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Release the Sunbird: A Rogue Arises

9 September 2011

“That last record, it nearly did me in. It took us four months to mix and master Permalight, and that process wore me out. For this record, I went in with some friends, wrote, recorded, mastered and finished the album in nine days. I look back at that time now, and I just shake my head—that is an insane amount of work. It left me exhausted with recording—it’s that point where making music goes from ‘fun’ to ‘work,’ and that can be fatal for a band.”

Indeed, Zach Schwartz (better known as Zach Rogue, the leader of Rogue Wave) does sound a bit perplexed when reflecting upon the process of creating his newest project., Release the Sunbird, whose debut album Come Back To Us, stands in stark comparison to his main band’s catchy, upbeat, new wave-inspired rock. In its place are gentle, soft melodies, supplemented with breezy acoustic guitar work, and, most surprisingly, the vocal accompaniment of Kate Long, whose gentle, lulling voice flows nicely with Schwartz’s.

“I don’t totally think Release the Sunbird was necessarily a reaction to what we had done with Permalight. At the time, it simply was me getting back in touch with my writing self. I happened to be in Bloomington, Indiana, with some friends of mine, and the next thing we know, we’ve got an album completed!”

His laughter at that statement belies a greater truth learned. “And what did we learn from all that time and effort? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything that we didn’t know already. We made a great record, but had we done it like we had done before, it still would have come out basically the same. Yet I needed that experience. I needed to know what it was like to get bogged down, working with a top producer, making a great sounding record. And at the same time, I needed to know that, hey, if I wanted to, I could make an album that is just as good in a week and a half.”

Not that the experience of knocking out a record in quick time wasn’t in itself an occasionally stressful experience. “I had an idea for some songs, and for the most part had ideas for many of the songs. It was making me nervous and anxious, to be honest, because my band mates would be looking at me like, ‘Okay, let’s do something,’ and once I got there, I realized it didn’t really matter. I started to realize I didn’t have to have everything planned out; I didn’t have to have everything ready in a pre-production package. We just brought all our ideas together, and I think it worked well.”

Considering the relative quickness that Rogue Wave has released material and the seemingly spontaneous nature of the creative process, one has to wonder if Mr. Rogue was suffering from a mental creative block. After all, it is said that if you are stuck, that one simply start creating in a free-form manner, to see what develops, or to start your next attempt at creating in a setting or environment that is typically foreign to you. Was this the case?

“For me, it wasn’t anything to do with writers block. I just felt burnt out, and hated it all. Not the people I worked with—I love those guys—but just the whole cycle of being in a band like us, we’re not super popular or famous, but we do have an audience and as a result there are expectations. When I made my first record, there wasn’t any of that—we didn’t have to worry about all the peripheral things that go into creation. But you know, as I think about it, maybe on some level there was a creative block. I play all the time. I totally stepped out of my comfort zone, in terms of being in a band, being with the people I normally make music with, and a different city. Subconsciously, maybe I was doing what you said—entering into a completely foreign space in order to see what comes out.”

“I was also writing these songs and using a voice -box in my studio that would manipulate the voice track, and I was playing around with the settings, and I started to experiment, and one of the things I did was to see what it would sound like with a woman’s voice, and a woman’s pitch. At the time, I was listening to a lot of music that had duets between men and women, and the idea of doing that with my own songs started to appeal to me. You know, Rogue Wave is a rock band, but I didn’t want to make a rock album, I wanted to make something different. I wanted something that had less emphasis on the musical instruments and the melodies of loud, electric guitar. I wanted to focus on voices, I wanted something stark, where the singing could be heard, the emphasis is on the words, not the music. And yet, when I started to think about it, I started to realize that if I’m working with different people, to do something different for a change, that maybe I would change as well. Maybe the tendencies that I have had in the past will change from a different approach, and that I’d learn something about myself through working with other people. I just happened to get really lucky that the people I am working with are extremely talented.”

What of his new musical partner, Kate Long? “She’s a really amazing woman, and her experiences with Release the Sunbird are equally as different for her. She has a band in Bloomington, but I’m not sure she’s done something so paired back, putting herself in an open, vulnerable place, musically. I think all of us, me and Kate and Kenny, who plays bass and Pete, who played drums, I think we all agree that the experience we had together was a really unique one. Making music with other people isn’t guaranteed to work, and it doesn’t matter how talented you are. If the chemistry isn’t there, then it won’t gel. But it amazed us all to see how quickly things coalesced for us, and how, even though we just started playing together, it not only felt right, but it felt natural, like I’ve played with these guys for a long time.”

“Release the Sunbird is definitely a real band, not merely a solo project. It’s very hard to predict about what’s going to happen. It’s very hard for me to know what happens next and how this relates to Rogue Wave. This experience of working on this album, with some really talented, amazing people, it’s opened my eyes. It’s left me wanting to experiment with different musical styles, not just this stripped-down country-folk singer-songwriter style. It’s made me realize that the connection I have with Rogue Wave is really special to me, but it doesn’t have to be the only thing I have to do.”