When Did Rooney Become a 90’s Band? An Interview with Robert Schwartzman

“Let’s do this.” Robert Schwartzman of Rooney sits down with Hannah Bates for Front Row Boston.

July 6, 2017 – Rooney’s 20 year anniversary is coming up (in December of 2019, to be exact), as their first show was at the Troubador in Los Angeles in 1999. Frontman Robert Schwartzman can’t quite wrap his head around the fact that Rooney is technically a 90’s band: “To have the year 1999 attached to Rooney – it’s just so weird.”

Time flies when you’re as busy as Schwartzman; not only is he Rooney’s frontman, but he has his own solo career (his solo album Double Capricorn was released in 2011), he’s a filmmaker (his feature-length directorial debut, Dreamland, was released in 2016), and he’s an actor (you might know him best as Michael Moscovitz from The Princess Diaries (2001)). How does he do it all? “I just love it,” says Schwartzman. “I love creating something from ground zero, and you get to do that [both in music and in film]. It just takes a little time management. You learn as you go, and you just do it.”

He’s certainly doing it well. Rooney is about to finish up their Ultrasonic Summer Tour, and their new EP, El Cortez, is set to release July 28, 2017. We were able to sit down with Schwartzman before Rooney’s (incredible) show at Brighton Music Hall earlier this month and talk to him about what it’s like being a 90s band, the current state of the music industry and what good music really is.

What’s it been like to remain an active band as the music industry has changed so much over the past 15-20 years?
It’s been really interesting. I really enjoy learning and trying to take something away from every experience. I have a love-hate relationship with the industry; I can sometimes go off on it and sound negative about it – it’s easy to – but if I truly were that negative about it, I wouldn’t still be doing this.

You still get to do what you love every day because of it.
Exactly. I just don’t like the way the industry treats artists sometimes – I could talk about that for a long time. I’ve released music independently. I was on a major label for a year and experienced that. You get to peak behind the curtains and see how the industry really works; to them it’s a game. For me, at the end of the day, my job is the same. My job is to make good music and write good songs that have creative value – that move people to make them want to [follow Rooney]. I just try to tap into whatever will excite me and will excite the listener. While I can only guess what the audience will like, I don’t want to play the game of chasing an audience. I didn’t go into music because I want to make money and try to get famous – I did it because I love performing and writing music. If people like the music, they like it, and if they don’t, they don’t. But I think the music has something to offer and it’s nice when people give it a chance.

Have you had any challenges with what someone else in the industry wants you to sound like versus what you want to sound like?
Yeah, totally. Let’s look at this from two perspectives: let’s pretend you’re a label executive. [Artists and bands] can hate on you all you want, but the truth is, you’re just trying to keep your business afloat; you play to win. [Label executives] are batting and trying to hit it out of the park every time. Which means everyone underneath them – their employees and the artists – are going to feel the same amount of pressure. I felt like I had to deliver some magical single that was going to sell millions of records. A gold record felt like a failure! But sometimes I liked the pressure. I liked being told no because it pushed me to go harder. So I think you can either run away from that or embrace it and make it better, and that’s what I tried to do with Rooney.

But I also think [labels’ current mentality] is draining the industry of the creative spark – the innocence and the fun of creating music. It’s a mentality that has really fucked it up for a lot of artists. There are bands out there – like the ones that are opening tonight – that slug it every night and try to do a good job but you’re up against so much friction in the industry.

So did you feel a greater sense of freedom when you went independent?
In a way. But now the battles are different. Now, you have to compete with label artists who have a huge marketing budget while you don’t even have a marketing budget. A new hurdle is figuring out how to achieve mainstream success on a DIY level after having [a label’s resources] – which is fine! At the end of the day it can totally be done. It’s just matter of figuring out how to approach it. And of course, it also takes a little luck and having the right people who will support you and champion your project.

Regardless of “the powers that be” that have tried to shape Rooney’s sound, your sound has been so consistent from Rooney’s inception in the 90s to now. Was that intentional?
When Rooney started, I had an idea of what I wanted to write and do musically and I just stayed with that “flow”. When I write a song, [developing a sound] isn’t really a conscious thing – it just sort of happens naturally and that becomes ‘Rooney’.

California is a huge part of Rooney’s identity – you’ve got the California flag in your logo and you have the signature “California sound”. Can you talk about that a bit?
I think people can identify with Rooney’s California imagery, so I want to keep that consistent because it works for us. I’m thankful we have it. It all goes back to reaching our audience. There are a lot of different reasons people can identify with Rooney – be it one song that really resonates with them, or maybe they heard Rooney at a certain period in their life – and our audience spans over so many years, so we’ve tapped into a lot of different audiences at many different times. People come and go, and some people stay and follow Rooney. But the California flag is consistent throughout all of that. It ties all of these different experiences together.

In your opinion, what makes a good song?
I don’t like cheesy music. It should be well written and well crafted; I like when lyrics have an edge to them, and I love when everything supports the song. Really good bands and players are only thinking about the song – they’re not thinking about themselves. If you’re a guitar player and you don’t play a single note for the whole song because you think that’s what’s best for the song, then don’t play a note.

So you’re saying the music needs to be bigger than the ego.
Yeah, and that’s the tricky thing with bands. You have to be able to [keep everyone’s musical ego in check]. There’s music that makes you geek out over a guitarist’s or a keyboardist’s solo or whatever, and its purpose is to wow an audience and to [let the player show off]. While there’s something to be said for that – I respect a skilled musician – there’s also something to be said for crafting good, tasteful music. And that’s my goal for Rooney. I just want to make good songs.

How do you know when a song is finished?
I love noodling and tweaking songs, and messing with sounds. It’s hard to know when to stop tweaking, and the people I work with know that I tweak a lot. But the way I look at it is a record is going to live on longer than my life, so I want it to sound really good. I don’t want to listen to something and go “Damn, I really wish I would’ve done this, this, and that.” I just want things to be the best they can be, and that’s the hardest part about producing your own music – knowing when you need to keep tweaking and when you need to stop. But that’s also the fun of it. I’m proud of the records I’ve made over the years and it’s fun to think about what’s to come!

Interview & Article by Hannah Bates for Front Row Boston.