LOS ANGELES – It was hard to tell who was having more fun at Longwave’s show at the Troubadour in December – the fans or the band. The indie rockers, decked out in the vintage boots and fitted black attire of their hip Brooklyn neighborhood, were playing moody, symphonic music more appropriate for breaking up than rocking out, but they were decidedly lighthearted. During one swooning number from the band’s fourth album, “Secrets Are Sinister,” singer/guitarist Steve Schiltz paused to playfully tap one of drummer Jason Molina’s cymbals with his finger before unleashing a fierce guitar solo. The band’s high spirits were contagious, and the crowd cheered mightily and sang along to old favorites, even playing air drums from time to time.
It was a remarkably warm welcome for Longwave’s first LA show in five years, especially heartening for a band that didn’t know for a while if it would ever perform again. On a morale-crushing night in December 2005, Longwave played to a meager audience at the Middle East Downstairs after learning RCA Records had dropped them. “The last show in Boston was the real nail in the coffin there for a second,” says Schiltz, whose unruly curls give him a boyish air, sitting with his bandmates in an unassuming conference room the night before their Los Angeles show. “That show was tough for us, and I remember thinking, ‘. . . This is just the end of it.’ ”
But, as sometimes happens, this downturn didn’t kill the band; it actually made it stronger. At the Troubadour, the mop-topped quartet played harder, faster, and louder than they did during more elegiac shows of the past. It was as if they’d been liberated by the time when they were lucky to play for a handful of people at shows booked mostly to pay down their debt. When the band did dip into old material, including the ballad “Wake Me When It’s Over” from its 2003 major label debut, “The Strangest Things,” it roughed up the songs’ refined beauty.
This brashness has carried over from the new, more raw “Secrets Are Sinister,” released in November. The band recorded the album on its own with producer Peter Katis (Interpol), with production costs covered by the band’s longtime publisher, Chrysalis Music Publishing, before finding a label to release it. When it came time to find a label, Longwave again chose to work with a friend, who convinced the group to sign with the newly formed label Original Signal Recordings (Butch Walker, the Bronx ). The band returned to the studio with a fresh sense of possibility. “We were all excited about trying something else,” Schiltz says, citing production details such as adding hand claps or changing out the bass strings.
Each band member brought ideas inspired by projects he had worked on during Longwave’s downtime. Schiltz had the chance to experiment with a grittier, more flamboyant guitar style while backing Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. during solo tours. Founding guitarist Shannon Ferguson and drummer Molina developed a side project, Falcon, whose minimal sound seems to have contributed to Longwave’s new airier feel. New bassist Morgan King was recruited from Brooklyn-based indie rock band Robbers on High Street, bringing a muscular but melodic bass style.
For all the fresh influences, Longwave’s new album still maintains the lush romanticism the band has always favored. Longtime fan Damian Kulash of Los Angeles-based OK Go, which plays the Paradise on March 12 before taking Longwave out as openers on a string of East Coast dates, says Longwave’s deeply felt music sets the band apart. “The type of music they do would have been really cool in the early ’90s, but was not particularly cool when they started doing it,” says Kulash by phone during a break from recording a new record. “It seems to me like it fits again in some way – actually beautiful music, and music with a soul, as opposed to music with a snarl or a grimace.”
Having learned the hard way that major label support and years of touring don’t guarantee success in an increasingly mercurial music world, the band is keeping its expectations low. But its members are clearly thrilled to be a band again. “We decided that it was still fun playing together,” says Schiltz. “At that point, it was like, ‘Well, what do you do next but make another record?’ That’s what bands do.”