Denver singer-songwriter Rob Roper didn’t really get serious about music until his mid-thirties; up until then, he’d spent a good chunk of his life as a radical political activist, attending meetings, organizing marches and rallies, and handing out leaflets.
At one point Roper, now 67, decided he wanted to see what kind information the FBI had on him, so he submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
“I thought, ‘What the hell?'" he recalls. “I wrote out of curiosity, and I got a stack of files. It’s actually kind of scary to read them, on the one hand, but on the other hand, it’s funny. I joined a group called the Young Socialist Alliance when I was a freshman in college, and I didn't really know anything. I was hardly a leader or activist or anything at that time; I was just reading a lot. I wrote a letter to the editor, and there it is in the FBI files.
“It showed that they talked to all my teachers at the community college where I was going, asking, ‘Is this guy dangerous?,’" he continues. "The funny thing was, the organization I was in was scrupulously legal. They didn't want to use any kind of illegal drugs or anything. They didn't want to give them any excuse to arrest us.”
One teacher characterized him as "an idealistic young man" who would "eventually come around and work within acceptable parameters,” he says. And after years of activism, Roper, who moved to Denver in 2000, went to work in the world of information technology. In the video for “Metadata (We’re Watching You)," the lead single off his new rock-oriented album, The Way, pages from his FBI file appear while he sings out against the ongoing invasion of privacy in our world.
The Way drops on Tuesday, November 9; Roper will play a release show on Friday, November 12, at Herman's Hideaway.
Most of the album's fifteen songs were written before 2018; “Metadata (We’re Watching You)" was penned not long after Edward Snowden leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency in 2013. Roper had been listening to a lot of doom and stoner metal and Sonic Youth at the time, and he came up with some creepy and ominous music to fit the lyrics.
“The fun part about writing that was that I wrote it in character,” Roper says. “I wrote it from the NSA’s point of view. It's kind of fun to be the bad guy.”
Companies collect data on people for a reason — to manipulate and control, he says — "and at the most...it's to manipulate you into buying products you wouldn’t normally want to buy or need, on a purely commercial level. But it's been shown that they also use it to manipulate in the political arena, which is, of course, way more dangerous."
When the pandemic forced the shutdown of music venues around the country last year and Roper’s rock band, Electric Poetry, and his acoustic band, Scupanon, were in the process of breaking up, he focused his attention on The Way. He teamed up with mixer and co-producer Jeff Kanan to make the album at Kanan’s studio, The Keep, with drummer Ryan Elwood, guitarist Dave Preston, bassist Ryan Watts and Big Head Todd & the Monsters keyboardist Jeremy Lawton. Roper’s voice teacher, Molly Zackary, and her friend Marissa Russo helped with the backing vocals.
The album opens with a mid-tempo rocker before ramping things up considerably on “Mama Had a Mohawk,” which features fiery guitar solos from Brent Loveday, frontman for local punk band Reno Divorce. The song dates back to 2008; Roper wrote it after hearing punk rock on the jukebox at his neighborhood bar.
“I looked around, trying to figure out who put it on,” Roper says. “I walked over to this young guy and started talking to him. He said his mom was a first-generation punk rocker and she had a blue mohawk. I’m thinking to myself, 'Wow, I can't even imagine that.’ I did the math. ‘Okay, it's now 2008. Punk rock was in the early ’80s. The math works.’ I went home and made up a story for this kid and his parents and his life. It was one of those songs I wrote in ten minutes; it just flowed like a short story.”
While Roper’s a fan of punk bands like the Clash — "When I heard the Clash’s first album, it was just like, ‘Whoa!’ It was political and it was raw,” he says — he also looked to ’80s new-wave acts like the Church and the Cure when writing songs for The Way.
The album's two instrumentals —“The Cure Goes Surfing” and “Everything’s Going to Be Alright” — were consciously inspired by the Cure, he says. The guitars on both cuts are soaked in an ’80s-type chorus effect, with Roper playing riffs up and down one string à la Cure frontman Robert Smith. He was laughing when he wrote “The Cure Goes Surfing,” he explains, “because the idea of Robert Smith on a surfboard just seemed hilarious.”
Roper nods to the church on the title track and “I Didn’t Believe,” which was inspired by a former co-worker who was a Christian fundamentalist.
“She said, ‘All it takes to go to heaven is you must accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior,'” Roper says. “I said, 'That’s it, huh? What you do doesn't matter? Like, you could be a rapist or a murderer, you could rob people or beat on people, but as long as the person accepts Christ as their personal savior, they go to heaven?,' and she says, ‘That's right.’”
Roper, who was raised Catholic and later became an atheist, recalls asking the woman: “'Let’s say someone’s an atheist, but they're kind, compassionate. They don't beat on people and they don't rob people or anything like that, but because they're an atheist, they're going to hell?' She says, ‘That's right.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’
“So now I'm really nervous,” he goes on. “Like, am I going to meet God and say, 'Sorry, dude, I didn't believe in you’? And then God says, ‘Ah, don't worry about it. You know the way those Christians behave. You know, I've been an atheist, too.’ Turns out all the believers are in hell and all atheists are in heaven. I thought that'd be kind of a funny, satirical, sarcastic approach to that issue.”
Just before the start of the pandemic, Roper retired from the tech world to devote most of his time to music. He sees it as more of a beginning than an ending. “People say, ‘You're retired full-time?' But it doesn't feel like I've retired," he says. "It just means I don't have to work at a day job anymore.”
Rob Roper & the Lost Dreams play an album-release show with Luke Schmaltz, the Wendy Woo Band and Brent Loveday & the Dirty Dollars at 7 p.m. Friday, November 12, at Herman's Hideaway, 1578 South Broadway. Tickets are $12-$15 at eventbrite.com.