Open in new window

Interview: Robert Schwartzman on new Rooney music + upcoming film 'The Unicorn'.

Robert Schwartzman's band Rooney has existed as a band for 19 years now, but never yet travelled to New Zealand. So, with the band's 20-year anniversary coming up next year, we travelled to San Diego to meet Schwartzman at the kick-off of their A Cosmic Interlude Tour and discuss his upcoming projects - both musical and filmic.

I think as times have changed, people start to question things and go through moments of trying to find your identity and your community again.

COUP DE MAIN: Having written your new song 'Do You Believe' after the 2016 election, how do you feel singing the lyrics now in retrospect, with the perspective of 2018?
I could get all political and go on a rant, but basically, the country feels weird right now. It depends who you’re asking, they probably feel differently depending on whoever you’re talking to, but I guess I was feeling like-- Music can be so powerful if you use it correctly, you can really motivate people to think outside the box. When you write a love song for example, you can really tap into people’s emotions, so I feel like a lot of amazing songwriters and artists over the years have written political songs where they make people feel empowered to do something good, or maybe think a little differently about a situation, and that’s the beauty of music. I’ve never really gone there. I wrote one song called ‘Stars and Stripes’ on a record called ‘Eureka’, and that was maybe my most ‘trying to send a message’ or something. When I wrote ‘Do You Believe’, I’d written the music, some of the score to the vocal, and I was singing out loud different lyrics, and it just felt like the kind of song you almost want to shout, as a gang vocal, not as an individual singer - meaning it’s from the ‘we’ perspective, all of us together. At that time, the presidency switched over to a new President and I was feeling a need inside of me to do something a little different, and not write a traditional love song, but more of the love of feeling unified - the love that comes with feeling connected to people and a community. I think as times have changed, people start to question things and go through moments of trying to find your identity and your community again. If you didn’t know by what I’m telling you, you’d think this is just a love song, like, “Do you believe? Do you believe in us? Do you believe in love?” I think that love doesn’t have to be traditionally used in the sense of a love song, it can be used in the sense of connecting people, and making you feel a sense of love within a community of people. To answer your question specifically, I’ve never sang the song live publicly yet - but I’ll tell you this, when I sing it, it’s got some force and power to it. When I sing the verse it feels empowering, and I’m excited to sing it. Plus we sing it as a group, it’s not just me singing lead vocals. I love anthems, and I’ve tried my best to write music that has anthemic qualities.

CDM: ‘Do You Believe' is from your upcoming film, 'The Unicorn'. How many new Rooney songs can we expect to feature in 'The Unicorn'?
I wrote two songs that are in ‘The Unicorn’. One is called ‘Do You Believe’, and one is called ‘Time And Time Again’ which is only going to be available on the soundtrack. It’s coming out next year and the soundtrack will probably get announced this fall, or in the new year. ‘The Unicorn’ features a lot of cool music, we got a lot of great bands to participate in it, so it’s not a traditional use of music, it’s a real eclectic mix of music, and I’m just happy as a musician who makes movies to be able to put my own stuff in it, I hope it helps the movie, and resonates in the movie. You don’t ever want to put music in a movie that doesn’t work, because you can really fuck up the scene. I’m excited for people to see it, because we worked hard on the movie, and I’m happy to feature new music because it gets people to get excited about Rooney too.

CDM: Will the next Rooney release be an EP like 'El Cortez'? Or a full-length album?
I’m still experimenting with the way of putting music out. For so many years I made albums, and I made so many albums that never came out too - we scrapped them, it was such a grind, you really get beaten down writing whole albums and then never releasing them. I just started to also feel like when Spotify and Apple Music, and all these companies became streaming services, I just feel like the whole medium changed. I just questioned, ‘What is this? Why do we make what we make?’ You have to think about technology and how it affects the way artists create things. Something I talk about a lot is how people never used to make albums until someone invented the LP. People never recorded music until someone invented a recording machine, and could make a vinyl, or you could broadcast it. They used to only sell sheet music, and that was how music was distributed, just through paper. That’s why families played music - musicians were in families, and they played the songs so you could hear it in the living room. So when singles came around, the 7-inch, people would make a single, and then they needed something on the other side so they made a B-side, so maybe they covered a song. But then one day someone said, ‘Hey, I invented this thing called an LP, I can put a bunch more songs on it,’ and they were like, ‘Oh cool, let’s write more songs and put them out together.’ Now we’re in a time where everyone’s like, ‘Hey, I want songs, I make playlists.’ I don’t even think people listen to whole albums anymore. I don’t. I listen to songs and I cherry-pick. I make playlists, I pull songs in, I jump around, and that’s just how I listen to music. I’m kind of sad not to make an album. I think people think, ‘I want an album,’ and I’m like, ‘Fuck.’ It takes a lot of time. I think what could happen is maybe instead of putting out an EP next year, I’ll just work on a new album and put it out the year after.

CDM: I take it you haven’t thought about making a follow-up to your 2011 solo album 'Double Capricorn' then?
I made the ‘Palo Alto’ soundtrack which was my own music, and that was kind of like an album. It wasn’t a traditional song album, but it was music. Once I got the Rooney project back on its feet, I didn’t feel the need to go off and make solo records, but I feel like maybe on a movie project I might write a new type of album, that might not be a Rooney album.

CDM: Aside from your 'Palo Alto' soundtrack, how do your decide between a song being for Rooney, or released by Robert Schwartzman?
I don’t know, it’s so weird. I don’t know how most musicians work, I know a lot of bands that have a lot of different projects, so I don’t know how they decide what goes where, but lately I’ve just tried to put everything under Rooney even if it’s a little different sounding, because I want the Rooney project to change. I don’t want it to just be one sound all the time. If you see our show tonight, it’s definitely a rock and roll show, we’re not an electro band - we use electronic instruments sometimes, but we’re mostly a guitar driven band - so I think there’s something about that identity that I like to do with Rooney. When I make records I like to preserve some of the elements that you’d hear in a Rooney album, like a lot of harmonies, focusing on melody, and just keeping it rhythmic and singable.
CDM: I think the essential thing in a Rooney song is always the hook.
Yeah, finding that groove, the thing that makes you want to sing or hum.

CDM: What was it like working with Dev Hynes on the 'Palo Alto' soundtrack?
What happened on that project is that we both have a credit as the scorer/composers, but he did his stuff and I did my stuff, and then the filmmakers took all the music and then put it to the movie. We both contributed to the score, but we both work by ourselves.

CDM: What do you think is the ratio of unreleased songs to released songs, out of all the songs you've ever written?
I have so many more unreleased songs. It’s hard, because I like a lot of them. I don’t know what to do with them sometimes.

CDM: I’m still sad that 'She's Got Everything' didn't make your 2007 album, 'Calling The World'. That song is a bop.
I love that song!

CDM: Do you find it easier or harder to write and self-produce music, compared to directing, producing and writing an entire film?
It’s different. Movies take more time and there’s more people involved, and movies are challenging because there’s more money needed, it’s more of a business, even if you make it independently, it’s risky. You want the movie to come out and you want people to see it. Essentially, to make an indie movie, somebody is like, ‘I believe in you, I’ll put money into your movie,’ and you’re like, ‘Thank you for believing in me.’ And then when you make your movie you want them to make their money back, you don’t want anyone to get burned financially, so there’s more pressure. When it comes to music I just do it myself, so I don’t feel that kind of pressure. But with music, I put a lot of pressure on myself personally when I make these projects because I just want them to be the best they can be, and I spend a lot of time tweaking and trying to make it good. Just to give you an example, when you mix a movie, you’re basically taking all of the sound elements - the dialogue, the birds flying by, the hum of the car, the song playing on the radio - and you try to create a feeling of realism. But when you mix an album, you’re mixing bass, drums, guitar, vocals, effects. A movie has so many more elements that you have to mix, and it takes so long to sit there everyday, and listen, and tweak - ‘Oh, that bird’s too loud, it’s distracting me from the dialogue, and the song comes in too hot' - so there’s just more to freak out about on a movie, and it’s emotionally more taxing. With music I also get really critical of my own music, because I want people to like it, and I don’t want to put anything out if I don’t feel 110% about it. Music is tough too, because I’m not playing the same old game anymore, I’m not putting albums out and trying to go gold and sell out Staples Center and get on the cover of Rolling Stone - I’m not motivated by that right now. You want the best for whatever you make, and you wouldn’t want anything less, but some bands-- I remember when I started Rooney, I was so like, ‘We gotta be this, we gotta be that,’ and we were all like that.
CDM: Does that feel like an entirely different time? You were signed by Jimmy Iovine to Interscope, right?
Yeah, it was cool. They [Interscope] wanted Rooney to be a boyband or something, like a pop band, and we were like, ‘No, we don’t listen to pop. We love catchy music, and we love early pop, but we don’t like NSYNC and stuff. We don’t fancy ourselves as NSYNC, we think of ourselves as a guitar-based rock and roll band, who belongs on alternative radio and not pop radio.’ So although it’s poppy music, it doesn’t mean it should be straight pop how you market it. With Interscope, that was all they wanted, they just wanted to sell records, so they wanted us to be a #1 band, and in their minds that meant doing whatever it took to make radio hits. Sometimes that really waters down your sound and your identity, and we had to find that balance. It’s a struggle, and a lot of bands go through it now, they’re going through it tomorrow - everybody’s going through it if you’re trying to play that game because that game is built for mainstream success, and it doesn’t come without its drawbacks.

CDM: How have you found the process of creating 'The Unicorn' compared to your directorial debut, 2016's 'Dreamland'?
I’m glad you’re asking all these movie questions! I’m really excited about making movies, and before I started Rooney I was directing short films with my friends and I went to film school and studied editing. I love films.

CDM: Have you directed any music videos for Rooney?
I got to work on them in a production capacity. It’s so nice to come back to a place where I get to do movies, because I love movies and it’s so fun and it’s so creative, it demands a different creative muscle, and I’m happy to work that out. So far, I’ve made independent movies. ‘Dreamland’ is a comedy with more drama, a dark comedy… It’s not a straight comedy that someone falls over and farts when they hit the ground - 'studio comedies'. In 'broad comedies' they want to cast the widest net of laughs. So whether you’re a really well-schooled PHD, intelligent person, versus someone that maybe isn’t an intellect, but they love movies, whatever span you are in terms of your education, broad comedies appeal to everybody - that’s the goal. We made ‘Dreamland’ as a comedy with heart, with some dark elements, with characters that are struggling with each other, and as a coming-of-age movie - a kid who’s confused, lost in a relationship, having an affair, doesn’t know what he wants in his life, he’s failing, he’s struggling. Those are elements of dark comedy, with a bit of light-heartedness. ‘The Unicorn’ is a straight comedy, working with comedians and improv people. I got to work with some amazing comedy talent who were just so funny, and I’m so proud to have that experience because they’re fucking awesome. So far it’s been awesome showing the movie at film festivals, SXSW was amazing, we took it to China to the Shanghai Film Festival and we had a really good premiere there, we’re taking it to Canada in September. It’s going to hopefully come out early next year, we’re talking about the date now.

CDM: What can you tell me about 'Lost Transmissions'?
It’s a movie I got to work on with the producers and the director. It’s about music, and about a producer who was struggling with mental disorders - he was on and off his medication, he was a real person who made some amazing albums. It’s about him and his relationship with this young musician girl who’s also trying to find herself at the same time. I got to come in as an Executive Producer of the movie and help them package it, lend my creative input, and then I got to act in it. The director said, ‘I want you to play the label executive,’ so I was like, ‘Sure, I know a lot of those guys, I’ll do my best.’ So hopefully it’ll be out next year.

CDM: Could you ever see yourself directing and acting in a movie? Or is that just too much to take on?
I kind of always fantasised about it. The more I’ve directed, the more I’m scared of acting in it, because it’s so hard to direct and act. You’re so busy-- I’ll tell you this, yes, it’s going to happen. I don’t know when and I don’t know how and I don’t know what, but I’m definitely determined to make it happen. It’ll probably be around a story that revolves around my music life, because for me it’s a life I know so well, so I would like to touch on things I know like playing shows. Maybe there’s a way to do a movie about it.

CDM: You have Beachwood Park Films for your production projects, you own Beachwood Park Recording studio, and are self-releasing music now via Beachwood Park Music. What's going to be your next Beachwood Park venture?
There’s also Beachwood Park Touring. <laughs> Everything is Beachwood Park, they’re all just different company names. Basically the mothership is called Beachwood Park, which is a company I started to put all my projects under. It’s amazing, I’m kind of running my own little indie movie production company because I’m producing these movies, and getting to put my own albums out, so it’s nice. I’ve always loved being as independent as possible, I feel more rewarded by being able to stay in the driver's seat with my projects. I have a lot of fun in doing the work, and I enjoy the work. It’s not just about making the music, it’s also about how do I put it out, and when do I put it out, and what’s the album cover gonna look like, and what’s the strategy? Who can we call to help us? That stuff is also really fun for me too, so I’ve always naturally enjoyed all of it. That’s why I think being independent is always really fun because you get to make these decisions.

CDM: Did Lorde record at Beachwood Park Recording?
She did! Where’d you read that?
CDM: On your website, and then in a Rolling Stone interview it said they did the interview at Beachwood Café, so I just assumed it was for her last album.
Yeah, it was on that album.

CDM: On the self-titled Rooney album back in 2003, you unleashed a rather savage critique of 'Popstars'. Do you still feel the same way about modern pop music?
You know what, I think I’ve mellowed out a little bit over the years. Music is hard for anybody, I just think that it was hard being a band and everything seemed so manufactured, and we weren’t a band that was put together by a label, I wasn’t named by a label, they didn’t put my band together, they didn’t write my songs. So we just kind of did our own thing, the Rooney project was always its own thing, and I think-- I’m not hating on it, good music is good music. Today is interesting, because as time has gone on, new generations have grown up with those bands that I was referencing back then - the 90s pop bands, NSYNC, Britney Spears, that kind of stuff, but that stuff is still around and it’s become almost cool - a guilty pleasure for people. Pop has become cool again. The most alt stuff today is super poppy, it’s literally like it could be on an NYSYNC album, the way the singer sings, the way it’s produced, it’s as sugar-coated as you can get. It’s interesting to hear. Today’s indie/alternative scene is a total mishmash of bands, but back then everything was so programmed, so crystal clean, so mass-marketed, and everything involved dance. Everything was about dance entertainment and lip-syncing, there was no real singing in live music performances, it was more of a live show, not live music. So I think just as a band I was just being a bit pessimistic about it. When I wrote ‘Popstars’ it was a cool theme for a song, I was taking lyrics from different bands and putting them together, and saying, 'These are the words of the popstars.' A song came out of it, so for what it’s worth, it inspired me to write a song.

CDM: Is this the 19th year of Rooney? Is next year your 20-year anniversary?
CDM: Do you have any special plans?
I think we’ll do a 20th anniversary show, but I want to do a 20th anniversary tour at some point, so maybe not next year, but maybe we’ll announce it next year and go out the next year.
CDM: That’s when you can finally come to New Zealand?!
Maybe we could do a world tour to celebrate 20 years. That would be pretty cool. You’d have to bring your homies. Bring your buddies.

Rooney's new song 'Do You Believe' is out now - listen below: