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‘The ship has already sailed.’ Rogue Wave knows there’s no going back on streaming

“This record is about the life and death of music itself.”

So much music, so little time. How can any band cut through all the noise these days? Stay true to your roots, be who you are between the grooves, and take hands-on control of how your sound comes across to your audience, no matter what format they use to access and listen to what you do. That’s the manifesto the indie-synth Bay Area band Rogue Wave followed for its sixth studio album, Delusions of Grand Fur, out now in various formats via Easy Sound.

“We’re stuck in this netherworld where we’re too indie for pop and too pop for indie, so it’s sometimes hard for our band to get to where we want to be in a mass audience sense,” Rogue Wave vocalist/guitarist/sometimes pianist Zach Rogue admitted to Digital Trends. “Sometimes we feel like we’re orphans in terms of where we reside in this business, but you know what? We have an endless supply of the desire to create songs and continue to explore what we can do with recorded music.”

The Audiophile: Zach Rogue of Rogue Wave

And Grand Fur is quite the grand sonic exploration, from the marriage of dreamy layered vocals with the percussive-driven outro on California Bride to the synth-bass and drum-machine ’80s atmospherics of What Is Left to Solve to the acoustified whisper-to-a-scream building lament of the album closer, Memento Mori. “It was our first time recording in our own studio, so we had to take control of the process and succeed or fail on our own terms,” Zach said about the decision he, Rogue Wave drummer/keyboardist/sample specialist Pat Spurgeon, and their fellow bandmates made to hunker down in Harlan Studio in Oakland, California. “I’ve been doing this for a little while now, and quite honestly, I’ve been in a lot of studios — some shitty, some fancy — but there’s no place like home. Doing it in our studio seemed right, especially when you find that alchemy and togetherness while you’re making a record.”

Before Rogue Wave headed out on tour, Zach called Digital Trends to discuss how he and Pat accept imperfections in modern recording, how they find new ways to use vintage gear, and how one embraces the streaming lifestyle with hi-res caveats.

Digital Trends: There’s a definite lo-fi minimalist feel to Delusions, but this is a headphones record to me because there are so many textures going on in every song.

Zach Rogue: Yeah, I think we got a little carried away with that — but it was our call. When we did Asleep at Heaven’s Gate (2007), we were kind of heading into that territory, and certainly on the first record [2004’s Out of the Shadow], we were trying to have it be a more ad-hoc style of recording rather than having it all mapped out. There were a lot of happy accidents. (chuckles)

A lot of people take the “first thought, best thought,” mindset in the studio. If you wind up playing the feel out of an idea, it somehow becomes insular or dishonest. And then you don’t get what you want at all.

Yeah. There’s also such an artifice in modern recording. Everything is so pop-oriented and airbrushed to death. There are so many artificial digital means to saturate sound and make everything so fucking perfect all of the time.

We’ve made mistakes by indulging that in the past. This time around, I was tired of that perfection. It’s so easy to nudge and move and fix things. Pat and I were like, “Let’s just make it sound like us.”

We’re very imperfect. I’m no prodigy musician. I get by, and I do what I need to do. I wasn’t going to make the piano parts I play sound better than I can play them. I’m pretty limited. I’ve got about four fingers, but they do the trick. (both laugh)

I like how Curious Me fades out, and then has a slight return with that Ringoesque effect on the drums for a few seconds there right at the end. It totally has a White Album vibe there.

(chuckles) Yeah, that definitely reminded us of Why Don’t We Do It in the Road [the classic 1968 Beatles White Album track]. It’s funny you say that, because when we were making the record, I was going through a crazy, crazy White Album phase. I just listened to it all the time. A couple of years ago, I had the chance to listen to individual tracks for songs on that album. You can hear the magic of that band. And because they were working in the analog realm, you can hear how those records are filled with room noise and people walking across the room, people talking —

…chairs scraping on the floor —

Oh yeah, all kinds of stuff! The music is just so loose and spacious, and there’s such a sense of humor, and resentment. All of these emotions are playing out — especially on that record, where they’re going their separate ways.

When Curious Me got mixed the first time, the guy here mixing it [Keith Armstrong] took that ending off, and me and Pat made him put it back on. (chuckles) We thought it was funny, you know?

I love hearing that. What about some of the other gear you used on the album? Didn’t you say you had been compiling a bunch of cool pieces to work with in the studio?

When you open up a streaming app, you can access more music that any person in human history.

Well, yeah, I wouldn’t go as far as to say “cool” (both laugh), but we do what we can do. We can’t buy Neumann mics or really incredible gear. We make do with the best we can.

A lot of times, it’s that one little piece of gear that just puts it over the top. We have this friend who’s been our front of house engineer for a long time who had a lot of ’80s stuff I had never seen before, and he gave us this Ursa Major [Space Station] reverb unit. That thing is so crazy, and it became our go-to. It’s so amazing — we use it for all kinds of stuff like warped bass tones to gives things this strange tonality, just by how it sounds as a reverb unit.

But on the song Falling, that was just a straight up reel-to-reel 8-track; there’s nothing digital on that. Pat loves tape and so do I, so instead of going into the computer, we set up the reel-to-reel.

What brand is it — an Akai?

No, it’s a Tascam. With it, I did a close mic and a room mic for the acoustic guitar, and then I did a few vocals through a [Shure] SM57, one track of the Wurlitzer, and then one track of an organ. And that was the song. The whole thing was done in an hour.

If we had been in a studio with a traditional producer, there’s a good chance that song would have changed or become more than it needed to be. It’s about intimacy, and we just wanted to get that feeling and be done with it, and not make a bigger moment for it than it needs to be. Just congratulate yourself for finding a hook. Let the hook be there, and it’s gone.

Pat and I like using mixed media when we record. We’ll take digital recordings and record right into the iPhone, and use that compression. We still use 4-track machines, and reel-to-reels. We try to use a bunch of different media on one song to create a depth of field. Don’t get me wrong; some great records have been made in GarageBand. But for what we’re doing in the solo section of Memento Mori, when it kind of builds there spatially — we tried to pan things and have things “fit” in your ears. There is a reason for the way that it’s done.

Like I said, this is a great headphones record, and one I’d also like to spin on vinyl.

I find it interesting. Growing up, I was obsessed with XTC’s Skylarking (1986). I know every single note. The era of that obsession and listening to a full-length album is of such a different time.

It’s a strange duality now. When you open up a streaming app, you know in your mind you can access more music than any person in human history has been able to access. At the same time, it’s so strange — you feel trapped into making a decision, because you have it at your fingertips. I never ran into that before. I once was swooning with delight at the access I had to music, and now it’s just like a burden — like, “Oh fuck, what should I listen to?”

It’s the embarrassment of riches, right? So is streaming something we just have to live with now?

It ultimately is a moot point. It is the way music is listened to now, whether I like it or not. Quite frankly, these are conveniences. I love having Sonos in my house. I know I can sit there with my children and go, “OK, guys, today is Beatles day, and you’re gonna learn.”

Compression is what has destroyed music.

When I’m traveling, I’m not just streaming music — I’m really into podcasting as well. There’s so much wonderful stuff. The battle, or the discussion about what’s going to happen with streaming — the ship has already sailed. It’s going to be the dominant form, and the only way for most people to listen. The question is, what can we do as advocates for music to fight for the best possible listening quality? It can’t be this abandonment of other ways of appreciating music.

Compression is what has destroyed music. When you take enough things out of music in order to compress it for streaming, you’ve taken out some form of the emotional weight of music. Clearly, it’s a different signal, and everyone knows listening to vinyl or some lossless audiophile format is better. But something else is gone when you take away things from the way it was meant to be heard.

I don’t think it’s any question music has become more and more disposable. People gave Neil Young such a hard time when he was creating Pono. I understand it may be a bit ridiculous trying to create a whole other device, but what we’re saying is, if Apple and these other companies are creating heavily compressed files to listen to with earbuds that are designed to torture you and make things sounds terrible, we as musicians and people who love music need to advocate for making music sound as good as possible so that the emotional impact can be there.

I think Pono gets a bad rap, but no lo-res file is going to give you the same emotional experience as listening to the intimacy of a track like Neil’s Heart of Gold in its uncompressed hi-res version.

Especially music like that! That era of Neil’s music was so reductive. That drumming, that thick snare combo… What Neil is saying is it’s not the snobbery of, “Oh, I’m listening to music this way because I’m an elitist” — that’s not what it’s about. It’s about, “Why is this music being created? How is it intended to be heard? What is Neil saying on those records? And why was there a whole generation of people who were so moved by his music in a way that you don’t see people moved by music now?” There’s something in that.

It has a lot more to do with what that music makes you feel, and how you react to it. To bring it all back around to Grand Fur, at the very end of Memento Mori, there’s an emotionality going on in those last few minutes that we wouldn’t get in a compressed form — especially the intended impact of the repeated line, “I failed you like you failed me.”

Absolutely. It’s funny we’re talking about it like this, because this whole record is really about the life and death of music in a lot of ways. The whole point of that song is, it’s time to change, or let it die. And at the end, at the conclusion after all the buildup, we’re saying, “Yes! Yes, it is worth it!”