by Joel Selvin
rocker Etienne de Rocher put five years of obsessive work into his first
album. It's paid off.
When he started in the music business, Etienne de Rocher didn't expect
to take so long making his first album. He has been about to release
"Etienne de Rocher" for something like five years. But after
spending the first four months in the studio working on a six-minute
song titled "Ghetto Zen Master" that didn't fit at all with
the other songs he wanted to record, time just stretched out ahead of
was a complicated record," says the 35-year-old singer-songwriter.
"It wasn't just guys playing it all at once. It was ideas, layers.
It took a lot of care and patience. I have this idea in my head and
I'm not happy until I'm at least close."
new artists get the luxury of spending years making their first record.
Perhaps more would if they could come out with an album as good as this
one. It is a poised, confident CD, the work of someone who has already
mastered his craft, not someone just starting out. Every tiny sound
on the exquisite 12-song album is perfectly embedded in the carefully
crafted music. It's a sound that is spare and open, yet dense and intricate
at the same time. Think Nick Drake produced by Peter Gabriel.
walk the line between complete abstraction, dreaminess and stark reality,"
de Rocher says in the living room of the tidy West Berkeley duplex he
shares with his wife and 2-month old son. A vinyl copy of Led Zeppelin's
"Houses of the Holy" sits on his turntable -- the large collection
of old albums belongs to his wife, he says -- and a bouquet of lilies
on the coffee table scents the room.
half of the rickety garage in back that goes with de Rocher's end of
the duplex is stuffed with gear -- a vintage clavinet on a stand, other
keyboards on shelves, an upright piano with the face removed and microphones
scientifically positioned, various instruments and recording equipment.
The narrow, confined space wouldn't hold an entire band, but de Rocher
recently finished producing an album there with another fine young local
songwriter, Sean Hayes. De Rocher likes to work small.
four-track demo he recorded in the basement of the Oakland apartment
building where he worked as custodian wound up in the hands of producer
Glen Ballard, a record-industry heavyweight responsible for, among other
successes, the multiplatinum debut of Alanis Morrisette. De Rocher almost
signed with Capitol Records, but backed out at the last minute.
got creeped out by the whole thing," he says. "They gave me
an offer and I just didn't jump at it. I wanted to produce my own records,
do my own thing. I didn't want to do it, so it fell apart. I got this
reputation as the dude that walked away.
it was up to me to do it on my own. Once you walk away from those cats,
they don't want anything to do with you."
started working regularly at hip San Francisco nightspots such as the
Cafe du Nord and Bruno's. But his band disintegrated when he lost his
drummer and longtime associate Andrew Borger to Tom Waits and then to
was left without a band and a bunch of songs I wanted to turn into a
record," he says.
started back in the basement. This time he was joined by producer Dan
Prothero, founder of San Francisco-based Fog City Records, an independent
label best known for New Orleans jam band Galactic and Florida acoustic
funk duo Mofro.
been approached by several producers," de Rocher says. "I
worked very hard on what my stuff sounded like, the vibe. They all wanted
to do their thing on my music. Dan liked what I'd done and wanted to
work with that."
Prothero, "We wanted to scratch at something different. That, I
think, is Etienne's goal. At the same time, we wanted something very
honest and those two things can be very difficult to reconcile. We needed
to hone in on something that was unique and yet be true to the person."
started in the basement by themselves. "It was kind of hard because
I didn't have a band and I was doing everything myself," de Rocher
Rocher slowly began to involve other musicians in the sessions; bassist
Todd Sickafoose, who had been playing with songwriter Noe Venable, and
drummer Todd Roper of Cake. Sessions moved to Cotati's Prairie Sun studios,
where the group produced a set of rhythm tracks. String players were
brought into the mix.
Rocher and Prothero retreated to a tin quonset hut in the Mission District
then called the Catacombs, where they painstakingly overdubbed, edited,
recorded and rerecorded. By fall 2002, they felt they might be close
to releasing at least a few tracks.
Rocher grew up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where his parents were both French
professors. His mother was French and his father a Michigan-raised Francophile,
which is where he came by the name. He resents people suggesting it
might be something he made up for the stage; he suffered too much grief
over the name growing up in the South. He came to UC Berkeley in 1987
as a physics honors student.
blew my mind," he says, "all the cool music, all the freaky
culture. I lasted three semesters. I changed majors from physics to
philosophy to art. I rolled downhill from the hard sciences."
was soaking up hip-hop -- Public Enemy and NWA was "what everyone
was listening to," he says. He started a garage band as a sideline
with drummer Borger. In 1997 he tried to combine his two musical loves
on a homegrown seven-inch single of his own, "Lazy Bones."
"It was just me with a sampler in my basement making weird beats,"
the UC Berkeley student radio station, played the record. Other local
musicians picked up on the track. "It put me on the map, de Rocher
took a copy of the single backstage at Oakland's Henry J. Kaiser Convention
Center to give to Beck, someone who was making some headway himself
at the time mixing hip-hop beats and alt-rock. The non-encounter lives
on in the second verse of de Rocher's "The Lizard Song." "I
don't feel shirked by him," says de Rocher, whom Beck ignored.
"I probably do that to people at shows, too."
de Rocher hardly qualifies as an unknown figure on the local rock scene,
he has been a spotty, almost shadowy presence. He has gone for long
periods without making any live performances at all. He doesn't have
a regular band, so every show features not just different musicians,
but entirely different configurations, depending on the nature of the
job and who is available.
always insulated myself," he says. "I don't play as much as
my friends or people want me to. When I do, I like it to be a special
thing. I work on building a set. It's not like I have a band and we
have a show. It's always a one-off.
after spending months in the Mission District studio, de Rocher and
Prothero weren't done. They took the record back to the basement where
it all started, where de Rocher slowly finished the record with Prothero
the way it began, by himself.
always been chasing a sound and an idea," de Rocher says, "to
the point where everything else becomes secondary. That's not an excuse,
but it helps explain why it's taken me so long, why I'm not so accessible.
I'm completely engrossed in the next leg of the journey."
understands. "He is ambitious, particular and thoughtful,"
the producer says. "If you're particular and ambitious, it's just
going to take you a long time."
lived through the golden era of hip-hop and watched independent rock
turn all "cute and niched out," de Rocher wonders what the
world will make of his record, which isn't even really being released
outside of a few local record stores until early next year (visit etiennederocher.com
for info on where to get the album).
music is nostalgic, sentimental and sort of baroque," he says.
"It's not a clean, modern sound that's increasingly empty to me.
I hear a lot of empty new music. Indie rock exists for what it's not.
What people like about it is what it's not. It's not this, it's not
know I have a long history of slogging away at this. Everything I care
about and wanted to do is in that record. Any sound we've been chasing
down is there. I know that's what you fall in love with -- the record.
It speaks for itself. A record can be sexy, loud, dangerous, weird.
It's all that you need to know. You don't need to see the video. You
don't need to read the book. You don't need to become an expert in the
band. That's what I love about records -- it's so visceral. All this
beauty and terror in the air. How can you beat something like that?"
Selvin (San Francisco Chronicle)