You can go ahead and call Rooney's new album, Eureka, their declaration of independence. After several years trudging under the weight of a major label deal that never quite fit them right, the Los Angeles band is making a bold, fresh start: Rooney recorded and produced Eureka themselves, and will be releasing the disc June 8th on their own new label, California Dreamin' Records through Warner Music Group's Independent Label Group. The 12-track Eureka is their most mature, nuanced collection yet, and still retains their classic buoyancy and catchiness.
Eleven years after they started the band as teenaged friends with a shared love of the Beatles, Cheap Trick and ELO, singer and bassist Robert Schwartzman, keyboard player / vocalist Louie Stephens, guitarist / vocalist Taylor Locke, and drummer / vocalist Ned Brower have grown into a modern power-pop band in a class of their own. Over the years, they've toured with everyone from Weezer and The Strokes, winning new fans among all those audiences. "I don't think there are any modern bands that we have much in common with," says Locke.
Though Eureka is, in many ways, a rebirth for Rooney, the independent spirit behind it is nothing new for the band, which began in 1999, when its members were still in high school. During their early years, the band self-produced and promoted a series of EPs and built themselves a massive hometown fan base by gigging as often as they could in local LA clubs. Their self-titled debut album, released in May 2003, maintained a solid presence on Billboard's New Artists chart for several months, and then shot up in 2004 following a performance on teen dramedy The O.C., known for its taste-making assortment of music from critically acclaimed new bands who had yet to make it mainstream. Slowly and steadily over the course of two years, Rooney's debut disc amassed sales of nearly 500,000 copies.
They began making their second album in 2004, and in the three years that followed, they recorded three album's worth of material before finally releasing Calling The World in 2007. The problem, the band explains, was the ongoing pressure from their label, Geffen/Interscope, to come up with a hit song. Producers shuttled in and out, songs were recorded then trashed, and Rooney's members say they became increasingly discouraged. The long lag between albums may not have hurt their sales – Calling The World debuted #42 on The Billboard Top 100 Albums chart and went on to sell 200,000 copies – but it definitely took a toll on their morale.
"The whole culture of major labels is to just keep fucking with shit instead of getting something from an artist that's their vision and supporting it and putting it out and promoting it, the old fashioned way," says Locke. "We've heard our story from other bands a million times, where you've got the label telling you remix, re-record, try a different producer, try an outside songwriter, do it here, we're pushing it back to spring, back to summer, fall — it's never-ending."
"The pressure of always having to think about what's going to be 'the hit,'" says Schwartzman, "and all those ideas were interfering with the process of trying to make music that felt really good and felt like it was coming from a good, true place." Finally, last spring, Rooney parted ways with the label.
The guys started recording Eureka in April of 2009, in a new studio Schwartzman built into his Los Angeles home. "I think the biggest thing I learned working with all the different producers is that you don't need to be in a big fancy studio spending $2,000 a day to make a record that sounds great," says Schwartzman,. "We whittled down the list of things you need to make a record and it became a much more realistic list of things to purchase and use." The process of writing and tracking new material happened more organically than ever before, and though Rooney were excited to be making their first album on their own, they didn't want to rush it. "We didn't record every day of the week, and we didn't record months consistently," says Schwartzman. "We wrote for awhile and then we stopped and then there was more writing, and some more songs were written and recorded once we'd done the original batch of songs."
Yet they didn't want to become complacent, in the absence of outside scrutiny. "We did try to A&R ourselves through the process — to question the songs, the flow of the recordings, and to ask ourselves, 'Can we beat this, can we beat that?'" the singer notes. "We didn't want to just settle for the songs we had. The thing I was most afraid of going into it wasn't 'Can we make good-sounding music?' It was, "Can we pull out of ourselves what we need to pull out to make great music?' I think if you get too hung up on gear and everything, it's still not really about the songs and the emotion and everything that's happening. I was happy that we were actually able to say to ourselves, 'I don't think we have a first single,' as much as that was so annoying to hear all those years.'"
"Part of the fun was just indulging our influences," says Stephens. "One of the reasons I'm happy with the record is that I think we were able to do that in a lot of different, varied ways. "Holding On" has kind of a [Tom] Petty vibe to the arrangement, and "Only Friend" and "Into the Blue" have more of a psychedelic thing that we hadn't fully done before. 'The Hunch" is kind of a balls-out rock song, and "I Can't Get Enough" has got a little bit of a rhythmic thing."
Schwartzman admits he had Petty in mind when he was writing the song. "I was watching Running Down a Dream, the Tom Petty documentary, and it was really inspiring," he says. "I didn't realize how much of Tom Petty's influences came from a lot of the stuff I really love, which is Fifties and early Sixties pop stuff, just great old songs that are simple and really straightforward. I really like that, and I love the simplicity in the storytelling and the lyric-writing. Afterward, I just wanted to sit down and write, and 'Holding On' and 'You're What I'm Looking For' came out of that."
Petty's inspiration served him well: "Holding On," the track that opens Eureka, is not only a classic Rooney-style sing-along, it's also the song that articulates, most directly, how the band has come to view its past, present and future. A first-person narrative, the song tells "the story of how we met, how this band started," describing how he moved to New York for college but soon came home just to continue with Rooney. "And the pre-chorus talks about being wined and dined by all the managers and the lawyers and the agents," he continues. "And the lyric goes, 'It's just another meal, I'm fat with regret, placing my bet on me.' The music industry is such a dirty little world, and we've heard our story from bands a million times, but the song – about holding on when you're on the edge of something – is a wake-up call for us, about entering a new place, a new phase of our career, and breaking away."