Now we're born again," sings Zach Rogue on the closing track of Rogue Wave's fourth studio album, Permalight.
The dreamy acoustic lament lasts just over a minute but in sound and spirit it neatly sums up everything that comes before it. A punchy, deceptively effervescent set of multi-instrumental pop tunes, the Northern California band's latest set represents a giant breakthrough for Rogue and his longtime musical partner, drummer-keyboardist-vocalist Pat Spurgeon.
"The record sounds, for lack of a better word, fun," the frontman says.
It's an astonishing change of direction, to say the least. Formed by Rogue in 2002 after he lost his tech job and parted ways with the Oakland rock group Desoto Reds, Rogue Wave has a reputation for crafting classic, inward-looking pop songs highlighted with psychedelic guitars, pastoral sound effects and intricate rhythms.
On tunes from the new album like the title track "Permalight" and "Good Morning," however, Rogue Wave steps away from expectations. Rogue says the former was written as a left-field sequel to Kool and the Gang's "Celebration," with synthesizers that simultaneously sound brittle and blissful. "Stars and Stripes" builds on a deep groove before spilling over in a raging chorus. Clubby beats are prominent but the album doesn't sit still for long. "Per Anger" is a straightforward rock tune that takes its cues from Pixies' loud-quiet-loud dynamic.
Then there's the album's unofficial centerpiece, "I'll Never Leave You," a simple acoustic tune that finds Rogue coming to grips with the overwhelming emotions that come with young fatherhood. Like many of the songs on the album it's rooted in Rogue Wave's triumph over seemingly constant peril—including the tragic death of a former band mate and constant health issues—and the band's undying determination to push forward.
Making this album was no exception.
In September 2008, after the band returned to Oakland following a summer tour, Rogue played a solo show opening for Nada Surf. Two days later, the singer woke up and couldn't move. There was some concern that he might be having an aneurysm or heart attack, so doctors wheeled an X-ray machine into his living room to check his heart and lungs. It turns out Rogue had slipped two discs in his neck, which were pressing on his spinal cord. "It was the worst pain I had experienced," he says.
Over the next few months, his condition grew worse until he eventually lost feeling in his right hand. Confined to his bed, there was nothing doctors could do for him, no medications that could relieve his pain. "I just felt like I was being tortured," Rogue says. "I felt like I was dying."
In January, the pain began to gradually lift, giving him just enough sensation to pick up the guitar and strum it. He celebrated the recovery the best way he knew, by pouring his relief into new material. "When I started writing I wanted to make a record that was a little more up, a record you could move your body to because I couldn't move for so long," Rogue says. "I told Pat I wanted to make a total dance album."
To do that Rogue decided to make a conscious break from the past. "I decided when I picked up the guitar again I didn't want to play anything I knew," he says. "Even if that meant yelling into the microphone or detuning a guitar, I wanted to record all those ideas."
He still had to make accommodations for his hand, which remains numb. So Rogue started playing an old Sears Silvertone guitar just because it was the lightest instrument he owned. The guitar set the signature sound for the album. "I would plug that in every day and record little musical thoughts," he says. "After a month I had about 50 ideas for songs."
After trying to get the new songs down in couple local recording sessions Rogue Wave decided to tap producer Dennis Herring, whose previous clients include Modest Mouse and Elvis Costello, to take on the project. Herring brought the band out to his Sweet Tea Studios in Oxford, Mississippi where they meticulously worked together for four months. Spurgeon says, "Dennis knows what he wants and he'll keep working until he gets it. If he's going to put his name on something it's got to be good."
Rogue adds that the famed producer's perfectionism was necessary to pull off the group's reinvention. "If you want to make some real changes that means rethinking how you approach things," he says. "You have to take your time and really map it out, especially when that involves structural changes. We have to be really comfortable with all those changes."
Then one day Costello dropped by the studio. "He told us, 'Trust Dennis,'" Spurgeon recalls. "That was good enough for me."
Leading up to the album's completion, the drummer also spent some time on the road touring with "D Tour," a documentary directed by Jim Granato chronicling Spurgeon's search for a living kidney donor while assuming his regular band duties in the face of twice-daily dialysis. The band plans to partner with the National Kidney Foundation on future tours in the hopes of signing up organ donors at its shows. "It's such an easy gesture and makes such a difference in peoples' lives," Rogue says. "I've seen it first hand."