Bing Search

Rogue Wave: Beautiful eulogies
Zach Rogue on music, death and George Harrison's soulful example

By Litsa Dremousis
Special to MSN Music

"Even if it is the best I gave/What is love without pain?" Zach Rogue sings on "Without Pain" and such philosophical inquiry shimmers like sea glass throughout "Nightingale Floors," the fifth studio album from indie stalwarts Rogue Wave. Instead of resembling a weed-laced senior thesis, though, "Nightingale Floors" is surprisingly upbeat in the face of death, the fate all of us share but that only select pop musicians seem to address effectively.

As is usually the case, Rogue Wave can render the Grim Reaper a bit less grim because Zach Rogue and Pat Sturgeon, Rogue Wave's longtime drummer and multi-instrumentalist, have greeted him more than once. Sturgeon survived a dangerous kidney transplant surgery in 2006; former bandmate Evan Farrell died tragically in a house fire in 2007; and Rogue's beloved father was felled by cancer during the making of "Nightingale Floors."

Listening Booth: Hear the new album

Undeterred, Rogue Wave is preparing to tour the U.S. for the next several months. During a recent phone call, Zach Rogue stepped outside the band's rehearsal space to discuss why accepting death is crucial, the lessons he learned from George Harrison's example and how Sturgeon anchors Rogue Wave throughout the tumult. Rogue was gregarious and candid throughout and laughed easily.

MSN Music: "Nightingale Floors" is a gorgeous record. How comfortable are you discussing death? It weaves through these songs, but I don't know you personally and I'm not trying to pry.

Zach Rogue: I wasn't comfortable talking about it at all, really, until last year. I don't want my father dying to be some narrative for this record. I don't want to exploit my father dying in order to make a buck or sell a record, but at the same time, I don't want to lie to people who listen to our music. When he was diagnosed as terminal in January of 2012, I didn't want to talk about it. He declined further treatment and was really sick and I didn't want to hear people say, "Just think of all the time you'll spend together in the meantime!"

Oh, that's the worst.

Now I look back and go, "Wow, I had so many great moments with him those last six months." Those are some of the best times we ever had. I can only say that now because I have a much greater deal of acceptance. I wasn't in a place where I could accept things. When a parent is going to die, it's a door that most of us are obviously going to walk through at some point, but it's not something we're ever prepared for. When my dad was sick, I was also watching that George Harrison documentary by Martin Scorsese and it's one of the most beautiful documentaries I've ever seen. My dad was a massive Beatles fan, and George Harrison spent so much of his life on a spiritual quest to prepare for death. I found such comfort and joy in seeing that and seeing, with George Harrison, all that a person can do with their life and all the different kinds of people you can know in one lifetime. And because I'd scored a series for them, the people at HBO were kind enough to send me an advance copy of the George Harrison documentary to give to my dad. So, he could watch that because he didn't have HBO.

That was quite compassionate.

I know. They sent the DVD and the book and when I opened that package, I just started to cry. There are those times in your life when you're raw and a kind gesture will absolutely floor you. And I had so many of those significant moments when friends reached out at a weirdly cosmic time when I needed someone to call me.

There's a bit of a Michael Stipe tinge to your lyrics, where the listener gets a feeling, without knowing exactly what you're talking about. It allows them to draw their own conclusions.

Growing up, R.E.M. were like gods to me. Me and my friends would try to decode the lyrics --

My friends and I did, too!

"Is he adding an extra 'of' at the end of that line?" We'd go crazy, listening to "Driver 8" and all that stuff. But the lyrics I write are only half the story. The other half is Pat. Without Pat, the band doesn't exist because he and I musically collaborate and he's the one who's in the trenches with me, fleshing out the demos and what works with the arrangements and, rhythmically, figuring out if the songs have a pulse. We tracked, I don't even know how many songs. The actual writing of the songs and writing the lyrics is "Part A" and "Part B" is my relationship with Pat.

Bing: More on Rogue Wave 

It seems like you found a way to take this enormous loss and turn it into a record that's not grim, but rather beautiful.

When Dad called me and said, "I'm going to die"," I made a choice. It's a weird thing when you get that kind of call; there was a scrapbook in my brain and all the moments were flipping around and, maybe you can hear it on the record, but there is joy in there because there was joy in there. Not in that time, but in everything before it, there was joy. My relationship with my dad and my mom made me who I am. "The Closer I Get" is the most direct song I've ever written, about my life partner. She's my person. And there's great beauty and great sadness, because she and I will face that same threshold someday. There's something special and poignant about that.

Are you concerned about playing these songs live, particularly the first time?

Going to that emotional place? I've wondered about that. But as I said before, my writing the song and my perspective are only part of the band. If I were onstage alone, it might get unbearable, but there's Pat and the rest of the band. When we're rehearsing, I get a little bit emotional. With the last song, "Everyone Wants to Be You"," it's kind of exhausting going to that place emotionally. But at the same time, you're going to play every night on tour and people are paying to see you. And they have their own energy and own issues in their life. And maybe 90 percent of them don't give a s--- what it means and they just like the melody [laughs] and that's okay. When I'm performing, I want to feel like I'm having a real emotional connection to people and that life does have meaning and I want to feel the rawness of life. That gives me purpose. That's why I want to be on the road at all, because touring kind of sucks. [Laughs.] I want to be at home with my wife and daughter. And I have another child on the way! But if I'm going to play these songs on the road, I want to have a cathartic emotional experience because I think people want, for a moment, to just go to this place and let go.

Litsa Dremousis' work also appears in The Believer, Esquire, Jezebel, Huffington Post, McSweeney's, New York Magazine, The Onion's A.V. Club, Slate on KUOW, NPR, and in sundry other venues. She is completing her first novel. On Twitter: @LitsaDremousis.

Keep up with MSN Music. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

featured videos
more on msn music