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The Mama Buzz Cafe is the queen bee of Oakland's young underground art scene, an amber-glowing pocket in a long row of sketchy Oakland storefronts at the more run-down end of Telegraph Avenue. To its left sits the Stork Club, to its right, a half-block away, the Rock Paper Scissors arts and crafts collective. 21 Grand, Ego Park, and Door.7 are also nearby. The whole area lends itself to a sort of "Let's put on a show!" mentality, straight out of The Little Rascals, if Alfalfa looked like he were in Interpol and Spanky were an East Bay Rat.
Unlike that of most communities of artists and musicians -- especially those whose constituents have found some semblance of success -- the vibe at Mama Buzz is relaxed and open. You get the feeling that someone could come in with her accordion and try to play "The Barber of Seville" in front of everyone for the first time, receive a standing ovation, and have someone buy her a shot of espresso. It's the act of creativity that's more important here, the expression or attempt of artistry.
Or, you can just sit and drink beer.
For the four members of Rogue Wave -- Zach Rogue (vocals/guitar), Pat Spurgeon (drums), Evan Farrell (bass), and Gram LeBron (guitar) -- this place is a home away from home. Not only was it one of the first venues they ever played, but they have since performed at benefits in support of the local art scene.
"What they're trying to do is similar to what we're trying to do," says Rogue. "Be a part of an actual community, be respectful and work together ... everything seems rooted in humility. It's more about wanting to share."
Tonight, the band members are sharing a large bag of Gummi Bears. They have convened in the back patio area, a series of thrift-store tables and chairs perched atop wooden pallets. On the table in front of us sits the Chronicle, its pages turned to a photo of a two-headed baby turtle found off the coast of Florida. Awwww, cute, sings the band collectively. The big news in the paper, however, is the discovery, finally, of a real-life giant squid, the existence of which had heretofore been only legend.
It's strangely apt. You see, this band is named for a similar sea legend known for swallowing up whole ships, jostling mermaids, and freaking out French oceanographers. A rogue wave, or freak wave, is a gigantic wall of water that rises up out of nowhere in the middle of the ocean and, well, doesn't really do much -- unless there's a ship there to destroy. Gnarled, squinty nautical types have told of these waves' existence for centuries, but no one had ever actually proven that they occurred until last year. Using satellite photography, scientists have now finally documented them in action.
"I like the idea of the rogue wave to be looked at as sort of the secret to creativity," says Rogue. "Something just comes at you that you didn't really see coming."
For these musicians, time in the studio means waiting for these waves and seeing where they take them. The most recent result is their sophomore release, Descended Like Vultures. It is the first truly collaborative album from a band that has been pegged as singer/songwriter Rogue's pet project. It's a chance for the band as a whole to come forward, play "The Barber of Seville" on accordion, so to speak, and prove itself once and for all.
"No way, that can't be Zach."
This was Pat Spurgeon's first thought when he saw Rogue (né Schwartz; he switched last names when he started the band) in a bar almost three years ago. The drummer was responding to the songwriter's post on Craigslist seeking bandmates. Rogue, Spurgeon thought, was just too conventionally attractive.
It's true: Rogue may be too handsome for indie rock. He has blond hair, a square jaw, big blue eyes, a strong build, and a great smile. He could be the gay guy on The Real World.Talented singer/songwriters usually have pockmarked faces, height deficits, or halitosis. Just look at Elliott Smith.
Rogue, on the other hand, is, like, Marcus Schenkenberg hot, to the extent that you almost wonder if there's some troll in his basement writing songs for him to take out on the road. Almost. Fact is, Rogue has proven himself and then some. He writes inspired lyrics: "I'm so sorry for what I've done/ I went into it like a man/ And the only thing on my skin/ Is some beach-blown images." He sings them with lilts and rises that are purely original, and when they're not, he has the good sense to steal them from someone like Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices). He has an undeniably sweet and tender outlook, a real generosity of spirit. Also, he's married. Fuck.
Along with accomplished songwriting, this charisma has earned the frontman most of the attention, something that every band member -- including Rogue -- wishes were different.
"It's kind of a bummer," says Spurgeon. "Some people give off the vibe that we're just a bunch of guys playing behind Zach."