Life for a professional musician can be unpredictable, and Jeff Rouse knows this well from his years playing in bands such as Duff McKagan’s Loaded, Allen Crime Syndicate, and his solo project, To the Glorious Lonely. While on a break from Loaded, Rouse has been focused on a band he recently formed called The Guessing Game and is celebrating the release of Holy Crow, their debut album. While musical talent and hard work has afforded Rouse the ability to play with some of the greatest players in the business, The Guessing Game has given him something different. No other undertaking in his career has enabled him to stretch as a songwriter, exposing himself both musically and personally in ways he previously hadn’t. The Seattle-based, five-piece The Guessing Game is Rouse on vocals and guitar, Kathy Moore (Brad, Satchel) on guitar and vocals, Gary Westlake (Peter Frampton, Kristen Ward, Flight to Mars) on guitar, Keith Ash (Star Anna) on bass, and Shawn Zellar (Redneck Girlfriend) on drums. The Guessing Game sound is electrified Americana with a taste of power pop. But that description by itself would be limiting, as each member of the band brings a contribution born of influences ranging from heavy metal to gospel music.
“We’re doing this stuff on our own,” Rouse admits. “We made this record in three days. We paid for it ourselves. The point I’m trying to make is, I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe in it 100 percent.” Rouse had already written three or four of the songs for Holy Crow before the formation of what would eventually become The Guessing Game. The songs touch on a range of experiences that Rouse walked through in recent years, including divorce and his battles with substance abuse. Last year, when he had a break from other obligations and touring, he set out to form a band. “I found Gary, Shawn, Keith, and Kathy, and we started putting these songs together from the blueprints of the stuff I already had. And really quickly, it became something fantastic to me. It’s been really strange to put all that stuff out there, but I’m kind of an open book anyway. Warts and all, here it is.”
The vocal team of Rouse and Kathy Moore shines throughout the album. Where the Stars exemplifies their chemistry as a singing, guitar-strumming duo. “When I was putting together the band she was the last piece of the puzzle. We were working on some songs and she wasn’t in the band yet.” Rouse had wanted someone who could play guitar and piano and, in his words, “sing a little bit.” Moore exceeded expectations: “She came in and her energy and what she brought to the band—it solidified everything. She grew up in the church, but she’s just a firecracker. She’s a gospel Joan Jett or something. She can play guitar like none other, and then she opens her mouth and this voice comes out. Instantly I’m like, ‘Oh. This is going to be different than what I was thinking it was going to be. I want you to be singing a lot. Let’s trade off, back and forth.’”
Rouse says that writing songs for The Guessing Game has been cathartic. For Holy Crow, Rouse laid his heart and his truth on the line, without much concern on how other people would take it. “When I write it’s just a stream of consciousness and stuff just comes out. If people love it, great. There’s a lot of truth in all these songs.” The album’s opening track, Selling Heartache, is a reflection of Rouse’s earlier experience, and some would say naiveté, as a musician: “Having played music and touring since I was 18–and I’m 44 now– in 20 of those years I toured in a van, punk rock-style. I was with somebody, always trying to convince her and myself, like, ‘Hey, I can make this better. I can change. Maybe this music will be the answer. Maybe I’ll make some money.’ It’s that illusion that you have as a kid. I see the way the music industry is and been through it for so long. I’m completely fine and understand what it entails and what it takes and what you get out of it. But as a kid you have those dreams, like, ‘Man, if I could just sell this song I’ll be OK.’’
“Another Sunday Morning Regret was another one of those. It was around the same period of time and I looked back at it. I lived in bars, seven nights a week. And I remember sitting at a bar one night with my drummer at the time, wasted, thinking, ‘How can these bartenders do this? These stories that they have to hear.’ It was amazing to me. That song kind of comes from a different perspective. There’s a lot of truth in that song also, but I kind of put myself in the place of ‘God, what if I had to listen to these stories every night?’ It’s a hard life, for sure.” (As for) Dear God: “I put on this strong face all the time. You have to when you’re out on the road. If you let your guard down, a lot of times bad stuff comes. This year I had—for the first time in so many years—I started to have some time off. I’m kind of an early riser and I get up and have coffee and I’m wondering, God—I kind of felt, maybe, a little bit lost. It takes a little bit of time to acclimate to quietness, if that makes any sense. But in those moments there (are) just a lot of questions that I have. My life is great. But I do question a lot of things and I kind of wonder I didn’t grow up in the church. And sometimes I’m just wondering about a lot of things. Is there anybody listening to me? It’s just one of those songs as I started writing down the words I started to think to myself, ‘God, what am I writing?’ Sometimes it’s just this stream of consciousness. And that song came out of that. Putting ‘Dear God’ at the end of every one of those lines—I felt a little risky because I didn’t know how people would interpret that.
Explaining the origin of the album’s title, Holy Crow: “I’ve always loved that imagery. There’s something about it I’ve always loved. Crows. All that stuff. Gary Westlake, our guitar player, is Canadian. Canadians say ‘holy crow’ all the time. It’s their way of saying, ‘oh shit’ or ‘holy crap.’ Holy crow. And he would say that sometimes jokingly and I loved it. I’ve known Gary even way before this band started. We’ve been friends for a long time. And it was something we always said, jokingly, to each other. As the record came together and the songs took form, and we kind of got the track order together. Then it’s time to come up with that thing, the album title. He said ‘holy crow’ again, and just the imagery of that fit perfectly.”
Reflecting on the future, Rouse has a lot of options. “Loaded is something that I’ll always do. Duff has been there for me more than I could probably go into in this conversation. He’s truly my brother and has helped me through things. The cool thing about that band is it’s set up that we can do other stuff whenever we need to do it. We can go out a month or two a year and live this big rock thing, play huge stadiums and do all this stuff. And it still leaves me plenty of time to get my gagas out. I’ve found a great place in my life to get all this different stuff out.”
As an example, soon after the release party for Holy Crow on April 15th, Rouse got a call from friend Chris Jericho of Fozzy, who was in need of a bassist. Rouse describes part of his conversation with Jericho: “He says, ‘Hey, I know this is weird. Can you learn all of our songs in three days and get out to Atlanta?’ It happened to be that The Guessing Game had a little down time for the next two weeks,” So the unpredictable situation worked to his advantage–except there wouldn’t be an actual rehearsal with Fozzy. Rouse flew out to Atlanta, boarded the Fozzy bus and drove out to Charlotte to play the Carolina Rebellion festival. Along with Rob Zombie, Avenged Sevenfold, and several other popular hard rock/metal acts, Rouse performed with Fozzy in front of 25,000 people. No big deal. “The crowd stuff doesn’t freak me out one bit,” Rouse says. “Whether it’s a matter of ten people or ten thousand, I guess the pressure was trying to really understand what the band was about and learn the songs in 72 hours…I’ve been doing it long enough that I take it in stride and just do it.” “I’m really blessed to be able to play with them,” he says of The Guessing Game. Through a collaborative effort as a part of a great band, Rouse has come to realize: “I’m just steering the ship. I’m kind of the captain.”