Rooney Talks Shop: El Cortez, the Ultrasonic Summer Tour, and Beyond

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“You can’t just manufacture time.”

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Erin Zimmerman + Meredith Schneider | June 27, 2017

The time might have gotten away from us, but the fact is that Rooney has been around for fourteen years. And when you’re frontman Robert Schwartzman, you’re always on the run. Truly.

Rooney stole the hearts of millions of fans around the world in the early 2000s. The band that was originally named “Ed Rooney” (the principal in everyone’s favorite John Hughes movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and somewhere along the line dropped the “Ed”. The same band teenagers swooned over when their track “I’m A Terrible Person” was featured in episode #2 of The O.C., who then made a guest appearance in episode #15 that same year. They may have had a break from the spotlight since mid-2012, but with the release of 2016’s Washed Away – and the promise of a new EP next month – we are waiting with baited breath for fan reactions.

Because El Cortez is going to be a phenomenal release.

You may not have realized it, but Robert Schwartzman is part of a truly amazing and creative family line, a fact that doesn’t stop him from working his ass off in the creative sphere. It seems like he’s always involved in some project, letting the creative juices flow and the art come forth as it may. (How poetic of us, right?) Writing, directing, acting, scoring, traveling, performing, meeting all of his fans… the guy literally does it all. So when we were able to nab a solid block of time with him in between meet and greets and vocal warmups while he prepped for the first night of Rooney’s Ultrasonic Summer Tour (featuring the amazing Twinsmith and Run River North) in Kansas City, we were ecstatic.

Perhaps too ecstatic.

When we approached the tour bus, Robert was kind and welcoming. Rooney has long been known for taking the time to meet as many fans as possible. And even though Schwartzman had just flown to LA from Shanghai the day before, and then into Kansas City that day, he didn’t skip out on meeting fans outside of his tour bus. We expected tired eyes to greet us, but his demeanor was upbeat as he gave out giant bear hugs and held the bus door open for us to head in for the interview. (Turns out, chivalry isn’t dead.) After a few moments chatting with the other band members (Mostly about how the bus smelled so clean – it was the first day of tour, after all.), we unleashed over fourteen years of anxious questions on Schwartzman, ranging from influence and family, to his new single “Second Chances”. Below is a transcription of the interview.

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What was the first song or album you remember listening to, and who introduced it to you?

I listened to a lot of oldies but goodies, like 50’s and early 60’s pop. Like milkshakes and Happy Days style. Oldies. I love it so much. It’s my favorite kind of music. I think it’s just because it’s the most pure form of pop songwriting. You just get to the heart of the song. Simple storytelling, usually love songs, and just really cool vocal performances. It feels so right. I don’t know why. It doesn’t feel like production is defining music, the song is defining the music.

Do you aim to have that kind of style in your own music, or does it just naturally happen at this point?

I think that when you absorb something, maybe it just subconsciously works its way in there. I’m not consciously trying to write a certain kind of thing.

When you’re writing, is there a pattern to your process? Like, the music comes first or the lyrics? 

It kind of all comes at the same time. I don’t write a certain way. It could go this way or that way, it’s not one style. But sometimes I’ll start recording and I’ll write to recordings, and it’ll sound like a certain thing. Or if I use synthesizers and I write on synth, it might have a certain sound right away. The instrument that I use and the way I approach it sometimes dictates the song that comes from it. If I write with an acoustic guitar I tend to write slower, more movie, acoustic sounding stuff.

Was there a defining moment that made you realize you wanted to pursue music?

I don’t know what made me pursue music. I didn’t really have a plan to pursue it. I just started writing songs and I started the band. Once we played shows, it all made more sense to me. It took on a life of its own.

Your new single “Second Chances” is so, so fun and I know you released it previously as a solo artist. You had mentioned in a previous interview you always imagined playing that song with Rooney, so I’m wondering what made you choose to lead with that as the single for the new EP?

Last year around December, I introduced the song to the set. We worked on it and it’s a song that I always loved, but when I put it out solo I didn’t promote it. I didn’t have the tools to push it out there as much, so people who knew what I was doing knew it. But it’s not like the song maybe lived to its potential. I knew there was more potential than to just throw it on the solo record and not promote it. I also didn’t want to just throw it onto the record as it was recorded five or six years ago. Once we started playing it, my thought was, “If we’re making this EP, why don’t we track it?” That and this song called “It’s You”. We had played them at Rooney shows and they did so well, but I wanted there to be Rooney versions.

Not everyone that comes to Rooney shows knows that I put out a solo record. Usually when guys who are in bands put out solo records, they don’t really hit their full audience. Or their audiences want the band, and don’t want to accept that there was a solo record.

Did you really find that that happened to you?

Well, yeah. I’m not the exception to the rule. It happens to anyone. It happened to Paul Stanley from Kiss. Or Mick Jagger, who makes a solo record and no one listens to it. It’s just the nature of the beast. Unless your band is done and you never touch it again, then your audience can sort of accept that if they want to listen to you again, they need to get on board with your solo stuff.

There are so many bands who are still touring, and so many more who have gotten back together to continue making magic over the years. Do you see yourself making music as Rooney down the road like that?

Yeah! It’s not easy to build a band up and create history. It’s not easy to build so much music over so long and actually have people who might want to come see your show. I feel fortunate that there’s a solid history with this project. And it’s so nice to pick it up after all these years and try to do something new with it. But we also keep the past with it. Not the band, of course, as it was, but being able to adapt to something new with it.

I think I’ll make music solo for other projects. But as far as touring and making records, I don’t know why I wouldn’t do Rooney. It’s there and it’s great. It’s fun and people know it. You can’t just manufacture time.

We decided to do “Second Chances” because when we had all the songs finished, I played the record to a ton of people that didn’t know much about Rooney. Their first impression was to suggest we put “Second Chances” out as the single, since it was one of the better songs on the [upcoming] EP.

We could look at bands that recorded singles and then re-released them as new singles a lot. There’s a guy named Todd Rundgren that I love who put out a record with a band that he had. Then he re-recorded it and put it out on his solo record. It became the single that broke him as a solo artist. It’s a song called “Hello It’s Me“. The version we all know is the solo version. No one knows the band version. “Second Chances” is being promoted more than I was able to do it on my own record, so if we can build more traction it’s going to be this amazing thing.

Is “Second Chances” similar to the way it was previously recorded, and do you have a favorite version?

It’s faster. A little bit louder. It’s a little more energetic and rock and roll in its new version.

It’s been a while since I heard the first recording. It’s cool sounding. I like both versions, they’re not lightyears different. They’re the same structure and idea. We didn’t reinvent it as a song, but we updated it to feel more like the band. The drums that I track and things I do on my own are normally a little bit different.

When you do solo work, is it out of pure passion or is it also as work for you?

It’s always out of passion. No one is paying me a boat load of money to write a song. But if I work on a film score, then I’m writing for a film so it’s serving a different purpose. If I’m writing a record, it’s up to me to put parameters and a deadline on it. No one is like, “Hey man, we need that record!” It’s about me lighting a fire under my own ass.

Can you elaborate on what you’ve scored?

I’ve scored two feature films. I scored Palo Alto and then I directed and scored my own film Dreamland. (Which is on Netflix right now.) I wrote and directed that, and it took four years to make. It went to Tribeca last year, MGM bought it and Netflix bought it. A lot of hard work went into all of that.

Do you ever just take a break and breathe a little bit?

I definitely take days slow and have time to relax. It’s just fun to keep working.

Once you’re done with any piece of work, do you listen to it or watch it?

Once it’s done, I’ve listened to it and watched it so many times that I don’t tend to go back. You just have listened to it over and over and over, so you kind of just have to let it go. At least for a while.

When you hear audiences singing your songs, how do you feel?

Excited. No, I feel angry. (laughs)

Do you remember the first time that happened to you?

No. I can think of the first show we played, but I can’t remember [details on the first time I had that feeling when people sang back to me]. Our first show was in 1999 at this club called the Troubadour, but no one knew the band at all. That’s just where we started making fans.

The Troubadour. That’s a good place to start!

Yeah. It’s the best. It’s so good! I love that club. But you can play a great show in any venue. I’m not picky. Wherever there are people that want to see the show, I’m excited to be there. If you play a weird, shitty show it sucks. They won’t book you for that venue or that city again, and it’s not fun to play when people aren’t into it. That’s the irony. If people want a band to continue playing, they should see them and support it. Otherwise, they won’t come play again. It’s easy to forget that, and people don’t think about it. People kind of take shows for granted sometimes, but there’s so much planning that goes into every single show. It’s a thing.

Your El Cortez EP is out in July. What are you excited about with this one? 

I feel like it’s got songs that I’ve had sitting on the back burner but have always wanted to track for a Rooney record. So I got to pick my favorite current songs. I love the material, what’s on the record. It’s pretty diverse, and there are different sides to it. I did a collaboration with a buddy of mine who is the lead vocalist in a band called Ambrosia – this like, 70’s rock band – and he’s a guest vocalist on this one song that I really like.

I feel like this time around I got to be more free form with it and play around. I didn’t feel pressure to do anything in particular or on a certain timeline. And with Washed Away, I felt pretty free actually. But I also hadn’t put out a record in a really long time so there was a little more pressure and worry for people to like it. With the EP, I had to remember not to be too precious with it and really commit to it.

What I’d like to do is put out new music every year and go on the road at least once a year. I think it’s a better way to do it today, not allow yourself to disappear for even a few years. Just make sure to give people a little bit every year.

Just come to Kansas City every year.

Yeah, that’d be great. If people come back every time, then of course you go to the same city.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

I think I like the idea of the ability to never get killed. Well, like, never die. Nothing can kill you. Immortal.

Would you want to keep aging forever, or just stick to one age and just never die?

It would be cool if you could live a lifespan, but do things that are very edgy and dangerous and never die. You could experience incredible forces. You could walk into a volcano and be fine.

What’s the edgiest thing you’ve ever done?

Probably some stupid thing as a kid. Like running into the street, chasing bad people. (laughs) Of course.

Playing in traffic, that stuff. What else is going on for you right now?

I’m going to be on the road all summer. There’s a new film project that I worked on before this tour. We will announce it in the coming weeks, but I’ve been calling it my “secret project.” So keep an eye out for some fun updates on everything.

Nostalgia and memorized lyrics aside, Rooney can fucking rock. El Cortez is out July 28th. Keep up with all things Rooney here, and don’t forget to check out Dreamland on Netflix!

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