Henri Langlois once declared of Louise Brooks, “There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Brooks!” Since forming the Long Winters in 2001, singer/songwriter John Roderick has inspired similar hyperbole from music critics and indie-rock fans alike. With a smoked-wood voice, candied-cherry hooks, and lyrics such as “I’m leaving you all of my car parts / I didn’t have the money / or I would have gotten roses,” Roderick’s songs don’t get under a listener’s skin so much as puncture it and remain in the bloodstream.
The Long Winters have released two rock-pop treasures, 2002’s The Worst You Can Do Is Harm and 2003’s When I Pretend to Fall. Harm is sulfurous, etched with lost love, untimely death, and regretful acts of stupidity. Like oxygen, though, Roderick’s wit bubbles to the surface. When he sings: “If you think you’re gonna be here long / I’m gonna miss you so much when you’re gone” on “Unsalted Butter,” one previews, in its more acrid form, the rollicking humor that will shoot through Fall. And on songs like Fall’s “Prom Night at Hater High,” Roderick evokes more with a few lines than most scribes do with entire records: “Sitting there where you buried your pets / Get up! We’ll dig graves for your invisible friends.”
Yet the Long Winters almost never happened. The son of a Seattle attorney, the young Roderick faced intense pressure from the elder to pursue a legal career. (“I was eight when my dad started talking to me about becoming an attorney,” he says.) The family moved to Anchorage when he was three, and life changed irrevocably after his parents divorced while he was still in pre-school. Possessed of alacritous intelligence and a wrought-iron will, Roderick set off on his own at seventeen, hopping freight trains and hitchhiking back and forth across the continental U.S. Over the next four years, he split his time between Spokane’s Gonzaga University, Europe, and the road. In 1990, at twenty-two, he set up camp in Seattle. Throughout the nineties, Roderick studied comparative history of ideas at the University of Washington (teaching a seminar at one point), held a panoply of jobs, and kicked it with several bands, most notably Western State Hurricanes. The latter garnered buzz but imploded before they could get signed. Fed up with Seattle and himself, he walked across Europe for five months in late 1999.
I met with Roderick for doughnuts and espresso on a chilly afternoon in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. A voracious reader and self-professed “history nerd,” Roderick is reflexively articulate, deeply thoughtful, and hilarious: a born raconteur. He sports large, square tortoise-shell glasses and a rampant beard, both on scale with his 6’ 3” frame. At thirty-six, Roderick is a grown man in a landscape teeming with baby-faced emo lads: part court jester, part philosopher-king.
I. “I WROTE STORIES WHERE THE PLOT WAS THE MAIN CHARACTER HAVING TROUBLE PEEING.”
THE BELIEVER: Your music with the Long Winters is singular, but I think what really sets you apart is your writing. Besides songs, what sort of things did you write before you were in the Long Winters?
JOHN RODERICK: I scribbled for years. I have a stack of spiral-bound notebooks with heartbreak poems, but I never did anything with it. I felt the work wasn’t good enough, too unfiltered and ugly. I was always waiting for the right moment to make a record. I was waiting to get good enough, waiting to make the perfect thing. And one day I finished something. I made the first Long Winters record, and it was such a liberating experience. I got addicted to the feeling. We have a running joke in the band. When anyone completes something, we shake our fists at them and say: “Finisher! Goddamned Completer of Things! Who do you think you are?”
BLVR: Were you one of those kids who started writing at a very early age?
JR: Yeah, the other kids got their Apple IIe’s and played Castle Wolfenstein, but I immediately started writing stories. I wrote humorous essays for my high school paper. When Dave Barry started publishing his column in the Anchorage Daily News, my thirteen-year-old sense of humor thought he was just the greatest living American writer. So I wrote columns in a Dave Barry-esque style. You know, “Definitive Guide to Toilet-Papering Your Neighborhood.” I chugged along happily and got to the point where I had written a dozen different humorous pieces in a row, and I felt like I was developing a reputation as a writer, as a “humorist.” I suddenly felt all this pressure to be funny. I got a case of writer’s block that lasted sixteen years. Suddenly everything I wrote was terrible, because I had lost my innocence.
BLVR: It becomes a form of paralysis.
JR: Yeah, so I turned to drugs. [Laughs] By the time I was twenty-seven, I was scribbling in really tiny handwriting, really small, crazy reviews of the weather and modern architecture.
BLVR: I’ve read that you took on two or three day jobs simultaneously around this time, so that no single one became overwhelming. Are you referring to that era?
JR: Yeah,I grew up middle-class and I knew the middleclass was unholy. I fetishized the working class throughout my twenties. I’d go get some job as a dishwasher or unskilled laborer, feeling confident that I was earning my beer at the end of the day. I wanted menial work to be more noble, but it wasn’t. After nine months I’d get myself fired, and then the fluttering wings of the little poet in me would say, “I’m too delicate and precious to be elbow deep in dirty water.” So I would get a job at a stock brokerage or at a bank. I’d get a haircut and shave and I’d think, “I’m going into the belly of the beast.” Like William Carlos Williams, I’ll be a doctor all day and go home and write my poems at night. I’ll be a rich banker who publishes his sonnets anonymously. After nine months I’d get fired from that job, too. I decided that work was something to be avoided at all costs. I’d be like a character in a Russian novel and mooch off my girlfriend. I’d do that for nine months until I started getting cut off, girlfriend slamming doors, drinking buddies complaining, “I’m sick of you bumming smokes.” And then the cycle would begin again with a dishwasher job. I tried to justify myself a hundred different ways, but the truth was that I was lazy and I liked beer.
BLVR: Which dovetails into something I wanted to ask you. Have you been compared to Charles Bukowski? Because some of this reminds me of him.
JR: It’s great when someone compares you to Bukowski and you’re twenty-four and in your mind it means you’re Mickey Rourke. At a certain point, though, you don’t want to be Bukowski anymore. You don’t even want to be Mickey Rourke. God knows I tried. I wrote stories where the plot was the main character having trouble peeing, and, really, you have to be a great artist to make that kind of thing readable.There’s something deeply boring about making a career retelling the story of your childhood abuse, or your adult habits. I don’t want to write songs that go, “Woo woo, baby, tried to score, hurt so bad, piss myself, huh!”
BLVR: Hemingway maintained that the finest story he ever wrote was just six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.”
JR: Ouch. See, that’s quality pathos.Thing is, alcoholic, selfish, self-destructive people are fun to slum with and learn how to hotwire motorcycles from or tell good mushrooms from bad. But at a certain point, you get ripped off and you get sick, and you realize you’re just another drunk and how the hell did you get here? These aren’t your friends, they’re just alcoholic selfish people.
BLVR: In a weird way, your lyrics remind me of Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker, too.There’s a palpable ache beneath a rollicking wit, and there’s a meticulous attention to language.
JR: Thanks. Be careful not to compliment me too much, because I’m apt to say,“Don’t you think my last quip was rather like Dorothy Parker?” I’m an ass.
II. “WHEN GOD MADE BIG, LOUD-VOICED MEN, HE DID IT FOR A REASON.”
BLVR:At your solo show in January, you seemed to be fucking with the crowd. Most people liked it, but some were definitely irritated.
JR: Y’know, I’m a big, loud person and have always pissed off the small, dark, serious, self-conscious smokers in the back of the room. I have to interrupt the audience if I sense they’re trying to be cool. Partly, it’s because when God made big, loud-voiced men, he did it for a reason. I can’t be Keith Richards or JohnnyDepp-as-Keith-Richards, so I play to my strengths. I’m differently abled.
BLVR: It’s a kind of hazing process.
JR: It is hazing, but I want people to be engaged. I won’t stand there and play my songs to a room full of people who take themselves so seriously and aren’t capable of relaxing and being entertained. Through some bizarre evolution of rock and roll, the audiences now are like stuffed shirts. I despise when people turn into that. So my knives are out all the time, in the hopes that one in twenty people I meet is going to show some kind of life. Indie-rock culture is the real ghetto of people who have convinced themselves that they’re too sensitive to be yelled at or to yell, and they cry real tears when they see a flower lose its petals.
BLVR:When it’s genuine, though, it’s different.
JR: But those people belong in institutions.They should be in a really soft antiallergenic bed, and have people bring them tea that isn’t brewed too strong. But with the vast majority of people who put it on as a pose, I just want them to see what they’re missing. Life is better with a little conflict. People need to pose, I understand that. But I much prefer the pose of a Brooklyn tough guy, or an Asian break-dancer, which at least has the appearance of a full breadth of emotion. I mean, this isn’t an original observation. I’m not doing anything novel or brilliant by addressing the crowd directly, by asking things like, “Is my hair OK?” Or pointing out individuals and saying: “You, with the white belt. Quit frowning.”
BLVR: It’s entertaining to watch how different crowd members react. At your September show, you said that Seattle is good for its size, but you prefer New York. Two guys booed, and you asked one of them where his mom lived so you’d know where to send his stuff when he was dead. It was great. Do you use that line all the time?
JR: No, it was improvised for that particular gentleman. He acted pissed that I was talking about his mom.
BLVR: Some people love it, and some want you to shut up and play.
JR: Right. Like I’m there to entertain them. Sheesh.
BLVR: And the amusing part is, when you actually start to play, there’s the juxtaposition of this schoolyard rockthrowing and absolute poetic brilliance. I can’t think of another show where I’ve seen that kind of juxtaposition onstage.
JR: I’m hoping to actually convert one or two people per show to an ability to laugh at sad stuff without being hopelessly confused. Or to be at a show where it’s OK to hear things that they wouldn’t feel comfortable saying themselves. My fondest desire is that the world ends up being a little less serious and dull. If there’s any tenuous comparison to be made between myself and Oscar Wilde, it’s that he was a working writer and a playwright, but he made his public persona a sort of third art form. He thought of himself as a pin going around letting air out of all these overfilled balloons.The Long Winters don’t exactly allow me to think of myself as a pin going around letting air out of the world. Maybe I’m like a colorful ribbon, rubbing up against balloons and creating some nasty static electricity.
BLVR:That sounds vaguely obscene.
JR: Although Wilde said something like, “Great artists are boring conversationalists, and interesting people are never great artists.”The first time I read it I was scared, because I realized I’d rather be interesting than brilliant. And it’s a hard moment when you choose being fun over being brilliant, because seldom do the twain meet again.
BLVR: I saw a guy recently wearing a T-shirt that said, “The beatings will continue until morale improves” and it reminds me of what you’re saying about your shows.
JR: [Laughs] I know, I’ve made it sound like the shows are total torture sessions.“Come see the Long Winters, less expensive than the dentist.”
III. “A RANDOM, UNCARING UNIVERSE DOES NOT PROVIDE SUFFICIENT MOTIVATION TO AVOID SLEEPING WITH YOUR NEIGHBOR’S OX.”
BLVR: If you could kill anybody and get away with it, who would it be and why?
JR: [Pauses] Well, you know, I’m not opposed to killing people. I’m naturally a critic, and I think killing people is a big part of being human. It’s what we do best.
BLVR: That and breeding.
JR: I’m proud to say that I’m a secular humanist, too. I don’t think there’s anything contradictory about believing in justice for people, and in turning around and killing people with guns. I’ve been thinking of a way to form an army of New Yorker readers and graduate students, with myself as the General, of course—beat some discipline into them—and wade into this modern “global” war, kicking ass behind the banner of a set of encyclopedias. It’d be like herding cats, though.
BLVR: My mom and I have almost the exact same theory, that in the next war, the intellectuals should strike pre-emptively.
JR: Absolutely. [Laughs]
BLVR: Though, as my mom points out, we’re outnumbered, and therein lies the flaw in the plan.
JR: Intellectuals are outnumbered because they have a tendency to suck. I mean, there’s nothing supercomplicated about liberal ideas. Most people are perfectly capable of understanding the concepts. But intellectuals dress those simple ideas up with a lot of subordinate clauses until they make no sense to anyone. And if liberal intellectuals were just a little bit better at making their case, I think that the armies of the thinking classes could be a lot bigger. But the Left is totally balkanized now. There’s no unified idea of what it means to be a liberal.
BLVR: So, if you could kill anyone—
JR: [Laughs] I would lead my armies into battle with fundamentalists everywhere, slaying them with my righteous indignation. It would be like the Crusades in reverse. Convert to free-thinking liberalism or die by the axe.
BLVR: You would eliminate fanatics across the pancultural spectrum.
JR: And I would replace them with fanatics closer to my own beliefs. [Laughs]
BLVR: I agree with killing fanatics who use faith to harm others. But overall, I’m a bit more “live and let live.”
JR: Yeah, well, I’ve been waiting my whole life for those gray-haired North Carolinians to leave the rest of us alone, but they just get bolder and bolder. It’s made me realize that “live and let live” is a liberal curse. The devoutly religious don’t have a “live and let live” attitude about me. Most of them are quite certain I’m doomed to all eternity, and fuck them, frankly. I’m talking about non-Buddhist religions here, although I don’t know why they always get a pass. Any religion that claims Steven Seagal is a reincarnated Lama should be put to the sword. Let God sort ’em out.
BLVR: The people that I find most irritating are the ones who won’t say they believe in God, but spout this bastardized, New Agey, “Everything happens for a reason” thing. Someone once told me that “the universe” knew she was having a bad day and sent a baby squirrel to her window, and I couldn’t take it. We had a falling-out over it.
JR: That was the final straw?
BLVR: Who’s to say that the world is not being micromanaged, but this idea that, “Oh, I found the perfect apartment and it was the universe!” It purports to disavow Christian religion while adhering to similar beliefs.
JR: The problem is that no one has ever come out and given the right kind of booga-booga to a lack of belief in God. You’ve got a hundred different religions that want to attribute “the squirrel” to the divine power that cares, that has an active interest in whether you find an apartment, or whether you have bad cramps this month, or whatever. Meanwhile, all of the philosophers who negate God go crazy and end up in a hospital bed in Weimar Germany.
BLVR: Usually with dysentery.
JR: Because people like rituals.And the random, uncaring universe is really terrifying, I think. The secular humanists need to come up with a reason to be good, something higher than secular law, and then attach some tambourine-banging festival to it. A random, uncaring universe does not provide sufficient motivation to avoid sleeping with your neighbor’s wife, or ox, or whatever.
BLVR: And in some respects, I don’t think we’re designed to comprehend a random, uncaring universe.
JR: I think it’s easy to comprehend. I just don’t think it’s easy to get out of bed every day and go to your thankless job and keep it in the forefront of your mind, because we do ask ourselves: “What’s the justification for this? What’s my reason for doing what I do?” And the religions provide that motivating force.
BLVR: There’s that certainty.
JR:Yeah, the certainty that God will judge bad people in the afterlife. Will you still be nice to your kids or your coworkers if your nitpicking, micromanaging god wasn’t watching you make eggs in the morning? Is it just religion that’s holding us in check? Obviously not, because there were centuries of religious war, but the International Court in the Hague waving their bony fingers at us hasn’t really slowed the killing down. Ultimately, we want there to be a God, if for no other reason than we want God to make the Hitlers really suffer.
IV. “I WALKED FROM AMSTERDAM TO ISTANBUL… I WALKED ACROSS ENGLAND TO GET ACCLIMATED.”
BLVR: In your online tour diary, somebody asked you to choose between eating any kind of food for the rest of your life but only listening to country music, and eating one kind of food but listening to any kind of music. You were the only band member who chose the food.
JR: I’d rather have all the food in the world than have all the music in the world. I like music OK, but I have a very close, intimate relationship with many kinds of food. I make music, and my fondest hope is that it finds its way to people who will listen to it over and over and relentlessly collect the B-sides and the import singles and so forth, but I’m not actually one of those people, and I never have been. I mean, I ride on the train and listen to Either/Or on the headphones and am transported, but I don’t want music constantly running as the soundtrack to my life. I don’t put it on to take up space in my mind.
BLVR:You don’t do the iPod thing?
JR: I don’t do the iPod thing. I don’t listen to music when I’m exercising or when I’m doing the dishes or any of those things, because I get claustrophobic and can’t concentrate either on the music or on the thing I’m doing. I think it’s the way a lot of people’s brains are wired. A record that sells three million copies is a huge hit, and we have almost three hundred million people in America.
BLVR: And even if you rule out the children and the elderly, that’s still a huge chunk that didn’t hear it.
JR: A lot of people. A huge indie-rock hit is a record that sells fifty thousand copies, which is about the size of the Nation of Islam. Even if you’re making records that really connect with an audience, it’s still a very, very small audience of people.
BLVR: What have you called it before? The indie-rock mafia?
JR:Yeah, and it’s a cultural subset that’s smaller than the audience for televised curling. Indie rock’s gaining, though.
BLVR: Let’s talk about your walk across Europe. I know that you walked through Europe for five months and that you finished in Istanbul. But I’ve read, alternately, that you began in London and that you began in the Netherlands.What was the trajectory?
JR: I walked from Amsterdam to Istanbul. I landed in London first, because I got a cheap flight. But since I did no training before I left and my boots weren’t even broken in, I walked across England to get acclimated. I’d been living in Seattle for ten years, sleeping in the same bed, and I had grown timid and soft.
BLVR:You stayed off the main roads, right?
JR:Yeah, I stayed off main roads as much as I could and stuck to fields, paths, and country lanes, although Europe is fairly populated. Sometimes I was forced into bigger towns. God knows why I kept walking. I was headed southeast, and the countries got poorer and poorer. It was during the war in Kosovo, and I was in the Balkans, Romania and Bulgaria, and the atmosphere was pretty charged.There’s almost no reference point to describe the conditions there. They lost the Cold War, you know, and most of us think of that as just a metaphor. But it’s not. Parts of their cities look like they were bombed. Bulgarians, Ukrainians, and Russians were badasses twenty years ago. Their factories made strong tractors and they sold fighter jets to Egypt and their gymnasts won Olympic medals.And then one day the factories closed and the people were back to growing onions in the yard and drinking homemade brandy. It’s almost like they lost a hot war.
BLVR:You got class credit for this at the University of Washington. How’d that work?
JR: I had a totally random plan. I’d made an appointment with my advisor, just to explain that I wouldn’t be taking classes in the fall. He suggested that, if I emailed him as I walked,and the emails had a certain “academic”substance, he’d give me credit. It gave a purpose to my natural inclination to daydream about the Roman Empire, or the Thirty Years War,or the Prague Spring,as I walked.It reaffirmed my belief in the American educational system.
BLVR:You’ve said that your feet started to “ring” after so much walking. How so?
JR:You know the sensation when your ears ring? It was like that, only it felt like my feet were ringing at night. They literally felt like they were ringing.
BLVR: Did you have an end goal in mind when you started walking?
JR: Istanbul. Although I knew that if I said,“I’m walking to Istanbul,” I would never make it. It’s too big a chunk to bite off. Unfolding my maps every night and checking the distance yet to go, I would have broken down in hysterical crying. So I just kept heading southeast, sort of tricking myself to keep going by telling myself I could quit at any time. I’m a nerd about history, and when you read history, you always go back to a point where you ask,“Where did all these Germans and Hungarians and Slavs and Celts come from originally?” They all migrated from somewhere, and I wanted to see what that was like, as dumb as it sounds. I wanted to shock myself into feeling human, and I couldn’t think of any other way to do it.