"Once upon a time, I was wandering in a magic forest," says Rooney front man Robert Carmine, in a voice familiar to anyone who ever experienced nursery school story time. "And I ran into an old wise man who gave me a magic bean. And the bean was, like, a key, right?" Carmine slips out of story time mode, briefly, and sounds once again like the 19-year-old L.A. kid he really is. "And that's how I entered the kingdom of great old music that no one listens to anymore, for some reason."
Obviously, Carmine is kidding when he offers this Grimm's-inspired answer to the question, "How did a 19-year-old L.A. kid get obsessed with, say, the Walker Brothers?" Think about it. Think about what you were listening to when you were 19. Sonic Youth: sure. Guided By Voices: definitely. Smog: maybe. And that, in all likelihood, is because either you or your roommate worked at the college radio station.
Carmine, having opted for the sentimental education of band life over the ivory-tower kind of book-learnin', has no such excuse. Yet he's a veritable encyclopedia of stuff your friendly neighborhood music journalist took awhile to check into. So what's the deal?
Well, the thing is, that little fairy tale isn't so far from the truth.
"OK, for real: Dee Dee Ramone is, like, a family friend," Carmine cops, finally. "He'd turn me on to all kinds of stuff--listen to this, listen to that. Lend me records. You know."
No, most people don't know. Most people don't have legends of rock-and-roll history as casual mentors. Most people, at best, have their weird, ex-hippie uncle Ed. But Carmine isn't most people. His uncle is Francis Ford Coppola. Which makes his cousins Sofia and Roman, his mom Talia Shire and his older brother Jason Schwartzman, a.k.a. the drummer of Phantom Planet, a.k.a. Max Fischer of Rushmore, a.k.a. the person who provided Rooney with its own magic bean.
"It all happened pretty quickly," explains Carmine (née Schwartzman) of his band's emergence as the new darlings of the L.A. rock scene. "We'd only kind of just started playing together--we didn't even have a name yet--and then my brother's band was playing this fan-club gig at the Troubadour, which is a big-deal L.A. club. So they asked us to open the show. They were like, hey, fan club-only, everyone will be nice. It was pretty ideal. Like, most audiences aren't that warm and receptive towards bands without names. Although, we did come up with 'Rooney' right before the show."
Yet warm and receptive was what Rooney got--a fact none too surprising given not only its filial link to Phantom Planet, but also inasmuch as both bands boast the same sure-fire combination of pretty-boy membership and power-pop melodies (though Rooney's take on the Weezer sound is a bit brasher). Credibility firmly in place, having brought down the Troubadour house, selling out the next headlining gig proved easy--a combination of word of mouth and, Carmine admits, band members selling tickets at their respective high schools. (Senior band member Ned Brower, 25, was unavailable for comment.)
And just like that, bang: Rooney was bringing in the Pasadena scenesters, inspiring lovesick message-board postings on the band's fan-initiated Web site and locking eyes with powerhouse management company The Firm. All of this, mind you, before releasing even a limited-edition EP. Bang bang bang: signed to Interscope/Geffen, opening for labelmates and heroes Weezer, touring with the Strokes. Bang: in the studio with first-tier producers Keith Forsey and Brian Reeves. Bang: the hotly anticipated release of Rooney's self-titled debut. Is this band for real? They seem to have sprung, full-grown, from the head of Zeus.
"Well, it's not like there's some svengali-type hanging around," Carmine notes acidly, not much appreciating the Athenian metaphor. Apparently, more than a few commentators have picked that nit, in the hope of finding (ahem) Rooney's Achilles heel. "First off," he continues, "let me say: We write all our own music. Period. I kind of work the songs out by myself, demo them at home and then bring them to the rest of the band so they can figure out all their parts. We always pretty much knew what we wanted to sound like--we wanted the music to be catchy but not, like, simplistic. And furthermore, it's not like the label pressured us to make it more commercial or anything like that; they've just totally supported us. Nobody ever tried to make us into 'N Sync with guitars.
"OK, wait, wait," Carmine jumps in, interrupting whatever follow-up question he fears is on its way. "Let's talk about the whole 'boy band' thing. Boy bands--like, the Beatles were a boy band! The Walker Brothers! Girls loved them. They went crazy. And no one questions the musical integrity. It drives me nuts--in the last few years, it's become this thing, like, either you're 'N Sync, or you're..."
Grandaddy? As in, the other act on the Pete Yorn tour Rooney was opening? As in, the guys critics dig but not so much the girls? As in, the guys with the beards?
"Sure, Grandaddy. Don't get me wrong," Carmine continues, "I got to be pretty close with those guys on the tour, they're cool, but like, why does it have to be one thing or the other all the time? Sure, we've got girls at our gig who maybe think we're 'cute.' But we've also got people there who just dig the music. And you know what? I'll tell you something."
Carmine, a former actor (natch), lets his voice drop to a whisper, aping someone with a dirty secret to spill.
"We're all tone nuts. We are obsessed with frequency. We are complete and total music nerds."
Carmine's on a roll now, spinning off into the classic music-nerd territory of explaining, in pornographic detail, the recording, mixing and mastering of the band's debut LP. Finally, he concludes, with the exasperated sigh of so many perfectionist musos, "We're pretty happy with it--but it could have been even better.
"I guess it was kind of the cart before the horse, touring-wise," Carmine acknowledges. "But in a way, when I listen to the album now, I kind of wish we had done even more touring before we recorded it, though, since we did most of the album live-to-tape--oh, except some of the vocals got overdubbed--and, you know, nothing makes you tighter than playing live. And we actually cut a lot of the original material on the record before we'd toured that much--we hadn't even played outside California. But, you know, we figured we should go with the momentum."
Or, as an old wise man once told him: Let the magic bean be your guide. Or something to that effect.
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