CULTURE & ARTS

Rooney's Robert Schwartzman Would Like To Reintroduce Himself

Like all the best '90s pop nostalgia, Rooney is back with more of what made us love them in the first place.
Robert Schwartzman at the Tribeca Film Festival, where he showed his directorial debut "Dreamland."
Robert Schwartzman at the Tribeca Film Festival, where he showed his directorial debut "Dreamland."

"The Powerpuff Girls" have returned to the Cartoon Network, looking streamlined and shined up for 2016. "Gilmore Girls" is picking up its dropped threads for a comeback series being filmed for Netflix. "Full House" is now "Fuller House," thanks again to Netflix. 

The kids of the '90s have been granted their nostalgia golden era, and that means the '90s and early aughts are back with a vengeance. So it's an appropriate time for Rooney to reemerge with its first album in nearly six years -- an album, called "Washed Away," that's dripping with '90s flavor. 

Okay, Rooney isn't exactly a hit TV show, but the rock band, fronted by musician and sometime-actor Robert Schwartzman, will likely also bring back early '00s fuzzies with their return. Since the group cameoed on the era-defining teen soap "The O.C." in 2004, performing the energetic hit "I'm Shakin'" from their first album, they've been inextricably bound up with that time in so many millennials' lives; then-tweens or teens who loved the sunny, uneasy glamor of "The O.C." and who eschewed boy bands for bands that dared to play instruments and sometimes even sound discordant.

Rooney hit that lovable sweet spot between pop and rock. You could dance to their songs, sing along, and have them jangling around your head for days, but they featured quirky lyrics and raw guitar that felt real, less canned than much of the pop machine. 

After six years, things have changed for the band. Aside from Schwartzman, the lineup is entirely new. And as for the band's frontman -- who's been busy with solo projects and his film as a director, "Dreamland," which just debuted at Tribeca -- he's not quite the smooth-faced, floppy-haired heartthrob who slayed young female fans 15 years ago as Michael Moscovitz, or later in a sun-drenched video for Rooney's hit single "When Did Your Heart Go Missing."

When Schwartzman met me in the lobby of The Ludlow in the East Village on a recent Tuesday afternoon, he was sporting heavy stubble and long, sleek locks he kept gently stroking across his forehead. His energy seemed boyish and sweet. He jokingly clapped his hands to sync up the two recorders I used and sternly instructed me to quit with the lingering cough that kept interrupting my questions.

When it comes to Rooney, though, he's earnest and thoughtful, as well as eager to establish how hard they've worked, how much they appreciate what they have, and how little he's taking for granted with the new album. Though he never shies away from mentions of his family -- his brother is actor Jason Schwartzman, and directors Gia and Sofia Coppola are cousins -- a desire to establish his bona fides as a hard worker would be understandable.

Schwartzman says he shaped his album to have the classic Rooney sound, and if anything to have even more of a '90s rock influence. But he's emphatic that this doesn't mean Rooney is resting on its laurels or trying to relive its early years. "I think I'm kind of just starting out now anyway," he told me, when asked how he thinks Rooney's trajectory would be different if they were a new band today. "To me it's a wonderful thing to have a history, but it's not going to define me going forward. I have to allow this time now to define myself. I'm not cruising through this campaign, you know what I mean? This is a rebirth and a redefinition of Rooney."

During our chat, Schwartzman opened up more about his music-making process, the state of the music industry, and what he really wanted to be when he grew up:

Rooney performs on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” on April 13, 2016.
Rooney performs on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” on April 13, 2016.

On the musical influences of "Washed Away":

"I really wanted to go back to the '90s in this record. Like, that was my goal. I grew up driving to school listening to '90s alternative radio, and going to shows that were '90s rock bands. So to name a few: Supergrass, Blur, Oasis, Elastica. The Cardigans were one of my favorite bands. Granddaddy, I want to make sure to mention. These were bands I just listened to so much and I was so into.

"There's '90s rock that's kind of sloppy, but poppy, but guitar-driven, but like, wrong and right at the same time. I just like a lot of that kind of stuff, and more guitar-driven pop stuff, but sounding rich and full and big. The song 'Love Me Like There's No Tomorrow' and 'Washed Away' have it. Like, it's a little -- the attitude, and the guitar focal point, to me kind of captures a little of that '90s flavor that I loved growing up."

On his music-making philosophy:

"I've always worked hard when I've made Rooney records to try to make every song have something special so that there's no filler. It's just all killer. That's the saying. I don't try to just write singles and then just put a bunch of junk on the record. I want every song to be the best song on the record.

"What's been cool over the years is fans will say to me, 'I don't know which song is my favorite, I love track three, I love track seven, and track one, and the single I like...' and to me, that's when I feel like I've done something right, is when I've written a record that is diverse enough that there's a lot of entry points for people."

On singles:

"I don't think we've ever lived or died by our next single, and I think that's actually the sign of a true pop artist is when they die or live by the next single, and I've never been in that game. I'm in the game of trying to make a really good album, with really beautiful packaging, and a great music video, and play, like, an awesome show, and just make sure fans know I care and I'm here, and I think that's the recipe for something to build off of. But I think it's important to mention that because I think so many bands are like... they're not here, and then they have a single on the radio all of a sudden and they're big again or something. I don't get that. I'd rather build brick by brick, and have every album be another brick in this wall."

On musical trends:

"I don't get too deep into following what's hot right now. I think that today's music is kind of everywhere. It's all over the place. I don't think there's a sound of today. It's a food court. I think it's interesting because I don't think everyone's flocking to one thing. Most times the music that's this underground, cool music that's big, like, the darlings of music festivals, is very different than what's on pop radio."

"'When Did Your Heart Go Missing' gets played so much still today. So that says something; it says... maybe it's just about songs. Maybe it's just about people wanting to hear good songs. I've never chased a sound. I don't want to just be whatever's hot right now. It's not even that I don't want to be; I just don't even think about it. I just try to write music, and just make music I think sounds good. Maybe that's a good thing, because maybe that means you're not going to get stuck as the sound of this time... I don't think you can date a good song. I think good songs last."

On the Rooney identity vs. the Robert Schwartzman identity:

"There's something just about the Rooney project to me that has an identity outside of myself that I just identify with, and I feel like some songs would work well for the Rooney project."

"I let the instruments sometimes dictate the sound of the song, too. So if I'm writing piano, it tends to be a different song than the guitar, and if I'm writing on acoustic, it tends sound different than if I'm writing on electric, and if I'm writing with the synthesizer, it tends to be a different-sounding project in itself. So I let the instrument define the project, and then I kind of imagine where it's going to live, as far as all these things I want to do."

On building a career in the music world:

"Rooney had the advantage of starting at the end of 1999, putting out a record in '03, and being on a major label that supported the band and put a lot of money and marketing and attention into this project. I think the band worked hard always to build an audience and maintain an audience. Cause I remember using my message boards, you know, in 2000, and printing T-shirts and sampler CDs and handing them out after my show and trying to market myself. I remember trying to create a word-of-mouth groundswell in 1999 at my high school. That's no different from what I'm doing today, I'm just using other tools... 

"I approach this like it's a brand-new band. 'The O.C.,' radio, MTV, whatever -- the things that have happened in the past are in the past, and I can't for one second think that's going to make me now. I have to approach this like a brand-new project, but there's an advantage because Rooney's had a name."

On how the industry has changed since the band was signed in 2002:

"The nature of the beast was, you had to duke it out with your record label to continue to put music out. It was an uphill battle. They had to validate you, give you the green light. You couldn't get a song on the radio unless they said yes. They forced you to do things you didn't maybe ultimately want to do. So I had to live through that with Rooney on Geffen, and Interscop. And today, after this hiatus, I feel like I can do anything I want to do now. I'm completely liberated from that old model."

"There are bands today that are baby bands who find a way into a community through their determination and persistence and marketing themselves, and they're very clever. Today I think you have to be a marketing wizard by yourself. And I think the people that excel have a great strategy, which is called consistency and regularity. I think today's audience needs constant stimulation to stay engaged, or else they forget about you."

On the value of music today:

"But I think something's been lost with major labels. What's been lost in this industry is a sense of value. Valuing music. Putting value on music. I think that music -- and I myself take it for granted as well -- but music is like tap water. It's just flowing through our pipes. And I think a lot of people work really hard to bring water to our city. But it's taken for granted, and we go buy bottles of water. The stuff flowing through the tap, it's just there. We don't realize what it takes for that to happen."

"I think it's important for artists to establish the value of their music, and to change the cultural perspective on the value of music. Because it is up to artists. Artists do define this industry. We can't forget that. We can't just roll with it. And you see it when big artists, like Adele or these people say, you can only buy my album as a whole. But these top-level bands don't define the industry. It's a bottom-up change, it never is top-down. It's always funny to me when I read an article where it's like, 'Beck says today's industry is better than ever!' and it's like... yeah, for Beck, maybe. Those guys are so established and have such a big audience that they could do anything, to some degree, and people are going to take notice of it."

On Rooney's fans:

"The fans of the band have stayed very patient and have been willing to allow there to be another Rooney album. I'm excited about the vibe that's out there, and I really appreciate the support, because I don't know if every artist actually can go away and come back and be received again."

"I would say I come across people every day -- not every day, but I come across people at random times that say Rooney really was a band they loved growing up, or that got them through something, or 'I always loved your music...' To me, that's a meaningful thing, because it's not easy to have that."

On the music he loves to listen to:

"I think most bands love a lot of the usual suspects. I love Tame Impala. That's really good music. I'm really impressed by it. Phoenix, I love... There's a band called La Sera I like. I like Best Coast... I've always loved Weezer."

On his first dream career:

"I've always wanted to be a director, and that was my goal even before I started Rooney or acted in any movies. I was shooting with my friends after school. I wanted to really make movies. I started doing some acting, and I thought that was awesome because I got to be on set, meet filmmakers, be around it, learn it, and then I went away to the film program one summer and got to play around with all these great cameras.

"And then I came home and started a band. All of a sudden I've been in Rooney. But I've been revisiting this initial urge I've had to make movies. Now I get to take my experience as a musician into the movie industry. I think in music I've learned you've just got to start recording. You've just got to start somewhere."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rooney's album "Washed Away," will be out May 6th. It is currently available for preorder. To find out more and check out tour dates, visit the band's website.

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