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the insider: robert schwartzman

the rooney frontman's new project is intergalactically cool.

by: steff yotka

photo by zoey grossman

September 30 2013

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After spending 30 minutes with Robert Schwartzman, I was convinced there was nothing he couldn't do. You probably know him as the frontman of Rooney--his high school band that made it big opening for Weezer--but his new project, Starsystem, is going to introduce you to a whole new side of his abilities. He wrote, recorded, played on and sung the tracks on Starsystem's EP Pleasure District (out October 8), wrote a comic book as a visual component of the project, created an iPhone app on the side, and is contemplating a medical degree. But I guess you can't expect anything less than high hopes from a member of one of Hollywood's most famous entrepreneurial families--that'd be the Coppolas, FYI.

I got the chance to sit down with Schwartzman one-on-one to discuss Starsystem's new groovy sound and what he aspires to be as a musician. What I learned is that he loves funk, obsesses over singing well, and could double as an inventor on the side. Oh, and he's not so great at breakdancing, but he knows some guys who are... Just check out the premiere of the video for "Our Love" below for proof. Read on, press play, and get ready to groove.

Hey Robert, what inspired this new direction for you musically?

I'm just having a really fun time being able to play around with music in my studio. I guess it's all this sort of discovery time, and I think new projects can have a certain innocence to them. I remember starting Rooney, there was a certain innocence of making mistakes, trying things, and stumbling into things, which I think is such a cool period. With this project it's in that phase where everything is fun, new, and I'm trying new things. Even visually, I've always really loved the universe, astrophysics, and been interested in things like time travel and science fiction ideas, so it's fun to explore that. There's a certain identity of this project with all this imagery, and it's just fun for it to be so early in the stages that you can write the story. 

It's not too precious, in a way. 
Yeah, I think as things go further and they get more real to yourself and others it can sometimes become less fun and less creative. It's been really fun. When I work I just go in the studio and I bring in sounds and loops, and start singing random melodies. As I go I'm chiseling away at this block of stone to find the shape. It's kind of like working backwards musically, but the whole time I feel so excited about what's happening musically. 

This new project feels very different from Rooney, more electronic, more dance-y...
I did this residency shows at this place in L.A. called the Satellite, once a week in May. I thought right away there was such a great positive anergy in the room. Right away, from the first kick drum, people started dancing. It's a good feeling when that's what you intended to happen. Hopefully the grooves come across. 

What would be your ideal venue to play the new songs in?
Visually I'd like to do a lot with the show. Big or small, if you're playing for people who are passionate about what you're doing, it's always a good time. It's so fun to play a packed club because you're right there and you're connected with everybody. When the production goes up and you can do more in a live atmosphere, more lights, smoke, props, and things, then you enter a new phase where you can dream up any scenario on stage. The visual side of things is so important, and I think when you go to a bigger show you expect an experience. I'm excited to hopefully get to that point with this project. 

What science fiction do you dig?
There'a magazine called Galaxy magazine, it was a science fiction discovery magazine. They would feature new books that were coming out. It goes back to the 1940s. It's very cool looking magazine in terms of the artists who did the covers. It was so early on in scientific discovery and these were people who were inventing the imagery. I really respect those artists, you should go back and Google Galaxy magazine. That imagery was really inspiring for this project, it's this retro sci-fi thing. As far as books, there's a book called The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, and, again, the cover is really great and it's a really cool book. I've been writing this comic book that goes with this project, and I'm working with an illustrator on developing the series of comics. We're in episode one right now, and there are a lot of words and things that are pulled from an imaginative sci-fi, fantasy world. It's been fun to name the characters, and name what they call fuel, and the names of the planets. For me creatively, it's been a lot of fun to come at this from all there different perspectives. 

What bands or sounds were you inspired by?
I've definitely been listening to a lot of late '70s, '80s, and '90s funk, soul, and R&B music. What I really love about that music is that I'm really into certain bass grooves--I think a bass line is so cool and can be so key. When I listen to really great bass players I find it to be really moving, so I've been trying to focus n bass lines and how the bass sits in these songs. I love playing the bass. I also find Starsystem to be different from what I like to listen to a lot. I love rock'n'roll, like '60s and '70s rock, chord-y music with exciting arrangements, but for Starsystem I want to go in a different direction. 

How do you get in the zone for a performance?
I warm up a lot. I sing warm ups before and I do a warm down after the show. That's it as far as routines go. The only thing I obsess about is wanting to sing really well. I get really down if I feel like I didn't do a good job vocally. It really takes me out of a fun mood. I hope that the most technical things work--that's step one--and I want to be able to not lose my voice and sing the best that I can, and be able to sings the next night, and the next night, and the next one. I want to be able to play as much as I can and not feel held back physically. 

When did you feel that music was your passion? Like it was what you were meant to do?
I always liked making things. I used to make inventions when I was in elementary school. I made this thing that was a rope that would go next to my bed, and I would put my clothes for the next day on a hanger and they would slide to the bed. So, I liked music right away because I could record it--it felt like inventing something. I liked being able to write a song, record it that night, bring it to school and play it for my friends during lunch the next day. It was instantaneous. I kind of stumbled into music a little bit later in high school. My brother had a band and I would go see him play. I was really into it, but I never was like, "I want to be like that." I was pretty shy, and I never thought I'd sing on stage, but when it was my song I felt a little different about it. 

Your family is so creative, did you ever want to rebel and be an accountant or something?
My dad's brother was a doctor, very respected and intelligent. I've always loved medicine and science, and there are times when I want to go back to school and study medicine. I think it would be so fun to have that background. 

Doctors know everything, really. 
Yeah, and I think that just having information is great. I like talking to people who have a lot of knowledge, and I think anyone who excels in a certain subject is interesting to spend time with because I just want to know about what they are masters of. I love being able to go to school or take continuing education classes. I love school! Homework, I was never good at, but being in the moment. 

If you could create a super group out of any musicians living or dead, who would you put in your group?
I was watching some John Lennon footage of the Give Peace a Chance stuff, where he did his bed rebellion, where they would grow their hair out and stay in bed. I am always so moved when I hear him talk. He's just such a cool artist and I love him, so I'd put him in the band. I really love Bernard Purdie, he was a big session drummer. His thing is "The Purdie Shuffle." I love Verdine White, he's the bass player of Earth, Wind, and Fire. He's one of the best bass players. For guitar players, I don't know. I kind of like people who play minimal stuff, but... Prince. Can I put Prince in the band? Prince would definitely be in the band. The Pointer Sisters would be singing harmonies, roo. 

You're working on a new app too, right?
Yes, I've been working on this app called TwentyTwo. We set out to make an app to help musicians connect in a more personal way with their fans. We're targeting a lot of indie bands. It's an audio sharing app where you can connect with people by sharing messages. So you can record new song ideas and send it out to your followers. I was in my hotel room recording from my bed [plays recording] and then fans can reply, for example this girl messaged me back form the Philippines. I find it to be a more special way to connect with fans. 

Tell me about your new video for "Our Love."
I always envisioned break dancers while I was recording this song. I tried some moves of my own in the studio, but I'll leave it to the professionals. I love old school dancers, music, and the whole package, so it's cool to hear "Our Love" against this footage. This video pays tribute to these amazing break dancers.

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