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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."
Much to the members' chagrin, for the better part of two years they have been hailed as basically "Zach Rogue's Solo Project Called Rogue Wave, In Which Several Musicians Back Him Up."
To be fair, the band's first album, Out of the Shadow, was pretty much Rogue's baby, the result of a long creative isolation-vacation in New York in which Rogue recorded the material, all of which he initially wrote, performed, and arranged himself.
After self-releasing the resulting album, Rogue set himself to the task of assembling an actual band. Eventually Shadow fell into someone at Sub Pop's lap, and the label scooped up the band and its record before you could say, "Evan Dando."
Sub Pop's reissuing of the disc resulted in nationwide tours and some reviewers exclaiming that the music made them want to "crap kittens," which was apparently a compliment. Other, less digestively challenged scribes compared Rogue Wave to the Shins and Simon & Garfunkel. "Genius," "astounding," and "beautiful" were some words people used. But what those who were hearing the record for the first time weren't hearing was how much the band was growing as it played the songs live. They weren't hearing new tunes like "10:1," "Interruptions," and "Love's Lost Guarantee," songs that quickly grew out of the newly collaborative environment.
"These guys are a lot more accomplished musicians than I am," says Rogue of his bandmates. "There's a whole new aesthetic that has arisen." But, he adds, "what I'm discovering is that whenever there is a band where there is one main singer or songwriter, it creates a polarizing effect. [Journalists] want to talk to the frontman or -woman."
But Descended Like Vultures is so amazing that I predict it will solidify Rogue Wave as a whole band in the public eye. The album is lush and gorgeous, sort of a folkie's answer to the Flaming Lips. Songs dip up and down like ladles of honey. At the heart of most of these tunes are singsongy melodies that will haunt you in the shower.
The difference between Out of the Shadow and Descended Like Vulturesis pronounced. This time around you hear the work of four separate people coming together to form a cohesive musical community. There's more experimentation, as well as a plucky industriousness that reminds me of XTC. Rogue Wave, it is clear, is now a band.
The opener, "Bird on a Wire," has a dreamy Sunday afternoon feel, with strange electronic waves tooling in and out of Rogue's guitarwork. It sets the tone for the rest of the album: broken love songs that have hope spilling out of their holes. On "Love's Lost Guarantee," Rogue sings, "Love comes like a Kennedy curse/ The victim role was well rehearsed/ You can paint over any mistake/ But you can't remove the original fake." These sound like "somebody done somebody wrong" songs, and that somebody appears to be a repentant Rogue.
Naysayers will invariably point out that a few tunes seem lifted from some Shins basement tapes, exhibiting the same clean beauty and timbre as Rogue Wave's labelmates' efforts. But no one faulted Soundgarden for sounding like Nirvana; in fact, both bands were creating the kind of music that they wanted to hear that wasn't out there.
Regardless of how its sophomore effort is received, Rogue Wave is already poised for world domination this fall: "Eyes," a lilting gem that every girl will wish were written for her, was recorded for the upcoming romantic comedy Just Friends; Vultures' "Publish My Love" is going to be on an installment of that now-infamous indie band kingmaker, The O.C.; and this week sees the release of the Stubbs the Zombie video-game soundtrack, a blockbuster affair that finds hot-to-trot groups like the Dandy Warhols and Death Cab for Cutie covering '50s songs. Rogue Wave did a version of Buddy Holly's "Everyday" for it.
"We were nervous about that one," says Rogue. "We didn't want to stomp all over Buddy Holly's legacy. Coming up with an arrangement was hard."
Holly purists may indeed balk at the band's take, which finds Rogue Wave erasing all of the wonderful simplicity of the original to create almost another song entirely. But it's a good song, maybe even great, and worth the gamble. In fact, this song could be a metaphor for the whole band: taking something that stood quite well on its own, re-forming it and adding in depth and layers, then releasing it as a whole new entity.
"OK," I said, "if you guys are so dang creative and attached to the lower Telegraph Avenue arts scene, put your money where your mouth is."
This is how we ended up at the Rock Paper Scissors collective on sewing night. And this is how Spurgeon ended up draped in polyester while the rest of us tried to figure out how to make a Cher costume for Halloween. Think of this, if you will, as a parable of four men creating a new garment out of old fabric, a Rogue Wave crazy quilt.
We took a few yards of material, cut a hole in it in the center, and poked Spurgeon's head through it. At this stage it looked like a Bob Mackie muumuu. Various ideas were thrown around. LeBron suggested gathering the sleeves with a slit. Rogue thought that perhaps a cut down the side of the leg would work nicely. Spurgeon, the realist in the bunch, said why don't we just belt the fucker as is, make it a kind of Dr. Seuss thing.
In the end, a little bit of every idea was thrown together into a piece that, once sewed, will end up looking like something that a cocktail waitress at Caesar's Palace would wear. But that is the nature of converging voices, of harmony. The rogue wave of creativity hits you, and you don't know where it will take you.