Although he hails from the West Coast, not the Midwest, Robert Schwartzman began his music career where many of our featured musicians do: in school. As lead singer of the SoCal power-pop band Rooney, he’s spent the past decade balancing several different gigs – college, acting (The Princess Diaries), singing, and songwriting.
Unlike many of our featured musicians, he’s a member of one of Hollywood’s most famous families: the son of actress Talia Shire (Rocky), the brother of actor/musician Jason Schwartzman (Phantom Planet, Coconut Records), Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew, and Nicolas Cage’s cousin, to name a few. The band hit its first big break in 2004, guest-starring on an episode of The OC.
Needless to say, Rooney has avoided some of the financial setbacks facing most college musicians, but Schwartzman and his band mates have worked hard to get to where they are today. He recently took some time out while promoting Rooney’s new album, Eureka, to answer a few of our questions about college, life decisions, and the business of music.
Rooney came together when you were still a student. How did you balance schoolwork and music?
Well, my high school academic life struggled more from starting a band than my college years. Rooney started [when I was in high school]. It was definitely a distraction and affected my grades. Not just any grades – it was my junior and senior years, so they were the grades that count! I was accepted to Eugene Lang College at the New School in New York City. I wanted to be in a big city and I had friends out there. I was always writing and demo-ing songs, so I brought all my equipment to college. I also played in a band in New York called Dopo Yume with some friends.… I actually did pretty well in college despite my “passion distraction.”
Although I moved, Rooney stayed together, and I flew home once a month to perform in LA. I spent most of my time at Eugene Lang writing songs in my dorm room. I sent new demos home to my band mates, and they learned the songs while I was away. We were able to work up new material from across the country.
You left college early, though, right? What happened after that?
I broke the news to my mom that I was leaving school and heading back to L.A. to pursue my musical career, a decision she still disagrees with. I’m not sure it was the right decision, [but Rooney] got signed a few months after I left school and found a manager and made our first album in the summer of 2002. It all happened pretty quickly once I left college, but we had already put in the years prior to that and had a good buzz in LA – a big city with many labels. We were lucky at that time, to get a good deal and label support.
Did school help you in any way with music?
Learning is always important, no matter what you choose to do with your life. It always helps to know more and to bring new ideas into your life and creative self. I wanted to go to school to study subjects that I had an interest in and to connect them to my writing. I wanted to meet new people and have new life experiences. Living in a new city and being exposed to interesting subjects and people was very inspiring. I also wanted to make my parents happy.
What kinds of classes did you take?
I studied philosophy, media, and journalism, but I took a music business class at UCLA once I got back to LA. I needed some background info on the business I was entering. The first thing I learned and still remember is, “What is the first thing on every executive’s mind? Keep your job!” And it’s so true … it’s not about the music or helping artists you work with. It’s every man or woman for him or herself.
It sounds like your time at college really broadened your horizons. Did you ever consider leaving your California music projects behind and pursuing another career entirely?
I thought about focusing on acting and starting a new music life in NYC, but I missed my band mates and I missed the musical life that I started in high school.
What is your advice to college students who might just play in a band part-time but want to make it a career after graduation?
Well, [this is] the reason I said I’m not so sure it was a good idea that I left Eugene Lang for Rooney. I don’t believe in regrets. I think we have to own the decisions we make and learn from them … not waste time regretting them … although it’s hard to let go of certain things. I’ve seen so many bands nowadays that are having success right out of college or having success while at college and continuing it as a post-grad pop career. I’m lucky to have met great musicians that I share things in common with at a young age, but I wonder what my life would be like had I stayed in school and met new musicians there … [if I had] let go of Rooney.
What do you think would have been different?
I would have been older, maybe less eager to jump into bed with the first girl I saw. Maybe I would have taken more risks and been more protective of certain decisions. I’m really not sure what my life would be like had I stayed in school, but I do miss having had a real college education. I do what I can and I work hard at what I do. I try to ask as many questions as I can to wise people in the music business. I can truly say that I’ve learned through experience. But, hey, there’s always time for school, right?
Right. Now, about the new album: what can longtime fans expect to hear that makes it different from your past work?
People say [Eureka] sounds more mature, which I agree with. It’s a step in the right direction for us – not only as an album, but how we made the album and how we’re releasing it. It was made in my home studio, and it’s coming out on our own label [California Dreaming Records]. It’s how we’ve been wanting to do things and how we did things years ago, and now we have the opportunity [again]. It was only a matter of time. The album is honest and exciting and it sonically defeats all our previous albums. We produced and engineered this album, so it’s really exciting to have gotten a solid result … in my garage. The album is diverse, and it shows the different things we do as a band. We all have different musical interests, some more similar than others. Eureka sounds like Rooney, but the songs are better and we’ve grown in many ways.
Since you’re an expert, what unsigned or up-and-coming bands do you think we should check out?
Thanks for taking a few minutes to talk to us. Any final thoughts for your White City fans?
Love Chicago!!! Best music fans around!!! All I can say is I love playing in Chicago, and it’s always a highlight on tour.
Eureka is out June 8, and Rooney will play the House of Blues with Hanson on August 13 (tickets are $30 and can be purchased at Ticketmaster).