I’ve forgotten when, exactly, I first discovered the Seattle indie rock band The Long Winters (and by extension, their frontman John Roderick), but it can’t have been long ago. I do remember how I discovered them, though - that comes down to one Merlin Mann, famed Internet person.
I was (still am) a huge fan of “You Look Nice Today,” the often-bizarre, always-hilarious podcast that Merlin co-hosted with his friends Scott Simpson and Adam Lisagor. And I’m a regular listener to Merlin’s show on the 5 by 5 network, “Back To Work,” which he co-hosts with Dan Benjamin.
So, being a fan of Merlin’s work and also a fan of great podcasts in general, when I heard that Merlin had yet another podcast, I checked it out. This show, “Roderick On The Line,” is described as a recording of Merlin’s weekly conversation with a man named John Roderick, who I found out was a Seattle musician.
I listened to an early episode, not knowing anything about John or his music. Right off the bat, I was a bit baffled by John - the man has a unique way with words/way of looking at the world - but after I listened to a couple of episodes I found myself laughing a lot and pondering various interesting topics and points made during the course of the show. So, naturally, I decided to check out John’s music.
I’m not sure what prompted me to start with what is, as of this writing, the newest Long Winters album: 2006’s Putting the Days to Bed. Perhaps it was just the album’s (relative) newness. I bought the album off iTunes, unheard.
I seem to recall that I was busy working on something as I started listening to PtDtB, so for whatever reason, the album sort of flew past. It wasn’t until days later that I re-listened. Something about the third track, “Teaspoon,” broke through that time, and grabbed me.
(Maybe it was the horn section. I’m a sucker for a horn section.)
I have a habit where I latch on to a new song and listen to it over and over, several times in a row, because it just moves me that much. “Teaspoon” had that effect on me. There was something in that song - the horns and their counter-melody, the rhythm section, the guitar, John’s lyrics - that worked its way deep into my head and wouldn’t leave.
I know I wasn’t made to play on a team
You weighed your suitcase down
But it still wouldn’t sink
I know that crime doesn’t pay
But I don’t know any other way
So from there, I dropped everything and started listening to the entirety of Putting the Days to Bed. I was startled by how great the first track, “Pushover,” is - it reminds me of a certain person in my life, a friend that I can’t say “no” to and that I just want to know likes me, respects me, and is proud of me, a friend I want to take care of and nurture the talent I see within her.
Unkind girlish walk
Like a deed to the world without the talk
As you wade through the crowd
I sit next to you, the seat’s still warm
For you I’m a pushover
I would, I would
(If I could I would)
I just want you to say, “Come on!”
(If I could I would, and if I disappoint it’ll be only once)
Wish me luck, wish me luck
If the writing in “Pushover” wasn’t enough, the second track, “Fire Island, AK,” really started solidifying John’s lyrical prowess, hinting at unexpected darkness in a catchy rock tune.
Here’s how I found out
A man called my house
He asked me what I knew
They found my letter
And I don’t have to wonder
No I don’t have to wonder
So I don’t have to wonder
Did it reach you
I was well on my way to completely loving the album when “Hindsight” started up, and John’s writing on this track is not only massively clever, but thought-provoking, and made me reflect on a lot of things in my own life and how it was going up to that point and how what I was doing with my life was making me feel, with lines like “Did you say what you wanted said / and now you’re just putting the days to bed?” and “Are you still training for the big race / by hoping the runners will die?” And on top of all the thinking, it made me laugh.
I could go on, doing a track-by-track breakdown, but essentially, this entire album worked its way into my head and wouldn’t get out. It took me a little time to warm up to a couple of tracks (“Sky is Open” and “Clouds,” specifically - I love them both now, but it was a gradual affection), but on the whole I completely fell for the album - from the touching “Honest” (wherein a mother warns her starstruck daughter not to fall for a rock singer) to the punchy “Rich Wife” to the lyrical depths of “Ultimatum” to the all-out rock of “It’s A Departure” and the pure sweet pop perfection of “Seven.”
Honest, it’s alright to be a singer
But don’t you love a singer whatever you do
Is your high horse getting a little hard to ride?
And your “little bit on the side” getting harder to find?
When you get restless at night but it’s too late to start
And there’s nothing left to eat in this house but your heart
Crave translates into slave
No one can harness the rain
And I can make myself into rain
You’ll feel me on your cheek
And on your sleeve
But not too familiar
But not too not familiar
It’s a new craze
Did you see me the way I imagined?
Every eyelash a picket or a wire?
Did you tease me when I went out of fashion
And your interest in me had expired?
I wound up listening to Putting the Days to Bed constantly, drinking in every bit of the songs. And, eventually, I started working backward through the band’s albums.
Next up was their second album, 2003’s When I Pretend to Fall. I was not prepared for the sheer amount of outstanding pop contained within. As I would come to find out, this album is full of fan favorites - I mean, you’ve got “Blue Diamonds,” “Scared Straight,” “Shapes,” “Cinnamon,” “Stupid,” “Prom Night at Hater High,” “New Girl, “The Sound of Coming Down,” “Nora”…hell, as a songwriter/band person I would kill to write ONE song as good as these.
So you can sell yourself on blue diamonds
Call Vice, it takes a day to explain the crime
You laugh at what the LA Times says about us
But delight at my first try at being sly
Stupid, you could call it that
Stupid, but you have no idea
How stupid I would feel
If fifteen years from now I see her
And she says why didn’t it happen between us, stupid?
You erased so many mistakes
By sitting up and smiling
Your solo show
I hope it never closes
It was the ride of my life
Twice you burned your life’s work
Once to start a new life
And once just to start a fire
John displays not only a creative mind for writing music (I still cannot get my head around the guitar part in “Shapes”), but also an incredibly unique lyrical approach that can simultaneously make you chuckle and cry.
When I Pretend To Fall is a lush, beautiful album. From there, I picked up the band’s very first album, 2002’s The Worst You Can Do Is Harm. Born of the ashes of John’s previous band, the Western State Hurricanes, this album is at once both very different from the other two albums in terms of feel, and very similar, in terms of songwriting cleverness. The first track, “Give Me A Moment,” is instantly relatable to anybody who feels as though they’ve spent time wandering directionless before finding their calling.
First sign of winter I want you to go
Take nothing with you and never let it show
Leave me alone now so I can pray
Lord, Give me a moment I’ve been away
(While I can’t find a YouTube video for this song, it has become a quiet favorite and it heavily inspired a song I wrote on our band’s debut EP, titled “Ten Years of Sleep.” More on that later.)
Where When I Pretend To Fall and Putting the Days to Bed are outright pop celebrations, The Worst You Can Do Is Harm feels, to me, like an intensely personal journey, and I relate to it differently but I adore it all the same. For instance, there’s “Scent of Lime”:
The worst you can do is harm
Waiting for the other shoe to fall
And shouting from your car at an empty road
The plainest words are the finest
I’ve been waiting half my life to find the real world
If you find the real world, let me know
And this gets to one of the things about the music of The Long Winters, and about John’s experiences, that I find so meaningful: John put out the first Long Winters album in his early 30s, right where I find myself now. I spent my 20s working, and didn’t do anything all that crazy or creative. Now, I find myself older, wiser perhaps, but with this creative spark in me. I had worried that I was past the age I could have done something with it - after all, Brian Wilson was 24 when Pet Sounds came out. What the hell have I been doing that’s so great?
John’s story inspired me to get out there and try anyway (I related this to him when I met him in Dallas in December, an event I am very thankful I got to be a part of). And now, I’ve been able to get on stage and perform my own music with people I love and am honored to share a band lineup with.
The Worst You Can Do Is Harm also contains what, I feel, is the song you’d pick if you had to pick a “definitive” Long Winters song. Like, if I had just a single song to sum up what the band is like, I’d have to go with this one: “Carparts”
I’m leaving you all of my car parts
I didn’t have the money or I would have gotten roses
You poured one more highball
But I had to go before my poor heart overflowed
"Carparts" is like a pure distillation of The Long Winters - musically catchy as hell and just purely exhilarating, a real indie rock rush, lyrically just absurdly clever and affecting.
Oh, not to jump around in time too much, but in between When I Pretend to Fall and Putting the Days to Bed there’s an EP, Ultimatum, which contains the flip side of my “pure essence of The Long Winters” imaginary single: the epic, haunting “The Commander Thinks Aloud,” John’s moving tribute to the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. It’s a song particularly meaningful to me, as I’ve always been a space nerd since I was a child, and I watched Columbia break up on reentry as it passed over Fort Worth.
The radio is on
And Houston knows the score
Can you feel it? We’re almost home
In terms of what John’s music means to me, I can think of no better summary than Merlin Mann’s own thoughts:
I go on about John’s stuff because, as much as I love so many bands and so many songs, there haven’t been too many musical artifacts of the last 25 years that stand up to both repeated listens and repeated scrutiny as well as John’s artifacts. At least for me.
That probably says way more about my age, sensibilities, and attention than it does about “the world.” But, I suspect it says the most about what it means to find music that grows up with you. That survives one’s own moods, jobs, addresses, bedfellows, and haircuts, and just sounds better and more satisfying as you change, but still keep hitting, “PLAY” without hesitation.
John’s not for everybody. Nothing is for everybody. But, it does give a person a warm and weirdly rewarding feeling to find those songs with personal durability.
John’s music is part of a rare collection of works - for me, this collection includes artists like Brian Wilson/The Beach Boys, Sleater-Kinney, Talking Heads/David Byrne, and They Might Be Giants - that stick with me even as I grow and change, works that I can never really get out of my head, works that never get old no matter how often I hit “play” on my iPhone or drop the needle into the groove of the record.
And lately, it’s helped me come to a realization about my place in my own local music world. The big scenes in Fort Worth are things like Americana/folk, scream-y punk bands, fuzzy trippy psych rock, and blues-y bar rock (not to mention country). I respect all of these fields, and I like a lot of the bands performing in them, but I don’t feel like a part of them. I don’t feel accepted in the audience, and I know my own music doesn’t fit with them.
Lately, I’ve been feeling like I have no place in this town’s scene. That my own music (our band is The Diabolical Machines ), recently affectionally described by the local alt weekly as “boutique pop,” doesn’t have a place here. I felt like an interloper, one without a scene to call his own.
But between my adoration of music like John’s, and a show I went to tonight (featuring my friends Lindby and The Breakfast Machine, two of the most outstanding indie pop/rock bands in town), I’ve come to terms with two facts: A. Yes, I’m in a niche in this city, but B. I’m not alone, with bands/friends like these. I am a proud indie pop/rock aficionado in a place where that’s a little odd, but I get to share bills with remarkably talented people who are super friendly and supportive. Tonight, getting to see Lindby and The Breakfast Machine do their thing, and then driving home with my sound system blasting Putting the Days to Bed on an oddly cool, crisp Texas evening, knowing that soon I’ll be sharing a stage with these people again, I felt like I’d come home.
This has gotten much longer and ramble-ier than I planned, but I’ll just say that The Long Winters are a deeply meaningful band to me, and John’s music has helped me find my own place in my own creativity and amongst my peers. That’s just one example that showcases the power of music, and I am very fortunate I get to be a part of it
And I need to never forget that.