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Interview with The Long Winters' John Roderick 
by Joe Szczepaniak on 2006-07-06

photo credit: Autumn De Wilde

You were recently at the Bonnaroo Music Festival, as a member of the press, writing for CMJ.com. Did that experience change how you look at music, musicians, members of the press, or music fans in any way?

Yíknow, when you play those big music festivals you hardly have any opportunity to just wander around and soak up the scene, and you certainly never have a chance to watch music journalists at work while remaining anonymous yourself. I appreciate now far better the fact that everyone has a job to do, everybodyís under pressure, and everyone is working hard. The press area was still hopping at 3AM with writers and photographers trying to get their work edited and sent off, which as a musician you would never see. As for how I look at musicians, well, that hasnít changed.

How did that writing opportunity come about, anyway? What other writing projects have you been involved in?

I write all kinds of stuff: reviews, rants, blather, and their fancier cousin ďthe essayĒ. Itís like writing songs, except I donít have to drive around the country in a van after I write an essay. I guess people are getting hip to me as a writer more and more, and CMJ thought it would be fun. Iíve been trying to write a book for the last five years, but I donít want to jinx it by talking too much about it.

How would you describe the process of producing "Putting the Days to Bed" by yourself? Was it everything that you hoped it would be? Since you were able to produce this album yourself, could it be said that this is the "purest" Long Winters album to date?

Hmmm. Well, thereís a lot of mystique surrounding the producerís art, and a lot of confusion too. Iíve been expanding my role as ďco-producerĒ over the years until it was obvious I needed to do a whole record myself, if only to see how little I actually knew. On our first record there were only three of us in the studio and we threw ideas around willy-nilly, but in the end only Chris Walla knew how to get sounds on tape. By the Ultimatum EP I had developed my own recording techniques and opinions and I wanted the freedom to put them to work. I still think that collaboration with another person is fun and exciting, but Iíve learned that I prefer to work with someone who talks straight. Floyd Reitsma, who did the engineering on the new record, was great to work with, totally creative and professional. As far as whether it was the ďpurestĒ Long Winters record, I think each one just reflects the moment in which it was created.

What made you decide to leave so many of the Ultimatum EP tracks off of the album ("The Commander Thinks Aloud" comes to mind)?

It has been suggested to me many times that I include The Commander Thinks Aloud on Putting the Days to Bed. I definitely want more people to hear that song, but I also am proud of the Ultimatum EP and want it to stand on its own. I didnít want to canibalize it, nor did I want to rerecord Commander, at least not yet. On the European release of PTDTB the EP tracks are included as bonus material, so over there theyíre getting the whole kaboodle. Iím sure that song will find people over time because it seems to be developing a life of its own on the internet. I guess if I was on a major label thereís no way they would have passed up any opportunity to showcase that tune, but one of the great things about being an independent artist is that youíre not obligated to try and sell yourself all the time. Sometimes you can just make something you love and put it out there in a small way.

As you've refined the vision for this album, have you done more experimenting or have you been exploring the already existent "vision" you've said that you had for your music in the past?

Well, whenever I use the word ďvisionĒ to refer to my own music, Iím being sarcastic. ďVisionĒ is one of those words that Iíve used ironically for so many years that I may have started saying it without audible quote marks, but Iím not being serious. People who talk about their ďvisionĒ are usually trying to take credit for stuff that other people have made. We experimented a lot on this record, both in the production and in the songwriting, as we have done on every record. Part of that is a function of not really knowing what weíre doing, and part of it is not really WANTING to ever completely know what weíre doing. Itís not a Motown situation where we nail the drum kit to the floor and say, ďthatís the sound!Ē Weíre always goofing. Taking more control over the production allowed me to record certain guitar sounds that are technically ďlameĒ, which happen to be guitar sounds I love. I want to play more heavy metal music in the future and Iíll probably call those recordings Long Winters records too.

With the band's two previous albums the writing seems to have evolved from very specific periods in your life where you were sorting through life, struggling to make sense of it in a manner. In that context, where did the writing for this album come from, and how did it evolve?

Sorting through that personal stuff on the early records was how I finally learned to write songs. I wanted to talk about stuff that I knew I had to conceal, and finding the oblique language to both describe a thing and unfocus it at the same time was a turning point for me. Iím still doing that same thing, but Iím trying now to unfocus and then refocus on a story thatís less opaque. Iím taking my own experiences and making them more general without making them blurry. Itís how Iím challenging myself as a songwriter. My lyrics always had definite meanings, but sometimes they were less obvious even to dedicated listeners. This record has several songs where the story is clear, but it only means I worked harder to conceal what the original story was.

When you wrap up production on an album like this do you experience the so-called postpartum anxiety that many musicians describe when they send their record out to the world? What are the positive and negative feelings that come with such a step in your experience as a musician?

Well, I think I would have a lot more anxiety if I felt like I was foisting crap out on the world and hoping no one noticed. I mean, I worked right up until the last possible moment to make sure every little thing I could think of was the best it could be. I was changing lyrics and arrangements until the very last hour in the studio, and then continuing to make modifications all the way through mixing and mastering, making tiny adjustments I thought really mattered. So on that last day, when it was absolutely finished and I couldnít monkey with it anymore, I had to take a deep breath and acknowledge that I made it the best I could. When I read reviews that take issue with the music Iím usually fascinated by them. The only reviews that upset me are the ones, both positive and negative, where the writer clearly was listening to the record with half an ear while IMíing their friends and then launches into a disquisition about what the lyrics mean.

The song "Honest" strikes me as having an incredibly interesting story. Where did the inspiration for the song "Honest" come from?

Iíve met so many people in the last few years who really invest a lot of emtion in their favorite bands, and Iím also in a position to know those bands personally, and to be friends with the singers that inspire so much devotion. Itís a curious position to be in, watching people project super-human powers onto guys you know, and watching those guys try to negotiate their new powers. As the shows have gotten bigger, Iíve started to see more mothers accompanying their younger daughters, and I just imagined that one might have a cautionary tale to tell.

With the recent commercial/media success of a few of your label mates do you encounter any pressure, whether from yourself or from others, to produce an album with a certain sound or feeling to itĖglistening tracks ready for the "OC" crowd?

The label doesnít put that kind of pressure on us at all, and we donít really put that kind of pressure on ourselves either. We all think the OC phenomenon is wonderful and hilarious, and weíd love it if the Long Winters music was discovered by Hollywood and they made us all rich and famous, but it isnít in any of our natures to intentionally pursue it. When Iím writing songs I picture a live audience, and imagine how theyíll respond to certain fun parts of songs, but it would be the biggest buzz-kill in the world to imagine a conference room full of music supervisors. I couldnít write songs that way and, if I tried, I doubt my label would want to put them out.

Your music draws from a rich heritage of rock music, as well as from your well of creativity, but it's difficult to draw any clear musical influences on this new album. What would you say some of those might be?

I think the reason itís hard to pinpoint my influences is that I donít really have very many direct musical influences. I mean, I learned what I wanted guitars to sound like from listening to ZZ Top, I learned songwritng from Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, I learned that it was possible to be amazingly complicated and still emotionally direct from Built to Spill, and I learned how to be a musician on my own terms from Death Cab for Cutie. Beyond that I donít really emulate other songwriters or try to be a part of a musical moment. Iím astonished when I hear a singer emulate his or her favorite singers, and I guess itís because the desire to sing is so personal and so innate that it feels like copying someoneís diary entry. Iím pretty sure that the Judas Priest influence is invisible in our music, but itís there.

How collaborative was the song-writing/recording process on this album in comparison with your band's previous albumsĖboth with the other members of the band and with outside sources (guest musicians and the like)? Was there a conscious decision to move in that direction?

I write songs in isolation, really, and donít show them to the world until theyíre done. When it comes to recording them Iím pretty open about everyone contributing their ideas and making changes that improve the music, but most of that stuff happens pretty fast in the studio, without a lot of time for working out parts or for deep thoughts. Coming up with musical ideas in that kind of environment is pretty high pressure; some people thrive on it and some people hate it. The more it feels like low-stakes fun, the better the result, but some folks have an energy in the studio that makes lighthearted fun impossible. Fortunately, Nabil, Eric and I all enjoy that process, and the engineer we worked with, Floyd Reitsma, is great at capturing the spontaneous moments. When it comes down to it, I try to play every part I can and only call in other people when I know someone can do a better job than I can. Thatís how Iíve made all our records.

How was it having Jonathan Rothman in the band for the creation of this record? Is he holding up to all your merciless hazing and mirthless cynicism? Has he become a snarky bastard yet?

Jonathan only joined the band after the record was finished, so weíve not had a chance to test his mettle in the studio. So far he has proven to be an incredibly hard working musician and very talented, but it remains to be seen if he can stand the white-hot cauldron of mock-scorn that is the Long Winters. Weíre going on tour for several months starting in a couple of weeks and I can see the fear in his eyes, which is promising. Weíll try to break down his spirit and then rebuild him in our own image. Eric and Nabil are already planning to gradually replace his clothes with the same clothes in increasingly large sizes, so he feels like heís shrinking.

You've got a pretty funny group of people on your website's message board, so here's a couple from them:

Yeah, theyíre a pretty amazing group of amateur scientists, actual scientists, music nerds and crazy people. The consensus on our message board seems to be that Iím the least reliable autthority on the music of the Long Winters.

Do you think "Putting The Days To Bed" will be received by the public the way "When I Pretend To Fall" arguably should have been, and make The Long Winter's a household name amongst "teenie boppers" and scensters nationwide, all the while skyrocketing The Long Winters to a life of tuxedos, limos and airplanes that provide gourmet, honey-roasted peanuts?

First of all, I already live that lifestyle. Secondly, I think the perception of When I Pretend to Fall has changed over the last year or two. When it was first released it was not regarded as an immediately accessible record. A lot of people had to grow to love it, and I think the same will be true of Putting the Days to Bed. One person claims itís a powerpop record, the next sees it in a direct line with Ultimatum, the next sees it as a neo-folk record. The initial response to Pretend to Fall was the same, mixed and confused. Only after people lived with it did it come to seem to them like an instant classic that should have been a smash pop hit. The only difference now is that, in addition to the new fans who will be discovering this record, all the old fans will have to discover it too, the same way they discovered Pretend to Fall, because itís accessible and inaccessible in the same way.

If you could pick a fight with one person, living or dead, who would it be, and what weapons would you hide in your socks?

Well, Iím going to say Hitler, because he was a really bad person and I would want to fight him. He made a lot of people mad and sad. I think I would put a gun in my socks, and maybe a bomb or some poison, because Hitler probably had a lot of guns and I might have to shoot him. If I fought Hitler maybe I could have won and made him see that he didnít need to be so bad. Or I would just shoot him and save the world and be famous. If it didnít have to be a person I would fight the computer in Terminator and Matrix.

Thanks, John.


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