Third albums are notorious for their scope, as bands usually feel secure enough to stretch in new directions, but in Rogue Wave's case, the band didn't need added inspiration for its third and latest, Asleep at Heaven's Gate. It's an album that frontman Zach Rogue had discussed obsessively with his bandmates, sharing early four-track demos during the long months in the van supporting their second album, Descended From Vultures.
"We could've made a 30-minute record, but that wasn't the point of this one," Rogue says. "We had too much to say, and I felt like I wanted to fully do something for the first time. Really make a statement, or at least try to."
Asleep is notable not just for its sculpted indie pop — vibrant and dreamy, rich in atmosphere but still punchy — but the emotional changes it documents in the band and their lives. While meticulously crafted, it never sounds produced (thanks to Yo La Tengo producer Roger Moutenot), though there's no mistaking the intricate layers of sound in every track.
Rogue Wave, and Grand Ole Party are scheduled to perform on Thursday, April 24.
"I felt so strongly about the songs, because I knew we had something that was going to work," Rogue says. "It was so timely with what was going on with the band and our personal lives. [Asleep] is a more sober look at making music. It's not wide-eyed or naive. It's more, 'Let's try to make art rock . . . [and] elevate what we do.'"
For Rogue, the nonstop touring was particularly difficult, something referred to in the moody, ringing track "Chicago x 12" off the latest album. It's an oblique reference to the number of times the Bay Area quartet played the Windy City in the course of a year. Rogue had never left San Francisco, let alone done this kind of relentless touring, and it's a testament to Rogue Wave's odd circumstances. Before 2003, they weren't even a band per se, but the product of some recordings Rogue did with his friend Bill Racine in his upstate New York home. Rogue went there when he was laid off from his Web-development job in the wake of the dot-com bust.
"It was the first time in my life I'd just made art on my own terms," Rogue says. "I tried to not really care if people heard it or not, and not be judged by anyone. Because it was just me and Bill. It was a time to let loose, experiment, and do something totally self-absorbed."
The resulting album, 2003's Out of the Shadow, created a small stir. No sooner had he assembled the band and begun practicing than they were asked to open for Spoon at the Fillmore. Before long, Sub Pop was coming to their shows, and next thing Rogue knew, they'd re-released Out of the Shadow and he was out supporting the next release, 2005's Descended From Vultures.
But the grind fried the band and overwhelmed Rogue. They returned home and recruited a new bassist, Patrick Abernathy of Beulah, and caught their breath before the other shoe dropped: Drummer Pat Spurgeon's kidney was failing.
Spurgeon was born with only one kidney, and when the one he'd received as a teen began to fail, he was forced onto dialysis. In January 2007, he received a transplant, and, to this point, has made a successful recovery. The turn of events helped steer them to Brushfire Records, the imprint of longtime friend Jack Johnson. When Spurgeon became sick, the band's album was put on the back burner, and Rogue started talking to Brushfire about releasing a solo disc so he could stay busy.
Talks were ongoing when Spurgeon's fortunes turned for the better. But Rogue was so impressed by what he'd already heard from Brushfire that they bypassed the other labels with rosters more in keeping with the band's shimmering indie-art pop. After two albums on Sub Pop, he was looking for something different.
"You can be on a label with a lot of bands that are considered hip, cool and on the edge, but if there are 50 of them all being put out at the same time, how are you going to differentiate yourself?" Rogue asks. "How are you going to have the resources behind you to support what you're doing?"
Brushfire's support proved invaluable in allowing Rogue the time and opportunity to make the album he did with Moutenot. Tightly orchestrated without appearing fussy, it's a bright, hook-lined pop album, with melancholy hidden in the many nooks and crannies. After recording the basic tracks in California, they flew back to Moutenot's Nashville studio and spent five weeks doing overdubs, and another three mixing it.
"There was so much there," Rogue says, attempting to explain the lengthy mix-down time. "There were a lot of different layers and different emotions, a lot of harmony vocals and different ways of singing. A lot of noise, feedback and tape loop stuff, four-track experimentation and broken mellotrons. You name it. There was so much happening, I wanted it all to make sense."
Rogue says that despite Moutenot's impressive pedigree (Lou Reed, Sleater-Kinney, Bill Frisell), he could tell from the moment they started talking that the New Jersey transplant had a "laid-back approach and seemed like an enabler." Moutenot encouraged experimentation — sticking mics in acoustic guitars, pounding on the studio door for one track, and even using badly oversaturated reel-to-reel tape to record the guitar solo for "Lullaby." He knew how to keep creative energy high.
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"He understands artists," Rogue says. "He tells them what their strengths are, and not in a way to lie to them, but to remind them why they're doing it. Roger was really good at telling us when we were trying too hard, or not trying hard enough."
Moutenot's graciousness and guidance extended beyond the studio, but unfortunately, Rogue wasn't wise enough to heed it. A big fan of Yo La Tengo, Rogue begged Moutenot to take them to the restaurant Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, a local Nashville favorite YLT mention in their album liner notes.
"It's sort of the end of the night for Prince's, and they kind of gave us the end of the batch. Roger says, 'You know, guys, it's pretty spicy, so you should get something kind of mild. Don't push your luck,'" Rogue remembers. "He says, 'James [McNew, YLT bassist] couldn't go past medium on the Prince's, so why should you?'"
Rogue said "pish-posh" to this advice and quickly found himself in agony. "I couldn't take it," he remembers. "I tried eating it, but it was, like, I couldn't even taste it. I thought I was going to die," he says. "[Roger] gave us that look like, 'Amateurs. I told you.'"