(The Long Winters [L-R]: Jonathan Rothman (guitar, keys), Eric Corson (bass), John Roderick (guitar, vocals, piano), Nabil Ayers (drums).)
“Listen,” Gilles said, “you can do this only so long through ignorance. Reality comes to everybody if they stay long enough… Learn that every day will be different; some days you will be ‘brave,’ and some days you cannot. Don’t punish yourself with it. It’s normal. Cut down your emotional output. You can carry on indefinitely if you stop thinking so much…” His advice was to come back to me many times and I see that day now without any sense of shame. It was as if a door had opened, slowly at first, to a new understanding… So began the long winter retreat of emotion.”
—British war correspondent Anthony Loyd on surviving the war in Bosnia, My War Gone By, I Miss It So (1999)
One fine summer day in 2004, John Roderick—singer, primary songwriter, founder and agitator-in-chief for the Seattle, Wash., arts/rock collective The Long Winters—put himself to bed. And he rarely ventured beyond its cozy confines for the next nine months.
The punchline to this seemingly abstruse joke? He’d barely even taken notice of the unavoidable fact that he’d fallen but couldn’t get up.
“By March 2005, I realized that more or less I had been in bed the entire time,” Roderick recalls over lunch one afternoon at an out-of-the-way French bistro in Seattle’s Belltown district. “I’d been working, mind you—I had all these workbooks piled up around me, I’d been writing, reading all these books I’d been meaning to get to. I got a book about the Hundred Years’ War: it was 900 pages long, and in June of 2004 I said to myself ‘I’m gonna start reading that book.’ And it’s one of those books that makes you start reading other books, so I eventually had four more books on the subject going at the same time. And, honestly, I looked around one day and couldn’t understand how it had gotten to be 2005.”
Given Roderick’s headfirst approach to life and tendency to occasionally stretch a metaphor to make a point, it’s tempting to believe he’s exaggerated the state of his circumstances for dramatic effect. But a dinner in Seattle with Brit-rock up-and-comers Keane evidently served as Roderick’s wakeup call, jolting him back to life over the course of a single night away from the house.
“That meal was pretty formative,” Roderick chuckles as if to himself. “These guys were young, coming through town on tour, having a ‘major label’ kind of experience—limo rides everywhere—and I was sitting down at the table with them like Will Oldham if he had weighed 220 pounds! My beard was down to here”—Roderick points emphatically to his chest—“there were swallows living in it, and everyone was suddenly solicitous when they’d call me on the phone. ‘How you doing, John, everything OK?’” he imitates in an overly bright voice, the air around him ringing with mock concern. “And I was pretty cheery; it wasn’t like I was hiding under the covers or anything. But that dinner made me think ‘Whoa! Time to take a bath! Time to cut my hair!’”
The title to his group’s first full-length in more than three years—the much-anticipated third CD Putting the Days to Bed (Barsuk)—at least partially acknowledges the cost of Roderick’s retreat from reality. Brimming with short bursts of power-pop energy, but spiced with the residue of resentment due to the loss of time and opportunity, the album is a grande-sized mug of the smart-assed synthesis of sweet and sour that characterizes Roderick’s best songwriting. Whether taking the shape of the band’s indie-meets-classic-rock mash-ups (the propulsive opener, “Pushover,” is the best Big Star song released in this decade; “Teaspoon” could be vintage Soul Asylum if that group’s maudlin melodrama was surgically removed and replaced by a corrosive self-awareness) or passing as a deceptively simple, artfully wrought brand of faux-folk (“Clouds,” the wistful refrain of “Seven”), there’s craftsmanship to burn throughout Days and a breezy confidence about the affair that’s eluded Roderick until now. Despite lineup shifts that’ve seen a dozen different musicians shuffle through the group’s ranks in only five years (including multiple members of The Posies, Death Cab for Cutie and Harvey Danger), it appears that a periodic dunk in the hermetic isolation tank nonetheless suits Roderick’s muse just fine.
“I think my native musical tendency is to make mid-tempo, seven-and-a-half-minute-long songs about Ulysses and the polar explorers with 70 keyboard overdubs that are ultimately beholden to no one in terms of whether they can be recreated live or if the musicians involved will stand around with hands in pockets saying, ‘Roderick’s been in a room with six keyboards for four days, and I can’t see through the smoke,’” he laughs, alluding to the layered sounds constituting the Ultimatum EP that appeared at the tail end of 2005. “But eventually some instinct kicks in and says, ‘Strip it all down!’ Every Long Winters disc has that dichotomy at its heart—the lyrics of the songs aren’t hopeful, but they are funny. This one is definitely angrier than the first two—and the musical expression has to compensate for that by sounding fun. I’m trying to make it sonically charismatic enough to compensate for the Sad Bastard at the heart of these songs.”
“Sleep delays my life (get up, get up)
Where does time go? (get up, get up, get up)
I don’t know
Dreams, they complicate my life (dreams, they complement my life)”—“Get Up,” R.E.M.
By various means, John Roderick has been attempting to rouse himself from a self-imposed slumber for most of his life.
Born in Seattle to an attorney father and what he calls a “formidable” mother, Roderick eventually moved to Anchorage, Alaska, after his parents split while he was still in preschool. He attended high school there and then, at 17, lit out for parts unknown, riding the rails like Kerouac before him and hitchhiking across the continental U.S. for the next several years. At 22, Roderick returned to Seattle, studying Comparative History of Ideas at the University of Washington (and ultimately teaching a seminar on the subject), while holding down a variety of odd jobs and scratching his musical itch in a number of go-nowhere bands. It was a tumultuous time—the Grunge Years, redolent of flannel shirts and angst for sale—equally freighted with possibilities and potholes. “There are musicians who emerge fully formed at 22. I wasn’t one of those,” Roderick explains. “I wasn’t even one of those 29-year-olds! For some reason, I really needed to get chopped down to size by a lot of years before I was able to create anything that was useful to anyone.”
By the time Roderick located a lineup that suited his developing narrative style—the four-piece Western State Hurricanes—the group imploded before it could be signed (the story goes that Roderick put his feet up on the desk of Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman during a negotiating session only to find himself on the wrong end of the bargaining). Confused by the experience and fractured by the tour that preceded the split, Roderick legged it to Europe and kick-started a five-month hiking odyssey that began at the gateway to Old Europe (Amsterdam) and came to a halt on the doorstep of Asia (Istanbul).
“I’ve said that I didn’t learn anything from that experience except what it was like to walk for five months, and that’s ridiculously flippant, of course,” Roderick apologizes. “I’m actually trying to write a book about the walk so that, once and for all, I can describe what happened and the ways in which it was a transformative experience. I’ve been working on it for five years; it’s over 450 pages long and only two-thirds finished. I’ve considered calling it SXSE and [I] write in it all the time; in fact, it was something I was working on during the year I was lying in bed. I found that when I began seriously writing every day, I didn’t have any energy left over for music—I got so absorbed in the writing to the exclusion of everything else. Looking back, it seems like a response to the idea that modern life is rubbish; I just wanted to walk completely off the grid, like, ‘My blob of royal jelly is a righteous blob, and I’m not part of the Borg.’ But to think that I was somehow more ‘authentic’ because I was sleeping under a bush somewhere in Bulgaria is total bullshit. So the book is an attempt to retain that childlike whimsy we have when we’re younger—looking under rocks, amazed at what’s under them, and aiming for a certain ‘Oh my God’ effect, as opposed to intellectualizing it all.”
Europe recently became the backdrop for another bit of enlightenment for Roderick, having just returned from a four-week solo tour of the continent, his first since deciding to pursue a career in music. The nerve required to ascend the stage each night alone—rather than from behind the protective safety afforded by the aircover of a full band—has revealed some unexpected and surprising insights about his craft.
“When I first started the tour, I was just getting up there and playing my parts, performing the songs with an imaginary band that no one else could hear,” Roderick relates thoughtfully, staring from behind a pair of impossibly thick, so-unfashionable-they’re-hip large-framed eyeglasses, cradling what’s left of his double Americano in a bleary-eyed attempt to keep his eyes pried open a mere two days removed from his final European tour date in Barcelona. “But as time went on, I realized that not only did I have the power to vary the tempos and the chords I’d written, but that I could be more theatrical and play with the music a lot more. As a songwriter, it’s really easy to hide behind the arrangement of the song—if it’s sacrosanct, then you’re powerless to f— it up. Going out on a limb and playing your songs as if for the first time every night is a lot riskier—and ultimately more interesting, since I would basically be phoning it in after three days if I wasn’t working hard to get my ideas over somehow.”
Roderick even spent some time while in Europe plying an altogether different sort of trade, serving as something of a glorified babysitter for the so-called “Undertow Orchestra”—Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan, Vic Chesnutt, American Music Club’s Mark Eitzel and Centro-Matic’s Will Johnnson, all of whom banded together and were playing shows across the continent during Roderick’s last week there. Forming what amounted to a mutual-admiration society and last-chance roving rehab clinic, the quintet blundered from one catastrophe to another during its time together. “Here we are: The Christian, the Cripple, the Queer and the Country-Rocker—everyone’s shitfaced but me [Roderick hasn’t had a drink in 10 years]. And I’m thinking to myself ‘What egg did I fall off of to get into this scene?’” he laughs. “They just kind of tumbled from thing to thing while I stood there and herded them around for a while. I suggested they do a tour of America and hire me as tour manager; I won’t perform at all, just drive them around and have a rew take footage. It’s too great to last.”