new Indie record, Eureka?
NB: We're all a bit older, obviously, and wiser. I think on a personal level, a big thing is we have so many recording experiences with making all these different records, working with a lot of different producers, and we're able to take elements from each one of those experiences and put them together in a way suits us best. We finally reached a point where we're making our own recordings better than the producers we were working with, the top-tier guys. So, I think we're more self-reliant now and more sophisticated. We all do sessions and stuff as well when we're home. You really get to learn a lot of different things, and then bring them back to the band. We're all better players. At this point, we're all very confident in our energy as studio musicians, and it's really fun to work in that kind of dynamic when you know the other guy is going to be able to raise the bar.
MR: Who are you touring with this summer?
NB: We're touring with a band called The Young Things, which is a couple of guys from Panic At The Disco. Part of their group started a classic rock-rooted thing in the style of The Band. I really dig their new stuff.
MR: Now, despite having the best slacker anthem with "Don't Look At Me," what's your advice to up-and-coming musicians who don't want to be slackers? What's your advice for young acts who want to get into making music professionally?
NB: Find a new profession! [laughs] We're still trying to figure it out. When I figure out the answer, I'll let everyone know. I think there's obviously a dynamic new world that you can explore--everything's at your fingertips. At the same time, it's very hard to get any attention with such an over-abundance of information. It's very challenging, but it's also really rewarding.
RS: Well I did a thing online where I asked people that I Twittered if you wanted to interview me, feel free to, and then e-mail me the questions. The main question I read was "How has the band changed from the first album?" It's kind of hard to analyze yourself and go like, "How have I changed?" When I looked at a picture of me from then, I felt like, "Oh wow!" Like my hair looked different and I look skinnier. I look younger. I don't realize what's changed, but I feel like 'cause we've toured a lot since then, we learned a lot about ourselves as people--about things we want out of this business, what we want for ourselves, what makes us happy, what doesn't make us happy. For me, it's the kind of songs I want to be working on or focusing on, things I want to improve on, becoming a better singer, a better guitar player, a better piano player.
I think if an opportunity like The O.C. came up today, I'd still take it. I didn't learn that I didn't want to do those kinds of things 'cause I know how effective it was for us to have been on that show and how effective it is to get our name out there. My overall thing is I love music. I want to be making music for the rest of my life. I hope people will be interested in what I'm doing. I'd like to see our band grow as far as our base, and be able to reach a really healthy place where we can have a solid base where we can put a record out and know we're going to sell this many records or we know when we tour we're going to play for this many people. I think since The O.C., I just learned a little bit more about what I want out of my music and out of this career.
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