The Commander Thinks Aloud

Song Exploder, Episode 28: The Long Winters - The Commander Thinks Aloud

My fellow Americans, this day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country. At 09:00am this morning, mission control in Houston lost contact with the space shuttle Columbia. A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas. The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.

This was president George W. Bush, addressing the nation on February 1st, 2003. A couple years later, John Roderick, singer and songwriter of The Long Winters recorded a song about the space shuttle Columbia on that day as it broke apart when re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. It is called "The Commander things aloud". This episode is made from an interview between Hrishikesh Hirway and John Roderick in front of a live audience in Seattle where they discuss how and why he made that song.

I am John Roderick. I had my pilot's license when I was 17. My dad was a small plane pilot and that was one of the ways we boned, in a small plane trying to make it over a mountain range. I had a lot of experience in planes and I always loved to fly! When the nose comes off the ground I always feel acharged. I didn't want to be a person who was anxious about flying.

At that point in 2005, we were still pretty close to 9/11 and the space shuttle disaster followed pretty close on the heals of that. But also, there were all those smaller disaster crashes, the Alaska airlines crash off the coast of California where they lost their vertical stabilizer, the jack screw. The pilots were aware that there was a problem, everybody was aware there was a problem, it just flew around and then flipped upside down and plummeted into the ocean. Then there was the one off of Long Island where the gas tank exploded. There was that Lear Jet that lost compression and everybody in it gone until it ran out of gas.

All of these disasters stuck with me, particularly the ones where there was a sense that the people on board knew that they were lost, but they were still alive. The unfolding, dawning realization that they were not getting out of this. What is your reaction in that situation? Do you scream? You probably don't. Probably everybody is really calm in that situation and so I pictured the astronauts on re-entry. They knew that there was something wrong with their ship. They were worried about it, but everybody had convinced them it was going to be fine. They were performing their duties, they are having the peak-experience of their lives, maybe one of the peak human experiences, coming back to Earth, having just looked down at Earth and having that feeling how beautiful that dumb little stuff is. The beauty of the mundane: "Boys and girls in cars and dogs and birds on lawns", seeing it maybe like no-one else would ever see it.

Did you sit down with the idea that you are going to write a song about the space shuttle disaster?

Yeah, but I didn't know how it is going to work. Every once in a while you get one as a song writer where you sit down at your instrument, you have an idea, you have a first line, you sing it and you compose the entire song in an hour and then you go "I don't know where that came from!"

I resisted piano lessons as a kid, but at some time in High-school I started to sit at the piano voluntarily when no-one was home and I tried to figure it out and I got as far as you could go if you were just practicing for 11 minutes at a time. I didn't really learn the piano until I was in my 30s when I learned the piano as much as I know it now. In the early 1990s in Seattle especially there was a mentality that you didn't want to over-learn your instrument, because that was going to affect the authenticity of your feelings and I embraced that hook, line and sinker.

The producer of this track was Tucker Martin, he had just a stand-up parlor piano in his living room. Now we would probably just record one measure and loop it, but at the time I had to sit and play it for 5 minutes when I would get to the end, he would go like "Hmmmm, let's hit it again!"

Eric Corson, the bass player of The Long Winters and my chief musical partner sat down at the microKORG, which was not an instrument he knew, but he worked with it for a little bit and figured it out. There are 5 or 6 moments in the song that without Eric's part would be so much less of a complete work. His part is very cinematic.

As the song unfolds it just starts to go sideways and every successive verse, stuff is starting to break. Most of the Long Winters songs are about relationships and they are intentionally difficult to parse rather than in a literal language, and so as I was writing this song and as I made my way through the emotional story I was trying to tell, I did arrive at a place where I needed to give a clue somewhere. I was embarrassed to say that "The crew compartment is breaking up", because I felt like it was too literal, but it needed it.

The thing was: You sing it once, the second time everybody gets it, the third time everybody has heard it now and the fourth time they go "Okay, alright!" and by the fifth and sixth time it starts to get annoying and then a new kind of gravity enters in seventh time. You start to feel the emotion!When John performs it live, he will start to cry during that part if he is not careful.

Those are real violins. We tried to get a little string quartet to come and he ran several passes at it. We took that and played it double speed and they did their own version of this kind of swarm of bees.

We didn't have a drummer and it was like: "Who should we get? Should we call that one guy?" or: "I could get the best drummer in the country" Any producer would make that choice if he had Matt Chamberlain's number and Tucker did. And he managed to not just introduce swing into it, but make this piano part which on its own is very square and on top of the beat and he played to it and introduced swing to it, played a little bit behind and a little bit with this tremendous breadth and energy and watching it all happen was a revelation to me as a musician. I understood how much I had to learn.

What Matt did: He came in and set up his drums and he had one microphone that he pulled out of a bag and set up himself. We were all just watching him, like you would watch a black panther that came into your kitchen, it was like: What is he going to do. He put the microphone in front of his drums and he was like "Okay, record me!" and so he plays for about a minute and says "Okay, play that back for me!" and he listens to the track for a minute and then he stands up, walks around and he moves the microphone imperceptibly, sits back down and says "Roll it!" and he plays all the way through the track.

I was listening to it and was going like "I'm the song writer and kind of the main guy here. Nah, it was pretty good. I mean, I've got some comments" and when he got to the end he was like "Roll it again!" and he didn't wait to hear any comments from the song writer, which is like "alright..:" He played through it again and I was like "Yeah, that was very interesting, this kind of variation" and he was like "Give it to me again!" He did that 5 times. Then he was coming into the control room, sits down and he says "Pan those 5 tracks hard left, middle left, center, middle right, hard right" in the order that I recorded them. Those were 5 mono drum parts and he had the foresight that there are drum-fills that start on one track and continue through all five tracks. This was something truly amazing!

The best part of his drum kit that I forgot to mention was that he had some piece of rusty sheet metal, just attached to a clamp and he starts to go up to this sheet metal and all that sheet metal noise that he was creating, the whole end of the tune where the space ship is coming apart, he was making that sound on that rusty metal. He had a vision of the song that I didn't even have.

The title of the song wasn't clear until right about this point in the recording, so then if the commander is thinking aloud, then why is he telling us this story? "Because I wanted to bring home to you"

Do you have a sense of who he is addressing when he says that?

I don't publicly out myself as a utopian and a people-lover because it is not my brand, but I am an idealist and I love humanity and I imagine us all on a ship together and all with a common cause and space exploration seems like the ultimate expression of human beings doing their best work. So I imagine he is bringing that back to us, all of us, something that if we could only share that simple feeling of "Why the hell do we go up into space? We go up into space to bring back that little tantalising vision of the Earth, being a borderless place full of birds and boys and girls"

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