When L.A. powerpop combo Rooney debuted 13 years ago, they were supposed to take over the world. And they should have. They were the first band to ever play The O.C.’s Bait Shop, even! But despite Seth Cohen’s support, Rooney found themselves caught in limbo between alt-rock radio and Top 40, and under constant pressure from major label Geffen Records to have a smash single. They never quite “made it,” and were instead relegated to cult-band status.
“To break in a big way, you have to have a big radio hit. But back in 2003, ‘Blueside’ was the first single, and it was on the same playlist as, like, P.O.D., Papa Roach, Linkin Park, and Limp Bizkit,” laughs band leader Robert Schwartzman, sitting on an Austin porch with Yahoo Music at South by Southwest. “There wasn’t a lot of Rooney-ish stuff in the commercial radio scene. And Rooney was pop-leaning, but didn’t slide into the Top 40 scene that easily, either.
“It was really tiring, having worked with a major label for so long, because there were so many expectations of the band,” Schwartzman admits. “There were a lot of expectations on Rooney to become the ‘biggest band in the world’… so even with the success we had, it almost felt like a failure in some way, which was kind of strange. I felt like that inside… But I feel happy that we were able to do the damage we did… Wherever Rooney ended up at that time, it’s all good, and it’s something to build off of now.”
Now Rooney are fiercely independent, with a revamped, Schwartzman-helmed lineup – and, much to delight of their loyal fanbase, they’re triumphantly returning with their first album in six years, Washed Away. Even now, Schwartzman – who spent the hiatus being Rooney albums working on solo projects and the Palo Alto film score with Blood Orange’s Devonte Hynes – is aware that Rooney still don’t quite fit in. But he doesn’t care.
“Rooney has always been it is own little world,” he shrugs. “The biggest challenge was always, where do we fit? I don’t think there’s necessarily a built-in audience for Rooney. Like it’s not a sort of Warped Tour band. I mean, those fans might like Rooney, and we might share fans with some of those artists, but we don’t just slide right into that slot. And we didn’t slide into that sort of uber-indie, more niche hardcore indie fanbase. Which is kind of cool, because I never wanted to appeal to just one kind of fan.
“I think some artists probably make music in a calculated way that fits into a certain slot they want to be in. I’ve known some bands that are super-aware of Pitchfork and a lot of really tastemaker blogs, and I feel like they almost make music to go on there. But I’ve never felt that way as a songwriter.”
While Rooney experiment with new sounds on Washed Away – the album’s anthemic lead single, “My Heart Beats 4 U,” boast a sporty, stadium-ready beat that has more in common with Gary Glitter or Queen than with the Beach Boys – they’re still the Bait Shop band that California girls, and boys, have loved for years.
Watch two Rooney comeback performances in Yahoo Music’s SXSW living room, along with Schwartzman’s back-porch interview in which he discusses The O.C., his famous family (he’s a Coppola, brother to Jason Schwartzman, and son of Talia Shire), and the making of Washed Away.