A Long Winters Wonderland

Source: 
Festive!
Author: 
DJ El Toro
Publication date: 
November 27, 2008

A Long Winters Wonderland

The following Q&A originally appeared in Festive! #8, in slightly altered form. All photos of John Roderick as Santa at the 2004 Three Imaginary Girls Christmas party courtesy of Kelly O.

IN THE BLEAK MID-WINTERS:
Christmas With John Roderick Is The Best

John Roderick is forever associated with hot pink in my mind. Not that he’d ever wear such a shade – John, with his ample beard and proud Alaskan heritage, is just a little too manly to go prancing around in neon attire. But in the winter of 2003, I was painting the wall of a so-called loft (actually an unfinished airplane hangar), in which Mark and I would soon reside, an eye-popping pink. My soundtrack was an advance copy of When I Pretend To Fall, the second album from Roderick’s ensemble, Seattle indie rockers the Long Winters. Slapping up coats of “the Navy blue of India" (bright pink), Florida orange, buttercup yellow, and robin’s egg blue, I grew intimately familiar with its stellar songs: “Cinnamon,” “Prom Night At Hater High,” “Nora.”

To my delight, a year later, Mark and I are ensconced in a much nicer abode (with such frivolous amenities as heat and a kitchen) and The Long Winters have recorded a holiday song, “Christmas With You Is The Best,” featured – along with selections by Low, Jimmy Eat World, the Ravonettes, and eels – on Music from The OC Mix 3: Have A Very Merry Christmukkah!. In the spirit of the season, and because I don’t spend nearly enough quality time with him, I took John out to lunch at the Red Line coffee shop to chat about Christmas tradition. He ordered the pulled pork sandwich with a side salad and a Dr. Pepper, I enjoyed the grilled chicken on ciabatta, and coleslaw, and we both had a swell time.

* * * * *

JOHN RODERICK: [Picks up promo CD and scans track list] I haven't actually seen this thing yet… well, we're in good company."
FESTIVE!: How did you get approached to participate in this project?
JR: The OC has developed a nice working relationship with Barsuk Records, because one of the characters has a Death Cab for Cutie story line written into their character. Their love of DCFC is the way they establish their identity as an indie kind of kid. I think it's the lead kid… this one here… he has a Death Cab poster on his bedroom wall. So the story is that he's an indie rocker. Which has been a great way for the OC to introduce all of these indie bands into their plot lines and soundtrack. They certainly have featured much more prominent bands than The Long Winters. Major-label indie bands. If it doesn't upset the oxymoron gods to say such things like that.

FESTIVE!: Actually, I believe that since signing with Atlantic, Death Cab now qualify as a major-label indie band.
JR: True. Anyway, in the trickle down economics of that kind of Hollywood largess, it has now trickled down to us. And that's great. They commissioned us to do a Christmas song. We didn't already have one.

FESTIVE!: Has your music been featured on the show before?
JR: No. It has not. Although they have talked about it. But I think the music supervisor has 700 bands she could use for any given episode.

FESTIVE!: Yes, but most of them are not The Long Winters.
JR: That's true. But they are the Shins, or the Postal Service. Bands that have rockin' profiles. They've used Nada Surf, who are also on Barsuk, and friends of ours. I don't know the music of Jimmy Eat World or some of these other bands, so I'm not in any position to say anything about them.

FESTIVE!: Judging from my experiences as a record store clerk, appearing on a successful TV soundtrack could do great things to raise your visibility and sales.
JR: It could, although the composition of “Christmas With You Is The Best” was done with tongue firmly in cheek. So if that was your first introduction to the band, I don't know if that would lead you to our catalog.

FESTIVE!: Is it just you playing on this track?
JR: It's the bass player, Eric Svengold, and I. And he actually wrote all of the musical parts. My involvement in the construction of the music was helping him take the parts, and create a song out of them. There are so many different styles of being a musician, and I have a talent for arrangement. We were in the studio, and he was coming up with all these great bits. And, because of computers, it really easy to just input a bunch of loops, and then build a song out of it: “Okay, that's been going for a minute… let's change it to something else…” Then I just went and wrote some lyrics in the backyard. It was done in a day. From start to finish, it was executed in the space of a single day.

FESTIVE!: The lyric, about having a “non-traditional, non-denominational celebration,” and spending the day in bed, is more than a little cynical. Do you hate Christmas? Or was this is a character exercise?
JR: No, it wasn't that. The combination of writing a Christmas song, for an evening soap opera, on Fox Television, that caters to the teen/early-20s demographic – all four of those parameters are so far outside of where I normally operate, that I felt like I was addressing an audience that I only barely understood or identified with. Because I don't watch Fox Television. And I meet these kids that enjoy the show, in the context of being on tour, so I know who they are, and I like them. So I was trying to write a song for them.

Now that I'm over the age of 35, I'm constantly struggling not to lecture people when I talk to them. I'm becoming a curmudgeonly old father. And every time somebody that's 22 years old makes a comment that I think is dubious, I hear myself go into this fatherly tone: “Now, listen here, child, while I explain the ways of the world.” So the Christmas song I was trying, frantically, not to be this hectoring, father creature, while simultaneously railing against political correctness, and also pandering to a Southern California mall culture. And, also, all the while, unable to keep a creepy, pedophiliac tone out of it. I can't excuse the outcome, or explain it. I'm not ashamed, though.

FESTIVE!: Have you ever actually had sex on Christmas morning?
JR: Christmas has, for me – like for most people – has been a terrible experience over the years. Every Christmas, you're just holding on for dear life, praying to God that nobody gets into a screaming match. Hoping to get through the whole family thing, so you can go to the movies.

FESTIVE!: Oh God, and you’re sober, so you soldier through it without booze or drugs.
JR: Yup. For years, the routine was just to start drinking as soon as you could. And then, as soon as you finished with the folks, you could start smoking pot and just let the day fade away. But now I can't do that. So I go to the movies. I've had relationships that were completely ending right at Christmas. I broke up with a girl on New Year's Day a couple years ago, and Christmas was just a complete nightmare, each of us staring at the other, not recognizing the other any more. [Adopts exasperated voice] “Oh God, here are your presents.”

I think that I was – again, pandering to a teenage audience – trying to envision the adult Christmas Day that every teenager would maybe dream of one day having for themselves. Where they could make the decision to not deal with their parents, and stay home and “get jiggy wit it.”

FESTIVE!: So this is the grown-up John Roderick writing a song for the adolescent John Roderick about what his pending adulthood might hold in store, ideally?
JR: Yes. And completely inventing a reality. That maybe, even now, is a dream. “Oh, maybe one day my Christmas will look like this, too.” But every year, you get sucked back into, “Oh, everybody is flying in, and we're going to have a tree.” Whee!

FESTIVE!: Where does your family live?
JR: They're spread around. You know I'm originally from Alaska. My uncle and aunt and cousins are coming down to go to Port Townsend this year. My Dad lives in Tacoma, my Mom lives in Seattle.

FESTIVE!: I take it they're separated?
JR: Yeah, adding that divorced-parent vibe to every Christmas past, too.

FESTIVE!: Do they try and celebrate together, “for the sake of the family”?
JR: For years they did that. And it was the source of many total meltdowns on Christmas. Then they abandoned that idea.

FESTIVE!: And now they fight over the privilege of your company?
JR: Yeah. And have, for fifteen years. But that's a year-round activity. Any time you're with one parent, the other one is wondering why.

FESTIVE!: Does the Roderick clan have any family traditions at Christmas? Do you tether a moose to an evergreen in the front yard?
JR: When you live in Alaska, it's really easy to get into the Christmas spirit, because it's snowing and, of course, there are moose in the yard, and you're already bundled up in your winter clothes. So I had a three-piece, red wool, plaid suit that I would don annually on Christmas Eve, and go take fudge and cookies to all the neighbors. In my red plaid suit. I did that for many years. But down here? Nobody would take that seriously. So that tradition has been lost.

My sister was the one that really kept trying to keep Christmas alive. A few years ago, after my sister moved to California, my Mom and I decided that we were just going to pretend to celebrate Christmas. When people would call on the phone, we'd be like, “Oh, yes! Christmas!” But we would actually do nothing. We would not decorate, we wouldn’t get presents. We might put Christmas decorations in the windows, so people wouldn't torch the house, but that was it. And that worked out quite well. But now, my sister has decided to come up this Christmas, so that tradition is out the window now, too.

Over the last five Christmases, I have gone to the movies, either with Jewish friends, who are sitting around going, “We can't get Chinese food in Seattle on Christmas,” or with my various angry, atheistic friends – the ones protesting the W.T.O. every day of their lives.

FESTIVE!: Are you looking forward to any holiday blockbusters in particular?
JR: No. I hate the movies. But you go, out of a sense of escapism. Especially now, living in a drug-free world, the movies are the only place I can go and have my senses assailed for two hours.

FESTIVE!: Maybe it’s time to follow your sister to California. I mean, you're involved with The OC now. That makes you a Hollywood player.
JR: It's so funny. Several years ago, in this town, the idea of commercializing your music, just in the form of selling it as a recording, was really questionable. Everybody was so anti-merchandise.

FESTIVE!: Five years ago, the Lashes would have been stoned to death in the middle of Pine Street.
JR: Three-quarters of the bands in this city would have been. The sort of naked ambition that bands in Seattle have now, and the way they feel completely justified about sending out weekly e-mails, about how their guitarist had a really satisfying shit two days ago, and sending it out to you. “Here are more cute pictures of ourselves.” Five years ago, bands were reluctant to talk about themselves at all, except with some form of lengthy apology, for caring about anything other than music in the purest form. And now, it's changed, culture-wide, so all these things, like The OC. There are tons of opportunities like this. “Oh, Starbucks wants to do this” or “We got an offer from Target.”

FESTIVE!: Wow, you mean you might be able to earn a decent wage doing what you like?
JR: It’s an opportunity to get paid a check. There's a Long Winters’ song selling Ford cars in a commercial in Spain. There's a long history of that being okay abroad, but not at home. In Japan, Michael Stipe will sell ground-up baby brains as an anti-aging cream. But here in the States, he has to pretend he's above it all. I'm still struggling to make the transition to this new way of thinking. “Oh, it's okay to just use your music and sell it?” I'm cool with that. In a sense, I always was.

FESTIVE!: Plus, “Christmas With You…” is a special instance, where you got hired to write on spec. It’s not like you whored out an existing Long Winters’ song, about deep, painful loss, to shill personal pan pizzas.
JR: Most of my songs are written as coded messages to ex-girlfriends, telling them what all their problems really were, because I couldn't find a good way to say it when we were dating. They're all like, “You know what? Here's your problem…” put to music.

FESTIVE!: Are there any particular Christmas songs of which you are especially fond?
JR: This is going to sound strange, for a variety of reasons, but Harvey Danger has a Christmas song that they have finally released this year, “Sometimes You Have To Work on Christmas (Sometimes).” And not only do I think it’s a great Christmas song, I think it's a great song, period.

Several years ago, before it had been released, when I was a member of Harvey Danger – this is in 2000 or 2001 – I actually went home and taught myself how to play it on piano. And I played it for Sean [Nelson] as kind of a Christmas present, and then we went out, and he and I played it at some kind of party. But in the process of learning it, I felt that it was one of Harvey Danger's best songs. The recorded version has an ending that feels a little tacked-on. It could have been a minute shorter, and a minute better. But of all the Christmas songs I’ve heard, that's the one that best tells the story of being young and alone on Christmas. It’s just really well done. Enough so that I think it stands up any time of the year: It isn't just for Christmas any more. That one has to really be at the top of my list of Christmas songs.

When they were on a major label, they submitted that song, and the label didn't know what to do with it. They were like, “Duh… maybe we'll release it this summer.” The label blew it. It should have been a staple for the last five years, but instead, it never got released. It's great the band is doing it now.

FESTIVE!: So the version on their CD single is a recent recording?
JR: No. They did it in 1998. Long before I was in the band. Their first record was already done, and they had been signed, and were in the midst of their big rock explosion. But it was before they had started work on the second album. It's an older tune.

The lyrics are a real accomplishment for Sean. A lot of times, Sean crams his songs full of images and vocabulary and intricate rhymes. This one is just a narrative tune. And every image in the story resonates, especially with anyone who has ever had to work on Christmas.

FESTIVE!: Are there any Christmas songs you hate? I ask because, as much as I love Christmas music, “The Little Drummer Boy” sends me screaming for the hills.
JR: Oh really? I really like “The Little Drummer Boy.” It always felt kind of like Rachmaninoff, translated into the dumbest possible context. A nice, driving, Russian-sounding march.

I had two Christmas song experiences recently. I went to a Thai restaurant the other day. And they were playing a looped collection of Christmas Muzak, Andy Williams crooning “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and so on. I was the only person in the restaurant, so when the waiter came over, I asked, “Can you turn off the Christmas music? I'm the only patron here, and I have to assume that you and everyone on staff are Buddhists. Can we dispense with the charade?” And he was like, “No, I'm afraid we can't. It's Christmas, and we need Christmas music.” So that was a nightmare.

And then I went to the Levi's store, because they're selling corduroys again. I didn't find any pants, but in the fifteen minutes I was there, they were playing Christmas songs by Creed and Weezer and Green Day. Happy, pop-punk Christmas songs. And that was hell, too. So I think I really hate all Christmas music, with the exception, perhaps, of “Little Drummer Boy” and that Harvey Danger song. Those are the two I could hear over and over.

FESTIVE!: Well, like it or not, you added to the canon now.
JR: And if I hear it in a Thai restaurant in a couple years… [chuckles]