by Eric J. Iannelli


As you read this interview, there is a good chance that its subject, John Roderick, is reading along with you somewhere in his own little corner of the vast, more or less anonymous (that is unless the Department of Homeland Security and the RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] get their respective ways) virtual expanse of cyberspace. Since When I Pretend to Fall, the second album from his band The Long Winters, appeared last May, Roderick has been tracking the response across the web and keeping an aggregate mental tally.

"It's definitely been received well and received more widely than the first record," he says not long after returning from a short North American tour in support of the album. "The first record was, it seemed, sort of an indie rock secret pleasure. The indie rock mafia had all heard it, and it was received well, but it didn't burble up to that next level into general awareness." Despite its lack of acknowledgement outside the small circle of fringe taste-setters, last year's debut, entitled The Worst You Can Do Is Harm, could be seen as having laid the favorable groundwork for the new release. This, in addition to the fact that a gap of just one year separated them, enabled When I Pretend to Fall to pick up where its predecessor left off. And it has indeed moved into some higher plane of acceptance, scoring reviews in the most unlikely of places. Even national mainstream periodicals such as Details and Entertainment Weekly have covered the album. Roderick is clearly enthusiastic, but checks any runaway optimism with a footnote: "It's still within the college rock world. It's not like it's penetrated the national consciousness."

[ the long winters ]

The qualifier is not modesty per se, but perhaps something akin to a protective maneuver. Whether at the level of obscure specialty magazines or supermarket tabloids, the guilty indulgence of following your own press exacts a price, like the toll taken on a puppy that keeps returning to the hand that alternately feeds and beats him. Roderick is no more immune to the sting of negativity than, say, J-Lo; he claims to be a victim of his own nave, insatiable curiosity.

"Now, I'm sure Michael Stipe learned a long time ago not to read everything that's written about him. Or Neil Young. But I'm just learning for the first time. It's my first experience with a wider audience. My friends keep telling me that I shouldn't [read the reviews], and I keep digging on the Internet and find some kid in Iowa City, Iowa, who has reviewed it on his blog and he says it doesn't measure up to his high standard of emo sincerity. I get distracted by all that."

And in a publishing democracy like the web, where everyone from the fast-food burger engineer to the indie rock e-zine writer has his equal say, there is bound to be some difference of opinions -- and very strong, unabashed opinions at that. According to Roderick, who has been known to embellish a good story to make it even better, this has been particularly true in the case of When I Pretend to Fall.

"The reaction to the record is really powerful. Nobody is ambivalent. It's either love or hate," he says, though he himself sounds unsure about whether this is a good or a bad thing. "Taken together, the reviews have run the spectrum. The criticism cancels itself out. At one point or another, someone has picked every song on the record and said, 'This is the best song on the record.' And every song has been singled out as the worst song on the record."

The discrepancies have left him puzzled. "I don't hear anything on the record that I imagine you could listen to and be really offended by. For whatever reason, [half of the bloggers and reviewers] say 'Nora' is an abomination. It fails to accomplish what they imagine I was trying to accomplish. I have no idea what they think I was shooting for. The other 50 percent that have heard it say, 'This last song is a real highlight.'"

By monitoring the web chatter, he says, "[y]ou're privy to all of these cross-conversations between kids that are talking among themselves. They don't expect you'll ever read it. They're comparing and contrasting in their own vernacular, using music touchstones that I have no idea what they're talking about. It's curious to tune in to the discussions about the work that you've done that are more widespread. It isn't like a case of me being upset about the reaction, because a lot of them are hysterical, but more like astonished."

But if anyone should have a skin thickened by adverse criticism and self-inflicted hardship, it's Roderick. He has accumulated his share of bruises since 1998, when he began his infamously short-lived stint with local darlings Western State Hurricanes. This was about the same time that one Everett True arrived in town with a chip on his shoulder and an axe to grind. The band -- and Roderick, in a more singular sense -- was unlucky enough to find itself in True's crosshairs. Shortly after joining the The Stranger's music editorial staff, the British ex-pat began waging a battle against what he saw as over-hyped mediocrity personified.

[ the worst you can do is harm ]
[ give a listen! ] "Car Parts" MP3
96kbs/47sec/570kb

"That experience was really startling, because that was the first time that anyone in the press has singled me out and tried to take me down," Roderick explains. "But that was local," he adds, as if brushing the memory aside: what happened four years ago in an urban sliver of the Pacific Northwest seems like ancient history. Roderick's scope has grown to include the national -- and even the international, now that When I Pretend to Fall is about to get its European release through Amsterdam-based Munich Records, an event that will likely prompt a whole new batch of web reviews from across the Atlantic.

However, for all his gripes about the way his hometown has treated him in the past, and for all the mistakes he has personally made -- most notably in the amusing, albeit disastrous, episode with Sub Pop exec Jonathan Poneman that cost Western State Hurricanes a label deal -- Roderick acknowledges a serious debt to the city. Though raised in Anchorage, Roderick is a very much a Seattle native, and The Long Winters are very much a Seattle outfit. In fact, it's safe to say that the band wouldn't exist if Seattle were any less like itself.

"It's really easy to say The Stranger doesn't support the scene, and there's a lot of bitterness and bitching on the part of people that don't feel like they're a part of that coterie of people, and their complaints are justified because it is a clique, just like any other clique. But you get out of Seattle and travel around and see that this talent pool doesn't exist anywhere else, or is so easygoing about it. Even the people who have sold tens of thousands of records, there's a premium put on them continuing to be humble.

"I've never seen it exist anywhere else," he continues. "San Francisco is a much bigger town, but my experience down there is that the music scene is nowhere near as cohesive. It's not this amazing talent pool of people. You go to any show and you'll see Jon Auer [of The Posies and Big Star] or [Death Cab for Cutie guitarist] Chris Walla, and they're all standing around to see the music."

Roderick himself has benefited immensely from the fellowship and cooperation. After the rapid dissolution of Western State Hurricanes, he was recruited as a touring keyboardist for Harvey Danger. This was when the one-time cover band had its flirtation with success in the very late '90s -- though, admittedly, the group's final days are never recalled as particularly happy ones. More recently, his band has enjoyed the renewed support of Death Cab for Cutie on- and off-stage. Both Long Winters albums were recorded at Chris Walla's Hall of Justice (the first was put to tape largely to satisfy Walla's repeated urgings), which kept costs to a minimum and gave Roderick more freedom to experiment.

"A thousand times more freedom," he clarifies. "For both records I spent at least a month in the studio. The first record cost me, every last cent, $5,000 to make, and the second record cost me $6,500. At one of the other studios -- just the studio rental fees, if they were giving me the cool-guy midweek rate -- I wouldn't have been in there for a month. No way. Not for $200 a day.

"Having it feel like your clubhouse while you're there is great. It spoiled me in a way. There are bands that get in the studio and knock out a whole record in ten days, but I like being in there and noodling around. When we recorded 'Nora,' the first thing we recorded was the drum track," he explains. Then Sean Ripple, the vibe player in American Analog Set, dropped in at Walla's request. Without any more guidance than the drumbeat and a simple piano melody, Ripple was instructed to play the vibes whenever the drums stopped. "So we were constructing the song backward with no idea of what the song structure is and what it's going to sound like." In an environment where time equaled more money, the song would have been different or would simply not have been at all.

[ john roderick ]

PAGE 1 | PAGE 2