NOISE: Tarrying, tangling with Long Winters' John Roderick

San Francisco Bay Guardian
Kate Izquierdo
Publication date: 
October 11, 2006

NOISE: Tarrying, tangling with Long Winters' John Roderick

Guardian contributor Kate Izquierdo recently spoke to Long Winters' John Roderick – and found him to be quite the eloquent, provocative wag. Chalk it up to his Welsh heritage? Here’s the rest of her talk with the man.

Bay Guardian: Rolling Stone recently described you as a “folkie.” Does this come as a surprise to you? How would you describe yourself at this point if you had to?

John Roderick: Well, obviously Rolling Stone continues to be the most culturally relevant arbiter and go-to "paper of record" for all things pertaining to American music, but in this particular case they were referring to a live, solo, acoustic performance I did recently in New York, and so I think they can be forgiven for mistaking me as a folk singer. After all, who else would stand alone playing an acoustic guitar? Lesbians and Communists! I'm lucky they didn't call me a Trotskyite. In truth, as everyone knows, I'm not a folk singer but a wily gypsy/klezmer trickster and balladeer in the great tradition of my people, the Welsh.

BG: Is it weird to have people come up and tell you that they know exactly what a song’s lyrics mean? Like when they get them totally, utterly wrong? I ask because my first reaction to the lyrics of “Ultimatum” was to be immediately reminded of “Young Girl” by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap.

JR: I guess it's the word "student" that made you think I was singing to some young girl, giving her the shine. It's never been clear, even to the people close to me, whether or not I might actually be an emotionally abusive, exploitative, drunken rapist posing as a sensitive singer-songwriter, and that's an ambiguity that I cultivate. It's also possible that I'm gay.

Either way, there's ample evidence in the song that the narrator is deeply conflicted about being the object of love, and all that "conflictedness" can't just be coming from "not wanting to be tied down". I mean, there's nothing conflicted about not wanting to be tied down. It's a perfectly unconflicted desire. It gets complicated when you actually want to be with the person, but you have heap plenty doubts about the looming avalanche of rules and regulations that follow a declaration of love.

Is it weird when people claim to know what the songs are about? Not any more. What's weird is when people come up and think they're married to you.

BG: But addressing someone as a student implies that either they have a lot to learn in general or (and this is what initially kinda soured me to the song) that they have a lot to learn from the speaker. What I am missing? What does that word mean to you as it's used it the song?

JR: Everything you say about "student" is true, except that I don't have any pejorative association with being a student or having a lot to learn. The one interpretation you left out is that the narrator also considers himself a student.

BG: Do you find that listener feedback changes your own relationship with songs? And maybe even the way you perform them?

JR: Only occasionally, when a listener has a way better interpretation of a song than I did. Usually, if a person's idea of a song improves upon the song itself, I'll tell them immediately what they've done and switch to their way of thinking that instant. Doesn't happen very often, though.

What does happen quite often is that people hear songs saying something they're not, for good or bad, and in most cases I just shut up about it. No one really wants me out in the parking lot after a show explaining my lyrics, even if a few people might think they do.

BG: Speaking of “Ultimatum”, one thing that jumped out at me when I listened to the new “electric” version of was the solo - an honest-to-god, twiddley-diddley guitar solo with like, flibbertygibbeting and no small amount of gusto applied! Solos imply both a desire to rock, but also the confidence to do said rocking. Do you think this is a sexy by-product of producing your own album?

JR: Yeah, and also a byproduct of having Kurt Bloch of the Fastbacks stop by the studio that day. Seriously, though, there's a very definite aesthetic to indie-rock that doesn't approve of a lot of the Long Winters musical choices.

I have a classic rock pedigree that predates the invention of grown men wearing angel wings on stage in all seriousness, and producing my own records just means I can start to really make the music I'm dying to make, which falls somewhere at the intersection of Foghat and ZZ Top.

BG: There was a clip of you performing one of those 826 benefits on Stereogum, and, alongside all of the unending kudos heaped upon you, there was one cranky dude in the comments section who basically wanted to know why everyone was, quote, “stocking up on kneepads and getting in line to blow” you. In the most absolute sense, all publicity is good publicity, no? What’s your take on “indie fame” as it relates to you, the Long Winters, and the future of the band?

JR: Indie fame is the kind of fame that will never impede your freedom to go jogging in Central Park without wearing a disguise.

Still, I will never complain if people are actually stocking up on kneepads. By all means, come blow me!

I think the Long Winters fall somewhere between it being OK for us to sample some crackers from the deli tray of the Wrens without getting our hands slapped, but not so far as to get drunk and spill guacamole on Sufjan Stevens' pants. My ultimate goal in this business is to get famous enough to either make a record with William Shatner, have a legitimate conversation with Paul Schaffer where he actually knows my name and has heard of my band, or to be romantically linked with a promising young actress (before she goes through her superskinny phase) in such a way that everyone thinks, "Why is she dating that guy?"

BG: Literal translations seem to endanger the larger message at the heart of many Long Winters songs. It would seem that the stories of the Long Winters are evolving from your own personal “ground level” view and becoming more of a view from 30,000 ft. Am I getting that right?

JR: Well, the ultimate goal is to have the listener "feel" the same way when they listen to the song as I was feeling when the events that inspired the song occurred. Does that make sense? I don't want anyone belaboring or fixating on what the "stories" are, if they can more easily enter the emotional landscape of the songs and just feel what they're about. I take a lot of the specific words, the ones that really locate the story in time and place, out of the songs when I do a second draft, because what I'm shooting for is that the listener be able to recall their own stories when they felt the same way.

BG: You have said more than once that you can feel Judas Priest’s influence on the Long Winters. Can we talk about that a little bit? Have you stayed with them throughout? Did you go see Halford when they came to town? Did you buy that big-ass box set that came out a few years ago? Can I borrow it?

JR: No, no, and no. Screaming for Vengeance was the last decent Priest record. Still, I really responded to their flair for the dramatic, and although I can't see any musical resemblance between us and them, I still feel like Judas Priest's little brother in some ways. Black Sabbath, too.

BG: Speaking of box sets, is there really a Long Winters one coming out? Deets, please.

JR: Vinyl only. The Ultimatum EP has four unreleased tracks and Pretend to Fall is a double gatefold. On the Control Group record label, the boxed sets are limited to 250, I think.

BG: Touring is a grind. Are there certain cities that have revealed a heretofore unseen socioeconomic luster now that you’ve visited for the umpteenth time? Do you feel that way about San Francisco? Or are we just a bunch of fruity nerd-fops with a penchant for mixed cocktails and bad warehouse art? Be honest.

JR: That's a generous description of San Francisco. No, seriously, SF is great if you get off of Market and away from the Castro and just focus on eating dim sum in weird holes. Most of our time in SF now, though, is spent in [Long Winters Web site designer/überlord] Merlin Mann's kitchen talking about emerging technologies.

Touring is easy if you're self-entertaining, which I am. I can enjoy myself perfectly well just staring at the cornices of old warehouse buildings for an hour, or studying the design of a cast-iron manhole cover, so it's almost impossible to bore me. Still, it's nice to play new places and meet new people, and that's happening for us more and more now.