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Robert Schwartzman tells us about Rooney's new EP and his favorite places in New York

By Chandra Johnson
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L.A. band Rooney may have started on the west coast, but their roots lie on the other side of the country in New York City (specifically Twelfth and Thirteenth Avenues). Fun fact: During the band’s early stages, frontman Robert Schwartzman wrote most of Rooney's first record from his doorm room at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. 

Yet, while the singer and songwriter was shaping the band (and his career) in New York, his mind was in L.A., which is why Schwartzman dropped out of college to pursue Rooney full-time in the city of angels. (Spoiler: It paid off.) 

Since then, Rooney has been making feel-good, catchy guitar music for more than ten years, and Schwartzman himself has been busy outside of Rooney making music under other monikers, creating apps and releasing his first feature film: Dreamland.

After hearing him talk about his staggered schedule between filmmaking and music, we’re shocked he took the time to sit down with us before the band's Bowery Ballroom headlining show earlier this month. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Schwartzman, it’s that even with an insane work schedule, he still remains genuine to himself and the fans. Now, with the release of Rooney’s latest EP El Cortez (out today!), we sat down with Schwartzman to discuss the early 2000s music scene, filmmaking and the best parts of New York.

Can you tell us about your ties to New York and where you like to go when you're in the city? 
My dad is from Brooklyn, and my mom is from Long Island, so I feel like my roots are in New York. I don’t feel like an L.A. guy in New York. I just feel like I’m here, as if I would be at home. I love Prodigy Coffee. I go to Magnolia Bakery and get banana pudding—I eat a lot of sweets here. I eat like shit in New York. I always go to this sushi place called Takahachi. It’s on Avenue A—it’s the best.

With the release of Lizzy Goodman’s oral history book, Meet Me In The Bathroom, I was curious to hear your perspective on having a band during the early 2000s music scene?
I had a L.A. band, and there was a L.A. music scene that not a lot of people talked about. There was an L.A. equivalent to the New York side of things, which were [bands like] Phantom Planet, Rilo Kiley, Rooney, and The Like.

Half of those are Schwartzman bands. [Referring to Rob’s brother Jason Schwartzman]
Yeah, we were both in L.A. bands. And, of course, Flowers, who later became Maroon 5, were a part of that group. Everyone would play every weekend, and we would draw really good crowds. Everyone got record deals. Then all of a sudden, The Strokes came on the scene and they got all over the radio. They were the darlings of the press. It was kind of a wake-up call for all of these L.A. bands—everyone started to second-guess themselves when The Strokes came out because they were cool. They seemed like badasses, and everyone in L.A. was making this power-pop music. [Think Weezer, The Rentals, or Super Drag]. Whereas New York bands were like the cool guys, like The Velvet Underground. And bands in L.A. were like The Cars. 

These are all very derivative bands. If you’re a bunch of guys with tight jeans and a guitar, you’re going to sound like someone. It doesn’t mean you can’t write great songs, but you’re inspired by some other band. The most original music today is probably electronic or hip-hop on some level. If you listen to hip-hop, it’s probably the most inventive, experimental music today. There were bands in the early 2000s that I think sort of opened a little bit of a door for bands who didn’t make this cliché pop music. Rooney never fit into a category that easily. We always had to duke it out. We had to get press to take notice, or get the radio to really take notice of us, or get TV to really embrace us. I would stay up late at night watching MTV waiting for “Blue Side” to be played. I was so stoked when we got on the playlist.

Was that such a surreal experience or no?
No, it was so surreal! I’m still giddy when I hear our song out there. People sometimes get it wrong—they think Rooney had this red carpet rollout, but it’s never been that smooth. It’s because we don’t sound like bands who go on Warped Tour, and we don’t sound like The Strokes. I just feel like with Rooney, I always remember just having to push or try to find an angle to help us reach an audience.

How do you tap into that sense of nostalgia, while trying to be current?
I just don’t even think about it, to be honest. We put Washed Away out last year. I worked on it for a long time, and was really excited about it. I scrutinized every little note and mixed everything, so I put the same attention to detail into that record as I did the first record. With El Cortez [the band’s new EP], I put a lot of love into that. I’m not in the studio thinking too much about what Rooney fans like. I go with this gut feeling that if I’m liking it, and reacting positively to it, then I think it will evoke the same feeling in the listener. And I’m not consciously going into it like, ‘Oh I don’t care if people like this, I’ll do whatever I want.’ I’m just trying to make good music.

So would you say the new EP itself is an extension of Washed Away or something else entirely?
It’s the beginning of something new because there are some songs on it that I had floating around for a little while that I never really stepped up and recorded them. 

How do you balance all of your creative projects? Is there something you extract and apply to both film and music, or do you keep them separate entities?
They’re separate. I love doing Rooney. I am excited to work on new projects that fall outside of music because I’ve always wanted to do other projects other than having a band and touring. Part of taking time off from Rooney was to feel what it would be like to have time to do other things. When you’re on the road and only doing one project all the time, it starts to weigh on you a little bit. I really want to pursue film, and the only way to do that is to make time to do it. Taking time away from Rooney was how I was able to write the script for Dreamland.  

Would you do another film?
I just wrapped another feature. We’re going to announce it soon. I really loved making Dreamland and working with the actors, crew, my family and friends. I studied filmmaking and editing growing up. Before I started Rooney, I wanted to be a director and pursue filmmaking—and I did go to film school. That was my dream, but then I started writing songs and realized I love making music—it feels like filmmaking. Then I thought I could bring music into film, and that’s where these worlds have intersected for me. I’d love to find a way to write music for other projects I make.

What’s coming up next?
I really just want to stay consistent with these projects. I really like doing Rooney, so I want to keep that project alive. It’s a challenge. We make music on our own dime. We promote it in-house. We book our own tours and promote them, and we do all the socials and fan reach. It’s a big undertaking to be an artist like that today. It’s really rewarding. It’s equally fulfilling and scary. I would only stop doing it if people just weren’t interested anymore.

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