Wrapping up a Long Winters album has never been an easy task for frontman and songwriter John Roderick. As he boasts in the most recent episode of his YouTube series 13 Songs with John, he could have made "22 really pretty good ska records" with the energy he's put into finishing up his Seattle-based band's much-anticipated fourth LP. After the Long Winters unveiled a handful of new tracks and a shuffled line-up at this year's Sasquatch! Music Festival, Paste checked in with Roderick to talk about the band's new members, the importance of wit and, of course, how that record is coming along.
Paste: You mentioned on Twitter a few weeks ago that The Long Winters would be playing some shows—"New tunes, new band!" What's that all about?
Roderick: We played Sasquatch festival and we're very close to having our record finished. The finishing touches keep eluding me, but we promised Sasquatch we'd have some new tunes, so we worked up three. [David] Bazan's backing band are the new Long Winters. Now we have a sort of romantic menage with his band and my band. I played on his most recent record and he's played on mine, so we've just increased the sharing. [...] Our drummer Nabil [Ayers] has become president of 4AD Records. He lives in New York now and works 80 hours a week as a record label head. At first we really wanted to try to keep working together, but it became clear pretty fast that he wouldn't be able to tour full time and take this great opportunity as a record label head. Johnathan [Rothman], who was our guitar player, was also living in New York. He decided that he wanted to join the straight world and become a math teacher. He's getting a Master's in math education. That's another pitfall of being in indie rock—indie rockers want to go be math teachers. Eric [Corson], our former bass player, is now playing guitar. He switched instruments and is doing a great job as a guitar player. We're all trying to imagine a world in which that band could be Dave's band half the year and our band half the year.
Paste: You recently recorded a spot as the musical guest on the final episode of a Minnesota Public Radio program called Wits. In the past, you've talked Twitter as a tool to share wit and observations, and wit is one of the more prominent features of your lyrics for The Long Winters. Can you talk a little bit about wit and what role it plays in your life?
Roderick: Wits are something that a think about a lot and have been thinking about a lot more. Rock music, as a career, is not necessarily a really high-wit environment. It's not exclusive of wittiness. There are a lot of artists who have wit not just in that they're funny but that they're quick-witted. Language is part of their art and part of what makes it interesting to them. There are plenty of musicians who are like that and also plenty that aren't. They feel like it's the rhythm of the music that does the talking. One of the things about indie rock that attracted me was that language was at a premium. People listened to the lyrics and they got it. If you made a double entendre that wasn't sexual, they got it and they enjoyed that wittiness. As I'm exposed to more and more people working in art, I find myself being embraced by and being attracted to a lot of people that are working in other media. They're writing for a living or they're stand-up comics or they're in public radio. These are the people that like to sit and banter and make reference to the whole breadth of their education and experience. There's nothing more fun for me than sitting around a table with five people who like to use language and enjoy sparring in that way. But it's not competitive.
Looking forward into the future, I feel like that's really the world that I'd like to be in, and as a musician, I have a chance to be in it. People want to hear songs that are more written. I'm lucky enough to be able to explore those other realms — writing and speaking. Indie rock is a good entre into that world for me.
Paste: You said earlier that the finishing touches on this record have been eluding you, and based on some of the things you've said in your 13 Songs with John, I've wondered if that same commitment to wit hasn't impeded your creative process some.
Roderick: It is [a blessing and a curse] for an artists working in any medium. At some point, you have to get over yourself and start to work. I was talking about this with [author and Daily Show contributor] John Hodgman the other day, and he just made fun of me. "Oh, poor me! I feel all this pressure to live up to my past work! I'm sure no one else in the history of art has ever felt that way." And he's right. It's not a unique situation to find yourself in. You just have to keep working hard. Writers' block is a phrase that's used to describe a whole wide host of conditions, and I would not say that I have writers' block at all. I'm writing all the time, but there is an expectation of my own work that does stand in my way a little bit because I'm self-editing too soon. I need to let go and let the stuff that I naturally am doing just happen and not stand in its way. That's why I'm thankful to be part of a community of people who also work with words because they also experience these issues. Some lessons you just have to learn over and over again.
Paste: Talk about your approach to writing this album.
Roderick: The topics, I'm trying to explore with a new earnestness. It's not that the struggle should be to be more snarky. The struggle is to be less snarky, especially less encoded and more revealed. That's always been a problem with me in my life and in my work. Now that I'm a little bit older and had my say a few times, I want to speak more directly, and that isn't what I've trained myself to be good at. I've always been sort of unwilling to speak directly. I find it less interesting, in most cases, when someone speaks unambiguously. The things I'm trying to talk about in music—love and death and drugs and sex—speaking about those things directly and unambiguously isn't interesting. You have to kind of get at them without speaking about them. If you're trying to speak to someone about love authoritatively, or like everyone doesn't experience it differently, you're a fool. You have to use poetry and metaphor because the words themselves fall short. I'm struggling as a writer to talk about those things more explicitly. It's hard!
Paste: If it doesn't come naturally and you think removing ambiguity and metaphor make the writing less interesting, why the newfound dedication to speaking more directly?
Roderick: I had several life events—my dad died right at the end of our last tour. It was a very real human experience for me, not one that I wanted to turn into a big metaphor. It was something I was interested in exploring as a singular event. My father and I were very close, and you only lose your father once. I wasn't comfortable exploring it in the language that I would maybe have employed at first blush. I wanted to get more concrete. That was very hard to do, emotionally, and it also kind of strained my facility with language. I'm still wrestling with it. I'm still trying to find the way that is the truest to talk about it. I felt like my writing had a responsibility to me, which is a weird way of putting it—that it needed to step up at this time. I wasn't just Mick Jagger writing a song about death where death is some sort of skeleton clown who he's taking heroin with along with Anita Pallenberg. I was writing about the death of my dad. It was a singular moment for me as a writer—"Okay, this is real. You're not speculating now." Of course, I've written about very real things in more shrouded words before because their emotional impact on me wasn't more shallow, but maybe more transitory. No matter how hard a breakup with someone is, it still fades with time.