Backstage at the 2012 Westword Music Showcase, Alex Anderson was getting ready to play with his two bands, ManCub and Flashlights, and trying to suppress a rising panic attack. "I had never been that anxious," remembers Anderson. He and Ethan Converse were about to do two sets, first as ManCub, then as Flashlights. This arrangement, in which they literally just switched gear and positions on stage, had been playing out for a while. Both had lost bandmates and decided to help each other out. The projects didn't sound very similar -- ManCub was noise pop, Flashlights chillwave -- but they made it work. Or, at least, they sort of made it work. But the strain was getting to them both, and the Showcase sets weren't the best for either. "What the fuck are we doing?" Anderson thought, sitting in the summer heat, his heart racing from the stress. "This is too much."
Both quit each other's projects shortly after that hot, frustrating day. The name Flashlights was changed to Flash/Lights after a cease-and-desist order from another act of the same name, and it wasn't long before Converse decided to scrap the band entirely. ManCub, Anderson's group, played its last show at the Denver Post Underground Music Showcase in 2013.
"We were both doing really good things with both projects," Anderson recalls, "but it was really tough on both our spirits. When you play 65 local shows a year, that wears on you."
After all that, the two took a break from music, realizing they were both "pretty fucking unhappy," Anderson says. They had tried the DIY route, the industry route, the "I want to be the biggest band in Denver" route, and had poured all of their energy into trying to make it. While there were moments of success, the experience of it all left them spent and feeling as though they had failed.
A short time after the final ManCub show, the two got together to play music again, but just casually, and without any specific goals in mind. One hot afternoon in late summer 2013, they couldn't even manage to do that, so Anderson suggested that they head down to the public pool in his neighborhood. There the two found themselves discussing their big-picture musical goals with an ease that hadn't been there before.
Converse decided that he just needed a place to "outlet his soul," says Anderson, who for his part wanted a project where he could "push the boundaries." Most of all, they wanted to learn to have fun making music again -- something that felt long forgotten. "'How do we have fun again?'" Converse says. "That's been the motto of our history and this project. 'What's going to make this feel fun and inspiring?'"
Regular trips to the pool soon became part of their creative process. They combined Anderson's love of punk with Converse's chillwave tendencies and formed Rose Quartz, an electro-pop band that, while bordering on experimental, never strays far from a dance-heavy beat. The music is partly joyous, partly contemplative, with Converse's breathy vocals expressing his deepest emotions and stream-of-consciousness thoughts. While it is a new phase for Converse and Anderson, the remnants of all their past troubles seep through. Converse describes it as "darker and heavier than anything we have done or will do again, for better or worse. We had some shit to get off our chests."
Still, they've maintained their focus on having fun, using a simple question they still ask themselves constantly: Is it better than swimming?
The answer, mostly, has been yes. While the music may be darker, the process has been a blast. "We learned how to tee each other up for fun," says Anderson. "I can write chords in a way that, when Ethan comes in, he'll immediately want to sing."
"We take it all seriously," says Converse. "But it's easy to forget that you love music for the sake of music."
After opening for STRFKR in Aspen in the summer of 2014 and seeing how much more fun those guys were having with a full band, Converse and Anderson spent the drive home recruiting two additional members, Clay Cornelius and Matt Tanner. Just two months later, they opened for Cut Copy in their first show as a full band.
They've made strides in the industry, as well, signing with management company Holy Undergound and joining the ranks of Red Bull's Sound Select Artists. The affiliation with Red Bull has been particularly fruitful for Rose Quartz, taking the band to L.A., where it opened for Future Islands at a venue with a 2,000-person capacity, and providing free studio time with other Sound Select artists. Opting for a corporate sponsorship instead of signing with a label or going the DIY route can be a controversial option for bands, but Anderson and Converse have been grateful for the experience so far.
"Red Bull has teed up more opportunities for us and for other people to pay attention," Anderson says.
"They are our opportunity to develop," adds Converse. "They [take] no creative control. They're building a platform for us to jump off of."
But while Red Bull Sound Select has set up some big opportunities for the two musicians, the company hasn't changed their lives. "We know it's inspiring and also not real," says Converse. "We're just getting started, and we still can't pay rent playing music. Our eyes are still on figuring out our finances, planning it six months down the line. We're not jet-setting for fun."
Maybe not, but thanks to a summer spent at the pool, the two have figured out how to have fun with music again. On the Rose Quartz Instagram account, you'll find a photo of Converse in a hot tub at a Hollywood hotel with the hashtag #swimacrosstheworld. "We're not trying to make it anymore," says Anderson. "We're just trying to have a good time."
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