Music Monday: Internet Famous, Vol. 5–An Interview with John Roderick
So, I have some good news, I have some bad news, and I have some more good news. The first good news is that I recently was able to snag an awesome interview with a very talented gentleman. The bad news is that I didn’t record the interview correctly. The other good news is that while I got absolutely no outgoing audio, I managed to get the most important part–the interviewee’s answers to my questions. I’ve tried to recreate the interview questions to the best of my ability, but if you notice any weird question/answer relationships, it’s probably my fault. Thankfully, I had a fantastic interviewee who did a lot of talking, so hopefully that’ll make up for any weirdness. Anyway, onto this week’s interview with…
John Roderick! An ‘accidental’ musician of sorts and a veteran of hole-in-the-wall clubs that smell of bleach, Roderick has been making music for about 20 years and is currently the one and only member of his band The Long Winters. He does a weekly podcast with his friend Merlin Mann called Roderick on the Line (which is very funny and you should listen to it), has written for the Seattle Weekly, as well as done lots of collaborating with other bands and musicians such as Death Cab for Cutie, The Decemberists, and Jonathan Coulton. He recently sat down and chatted with Nukezilla over Skype about his career, the old and new ways to be a musician, his newest collaboration album with Jonathan Coulton called One Christmas at a Time, and how the Intellivision ruined gaming for him (yeah, it was that bad). What follows is the transcription of my conversation with Mr. Roderick:
Nukezilla (NZ): [Okay, so, let's say you're talking to someone who has never heard of you before. How would you describe yourself to them?]
John Roderick (JR): That’s a common scenario because a lot of people have not heard of me. But, you know, I’m a musician from the northwest and I’ve been making indie rock albums for the last ten years, and within indie rock circles we are a fairly well-regarded band, although not a massive-selling one. And in the course of making indie rock I’ve traveled the world and met a lot of people. So, career-wise, I haven’t put out an album since 2006, which is a little bit, uh, you would describe that as a career that has stalled.
NZ: [But you recently put out a Christmas album with Johnathan Coulton, right?]
JR: Yeah, so this collaboration album is the first…it’s the phoenix rising from the ashes, it’s my first true full-length release since 2006.
Do you mean to ask me to describe myself as a human being? Where I was born and what type of soap I use? Or were you asking about my career?
NZ: [Just however you want to answer it, really.]
JR: Alright, well I feel like I’ve answered it.
NZ: [So, I've read a little about your career and the long and slightly confusing history of your band, The Long Winters. Can you give sort of a simplified version of how The Long Winters came to be?]
JR: Yeah, I mean, there really isn’t a short version, but I moved to Seattle at the very beginning of the grunge years and didn’t intend to be a musician with my life. That wasn’t my goal. But living here in Seattle and watching the grunge thing explode all around me, I was appalled by how terribly most of the bands were handling it, you know, not just musically but also experientially and it inspired me to try to be a musician myself and after I started to do I realized how hard it was. And then I was really mad and really wanted to try and learn how to do it right, and in the course of many, many years all through the nineties I was in a variety of bands and they all got, you know, better and closer to that state where people like you and you’re making good music and then invariably they all broke up. All of that kind of culminated in a band in the late nineties called The Western State Hurricanes that actually did succeed, we were popular, Sub Pop offered us a recording contract, and then we broke up. Because bands break up. They’re terrible. They’re terribly ungainly stupid organisms. Even The Beatles broke up.
And so when my last band broke up, when the Hurricanes broke up, I was just devastated. I was thirty years old already and I didn’t have a fallback plan other than being a musician. Once I decided I was going to do it I didn’t…it didn’t occur to me to do anything else. And then I got hired by the band Harvey Danger to just be their kind of musical roustabout. I was their keyboard player, I was their bass player, I was their harmony vocalist. And they had a big huge hit that year, “Flagpole Sitta”, which was a number one song. And so these guys hired me to kind of fill out their sound and we traveled all around America on a bus and I got a taste of what being a big rock star was like and it wasn’t very good either.
So I was , you know, at thirty-one years old, pretty confused about what I was supposed to be doing. I didn’t really like being a musician, it turned out. But then my friends kind of rallied around me and said, “Listen–you’ve been writing songs all these years, you’ve never really made a record, we should just make a record. We should just get it made. “
And so we went into the studio and very whimsically made the first Long Winters record with no band in mind, no idea that it would last, or that it would be sort of a swan song. But having made that record all of a sudden things fell into place. I had a record label, I had a booking agent, I put a band together. And I did it on the principle that there was no Long Winters except me, because if it was just me the band would never break up. You know what I mean? Like, I had been in so many bands that broke up that I didn’t want it to happen again. So The Long Winters were, uh, it was nothing but a project at first, but it took on a life of its own and over the course of the last ten years there’ve been three or four different what I consider to be pretty iconic, you know, groups. Like, The Long Winters have had Mark I, Mark II, Mark III, and Mark IV. And it’s all been different people and in some ways they’ve been very different bands.
But now there is no Long Winters except me. I’m the last of the Mohicans.
NZ: [So do you have any plans to recruit new band members and sort of 'get the band back together', as it were?]
JR: Well, that’s a good question and I try and resolve it every day and I don’t know the answer. I’ve been recording a lot of music and sometimes I get very excited about calling up some friends and putting a new band together, and then other times I think about it and it’s…there’s nothing I want to do less than put four grown men into a van—or even more excitingly, and perhaps crazily, put four grown adults of a variety of genders in a band—and drive across America and play shows. It’s a ton of work and, uh, I’m forty-four years old now. When I was twenty-four, nothing seemed like more fun than four people sharing a Motel 6 bed somewhere outside of Omaha. But at my age, and having shared that bed a thousand times, now I just want my own bed in a Motel 6 outside of Omaha. And the fact is I’m afforded that opportunity, you know. My band has been successful enough that I’ve made a living as a musician for ten years and if I put a new Long Winters together and we went out on the road, we would–well, we wouldn’t have to share a hotel bed, let’s just say. But, you know, it’s an awful lot of work to be a touring band supporting a brand new album, and yet for me there doesn’t, like, it has not yet been clear to me that there’s another way to do it. You know, being friends with Jonathan Coulton and his acolytes who all put their music on the internet first—fully realized music on the internet—without a band, without a record label, without anything. They just make it at home and they put it on the web. They feel like pioneers and they also seem like they’re doing a very different thing from a very different place. You know, the first time I talked to MC Frontalot, who’s an internet rapper and star, I was talking about the start of his career and I just made the assumption that he had come up in the clubs around where he grew up or in the town by his college, and I was talking to him—I don’t remember what I said, but I said something about back stages or dressing rooms like, “Oh well, all back stages are the same, aren’t they? I mean, they all smell like bleach and they all are painted black and there’s always a guy with a Leatherman on his belt and a flashlight yelling at you that you’re standing on his cables.”
And Frontalot was like, “Oh, you know, the first show I played was for 800 people. I mean, I put my music on the internet and then, yeah, the first live show I ever did I was already famous.”
And I was like, “Hmm–that’s interesting,” because I spent 15 years playing in every club in the country and all of them were for audiences that were growing slowly and, you know, the traditional model of, like, “Hey! Come to the show!” and you’re out stapling your poster to a phone pole. So that is still the model in my mind, and when I think about the future of The Long Winters and the prospect of me even figuratively, even metaphorically stapling my show posters to a phone pole, I reflect back–you know, I probably haven’t said in an interview in 20 years that I didn’t start off wanting to be a musician, but now I’m reflecting on that fact and thinking to myself, “What the hell have I been doing the last 20 years?” [Laughs] I guess I always thought I was going to be a magazine writer or something.
So I’ve recorded probably 200 songs in the past four years, but I have not found how…I’ve not found the final expression of them, I guess.
NZ: [So, you've done a lot of collaborations with other musical artists over the years. What's been your favorite collaborative project to date?]
JR: Well, I do work with a lot of different musicians on a lot of different things, you know. I’ve been on Death Cab [for Cutie] records, and played with Keane, and Kathleen Edwards and I wrote a couple of songs from her album last year and I produced a couple of records over the last few years for artists like Shelby Earl that I was very proud of, and I made a record that hasn’t come out yet that’s going to be…well, I produced a record for a kid that, when it finally sees the light of day, I think is going to be amazing.
But, you know, the record [One Christmas at a Time] that Jonathan [Coulton] and I just made is the purest collaboration that I’ve ever done and the purest collaboration that he’s ever done, and I can’t think of a purer collaboration that anybody’s ever done, because we sat next to each other on the couch and we wrote ten songs in two days, and we were writing them literally line by line, word by word. So one guy would throw out a line and the other guy would say, “Yeah, that’s amazing, but instead of saying ‘there’ why don’t we say ‘when’?” and we’d scribble it down and then the next guy would say a line and we’d make a little modification to it–and so even at the end of writing a song we couldn’t look back at it and say for sure who wrote what, which is, I mean, it’s just complete collaboration–and that was a mystifying and super-fun and super-crazy process. I mean, Jonathan and I, neither one of us are anxious to work with other people. We’re both pretty closed-shop, do-everything-ourselves type of people. So it was, you know, the songs that I wrote with Kathleen Edwards were maybe a more classic style of song co-writing, which is that [Kathleen] showed up, she had two songs that she had written, they were both amazing already, and she said, “I’m struggling with these two songs. What do you think?”
And she played me the song and I said, “Oh, I say what you’re talking about. Why don’t you do this and this and change this to that and move this over here and…” because when you’re a song writer and you’re listening to another song writer and the song is great, whatever that person is stumbling over, it’s very easy to see the solution because you’re outside, you know? And I’ve written a million songs, she’s written a million songs, it’s real easy to see into one another’s work–or, at least, easy if you’re that type of writer.
But this business of sitting and, you know, if I had sat down with her and she’d said, “Okay, here’s the first two chords of a song and the first words are ‘I went down the road,’ now you go.…” [Laughs] It’s, like, so unfathomable to think about sitting down and doing that, but that’s what Jonathan and I did.
NZ: [So how did you and Coulton get the idea to record a Christmas album together? Who approached whom and how did you guys go from there?]
JR: Well he and I are very close friends and we are always talking about music and our careers and our lives and we spend a lot of time kind of going on long walks either in Brooklyn or Seattle or any of the places we meet in between and.…I have this kind of relationship with a few people–Dave Hazan from Pedro the Lion and I go on long walks and we talk about our career and we wonder what the hell is going on with the world, and Ben Gibbard and I, and…I have a handful of friends that are not necessarily, like, people I see all the time. But this is the funny thing about being friends with other musicians. We live in different places and really we only see each other when we’re on tour–we all travel for a living. So for instance, the band Nada Surf, I’ve been friends with Matthew from Nada Surf for more than ten years. He and I maybe get to see each other once or twice a year, but we share so much because his life and my life, we’ve chosen to do the same thing and we respect one another’s song writing, we respect each other’s work entirely, so that even though we only see each other twice a year, as soon as we are in the same room our instinct is, “Let’s get out of here, let’s go walk around this town,” and it isn’t just “catch-up”, it’s like, you don’t even have to catch up with somebody like that. You can just dive right in because you know what’s going on with them and they know what’s going on with you.
So Jonathan [Coulton] and I have had that relationship for a long time and we’re always, you know, he and I have had different career paths but we’ve kind of met somewhere in the middle. He started out, like I said, putting his music on the internet and being a, uh…you know, he never worked his way up in the clubs. He became famous very quickly. But creatively, he wanted to move and his fans didn’t necessarily want him to move, you know? And I think that’s true…this is the funny thing. As soon as you get famous, your fans don’t want you to change; if you’re not famous, your fans are excited to watch you change. And one of the nice things that I had in a long career of making music was that my fans changed with me and I made a lot of different kinds of music and I had the opportunity to explore creatively everything I wanted to try. Jonathan wants that, too, and so when we go on our long walks he’s often saying, like, “Now I do want to drive around America in a van, now I do want to play all these bleachy-smelling rooms,” and I’m saying, “Well, that’s nice but what I would like to do is put my music on the internet and have people just buy it and not have to ever be in one of those bleachy rooms again. And so he and I have kind of met in the middle and in the course of one of those conversations, it’s inevitable that you say, “We should collaborate,”–I mean, every musician says that to every other one and 99% of the time it’s just a formality. I was backstage with Chris Collingwood from…Fountains of Wayne. He and I were sitting backstage just recently at a show and he was like, “We should do something. We should, like, go play some shows together.”
And I was like, “Yeah, we totally should. Or, you know what we could do, we could collaborate on a song.
And he got this look on his face like I had squeezed a lime up his nose. And he laughed, and I laughed, like, “I know! I know it sounds terrible, but listen–I just made this record with Jonathan Coulton and it was amazing!”
And he was like, “Oh, I just–I can’t even imagine collaborating with somebody like that.”
And I was like, “Well I couldn’t either, but,” you know, I’m starting to sound like a Hare Krishna with other musicians. I’m like, “[Mysterious voice] I didn’t use to think it would work either! But I did this thing and it was amazing!”
So, that’s a more typical situation, where you’re backstage with a friend and you’re like, “Hey, we should do some shows,” or “we should do some…thing,” or “you should come up to my place,” and then somebody says, “We should collaborate!” and the other person goes , “Oh, yeaaaaah, toooootally…[trails off],” but nobody has any intention of ever doing it. And Jonathan and I, you know, we said that, but I guess the idea of a Christmas album was so…when we first said it out loud it seemed so formulaic and so possible, like…everybody knows what a Christmas album sounds like. All you have to do is just hit the numbers. All you have to do is just make it sound like a Christmas album and you’re done. And it’s not going to be hard, it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be weird. And for whatever reason, we followed through on it.
NZ: [So your original idea was to record covers of already-existing Christmas songs. How did you go from that to an album with all-original Christmas songs?]
JR: Well, once we started to…once we sat down with each other, the fact that…the concept was we were going to do this formulaic thing. Then as soon as we started to work, neither one of us could stomach any of the formulaic ideas, including having the music sound like Christmas music. Neither of us could stand it. And maybe why the collaboration worked was that we were fueled by this very powerful instinct in both of us to avoid cliché at all costs. So we worked and worked and worked, and I think we, you know, anytime one of the other of us succumbed to cliché, we’d be all over it. Just, like, “Nonono, we can’t do that. We can’t say that.” And so we beat this record out of ourselves because we realized, like, as soon as we’d written the first song we realized, “Oh, these potentially could be songs. They could be actual songs.” You know, I think quite a few of the songs, in fact every song on the record, if you heard it playing in a store or you listened to it with half an ear you wouldn’t even notice it was a Christmas song. And I think we worked consciously as we were writing it, as we were writing the words to make it so that if you did realize it was a Christmas song you still wouldn’t hate it. And that is no small feat.
NZ: [Was there a specific moment that you remember you and Coulton deciding to ditch the original plan and write a bunch of new songs for the album, or was it more a gradual thing that happened as you were recording?]
JR: Because we started out with the idea that we were going to do an album of covers, and we’re both very confident that we could learn a Christmas song and make a decent recording of it in five minutes–I mean, we’re both capable enough that if we decided, “Let’s just make an album of covers,” we could do it and the whole weekend wouldn’t have been a waste, you know?–each time we wrote a song, we kind of put it on the table and went, “Well that song’s good, but there’s no way we can write nine more songs, so let’s just do nine covers.”
And then it was like, “Okay, that sounds good. Let’s try and write one more song and then we’ll eight covers and two originals.”
And we just worked that way all the way until it was like, “Well now we’ve got seven originals, we should probably try and write three more.”
NZ: [So on your and Coulton's new album, One Christmas at a Time , there's a song called 2600 about a kid who desperately wants an Atari 2600 for Christmas and tries every angle they can think of to convince their parents to get them one. What was the first gaming console you received as a kid and how have your gaming habits evolved from there?]
JR: Well, I wanted a 2600 very desperately there in 1980, and the kids across the street had a 2600 which I went over to try and play every chance I could. And very quickly they realized that having a 2600 gave them enormous power in the neighborhood and they started restricting how many kids from the neighborhood could come play their 2600. And so I asked for one for Christmas and I got a Mattel Intellivision instead, which was, in the Betamax tradition, was regarded as the superior gaming system–the games were better, there was a Star Wars game even, the controllers had a numerical pad and a controlling disk instead of a joystick, and all these innovations that made it supposedly a better system.
But, of course, it wasn’t the better system. The games were…some of them were very awkward, they weren’t as fun. The control disk, was not the superior method of game control. And so I had this [Intellivision] and it was that classic blend of, like, guilt because I had received a wonderful game as a gift–and it was an expensive one, it was not a thing that I could be ungrateful for–but also no kids wanted to come play it with me. And I also, you know, there were a few games that were fun, but there were a lot of games that were just…like the Star Wars game, for instance. The concept of you flying your X-Wing fighter down the access cavern on the side of the Death Star, there was that concept, but that concept was executed in 8-Bit pixel graphics and you don’t feel like you’re flying a plane, you feel like you’re thumbing a disk while some blocks go by. And it was just, like, the thrill of the Star Wars connection was not, you know, did not equal a fun game.
So, in all honesty, I did not then become a dedicated gamer so that when the next generation of consoles came out, I felt like I had kind of been burned once before. And that feeling persisted, and I never really bought another gaming system.
Now, Jonathan [Coulton] became a dedicated gamer. I ended up playing Tetris on my…Mac Classic, I guess is where Tetris arrived, but, you know–and I can’t say for sure that my relationship to video games was forever altered by the fact that I got an Intellivision instead of a 2600—but I never did have another gaming console. So think about that.
NZ: [Wow, so you haven't really played any games besides Tetris in, what, 30 years?]
JR: Yeah, 32 years ago.
NZ: [Well, what are you working on now? What can we expect from you in the near future?]
JR: Well I’m trying to make sense of these songs that I’ve been working on. Jonathan and I, we had a good experience making this record, we had a great experience touring behind it, and every time something like that happens you come out the other side and it gives you a focus to reapproach your own half-finished work and with a new dedication. So my project for the next month is to sit here and sift through what I have and make a plan. And I think that I will probably end up asking Jonathan for help and asking Dave Bazan for help and…part of the experience of collaborating successfully with a couple of people now is that I’m learning to not be so shy about reaching out to my talented friends to ask them for, you know, for a little bit of guidance.
NZ: [In closing, do you have any advice or words of wisdom for our readers?]
JR: I think your listeners should do good and avoid evil, I think you should be very wary about investing in the stock market–it’s very complicated–and not everybody is an artist. Don’t kid yourselves. [Laughs] Happy New Year.
End of Transcription
Editorial, Column, Music Monday Tags: atari 2600, christmas, collaboration, Death Cab for Cutie, Fountains of Wayne, Harvey Danger, indie, Intellivision, internet, Interview, JoCo, John Roderick, Kathleen Edwards, Keane, mc frontalot, Merlin Mann, Nada Surf, not everyone's an artist don't kid yourselves, One Christmas at a Time, Roderick on the Line, Seattle Weekly, Shelby Earl, The Decemberists, The Western State Hurricanes
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