When talking about his various musical projects — including his solo project Ronnie Rogers, which released a new album March 1 — the St. Louis-based singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist tends toward succinct, straightforward answers. He’s not the type to ramble on in search of a story that isn’t there, and he doesn’t seem predisposed to mining his works for hidden meaning.
When asked which instrument he’s most proficient at playing, for example, he has a very practical response.
“Well, I’ve made money playing bass,” he says. “I guess that’s a thing.”
That’s not terribly surprising, perhaps, given that O’Neill, 28, attended Southern Illinois University’s school of music to study jazz performance with a focus on the upright bass, performing in jazz and classical settings for a while. But he also had a deeply embedded love of rock & roll from his time as a high school kid. The son of a military man, he soon became a home-recording enthusiast during his time in Germany.
“I had friends there that did it and that was my gateway into DIY. I was like, ‘Yeah, that seems like fun,’” he says. “All the songs were recorded terribly and the songs were messy and bad. I found a CD a while back of my old music and it was pretty embarrassing. But it was still cool that I did it, I guess.”
O’Neill played in the jazz band at school, but he also played in hardcore and folk-punk bands with friends, and they’d take a train to nearby towns to play shows. It was a formative experience for an American teenager who’d grown up listening to mainstream country and classic rock.
“I got to travel a bunch,” he says, “and that was really my introduction to playing rock shows.”
Fast forward a few years, and O’Neill’s rock spirit reawakened when he met his friend Josiah Joyce, who plays guitar in Old Souls Revival and also alongside O’Neill in Ronnie Rogers. The two formed a band called Early Worm, and O’Neill has been writing and recording mostly indie rock ever since. (In addition to Ronnie Rogers, he plays drums in the fast-rising band Shady Bug, guitar and drums in Isabel Rex and bass in A Leaf in the Street.)
“I think I always wanted to focus on rock more because it’s a more immediate term of expression, I guess. I feel like it’s just easier to get your music across because there’s more people [who are into it],” he says. “Jazz is such a niche thing. It’s got a lot of preconceived things that come with it. Even just writing songs is much easier with a guitar and standard harmonies and some friends. Not everyone plays jazz, but everyone can figure something out on rock instruments.”
That pretty much sums up Ronnie Rogers, which was named — not after the ‘70s country musician — during a manic weekend of recording last year that resulted in a fine debut album called Death of a Dumb Guy
, released in May. Its eight songs are fuzzy and catchy and tightly wound, with gleaming keyboard lines, pretty acoustic guitar parts snuggled up against spoken word samples and motorik rhythms chugging along under airy melodies. Shady Bug vocalist Hannah Rainey sings on a few songs, including the twangy “Dreamer Kid,” which lopes along like an indie-pop band playing old-timey music.
While not necessarily a staple of indie rock, twang is a foundational element of Ronnie Rogers’ sound, O’Neill says.
“I grew up listening to Garth Brooks and Kansas and stuff. I love American music, so I try to get a little of that in there,” he says. “Compared to a lot of my other bands, I think Ronnie Rogers has more of that kind of old music influence — rock & roll, country, soul music. It’s not super apparent but it’s definitely a big part of my DNA.”
O’Neill’s new album under the Ronnie Rogers name is called Denim Jacket Weather
, and it’s a significant step forward from its predecessor. Its nine songs are more muscular and more precisely arranged without losing their unrefined charm. The twang remains, but it’s threaded subtly through songs like “Yankee” and “Leaning On.” The bent guitar strings in “Mantra” recall early Modest Mouse, the leisurely electric guitars of “So Bright” compare favorably to Stephen Malkmus’ work in Pavement and “Angels” is a flat-out rocker, with crunchy riffs and a zigzag at the end that brings to mind the band Sebadoh.
Lyrically, O’Neill describes the songs thusly: “I think they’re about defeat, probably. Kind of depressing but then also trying to keep a little humor in there, too, so it’s not just all depressing.”
Perhaps the biggest upgrade on Denim Jacket Weather
, however, is the sheer sound quality, thanks in large part to the efforts of recording engineer Zach Schimpf.
“Zach is really comfortable to work with. He is a very understated and quiet kind of guy who really knows his stuff, like where to place microphones, how to mix things, when to add things and when not to,” O’Neill says. “He’s just the full package and he’s really easy to work with.”
Did you catch it? There’s that word again: understated. It speaks to O’Neill’s entire approach to his own music, from his decision to quietly release Denim Jacket Weather just days before Shady Bug’s much-buzzed Lemon Lime
to his future plans for Ronnie Rogers.
“It’s just a fun project that I’ll probably continue to do till whenever, I guess,” he says. “I hope to record another album before Zach moves [to California later this year]. We’ll see.”
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Aaron O’Neill is an understated guy.