The Long Winters
A conversation with John Roderick
Interview by Adam McKibbin
Photograph by Autumn de Wilde
People rightfully make a fuss about John Roderick's songwriting. Three full-lengths into his career as the leader of The Long Winters, Roderick has been bestowed with a blessing-and-curse reputation: the songwriter who is really more of a storyteller. And while there is mayhem and entertainment aplenty in the Long Winters lyrical catalog - not to mention memorably barbed turns of phrase - it is foolhardy to talk about the band - and their new album, Putting the Days to Bed - without giving the music its proper due, too. Unlike many other so-called "literary" songwriters, Roderick takes a populist approach, wrapping the stories in big, glowing pop rock songs. The sneering "Rich Wife," for instance, rides on a giant riff and galloping percussion, and makes a kiss-off seem like a triumph.
While touring Europe alongside Keane, the ever-engaging Roderick took some time to discuss his new album, his new role in the band (as producer), and his poor, neglected iPod.
I did a feature recently on the 826 tutoring centers, and I know you were involved with their recent Book Eaters shows. How did you get introduced to their organization? Have you had the chance to actually spend some time there and see the kids in action?
I was lucky enough to get a tour of the 826 Valencia in San Francisco last year and have read (and had read to me) some of the kid's writings, so although I've never been to an 826 while it was in full swing, I've felt the power of the places secondhand. I got involved with them through our mutual desire to see a regime change in America back in 2004, and we've had common cause ever since.
The Long Winters have been involved with Music For America, which dedicates itself to the convergence of music and politics and social causes—but in a tour diary entry during the 2004 presidential campaign, you seemed cautious about showing your cards politically. Was that reservation due to the glut of bands in that territory at the time, or is it pointed to a more general conflict about the jurisdiction of musicians?
I was reticent then and now to throw my hat in the ring of musician/bloggers exhorting their fans to political action, mostly because I turn into a boring, lecturing snob whenever politics are involved. I'm an old-school liberal, and although the Puff Daddy-school of "Vote or Die" is targeted at people far too young or too stupid to actually vote, most left-leaning indie bands just hew directly to the NPR/Utne Reader party line. In 2004 I was just as disgusted with the Democratic Party as I was terrified of the Apocalyptic Christian Cult that ultimately won, but every attempt I made to discuss politics at cocktail parties in the months leading up to the election just degenerated into people screaming at me that I was naive, that Nader cost Gore the election in 2000 and that liberalism had to "moderate" (Thatcherize) in order to appeal to regular people.
Often these same screaming people had never voted in a national election before, had certainly never registered to vote in local elections or taken any interest in politics beyond some ignorant scoffing and sneering at "politicians," but now they suddenly had convictions and were shouting like brownshirts at anyone who deviated from their narrow view. The Democrats have just won back the House and Senate and, once again, people are rejoicing like it's the end of tyranny. Now watch the Democrats sponsor a flag-burning amendment.
As you’re out on the road, how much of a difference is there between countries in terms of fanbase? Are you playing before a somewhat consistent number of people night in and night out?
The variation is enormous. Our popularity in the Netherlands, Germany and Spain is comparable to America, whereas our records have barely been released in France or Scandinavia. Nevertheless, we played in Paris for the first time tonight in front of 8000 people, because we were opening for Keane at the Zenith. Two nights before we played for 150 people in Liege, Belgium, so I guess you could say the shows vary considerably.
How were you received by the Keane fans? You’ve played with them in the States, too, so I’m guessing it’s been a happy marriage.
Keane fans are very welcoming, very warm. I like the guys in Keane quite a lot, we enjoy traveling together, and I think it's brave of them to take an unknown American band along on their first European tour in over two years. I enjoy their shows, too, so altogether they are some of the best touring experiences we've had.
When you’re writing, do your songs tend to come in concentrated bursts or is it a slower, piece-by-piece process? Do songs ever emerge from the ether fully intact?
They come all different ways, as you describe. Just when I think I'm going to have to struggle like Sisyphus over every tune, one will just pop out fully formed. Then I get comfortable that they'll always be there, and it follows that I struggle for six months to write a single word.
Working as your own producer, was it harder to know when you’d reached the finish line on songs, particularly more troublesome songs? I know that producers play different roles with different people, but one role that is fairly recurring is a guy who says “No! Enough! Step away from the song!”
Yeah, that's the danger of being your own producer, but fortunately we're constrained by MONEY as much as anything, so often we know the song is finished when there simply isn't enough cash to continue working. It's especially difficult to know when we've got a good take, because I'm playing in the band and so invested in the performance. I want to say, "Are you kidding? That was a killer take!", when the other half of me has to say, "No. Do it again. That was shit."
How much have you fallen in love with the technical side—various recording techniques and tricks and so forth?
It's a completely different world from the world of songwriting and playing, but I've fallen in love with it now so much that I could really imagine living in the studio all the time just making records. I know plenty of musicians who start out that way and end up just working in a studio, abandoning live performance altogether. I'd love to have the option to record whenever I want, and as time goes on it may become easier for me to do.
You and I did an interview for a different website back around the time of The Worst You Can Do Is Harm, and in that one, you said that you had just recently gotten into the habit of buying CDs and listening to music in the same way that your friends had been listening to music for years. Was that a habit that continued? Did your CD collection grow or wind up fizzling out?
I'm sure I said that to you in that interview because it was my earnest desire at that time to become a dedicated consumer of music, but I'm afraid to say it didn't last more than a month. The reality is that I don't listen to recorded music except when I'm driving around Seattle, and the stereo in my car is tuned almost exclusively to the oldies radio station. I bought an iPod but hardly ever remember I own it, and I think the only music on it is Nada Surf and The Shins. I guess some
people just don't listen to music, and it's only ironic because I depend on people who DO.
When I Pretend to Fall definitely propelled the band to a new level in terms of general awareness and approval. From my limited vantage point, it’s not clear whether Putting the Days to Bed caused a similar spike. Do you have a sense of that either way?
Well, it was almost three years between the release of Pretend and Days, and from my vantage point it took a long time for Pretend to Fall to become the "instant classic" it's now regarded as being. Our new record is just as complicated and varied as our last and it's meant to be long-player rather than smash hit, so I'm pretty confident it will grow on people the same way. Check back with me when our NEXT record comes out, at which point I bet everyone will be asking me why it isn't the instant pop masterpiece that Putting the Days to Bed was.
Has there been anything in particular—a certain tour, a certain big press thing—that you feel permanently broadened the band’s reach? Or has it been a collection of smaller factors?
When we first started out as a band, it seemed like every new opportunity was going to be our "big break." The first time we played SXSW, for instance, or the first time we played New York, or Amsterdam, or opened for Death Cab at Irving Plaza or got a song on The O.C., or whatever. But the reality is, at least for us, that each new next biggest thing is just another small step up the stairs. I know that some bands can trace their success to a single Pitchfork review, or the endorsement of a certain big rock star, but we've been growing one fan at a time, one show at a time.
You talked in a recent interview about how you enjoy cultivating mystery about yourself, leaving the window open for people to think you may be a wolf in sheepish singer/songwriter clothing. This is a silly example, but in digging around doing prep work for this interview, I came across this question on Yahoo Answers: “Is it true that John Roderick of the Long Winters is racist???” That led me to wonder: in general, isn’t the idea that people might think horrible things about you much more satisfying than when people actually do end up thinking horrible things about you?
It takes absolutely no energy for someone to ask if I'm a racist on the internet, or to blatantly say that I AM a racist on a website called johnroderickisaracist.com. The larger point for me is that the energy most musicians, or "celebrities", put into ensuring that they are never quoted or pictured doing or saying anything that might be misinterpreted or manipulated by either the stupidest or most malicious people in the world is energy I'd rather spend elsewhere. I read so many interviews where the musician has watered down or completely erased their actual opinions and personality in order to not offend anyone or open themselves up to criticism, and the end result is not only that the interview is unrevealing and dull, but that the whole culture of art and fame are increasingly vacuous and, ultimately, amoral.
But I'm mostly kidding that I "cultivate" a mysterious image, I just don't censor myself in the hopes of pleasing people who aren't making the effort themselves to listen carefully. Every reasonable person knows it's not OK to use racial slurs with hurtful intent, and the ACTUAL racists have learned this lesson better than anyone; they use code words like "urban problems" or "inner city crime" and everyone congratulates them for their compassion and restraint. Meanwhile the racist policies stay the same. The policing of language doesn't end racism, it just cordons off words, and that strikes me as a supreme waste. Some teenage girl in San Luis Obispo decides she's going to be a crusader against racism and starts a ruckus on some blog because she read an interview where I said, "The Chinese should go back to Africa where they came from!" What can I do about it? Should I stop being hilarious? That's infringing on my cultural imperative!
One of my friends emails me a Pointless Question each Friday, and I thought his question this week was worth stealing for a closer: “What’s your greatest completely unimportant accomplishment? A moment you are inwardly very proud of, and love to recall, but had no bearing whatsoever on your life at large?”
I think I'm a pretty darn good parallel parker.