Career as an Indie Rock musician

John's active career in different bands

Consuming music at a young age (OJR)

While John's family is a group of music consumers, John is made of different stuff. From a very young age he would prefer to turn the lights out, sit still and stare at the speakers whenever he would listen to records on the record player in his room. Although he generally is able to multitask, he did not have a very easy time playing a record and doing anything else, which puts him into a different class than the "music appreciators" of the rest of his family, a reality that he doesn't know how to describe for other people.

John's entire attention is focused when music is playing, especially when it comes to music he loves. He cannot talk to somebody or work out or watch TV or even walk around the neighborhood. He wants to be thinking about what he is seeing or hear the birds while he walks. When music is playing, his eyes go dark and he wants to close them and go into the music, which makes it difficult to be a casual music consumer who listens to 20 records a day like others do. John can listen to Classic Rock on the radio while driving around town, because he knows all the notes and it has taken on a familiarity that doesn't require the same amount of attention. But once in a while there will be songs like Bad Moon Rising and all of a sudden he wants to pull over the car and listen to it very closely. In general John prefers his environment to be quiet. He is overwhelmed by music as often as he is drawn into it, except when he wants to sit down and study a piece of music, but he is not a voracious consumer and in a typical week it is difficult to budget a lot of hours with his eyes closed and headphones on in order to listen to a lot of albums.

While in High school, John discovered music in realtime. He listened to the music of the 60:s and into the 70:s in his own personal structured way, discovering it as it happened and following the natural progression of a band, but 15 years later. For example, in 1980 the Beatles music that appealed to him the most was the early, 1963 Beatles. He worked gradually through the catalog at maybe 1.5 times real-time speed, not because he had a strategy, but because he was pursuing his own taste while discovering more and more Beatles records. As a result he was a bit behind his peers who in 1982 were into Iron Maiden. He tried to participate in the heavy metal culture that dominated in Anchorage and even went to punk rock shows, but that was more like following his sister's nose. Unlike for his sister who worked at a record store, records were a scarce resource for John - he needed to come up with $10 if he wanted a record.

Wanting to learn the harmonica (RW67)

John really wanted to learn the harmonica, because he was a pretty good whistler. He spent a lot of time in this early years hitchhiking and during all that time when you are out on your own on a long stretch of road, you can either just stay there or you can start to walk and turn around whenever you hear a car. Even if John is only walking a 3 miles an hour, at least he is moving. So John would walk along whistling. Playing the harmonica would really have comported with the idea of being out in the middle of nowhere. When he finally got a harmonica, it was terrible. He didn't have the necessary pull of music making, but he would simply continue to whistle and be just as amused without having to learn anything. To this day John is bummed that he doesn't know how to play the harmonica, not even as well as Ryan Adams or Bob Dylan.

John’s first guitar neck (RL48)

John started his guitar career playing to British Steel on a tennis racket. In the early 1980s he went to a Punk Rock show at the youth center in Anchorage with 5 bands on the bill. Between those 5 bands there was maybe one person who had seen an instrument before or could do anything with it. The show was just a pure racket! The guitar player of one of the bands smashed his guitar all over the place and John ran up after the set and grabbed the neck of this guitar. He prized this broken neck from an Arbor Explorer copy as much as if Eric Clapton had given him his prized black Stratocaster (called "Blackie"). Now he had a guitar neck, the first guitar-anything he had!

For a while, John tried to air-guitar just with the neck, but found it insufficient. It is like masturbating with just your balls! At one point John found an old chess board in the garage and attached the guitar-neck at an angle to make a diamond-shaped guitar. In the early 1980s, checkerboard was a very popular motif! With that, John had a home-made air guitar which was better than a tennis racket and no-one else had one that looked like it! He had made his first instrument and even though it wasn’t actually an instrument, he still made an instrument! It had some heft and it had a real neck where he could run his hands up and down and feel the frets. It felt really individual! John air-guitarred to many ZZ Top-songs before he eventually decided it was time to learn how to play the guitar.

John's top air-guitar records were:

Merlin’s air guitar records were

The Scorpions are the great working men of Metal. They are Germans to boot! When they came to Alaska, they gave Matthias Jabs the eye: ”Du bist rockin!” Merlin was scared of Judas Priest because that was what the bad kids in denim jackets would write on their folders. At one time John met the guitar tech for Iron Maiden during Bumbershoot in Seattle. Merlin wonders if they are playing eights or nines. They are pretty small but they have hands like oak trees and are probably playing thirteens. Merlin loves Steve Harris and could listen to him play bass all day! John has met a lot of English touring sound men and guitar techs and they all share a similar character: They are very working class and very no-nonsense. They give off the air that they are tough guys, but when you really get to meet them, you realize that they are probably gentle with a girl. Because they live in this rough and tumble world, they adapt a manner of Interstate truckers. They are just tuning guitars all day without any knife fights.

How John's dad wanted to gift him guitar lessons (RW67)

John's dad used to have a little Charlie Brown pine tree in a pot and for Christmas he would string one bit of string around this potted pine. He loved Christmas, but he was a bachelor in his middle ages who didn't know better, so he would use paper grocery sacks that he folded over and stapled shut. Inside would be presents that he had clearly bought the day before. One year his dad reached his zenith when John got a paper that said "Good for guitar lessons". There was no way John was going to find guitar lessons based on that paper!

At John's mom's house, Christmas would be perfect with a real Christmas tree and all the presents perfectly wrapped.

John has a pair of Christmas stockings hanging from his mantel (during the month of May!). He likes them and doesn't see them anymore, but in December when he needs them, they will be there for him.

The High school years before his first band (OJR)

During the 80:s, starting in 10th or 11th grade, all of John's friends were playing guitar and were part of an aspiring heavy metal culture. They could play at least most of the guitar parts of Crazy Train, but John was a bit outside of that music movement. While he liked that kind of music, he didn't crave it. When his friends were getting together and jamming, he was intrigued by watching the guitar getting played and he would go and sit around listening to his friends. None of them was brave enough to sing, yet without a singer their music was just piles of piles of noodling, so John started to sing. When he didn't recognise the riff he would start singing his own words which everybody found hilarious and great, because this was producing something new. John found his way into Rock'n'Roll because he instinctively started humming first and then started to put words together and singing over it. His talent was in demand and he was recruited as the singer which he enjoyed, because the singer was the center of the operation. From there he was off to the races and he had found his place in the band.

John realized soon that he needed to learn to play the guitar if he didn't want to write songs just over somebody else's ripped-off riffs, because all those bands he was in were actually just playing AC/DC-riffs. He felt part of the generation of musicians in a post-punk consciousness that would not rip off anybody, but reinvent music every time they picked up the instrument. They would create something completely original, a new combination of different time signatures, kind of an early pastiche quilting of different styles. At least in the late 80:s there wasn't a style that included all styles and the motto "There are no genres!" was one of John's driving impulses of his early song writing.

John was terrible at playing the guitar. He notes that the first thing that matures in your adult artistic consciousness are your critical faculties and the first thing that your critical faculties do is criticize the work that you are creating. When you're young, your work isn't sophisticated or good, but your ability to perceive it as bad is very sophisticated. John started writing songs in the immediate aftermath of High school, making his own music by putting lyrics along guitar chords. He was proud of them, but they were objectively bad. Unlike his peers who had been practicing the guitar for hours and hours since the age of 12, he was just learning it from the age of 18. He was not learning from the act of mimicry by listening to records, but he was sitting with the guitar, knowing 5 chords without the ability to judge if what he came up with was the most common riff in the world or something completely original. His creations were embarrassing, but they belonged to him. For several years after that he would just write songs and play them for himself as a solitary activity. At a party he would have been shouted down had he played his songs.

John did not have the financial or social resources to put a band together, he wouldn't even know where to start. He was envying people who had a practice space and considered it as much wealth as one could possibly have to own PAs and some amps and drums. He did not understand how young people could afford all this. Up until the age of 26 John was writing songs every time he could get his hand on a guitar in somebody else's house, because he didn't own his own guitar. He had never played a show except in High school at an 8-year old girl's birthday party and except for a show at the Anchorage Tennis club where he sang without a PA. He did have a backlog of a couple of dozen tunes he had written over the years which he considered an asset for himself.

John's career progress measured in hotel room quality (BW205)

John measured his progress in show business by the quality of the hotel room that he allotted himself when he went places. On his first Rock ’n’ Roll tour he pulled over to the side of the road at a rest area as the sun went down, turned off the car and told his band mates to roll out their sleeping bags on those picnic tables to get some shut-eye. They were like ”What? Aren’t we going to get a hotel?”, but they were making $50 a show. They eventually convinced John to get them a hotel anyways and he realized that you are losing money as a starting rock band. They rented one double room for the four of them and it was two people to a bed. Later there was a moment when they could get two rooms and everybody was getting their own bed. It felt like a real graduation! Much later everybody was getting their own room. They had arrived! They were making money in music! In the beginning what they were getting paid wasn’t even enough for gas to get to the next show. Everything else, all other expenses were in the hole.

Playing a concert in Barcelona (RW85, RL163)

Spain was one of the places where The Long Winters were treated really well and at the height of their success they were asked to headline a music-festival in Barcelona. The Friday night headliner was Teenage Fanclub and The Long Winters were the Saturday night headliner, which didn’t make any sense because Teenage Fanclub was a much bigger band. (RW85) Dave Bazan was there (RL163) and there were lots of bigger bands all around them. Still, they were giving this honor. (RW85) John had really long hair at the time and maybe he was missing a tooth. (RL163)

The show was happening outdoors on Placa Reial, an enormous square in the heart of Barcelona. As they got out on stage, the monitors were just spraying white noise at them and John couldn’t hear a thing. He kept yelling at the monitor guy who didn’t speak English, it was exhausting and it felt awful. The crowd was on the other side of a fountain, separated from the stage by 25 feet (7.5 meters) and John couldn't get any crowd response. When he walked off stage, he thought it was the worst and he went back to his trailer and just stared on the floor. He was offending the promoters, because they thought it was a great show and they wanted to party, but John was just staring at the floor because he got so emotionally drained out there, he couldn’t even look up at people. That kind of experience is very rare. Usually when he steps over the threshold to the stage, his anxiety goes away and he is in performance mode which he is enjoying. The closer it gets to the end of the show, the more fun he is having, because whatever mistakes he was going to make are behind him and all he has to do now is get to the end and play the last song. If he does that well, then he will feel triumphant. (RW85)

They went on that tour with a good friend, a woman who went with them through thick and thin. At the end of the tour, she told them that their flight was tomorrow morning and she would send them a cheque, but instead she absconded with a bag of big money. There were 9 months of back and forth after that, but they never got a dime from her. In July of 2015, John found a picture of the two of them in a café in Valladolid where she was leaning on him. He John felt very sentimental and sent it to her without comment after not having communicated in several years. Sending it to her wrapped in a newspaper around a bulletproof vest and a Godfather 2 DVD is called a "Spanish Thread". Maybe she will send him 10.000 Euro! (RL163)

Tripping over the amplifier (RL125)

At one time, John was playing The Independent in San Francisco. Merlin might have been at the show, or it might have been in a phase where Merlin didn't come to The Long Winters shows because the sexual tension between them had gotten so high. John walked out on stage, they started to play the first song, and John tripped over his amplifier, fell backwards and broke the guitar that was behind the amplifier. He ended up feet in the air on top of the smashed remnants of a guitar, bounced back up and was like "Hello! Tadaaa". Later he read a review that sounded like "I'm a huge fan of The Long Winters, but this is the first time I've ever seen them live, they took the stage, they were drunk and completely unprofessional and did not play any of the songs in a way that sounded like they were on the record, I just wished they would take their job seriously and put up a professional show" It hurt, but he couldn't even do it!

John can't ever judge himself according to that standard, because it is like judging yourself against a completely anonymous and unknown world and wondering how any of those 7 billion people could conceivably not love what you did, which is completely bananas! John needs to remind himself that what he does has a small audience and that is not an indictment of it. It is small and weird, but the people who want to be there really want to be there. This is such a complex idea to keep in the front of your mind. It is illogical, because everything we see in our culture now is trying to be as big as possible. It has never been easier to put out something in front of other people, but at the same time all those other people are doing their own performance which is what they have to say about you. The paradox is: In your moments of self-doubt you are listening a lot more to people who are telling you what you need to be which is different from what you are. It is important to remember that the people who came along with you so far were there because they found something interesting in what you were doing. The worst thing you can do is to allow yourself to become less interesting in the service of pleasing a completely anonymous group of people, because they are never going to truly love you!

Delay pedal in demo mode (RL243)

During the time when John was playing shows with The Long Winters together with The Decemberists, his delay pedal would sometimes go into demo mode. One night, when they played in Boston, it happened during the show. In that situation you couldn't just turn it off and on again, but you needed to let it go it's course. Luckily John had a real sense of humor about it. If only he could be on the shop floor of Line 6 right now, grab the foreman and Ghost of Christmas Past him.

Being sponsored by Gibson (RW59)

From 2002 until 2010 he was sponsored by Gibson. Gibson got him free loaner guitars and was very gracious about providing him with the instruments he needed, even if he broke them on tour and even if he was abroad in Europe. John did not like the loaner model because he much rather would own them - the company could not even sell them to him later because of technicalities. He also feels somewhat obligated to talk about the company and be photographed with their products which is not really something he actually likes to do (RW59).

Taking a break from his active career (OJR)

The fourth album of The Long Winters is still in the making and John left the studio with 13 amazing tracks with every possible melody. He doesn't have a band anymore, lost his way again in the forest and spent a lot of time on Twitter. Eventually his record label got tired of sending him greeting cards, so everybody turned their attention to other things. John remains this rat king of potential energy and could release an album at any time if only he could recapture that profound, unbeatable feeling of just making it and then making the next thing. At that point in time it felt more like he is at the door of the Mines of Moria, reading some Elfish words, but the door does not open because the incantation doesn't have any power if you can't access the power of it.

These are the bugbears in John's life:

  • He never graduated from college.
  • He has never written a book, albeit having the notes for a handful of them.
  • He has not found a way to finish or continue his music career.

No matter which of those two alternatives he wants to chose, not getting it done at all doesn't feel right.(OJR)

Writing a song for Aimee Mann (RL181)

In November of 2015, John decided to do some shows with Aimee Man, Ted Leo and Jonathan Coulton in Los Angeles, San Francisco and across the country in Boston in order to make some money. He just recently had received a call from his accountant who told him that he didn't have any money. He ran for public office earlier the same year and didn't make any money doing that. Everything he bought while he ran for office can't be deducted. And when he stopped running for office he didn't just have a wall of money that he was able to unlock. At the time he was in California in a 40 year old RV, so he had to choose wisely what things he would buy at the Autozone.

Before he left for the tour, John wrote a song called Poor Judge for Aimee's next album Mental Illness. Originally it was supposed to be a song for himself where he was exploring some of the major themes of his work: sitting at the piano and writing a slow dirge about how love is a shit show (maybe he should send that one to Pat Benatar). He wrote the song, he liked it and he wanted to make it better, but couldn't make it. The usual routine: the song was kind of falling down all around him, a little like a sugar castle. He thought he was onto something, had made a good thing but it turns out it is garbage and there is no way through here to the other side. John set it aside and for whatever reason - possibly his new Lamictal medication caused him to go back to this unformed and slightly dissolved song. He took it apart, basically eliminated almost all of the lyrics, and re-used certain keywords to write a completely new set of words that were way better, the chorus adjusted itself and he had a song! He had taken this dissolved sugar castle and all of a sudden he had a tent city in the desert.

That's how it had always been for him: You write a song and unless it is perfect the first time you take it apart, which is hard to do and involves a certain amount of suffering, but then you come out the other side with a thing that you could not have been predicted being the end result when you started. After he had done all that and was very close to finishing it, John remembered that Aimee Mann was working on a record and he recorded it into his iPhone, just sitting at his piano and sent it to her spontaneously. She found it amazing and wrote back to him asking what he wanted her to do with it, and John asked her to finish it. Aimee is not the person who lets any grass grow and finished it in only two days. She took ownership of it. He sent it to her and proposed a collaboration, she accepted that proposal and at that point the song became hers, because she is going to put it on her record. The unfinished song went away from him, she went through the lyrics and at every instance where there was a line that was very John Roderick, like very impressionistic, like through several layers of oil paint when he was making a starry night, she went through and literalized those lines. In most cases it was the last line of the verse.

I was standing there
you were in a wing-back chair
I was climbing up the stair
and then the gas-fires of the refinery at the edge of the coast created a wave of black night sound of gong.

She replaced the last line with something that rimed with stair and that made sense. John can just keep that line and use it for something else, like you would keep seed corn. John had not collaborated in this way before, sending people a thing that he had written for himself and they took it and made it their own, but she made it sound like an Aimee Man song just by changing these weird sentences into ones that actually fit. He was then calling Jonathan Coulton in order to let him explain how this usually works for him and Jonathan said: "Either they send me half of a song and I try to finish it in their voice or I'm starting to write a song for someone in what I imagine is their voice. His Jonathan's latest record, there was a song called "The Nemesis Song", which Jonathan had written in imitation of John's song writing. That is an interesting skill he has. He does not feel proprietary about those kind of songs because he will write them already with the other person in mind and would not consider singing them himself.

John working on his album (RW39)

John had just been listening to one of his own tunes that he had worked on the night before and had put some guitar on. The song is part of the missing Long Winters album that he had started recording in 2007 or 2008, but that still has not made it all the way through to completion. Now he started to work on it again, but he has different influences now. He has matured. It is almost 10 years later and John is much more able to be unprecious about it. He used the tracks he already had and started to modify the songs. Diving in and trying to reinvent the thing after such a long time is pure folly, but he did it anyway, because he can not be dissuaded and he started to have success at it.

There is a song called "It happened this way" which they had recorded pretty metal and which they had felt really good about, but now it became clear that the song was dumb. It sounds like a Muse song that they had left off a record. John wiped all the other parts except the drums and wrote a completely new song in a different key. As John played it for the drummer later, he said that he would never have played that drum part to that song.

Those tracks are more or less fully recorded and for the last 10 years John thought they were almost ready to be mixed. All they needed are some vocals. Recently John got excited about a different sound and he started putting new guitars on top of an essentially fully realized arrangement. He loved the new guitar parts and reinvented the whole album. It sounded much messier and crazier and turned more into fuzzy, ear-warming music. There were a couple of songs that defy this new treatment and he was not going to mess with them, but there are one or two where John knew they could take a new guitar although they kept resisting being changed. One of them was in the 5/4-time signature, which means you can't just waltz in there and play some Tom Petty guitar part. John had been throwing everything at this thing, but it is like being in a trench during WWI and throwing the empty C-ration cans over the top.

John was doing all this work in his office that he also uses for the podcasting. Before Dan called him, he had just listened to the track he recorded the night before. The problem he often had in similar situations before is that he had shut down the system at 2am and said "Fixed it!" and then he came back in the morning and "Gibberish! What was I thinking? What loop was I in?" This time he had even put vocals on it, so he really didn't want this to be one of those situations where he thought he had reinvented music and it turns out it just sounds like a food processor. He played it and it was good! It made him feel very chill that it was so cool sounding and he almost had a whole record of songs at that time.

Studio albums vs Live shows (RW13)

Sometimes when John hears his music on the radio in public, he doesn't recognize it immediately. At first he finds that tune very catchy and it connects with him very well, but only later does he realize that he knows this band! He does not listen to his own records after they are done. His performance of the song evolves over time and when he listens to the album 5 years down the road, he is only appalled because that is not how they play that song!

Sometimes when they hire a session musician who learned the song from the album, John discovers parts that he had forgotten himself. In the studio, his goal is to make the most interesting and beautiful thing he can, but when he is playing a concert, he is trying to make the most stripped down efficient touring, because in order to create the studio recording live he would have to have 9 people on stage, while 2 of them would have nothing to do for a third of the song until they would play a triangle or some keyboard part or some bells.

All that is necessary in the record as far as John is concerned, but impossible to duplicate on stage unless you either have 9 people (like Arcade Fire), or the 4 people you have are running around like crazy, trying to cover all the different parts of the music. There are bands where the guitar player has a tambourine on the floor that he is stepping on while he plays. The guitar player and singer of the Mumford & Sons is also playing the kick drum during the show. These guys learn to do that and it is part of their sound, but it is so much more work to sing passionately, play the guitar and also think about that other part you are responsible for. People have come to John after the show and told him that his recordings are so much more headphone candy compared to his live shows which sound like The Who. Those are two different art forms!

Another one of John's dirty secrets is that he doesn't listen to recorded music at all. He listened to classic rock in High School like everybody did, because at age 16 you don't have anything to do. He was very poor when he left home and didn't have a record player, so he was dependent on listening to music in Denny's while he was smoking cigarettes in the middle of the night. Later he never picked up the habit again, because keeping up a music collection and stereo equipment seemed really expensive and involved. As soon as he became a performing musician, he was not interested in listening to albums and he generally prefers silence.

The music he knows the best is from the bands he has toured with, because he was standing next to the stage every night, trying to absorb what they were doing, trying to understand how they were getting the sounds, but he never listened to a Nada Surf record all the way through. He heard them play more than 100 times, he knows every note and the music causes him to be very emotional. The last records he owned were by Built to Spill in the mid 1990s. They connected with him and he would listen to them on headphones. The band went through several phases: There was a time when Doug Martsch would sing the first verse and then abandon the singing all together and just noodle on his Stratocaster. At one show, the bass player left during the last song and went into the bar because he couldn't take it anymore. Later, they hired a third guitar player and played everything verbatim like on the album, which was very satisfying. But in general, John doesn't care if a song is played like on the album or if it is improvised during a live show.

The third option are click tracks that play extra parts from the computer instead of playing them by a live musician. John finds that despicable, although he had friends who do it. In the initial lineup of Keane, the entire bass was on tracks. No one in the audience noticed, because their fans usually weren't seasoned musicians who are looking who is playing the parts. They eventually did hire John Vanderslice, who was an influence on them when it comes to all those cool sounds and effects. He went through a phase where he would have sounds on tracks while he was playing to pretty small audiences in small Indie rock clubs and it was just jarring and incongruous. He abandoned it because he really loved John Darnielle who is very stripped down and just lets the song speak for itself, which also influenced everybody to a degree.

The consensus among musicians is that casual fans who don't go to many concerts want to hear the music as close to the record as possible because they know the song in and out and want to sing along. Then there are live music aficionados who go to concerts all the time and are much more used to hearing improvisations and alterations. John has read reviews where the person was lamenting the fact that they monkeyed around with the songs, talked too much during the set and had an unprofessional attitude. He also toured with SR-71 who did the same "spontaneous" banter on stage every night. John found that just barfy. The guitar player would flick picks into the audience at the same moment every time. They put up a Broadway show featuring their own music. John could probably make his shows tighter and more efficient, but he is not getting paid enough, while on the other side the reason why he is not paid more is because he doesn't have a very professional show. John rejects that! There are many people casting spells on you and telling you what to do as an artist, but if it was just a matter of a rule book, then every band would be huge!

People will tell you that there is a rule book and you can see the ones that are trying to follow it, but it doesn't read as authentic and it doesn't give them any other leg up. If you do it all right and you have luck, then you are able to capitalize on that luck. Maybe The Long Winters were one of the bands that could have gotten lucky, but at that lucky moment, instead of going right into the next song, John chose to spend 15 minutes talking about the ancient Sumerians. Whoever in the audience was looking for the next hot band found it too bizarre and thought that John didn't want it badly enough. John does not like that person anyway and he is not performing for them. He is still working as a professional musician, which is more than 99% of the musicians can say. Whatever he did wrong, he did also something right.

Successful musicians will very rarely give you advice to change your thing. The most banter that Death Cab for Cutie would do during their 15 years on stage was "Thank you guys!" and they would go immediately into the next song. They never said anything! Now they are a little bit looser and will say something at one point in the show, but Ben has never even a single time advised John to stop bantering so much. That type of advice always comes from supposed managers, sound men, or lawyers, and you are almost obligated to ignore those kind of people. Now John is a famous schlub and effective podcaster and where would he have learned that skill if not by annoying people on stage.

Giving autographs (RW53)

During his career, John has signed the boobs of three different people, two of them were really not joking. There have been a couple of people who had him write out some lyrics on their arm and then they had it tattooed. John used to sign his name in Junior High Cursive, but "J" is the least appealing cursive letter and the whole name "John" is almost impossible to writte nicely in cursive. Then he realized that the "J" just needs to be a swoop and the rest follows thereafter. His signature is very unpredictable, while his mom's signature from 1951 and 2011 are so consistent that you could overlay them. At one point he did a little "JMR" monogram. In the very early 1990s, John was working in a clothing warehouse and had to initial the packing slip. He liked how the "JMR" looked, but for signing people's stuff it felt a bit like a rip-off. John wants to sign something for Dan's son who is very good at recognizing music and knows John's songs because Dan plays them in the car enough.

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