John Roderick is someone that has been around, loves to play music for a living, and has a knack for telling a great story. Even if you didnt know them, you would walk by the stage and get pulled in by the music and charisma of The Long Winters. I have been listening to The Long Winters for awhile now, but only when I saw them perform live did I become even more fascinated with their fearless leader, who truly seemed born to perform. He reminded me a good friend I had back in school who pulled off his sock one day in the middle of class, put it on his hand, and began using it as a device to cheer me up. No matter what it was that upset me, I couldnt help but forget and start laughing hysterically. It was completely random, hilarious, and oddly brilliant. Even though part of me thought he was a total dork, the other part had to admire someone who could pull off such a thing in a room of thirty people without even blinking. Not to say John dabbles in puppetry, but theres just that certain something that gives him that magnetic personality allowing him to be a great performer. You havent truly experienced his music until youve heard and seen it performed live.
The Long Winters officially banded together with their first album The Worst You Can Do Is Harm in 2002. The original members included lead singer and guitarist John Roderick, Sean Nelson of Harvey Danger on harmony vocals and keyboards, Eric Corson on bass and Michael Shilling, former drummer of Johns previous band, Western State Hurricanes. The group also released When I Pretend to Fall in 2003 and despite some recent departures, is currently working on a third album.
Due in part to our shared fascination for the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, John graciously agreed to do an email interview with LOTD while he was finishing up his recent US tour.
LOTD: Tell me a little bit about how The Long Winters came to be and what has been going on since the breakup of your previous band Western State Hurricanes in 1999.
John: The Long Winters started as a studio project, really. I was hired to tour with Harvey Danger after the Western State Hurricanes, and after a year of touring I had saved a little money. Sean Nelson and Chris Walla joined forces and decided that I should spend my money making a record of my songs, which was nice of them, and the three of us worked on it together. There wasnt any talk of a band at that point.
LOTD: How much of your material is from Western State Hurricanes, and how much is influenced by your adventures after the breakup?
John: The Worst You Can Do Is Harm was mostly WSH songs that we re-envisioned. When I Pretend to Fall was almost all brand-new material, although I worked an old song, Nora, into the record. The record Im making now, Ive written almost entirely in the studio, but Ill probably find a way to use an old song on this new one as well. I wrote so many songs in the years before I finally made my first record that Ill probably put one on every record I make.
LOTD: How does it feel to have so much support with the two albums youve completed so far, The Worst You Can Do Is Harm and When I Pretend to Fall? Anyone in particular that you were especially excited about working with?
John: Everybody has been so supportive. Yknow, I was around for years playing music and going to shows and I met a ton of people in those days that have really helped me out once I finally got my act together. It seems like I came out of nowhere and knew all these people but really I was meeting them at shows back in the day and came to be friends with a lot of them long before I finally made my own recordings. Ive since met tons of people that were heroes of mine when I was coming up and have gotten to share the stage with them and so forth. Rock musicians get a bad rap. Plenty of them are really intelligent, thoughtful people. Ive been lucky.
LOTD: You had several notable guest musicians that gave your last album a really full sound, but have only been touring with a band of three. Was it difficult to bring your songs to a live setting without these musicians?
John: Well difficult, no. Just different. Touring with a three-piece band, you really have to strip the songs down to their essence. In the studio you can do whatever you want. Theyre two different art forms, and I dont feel a whole lot of obligation to make one sound like the other, and that goes both ways. People might expect that after so many tours this year with a stripped down band that I would be making a stripped down record now, but it has just as much flibbity-jibbity on it as the last one did. That said, Ill probably take a larger band out on tour next year because Im at a point where it would be nice to have some of the fuller orchestrations that I worked so hard on in the studio actually be brought to life.
LOTD: You just wrapped up a national tour; do you feel you were as well received in other parts of the country as you are in the Northwest?
John: Well, the Northwest is way ahead of the pack because weve established ourselves here and have a really great fan-base in Washington, but weve played for a lot of people this year all over the US and Europe and are starting to feel the love come from all over. Did I just say feel the love? Yeesh. Still theres no denying that were discovering our fans, and theyre discovering us. People are starting to write me and say that they didnt understand our first record and didnt like it when it came out, but they loved our second record so much that they went back and started listening to the first one again and now its one of their favorite records. Thats gratifying and I hope its a trend that continues. Our first record was pretty dark, but I think the subsequent records will put it in perspective.
LOTD: You looked like you were really enjoying yourself on stage at the 2004 Sasquatch! Music Festival. Do you prefer performing live to being in the recording studio?
John: I WAS really enjoying myself. I mean, that was a hell of a show. Playing the Gorge with the wind blowing and the sun setting is pretty awe-inspiring. But being in the studio is really a creative and gratifying experience that doesnt compare to other things. When Im making a record, its really just me and the engineer for long stretches at a time, so its much more of an isolated and even anti-social activity. Its totally the opposite of touring and meeting people and trying to win over an audience. A perfect life would have elements of both, I guess, and Im lucky enough to be living it at least for now.
LOTD: How do you feel the band has changed since Sean Nelsons decision to depart and continue with his own projects? Do you believe this will spur any future changes in the music or the group?
John: Well, again the difference is between recording and performing. Sean Nelson is a great performer and he added a unique character to our live show, and he and I love to joke around and also to play acoustic shows together, so much has changed. In some ways, Im more able to put the perfect band together now, because I have to find really great players to fill his shoes. But it wont really affect the recorded music, because Sean was primarily a member of the live group and only came into the studio to add some harmonies after the tracks were finished. Sean has always had a million other projects in the works, so we always knew that one day he wouldnt be able to tour with us.
LOTD: What was it like to tour and perform the songs without him?
John: Well, the biggest difference was that Sean always got my jokes, or at least registered them, whereas most people just roll their eyes at me. So touring without him, I often felt like I was just talking to the rearview mirror. The other guys would have their headphones on, and Id be making dumb comments about roadside attractions to the wind. Seans very capable, and I leaned on him plenty to take care of business, but Eric Corson has really stepped up to take up the slack and we just kept touring without even registering the change. Playing as a three-piece is very different, but its also liberating because bass-drums-guitar is like the pure distillation of the form.
LOTD: Michael Schilling (drummer) has decided to leave the band, correct? Could you tell us a little bit about the new lineup?
John: Yeah, Michael Shilling left the band after our first European tour back in December. I don't know if I said it before, but touring is really hard on people. It tires you out in a fundamental way such that, whatever its other glories, it makes many musicians long to have a regular job with long hours and two weeks vacation. Michael is also a writer, and the touring gradually wore him out and made him want to concentrate on writing more. We replaced him with Michael Schorr, (I know this is getting confusing), who drummed for Death Cab back in the day, and after three months of uninterrupted touring this Spring, HE decided that he wasn't really cut out for the road EITHER anymore and would prefer to concentrate on his other career of designing levels for first-person-player video games. Which leaves me and Eric Corson as the only two remaining Long Winters. Now, I can imagine your readers jumping to the conclusion that for so many people to have ONCE been in the Long Winters, it is probable that I am a total control-maniac jerk. This is absolutely true. I'm also racist/sexist and stingy. But it's also just a simple fact that by the time you turn thirty, most people don't want to sleep on hotel floors and spend months of their lives driving through deserts and playing in smoky bars. I respect that fact and am happy for everyone that's been in my band and then chosen to do what suits them best. Nowadays I know a lot more people who have chosen to make music their life, (a small and desperate minority),and so future Long Winterses will hopefully overflow with greatness.
LOTD: You brought up three special guests at the Sasquatch! Music Festival that you called The Longhorns. Who are they, and are they a permanent fixture in the band?
John: Marty, Charles and Nathan are our horn section, (they call themselves the Longhorns, which is retarded but cute), and they are definitely going to be on the new record and play with us whenever its feasible. They just presented themselves to me one day saying, We know your songs, and were your new horn section. I was floored. They are all awesome guys and they bust their asses on the music, so Im taking them up on their offer. Taking three horn players on tour with us would be like feeding a soccer team, however. I mean, we just tour in my little van.
LOTD: How does it feel to be heading up a band and playing your own material again?
John: Its the greatest. I mean, its more responsibility than I ever had before. I always lived my life pretty irresponsibly, beholden to no one, hand-to-mouth, etc. I was pretty freewheelin all through my twenties and now I have bills to pay and phone calls to make and people to look after and look out for. Its a big change. But Im doing what I love, and it just keeps getting bigger so I couldnt be happier.
LOTD: Youve been through a lot; is there anything that youve just always wanted to do but have yet to accomplish?
John: Sure, tons. But Im young yet and still trying to make sure that I get to do all the things I want to do. I want to stand on street corners and yell at people and to be respected for it, which is a tall order. Im probably not going to be one of those people who wish hed done something different with his life, at least not going by my life so far. Id rather not spend any more time in jail though.
LOTD: Do you have any long-term goals for The Long Winters?
John: Well, yeah. But having goals when youre working in the arts can be tricky, because so much depends on other people. You cant say that your goal is to have everyone love my band, because people get to choose for themselves whether they love your band or not, and so many goals I could name just boil down to having the Long Winters find their audience. I would love to make a record that everyone agrees is one of the greats, but thats in the hands of the Great Pumpkin, or whomever, and its fruitless to make plans about it. I just make little plans to get through the week.
Music by The Long Winters can be purchased at Amazon
All content © LEFT OFF THE DIAL 2001-2005. All rights reserved.