John Roderick has started smoking again. He’s putting the final touches on The Long Winters’ third album, and the stress has taken its toll. “You’re not judging me are you?” he laughs as he searches his shirt pockets for cigarettes. I assure him I’m not, and we settle in over espresso and cookies at a coffeehouse in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood.
Since forming The Long Winters in 2001, Roderick has garnered the kind of critical acclaim and fan loyalty most songwriters would trade a kidney for. The band has released two rockin’ pop masterpieces, 2002’s The Worst You Can Do Is Harm and 2003’s When I Pretend to Fall. Suffused with aching yet hilarious lyrics and a panoply of pop hooks, the discs thrust Roderick into the indie-rock pantheon.
But getting there has been a slog. It wasn’t long ago that he almost gave up music. He played in several bands during the ’90s and held an array of jobs (including a stint teaching Comparative History of Ideas at the University of Washington), but nothing gelled. “All through my 20s, I was waiting for the right moment to release a record, the right moment to publish something, and the only insight that I ever got from that was that there’s never a right moment,” he says. His band Western State Hurricanes generated frenetic buzz but disbanded after a deal with Sub Pop fell through. Still, he’s sanguine about the way things turned out. “If I had hit in ’92, I’d be dead. I’d be in a box somewhere. It was a different and uglier time.”
Even with the toll from the still-unnamed new record (“I’ll find a suitably conspiracy-inspiring title for it,” he promises) the present is better. He just returned from playing SXSW, and he discusses the frenzy Long Winters crowds whip themselves into, thanks to Roderick’s palpable rock-god charisma and oft-noted wit. (From a recent Seattle performance: “You might want to move closer to the stage. When I play my songs, dollar bills shoot from the speakers.”) “I’m hoping to convert one or two people per show to feel like it’s more participatory, where it’s okay to hear things that they wouldn’t be able to say to themselves,” he says.
New songs feature George Martin-esque string arrangements and several are built around Roderick’s piano playing. “We’re going to need a full-time piano player now… It’s a challenge to recruit one because everybody grows up wanting to play guitar,” he says. Then, ever the showman, he pauses and grins, changing the subject. “There’s no musician on the West Coast who will play with me because of my fussy eating habits. I can’t eat food prepared by human hands. I can only graze. On tour, that’s really hard because I need three or four hours to eat grass.”
He’s only half-kidding, though. Roderick is aware of his reputation as a perfectionist who engenders both fierce loyalty and the burning desire to kick him in the shins. So what makes Roderick worth it? While he’s kind and fiercely intelligent, what ultimately sets him apart are his songs. “I think it’s undeniable that humans, like flocks of starlings, can turn on a dime together without any perceptible communication,” he says. “We whirl and careen, linked by commonalities we can’t know. I hope that the songs I write appeal to the listener’s soul, even if by soul we’re simply talking about emotional life.