When Rogue Wave took the stage at the recent indie-pop all-star gathering known as the Sasquatch Festival, it was a toss-up as to which piece of scenery was more awe-inspiring to the shy foursome from the San Francisco Bay Area.
The biggest visual encouragement on this watershed day might have been behind them in the form of the shimmering Columbia River canyon, the stage backdrop for The Gorge Amphitheatre in central Washington state.
Or it could have been right in front of them, with the more-than-20,000-seat bowl filling up as frontman Zach Rogue finger-picked the welcoming opening notes to the band’s set opener, “Catform.”
Multi-instrumentalists and vocalists Evan Farrell, Gram LeBron and Pat Spurgeon soon joined in, launching a one-hour musical exploration that ended with a half-humorous group bow.
Hours later, storm clouds came in and the heavens peppered peanut-M&M-sized hail on the proceedings. No matter, though. Rogue Wave had already risen to experience a defining moment of arrival in the sun.
“It was fantastic, like being on a movie set,” Rogue said. “And being included in a festival like that, with all these great bands, being treated as their equals, it brought on an overwhelming sense of humility. I guess we’re pretty lucky.”
And pretty good, too.
Their latest album on Sub Pop, “Descended Like Vultures,” has been garnering rave reviews since its October 2005 release, and Rogue Wave has been touring pretty much non-stop since.
The Rogue Wave story goes back about five years, when Rogue, nee Zach Schwartz, was a part-time musician and full-time web developer who was dot-bombed from his San Francisco day job and took his solo songs and influences to New York producer Bill Racine.
Without concrete expectations of where the sessions would lead, the pair churned out an eye-opening melange of rock gems sometimes rooted in folk, sometimes distorted into noise-pop, and always grounded with Rogue’s effortless, irresistible melodic hooks and abstract, pop-culture-infused lyrics.
Those songs led to the creation of Rogue Wave, which Zach accomplished by changing his last name to Rogue and recruiting three other multi-instrumentalists and vocalists via Craigslist within days.
The debut album “Out of the Shadow” and the deal with Sub Pop soon followed, paving the way for the eventual arrival of album No. 2, “Descended Like Vultures,” the first true collaboration of the quartet in the studio and a more mature, sonically and lyrically impressive effort from top to bottom.
The mood is set from the dramatic opening track, “Bird on a Wire,” which shares the name and mood with the famed Leonard Cohen chestnut. It’s a slightly demented lilting waltz with distorted guitars, ornate drum rolls and the mysterious lyrics that have become Rogue’s forte.
“Are you hoping/ to get out of this mess?” Rogue sings. “Truckloads of coffee/ conditioned to confess. You’re a bird on a wire/ and you’re wrestling.”
The gorgeous acoustic track “Salesman at the Day of the Parade” and “Catform,” which switches back and forth between almost-classical guitar to fuzzed-out psychedelia, deal with a topic Rogue says he frequently revisits in his writing, which occurs, “late at night, usually when I can’t sleep, and derives from whatever happens to be keeping me awake.”
“It’s kind of an ongoing study in my brain in those songs of a character, someone I don’t want to ever be,” Rogue says. “It’s the things I’ve seen people go through, the wrong paths I’ve seen them take.”
That theme also is visited on “Endless Shovel,” one of the stronger tracks on “Out of the Shadow,” and on “Descended Like Vultures’” epic “Love’s Lost Guarantee,” which has quickly evolved into the emotional high point of the band’s live set.
“Love comes like a Kennedy curse/ the victim role was well-rehearsed,” Rogue sings. “You can paint over any mistake/ but you can’t remove the original fake.”
There’s nothing fake about Rogue Wave, a fact that is impossible to ignore when you see them live. They switch up instruments throughout the set, with each member being proficient on guitar, keyboards, drums, bass and the other spooky-sounding instruments that permeate their album. They jump around the stage and appear joyous, not at all jaded.
In addition, all four members sing and work hard at perfecting complex harmony structures. Rogue says having everyone sing brings each band member closer to the material, particularly in a live setting. Spurgeon, the primary drummer with one of the coolest afros in rock today, agrees.
“For what we write and how intricate the songs are, everyone is required to sing,” Spurgeon says. “I never sang before this band, so it took a long time to realize the songs and make it work, but it adds a lot to our sound and should only get better.”
Rogue Wave should only get better, too. They continue to tour, with an upcoming slate of major amphitheatre shows supporting Guster and Ray LaMontagne. Rogue says he has all of the songs for the next record already written, and they’ve been playing a few of them to enthusiastic crowds.
And then there are moments like the one at the Gorge, when the band members can sit back and, for a few minutes, at least, swell with pride in what they’ve accomplished.
“We’ve all kind of struggled for a long time with music in the past,” Spurgeon says.
“So sometimes we can’t help it if we still get giddy.”
For more information on Rogue Wave, visit: http://www.roguewavemusic.com/.