In the 1980s, Gram LeBron was a typical middle-class kid in Garland, living out his teendom in typical 1980s suburbia. He killed time at the Galleria, watched too much MTV, spent Friday and Saturday night at the dance club in the West End. He was interested in music--played in high school bands, flipped through the bins at Bill's Records and Tapes--but also in school, making good enough grades to get into Houston's Rice University, where his musical career came to a climax with a slot opening for Dallas' own Bedhead.
Then six years ago, filled with rock-and-roll dreams, he moved out to San Francisco. He played with a series of bands that never amounted to as much as they should have. Typical, really. But what happened next was anything but.
"I was at a barbecue," LeBron says, "and a friend of mine said, 'Hey, I met this musician on the Internet. Wanna hear his album?' I was like, 'Fine, whatever. We'll listen to one song.' He put it on, and we didn't just listen to one song. We listened to the whole album. Twice."
Rogue Wave performs at Hailey's on Friday, December 9, with Mazarin and the Happy Bullets.
The album in question was Out of the Shadow. The Internet friend? Zach Rogue, aka Zach Schwartz, a casualty of the dot-com bust who poured equal parts frustration and liberation into an album of literate, deeply melodic indie-pop recorded on the cheap by a friend in New York City. He called his band Rogue Wave, a head-scratcher of a term he first read in Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson's novel about code-breaking during World War II. The fabled "rogue wave," long spoken of by sailors, refers to a giant wave that comes out of nowhere, swallowing ships whole and without warning.
It proved an apt metaphor for the band's success. Rogue's little recordings impressed Sub Pop so much that they inked a record deal with him. Glowing indie press swelled at high tide. Of course, none of that had happened back when LeBron first heard the music, but he might have guessed as much. "I just fell in love with those songs," he says. "After that day, I was begging Zach to let me in the band."
So when Rogue's bass player couldn't make a show, LeBron stopped begging, stepped in and made himself indispensable. "The fact that I could learn quickly made me pretty useful," he says. "And I could play bass and drums and keys and sing. I guess I became a jack-of-all-trades. Everybody's only got one pair of hands, so I can be the other set of hands."
Since then, the band--which also includes Pat Spurgeon and Evan Farrell on various instruments--has been in constant motion, touring with a roster of talent that would make Pitchfork piss their Dickies: the Shins, Mates of State, Guster, Helio Sequence, Spoon--bands that share Rogue Wave's appreciation for smart songwriting and killer melodies. But onstage, Rogue Wave distinguishes themselves with a disarming enthusiasm for actually playing their own music.
"A lot of the bands we see have a tendency to stand there, and that's boring to me," says LeBron, who has been known to use full spins as punctuation points while playing. "I don't think anyone should force it, but that's not what I'm doing at all. I'm just having fun. I can't hide it."
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While the debut album garnered well-earned hyperbole from glossies and webzines alike, the handclaps and harmonies of Out of the Shadows also ushered in a wave of Shins comparisons. "It does get annoying," LeBron admits. "But maybe it's fair. The truth is, if you like the Shins, you'll probably like us. But I've never felt the comparison."
Yet their latest album, October's Descended Like Vultures, takes a step away from that sound and into grimmer and sonically slicker territory. "We try not to care what we sound like," LeBron says. But reviews have characterized it as a drastic shift, not altogether surprising since the album was the band's first songwriting collaboration. LeBron shrugs off any deliberate move to change their sound. "I guess it's darker," he says. "There's more stuff going on if you listen on the headphones. But it wasn't a radical departure. Zach would still work on stuff alone, and then he would come in with the basics of the song, and we added things that made them sound good to us."
The band will continue to tour through Christmas and then take a much-needed break to spend the holidays with their family before another tour (with Nada Surf) and, hopefully, another album come summer. Of course, on Friday, LeBron will be back in his old stomping grounds--well, a bus ride away, at least--when the band plays at Hailey's in Denton. "Dallas gets a bad rap, but I always have a good time when we play there," he says.
Last year the band played the Granada Theater, which was particularly nice for a kid who grew up seeing movies at the Greenville venue's previous incarnation as a second-run house. Plus, then he got to go next door and have dinner at local greasy favorite Snuffer's. What's the old saying? You can take the boy out of Texas--but you better not take away his cheese fries.