Rogue Wave's new tide

After years of struggle, California indie rock band brings new album to D.C.'s 9:30 Club

March 05, 2010|By Sam Sessa | sam.sessa@baltsun.com

The cover of Rogue Wave's new album is a rich photograph of a young woman pulling herself ashore, her feet still in the water.

The arresting image, by Los Angeles artist Becca Mann, speaks volumes about the California indie rock band's struggles these past few years. Frontman Zach Rogue was bedridden with crippling back, neck and shoulder pain for the second half of 2008, forcing the group to put its latest album on hold. Former band member Evan Farrell died of smoke inhalation when his apartment caught fire in late 2007. (Farrell had left Rogue Wave shortly before to focus on another musical project.) And drummer Pat Spurgeon, who was born with one kidney, has struggled with kidney failure.

Now, Rogue Wave is finally back on the road, with a new album, "Permalight," which was released this week. Tonight, the band will be at the 9:30 Club in Washington.

"It's a strange feeling, performing again and having people there," Rogue said. "It's been a while. It's really bending my brain."

In September 2008, Rogue was driving his car when he felt a sharp pain in his shoulder. It felt like he was being stabbed, he recalls. The pain spread through his body "like that black tar in ' Spider-Man,' " until he could barely hold the steering wheel. He made it home, where he collapsed on the floor, screaming.

Since Rogue couldn't make it to the hospital, a doctor wheeled an X-ray machine into his living room, examined him and discovered two slipped discs in his neck, pressing against his spine.

"I was in so much pain," said Rogue, whose real last name is Schwartz. "My doctor was telling me I had to stop playing instruments, and I couldn't really move my neck anymore. I was thinking about how I would pick up my daughter."

It would be months before Rogue thought about writing or playing music again. When he finally returned to his studio in early 2009, he picked up his lightest guitar, a 1967 Silvertone, plugged it into his smallest amp and started strumming. At the time, Rogue couldn't feel the fingers on his right hand, which made picking individual strings impossible.

"I was thinking less about chord progressions and melodic structure and more like, 'What does it feel like when my arm moves downward and hits the strings?' " he said. "It was really liberating to do that again and allowed me to exorcise the demons that had been festering for months."

Little fragments of songs began to form, and Rogue began setting them to beats from drum machines and live rhythms from Spurgeon. After a while, Rogue realized he was making a dance album. "Permalight," Rogue Wave's fourth record - and its second for Hawaii-based label Brushfire records - is the band's most upbeat yet.

"I wanted there to be a pulse that would never stop throughout the record," he said. "Even in the most subdued moment, there would be a heartbeat."

When Rogue was trying to set the album's mood, he thought about Oscar Grant, a man who was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer while resisting arrest in early 2009. Rogue was on a high from the presidential election, and Grant's death and the ensuing protests were sobering.

"How do we respond musically to that?" he said. "Do we make songs morose, or more direct and life-affirming? When I hear things I love, like Guided by Voices or Flaming Lips, these bands can be psychedelic or weird, but there's a life-affirming directness to their music that sustains it."

Late one night, Rogue was scouring the Internet, looking for potential cover art for "Permalight," when he was struck by Mann's photograph. The metaphor of reaching for something and beginning to pull yourself up spoke to him.

"Everybody agreed it was definitely the right image to capture the essence of the record: living in the present, trying to shed some of this fear and paranoia and do something positive with what we have."

Rogue still doesn't have any feeling in his right index finger and tries to move his neck as little as possible. His doctors warned him the pain could return in full force, but he's trying not to think about it.

With "Permalight," he's got two hands on the shore and is almost out of the water.

If you go
Rogue Wave performs tonight at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W. in Washington. Avi Buffalo is the opening act. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call 202-265-0930 or go to 930.com.

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