Interview by Squid
The Long Winters: John Roderick
October 2005 :: Page 1
John Roderick dropped into Playing In Fog's world five years ago at a Barsuk showcase at the Bottom of the Hill. He had no band to speak of, instead performing just one song as the guest of This Busy Monster. But oh, what a song: it was there that we heard "Medicine Cabinet Pirate" for the first time. The song with a melody you couldn't stop humming and lyrics that you remembered verbatim. The song that convinced you to keep an eye on this unassuming bespectacled stranger.
By the time he returned to San Francisco, Roderick had both a band, The Long Winters, and an album, The Worst You Can Do Is Harm. While the album did justice to his talents as a songwriter, it was the band that put audiences on alert, this due in no small part to the caustically wacky banter between Roderick and [Harvey Danger frontman] Sean Nelson. The Long Winters had lyrical pathos, hysterical yuks, and the chops to back up the astutely written melodies that Roderick was churning out. The Long Winters had lift-off.
Five years, four personnel changes and eighty-five(ish) tours later, The Long Winters are still with us and still gaining. Their second album, the ebullient When I Pretend To Fall, is totally different from it's predecessor. Where "Harm" is a sighing lament, "Fall" is a rallying cry against the evils of mediocrity and the resignation that can lead to it. These lyrical shifts obviously mark changes in Roderick's outlook, and prompted me to interview the Amber-Visioned Curmudgeon in an attempt to order The Long Winters universe. I was also chomping at the bit to talk about the book he was writing about his walk in 1999 from Holland to Istanbul.
Which brings us to an interesting side-bar: this interview takes the form of three parts. The first is a transcript recorded in San Francisco on October 1, 2005 when The Long Winters played the final show of tour built on support dates for Keane with appearances of their own throughout. As luck would have it, about twenty minutes in to our conversation, my digital tape recorder died. This prompted Roderick to suggest that "the sonorous nature of his voice had exceeded my bandwidth". Indeed.
Gracious fellow that he is, Roderick suggested that the rest of the interview be conducted over email. Since I couldn't weave in and out between topics as organically as one can in person, I chose to bifurcate the remainder of our discussion in the name of clarity. As such, the transcript of the original interview is followed with questions specifically about The Long Winters, which is in turn followed by a broad inquiry into his upcoming book. What started out as an attempt to salvage a failed interview, then, happily transformed into three very separate views into the works and world of one artist. Regardless of topical territory or medium, J-Rod is an interviewer's delight, delivering an intricate treatise for each and every interrogative point, no matter how small.
John: Oh yeah, absolutely. It's gone swimmingly. I think it's been a good tour and I've enjoyed it. A lot.
Squid: What's it like going between the small, the in-stores versus, going into the bigger venue? I mean, does that require some sort of "passage"? You know, "Hey, now I'm playing to thirty bazillion people as opposed to five? Or fifteen?"
John: Well, yeah, of course it does, but less than you would think, or less than I thought. I mean, we did three or four in-stores on the way out to meet Keane, so we had a chance to work out the kinks. You know the in-store is the hardest for a band to do.
Squid: How so?
John: You're in a space where live music isn't designed to be played, generally. You know, they move some record racks off to one side and you're standing on the floor. It's usually pretty brightly lit so you're faced with all these kids who are just ten feet from you and looking you straight in the eye. The anonymity of darkness is gone. They'll stand there and stare at you like you're on TV and not acknowledge you as a living person unless you reach out and grab them, "Hello! I am here, in front of you, in real life!"
Squid: You're good at doing that though, you like dragging people out.
John: I do but it never ceases to amaze me that kids can go to a show and just stare blankly at a person who's right in front of them. I'm not complaining, because the process of drawing people into my world is the fun part for me. I love to watch their faces thaw over the course of a show, but there are always one or two kids whom I'll address directly, right in their face, like, "How's it going? You digging the show?" and they won't even do a spit-take, like, "Who, me?" They just look back with eyes like boiled eggs.
Squid: That may be the difference between doing this sort of thing a little bit later than doing it in your twenties. I mean, did you feel that way when you were doing the Western State Hurricanes? Do you feel that this has come to you later? The second time around?
John: I think when you're younger and you're playing rock music, it's a lot easier to be...there's so much mythology surrounding rock and being a rock musician and when you're 25, you don't have any context except to just buy into it hook, line and sinker. So people are staring at you like you are an object, and you feel like an object, and you're proud to be an object. "I am an action figure! I am a caricature!" Once I was in my thirties that held no fascination for me. I'm much more like, "I am a...regular person! And so are you. So let's have some exchange, as people."
Squid: I remember the first conversation I had with you about the first album was really shocking to me. For innumerable reasons, of course, because you're such a shocking person. But one of the things that surprised me was when you pointed out that all of the letters in the liner notes were real. That sort of blew me away because my first thought was, the word that kept coming to my mind was 'penance'. I kept thinking, "This is who I was, this is what I was doing before, these are the songs from X period of time, and I'm going to put these out there and then, what do you think of that?
John: What did I say in our first conversation?
Squid: You pointed out that they were old love letters, things like that. It just seemed like, a clearinghouse, that one.
John: Yeah, well, I think it was. It's really hard to start over. But I'm big believer in starting over. I see so many friends agonize over their mistakes and wish they could go back to change something they're ashamed of but who don't believe that they have the transformative power to remake themselves now. And they feel trapped in the story of themselves that's only half written. Part of the belief in the ability to transform yourself, the important part, requires that you actually try to transform YOURSELF. It doesn't do any good to walk around and to encourage people to, "No, remake yourself! It's easy!" without actually busting ass on your own problems..
Squid: I certainly know about that.
John: I totally experiment on myself. I'm the only raw material I have that I can really do anything about. So that first record was a clearinghouse. And a watershed moment like, "I'm making something out of a lot of material that I could have decided was just trash and my life up to that point could have just been garbage, I could've said, "This is all garbage, and I renounce it and I disavow it." Rather than do that I was like, "This is my life up til now, let's see if I can put some drum machines on it and make it a little funkier."
Squid: What's the distance - and I'm sure everyone on The Long Winters Board will be horrified that I don't know the exact distance in time - was the distance between the disintegration of the Hurricanes and your decision to sort of head out and do the walk.
John: You know the last Western State Hurricanes show was April 29th, 1999 and I left May 4th. It was six days later.
Squid: And you had already bought the boots, told everybody to go to hell, and you were out.
John: That all happened within, I mean the Hurricanes broke up in a really anti-climactic way you know. The rhythm section was like, "Well, you know...we got this job offer at Microsoft, aaaand... we didn't realize how hard touring was.." they just wimped out in the lamest possible milktoast wimpout way. So I said, "You know, I just can't even believe this, fuck this." Gave my notice at work the next day and was like, "I'm just...I...out of here in every way." I was just completely out of there almost immediately, I didn't try to "make it work", I didn't "stick to it", I bailed.
Squid: I think I read something where you started in London, for practice.
John: I landed in Heathrow and walked off the plane and, you know, at Heathrow they have those conveyor belts? Flat escalators? And I wouldn't get on one, I walked the whole length of the terminal. Walked down the stairs. Through the front door, out, and across the parking structure and...out. And just kept walking. Walked all the way to the English Channel from basically my seat on the airplane. A continuous unbroken line of footprints.
Squid: My thought is that the tricky part was not...there were some incidents that you touched on, scrambling in the mountains, and jumping over cliffs and waking up with wild boars and all. But I would think that the really scary part was about thirty minutes out, when you're walking and you're like, "Am I really going to do this?"
John: Well the worst part, the initial worst part was walking out of, well, you've been to a million airports, you know that an airport is a desolate land. It's a five mile square area of paved nothingness. I walked out along the tarmac and down along the access road and came to the first major place where I had to make a decision: left or right? I turned right and walked a mile or two, trusting my innate sense of direction. And then stopped and just had a second moment and thought, "You know, I do have a compass", and I reached into my bag and pulled it out and discovered I had turned and gone exactly the opposite direction I thought I was headed. "That is an inauspicious beginning". And I turned around and walked the mile back and realized my first rule: keep the compass handy. It took me a week to really learn that, because I kept saying, "I don't need a compass, I can find my way." And there were a couple of times that I just walked and walked and walked and walked and ended up going in circles. So after the first ten days, the compass was always in my hand. (Laughs) For the next six months!
Squid: Getting back must have just been...did you sleep for eight days?
John: No! The hysterical thing is: I had been sending back these missives to the University of Washington and they were publishing them in the paper, The University Daily. So I was in touch with my advisor at the college, and somewhere in Bulgaria I wrote him an email and I said, "I wanna take some classes in fall. Will you sign me up for a selection of classes that you think are interesting?" and he was dubious "Well, classes start September 27th. And I said, "Great. No problem." So I arrived in Istanbul on September 24th, and got on a plane and flew from Istanbul to London. Flew from London to Seattle, got into Seattle Sunday morning.
Squid: And you went right back to class?! I can't believe that.
John: I was in class on Monday at 10am. With a big beard that probably still had twigs and you know, I had this thousand yard stare...
Squid: (Hysterical laughter)
John: And I was in a class on Nineteenth Century German Philosophy. Monday morning, 10am!
Squid: (Laughs) "How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Well, It's Still Happening"
Squid: Were you crestfallen? My most wonderful moments in living abroad all involve following my favorite bands around. I would be so crestfallen when I would get home. I don't know, maybe you were too exhausted for this, but did you feel depressed? Like, "Shit, here I am...Heidegger..."
John: There was no...My mind was such a tangled mess before I left and the six months of uninterrupted walking did not straighten it out. So it was a tangled mess when I arrived back in Seattle, and it took another...you know, I'm still untangling it now. There was an extreme sense, not of an anticlimax but of a feeling that, "Alright, if walking 3,000 miles by yourself is insufficient to make the big questions of life stand out into a little bolder relief - if that is not enough, then I don't know what else to do. Of course the problem is that it's not that that isn't enough, but just that, it sort of isn't the question. The question, mostly, is: How well do you interact with other people?
Squid: And are you going to get out of bed and interact with those people or are you going to stay put?
John: Right. Whether or not you have the will to walk 3,000 miles is fascinating, but it doesn't make your interactions with people any clearer.
Squid: Awesome. Now I don't have to walk 3,000 miles, coz you did it for me.
John: (Laughs) Right. And it might be a great thing to do, and it absolutely was a great thing to do, but I don't think it's something that you do if you're in a right frame of mind.
Squid: At some point you untangled yourself enough to the point where - as miserable and irritating as rock music is - you wanted to give it another go. Somewhere along the line there. Was that instantaneous? Did you just sit up in bed one day and go, "Yes! Music!"?
John: No. The problem is that I have a voice that I want to narrate from. I want to tell stories, and I have a lot of stories to tell. Not just about things that happened, but - stories! There's always this tug of war between writing, speaking and singing. It's not a question of which is going to win out, but rather which am I doing now? To say, "Well, I'm not going to sing anymore because rock music leads to living a stupid life" I really felt at 29. And I think a lot of it was rooted in a belief - a false belief - that somewhere in the world there is an occupation that doesn't involve feeling stupid sometimes. There's nowhere that you can go where you won't be followed by a camptrain of usurers. But when you're 29, you have a lot invested in the folly that there's still a great world of brilliant people that understand you perfectly waiting right over the next hill.
Squid: Yeah, I don't think it's any accident that Deb and I started Playing in Fog once we were pretty safely past that bump. Because the glory and the sort of "Ohhh! They're onstage!" was far gone for us. So there is something to be said for approaching this differently later in life. Certainly you protect your investment a little more, you don't go in so starry eyed. I'm thinking that's the difference for you, the second time around. Things are less surprising, perhaps?
John: Well, I mean it's the third, fourth, fifth time around. The big disappointment of my late twenties was that I finally achieved all the fantasies I had about what life looked like when I was seventeen. And I was 29 and I had the perfect life my 17 year old mind had imagined, but I was really unhappy. It was the accoutrements of what I imagined John Spencer's life looked like, and how cool it would be living in a warehouse loft doing heroin.
Squid: And expensive heroin at that!
John: Yeah! Being like, chic and bad! And I got there and I was like, "This is an ill-fittin suit of clothes, just like every other suit of clothes I have tried on", that wasn't my native suit of clothes. Learning how to be an entertainer and accepting the slings and arrows of being a part of popular culture, and putting yourself out there in front of people who are willingly acting as your audience. Willingly in degrees.
Squid: Did you flip out when people started to really like [The Long Winters]? Was that weird for you?
John: No! I had every expectation that people would like it. What was weird was that everyone didn't like it instantly. I don't think that what I make is universally great, but I think that the stuff that I do, I'm trying to make it honest. I mean, who hates trees? You don't hate trees, there are trees, and you accept them because there's no falsehood to them.
Squid: I hate trees, John.
John: There are people who do hate trees. I know guys who hate birds.
Squid: Why would you hate birds?
John: Coz they're noisy. They're noisy and they shit all over. So that's kind of a weird way of describing it but I was hoping to make something that was, at least within its own world, honest. Music that was not trying to be something that it wasn't. So I thought, "Okay, if it succeeds at being itself, then how can you dislike it?" You know, you can maybe dislike the idea of it, but you can't have a beef with something that is true to itself, I guess. Silly me.
Squid: And managed to pull in all the sort of material that, as you said, you would have maybe discarded but then you made a decision to go forward with it.
John: Right. I can confront the people who listen to it and dislike it, but the world is full of people who don't have the time or the inclination to seek stuff out, and we don't have the resources to make our stuff ubiquitous or to spoon feed it to people. So learning about the culture that I was aspiring to inhabit, where people were making things that they try very hard to make well, and they put them out in the public square with whatever meager resources they have and then wait for interested parties to happen along. Realizing that was the economy I was in? It was challenging. Because I wasn't raised in a DIY culture. I was raised in a culture that was completely unconscious almost of popular culture.
Squid: How so?
John: You know, my dad is 85 years old. So I grew up thinking that Count Basie was a relevant pop artist in the 70's and 80's. and did not have any exposure to rock culture or to, I mean I watched happy days on TV but my parents were not consumers of popular culture. So rather than seeking out groups of friends who had tastes in common, or who saw life thru the lens of the music that we loved together or the lens of our love of musical theatre, or our love of hotrod cars, or whatever, I was the guy who went out turning over rocks looking for snails. Just hoping to find the perfect snail.