The Long Winters

The first album - The Worst You Can Do Is Harm

Around 2001, Sean Nelson and Chris Walla, spearheaded by Sean, made John a suggestion: "You have all those songs, but you have never made an album. Why don't we make an album now?" The plan was to include half John's songs and half Sean's songs and Chris would produce it. John liked the idea and at the end of the Harvey Danger tour they flew on a small commuter plane from Davenport to Chicago and spent one really long day in the studio with Bob Weston. Bob was a hero and a big fan of the band. He agreed to make a recording with John and Sean, but right before they went in to record it, they had this heart-to-heart about what songs to choose:

John had 30 songs to choose from and Sean had himself been working on songs based on Peter Buck demos, songs that Michael Stipe hadn't picked (Peter would write REM records by going into his studio, record 15 songs, make a CD, and when he had 5 CDs, he would go to Michael and he would pick the ones he liked best, so there were a lot of really good songs that just didn't make it to REM songs). That however felt more like a project for Sean and Peter. The problem was that Sean didn't play any instrument and relied more on John to learn all those Peter Buck songs, while John was more focused on his own songs. They had an uncomfortable conversation that set the tone for many years. It was John's first betrayal of Sean, because John wanted more to make a John Roderick record and suggested they could later make a Sean Nelson record. Sean agreed. There is an argument to be made that John was being a mercenary and there is an argument to be made that John did the right thing. Out came the first Long Winters record.

The band consisted basically of Chris and Sean and John and a few of their friends:

John was confident he could play the bass himself. The feeling that somebody placed an instrument in his hand and he would be able to play it gave him the feeling he could play anything now! The feeling of discovery, of "Let me do it, I'll figure it out" was very exciting. He had $10000 and could pay for the studio. They worked on it for months without any restrictions. Chris was trying to be a producer, but this was the first 24-track record that he ever made, so he was learning this whole new genre and was contributing his advice just where it was needed. It sounded contemporary, much less distortion guitar rock than he'd ever played before, more pianos and small broken toy instruments and keyboard. It was the genre that became Indy Twee, not that the record was the source material, but it was happening in the stew of that time.

Summer in New York

At the end John was ready to leave Seattle. He had a tough break-up with a girl, had been in Seattle for 10 years, had lived it's course and had a good friend in New York who told him to "throw some shirts in a small bag and get on a train to New York". And he did, got a $125 cross-country train ticket, went to New York and lived there with her and his friend Chris Caniglia. During this idyllic time in 2001 he wrote almost all of the songs of the second Long Winters record in this little railroad apartment in Spanish Harlem, would walk around in the city all day for miles and miles, trying to walk every street, living off the last money he had from Harvey Danger. John stayed in New York during the whole summer and thought "This is where I belong".

Over the course of the same period, Barsuk wanted to release the album and they had learned that if a band wanted to put a record out, they needed to go on tour and they need a strong touring band which would be a lot easier in Seattle than i New York, because they knew everybody in Seattle. John was playing with musicians from New York at the time, but the model didn't make sense to him, like paying $300 for an hour in the studio. Going back to Seattle and getting the foundation of a band together was a good idea: Get a van and go out on tour. Once on tour it wouldn't matter where John lived and afterwards he would simply go back to New York. Seattle was just a temporary move to get his band up and running. Chris Caniglia wanted to be part of the band, bid farewell to his girlfriend and the two went out to Seattle to put a band together. John wouldn't let him be the bass player, so he became the piano player.

On their last day in New York, September 1st, 2001 they went on the top of the World Trade Center. After they had flown out to Seattle, 9 days later the whole world changed and they felt a bit marooned in Seattle because it was not a good time to go back to New York.

Sean was pretty disinterested in the band. He had helped to make that record, but felt a bit burned because they hadn't made a John & Sean record and he had other things to do.

The second album - When I pretend to fall

Off they went! The new Long Winters booked a couple of shows, with

  • former Western State Hurricanes drummer Michael Schilling, against better judgement (he was the guy who had broken up that band). He was hired because John liked him and because he was a good drummer.
  • For the bass player they auditioned Eric Corson, a guy who looked like he was in High School. John gave him a tape and told him what songs to learn and he showed up at the end of the week with no instrument. He did't have a bass, but had learned the songs on an acoustic guitar with only 5 strings on it. After they launched into the first song he played it flawlessly and left them gasping. He just nailed it, played it with feeling and rock'n'roll. He could play every note on the entire album and was probably by far the best musician in the room. Eric would later become the longest and most devoted member of the whole band.

Sean Nelson was in the audience of their first show, John invited him on stage and he sang his parts flawlessly through the rest of the evening. He came to the next show as well and from that time on he just was in The Long Winters. He was still pretty famous and John wanted him to be in the band for at least a year, and not just coming and going. They went around in the Harvey Danger van, a Ford Econoline, because they didn't want to have a tour bus (it had to be legit) and Harvey Danger already had this tremendous van with 40.000 miles on and The Long Winters just started using it, without even paying any rent, because Sean was in their band. This means The Long Winters were funded and supported by Harvey Danger and Sean Nelson in so many different ways: The money John used to make the record was his salary from Harvey Danger, Sean had produced the record, Sean was in the band, Harvey Danger provided the van.

Sean played the same roll for John that John had played for him previously: They went to interviews and radio stations together and Sean gave John somebody to talk to. They toured all around, finished the second Long Winters record and Sean and Michael stayed in the band even after the first year. Chris ended up leaving after a while, probably because John wouldn't let him eat raw tuna in the van.

The science of success

The first album of The Long Winters received glowing reviews, but it felt like a project album or a secret pleasure for people who got it. It came out at about the same time when the first Shins record came out, the first Decemberists record came out and the first New Pornographers record came out. Those other bands had great hits that sounded great on the radio, but for the Long Winters the closest they had to a hit was the song Car Parts. It did not connect with the audience in the same way, understandably so because the tempo was a little bit slower and it was a busier production.

Nevertheless, as they prepared to release their second album, there was a lot of talk that this would be the dynamite record that would launch their career. Their label was really invested because they had huge success with Death Cab for Cutie, but they hadn't managed to launch a second band and they did not want to be a flash in the pants themselves, so they created a lot of hype. While the first record felt like gravy for John because it reached #1 in Seattle and he was about to quit music at the time, he had lost some of that gratitude when the second album came around. He had developed expectations, he was talked about it in these lofty ranks of Indy bands that were universally understood, just like Spoon, or Built to Spill or The New Pornographers.

From John's perspective they had more success than 95% of all Indy rock bands, but they didn't have the same experience that Iron Maiden had when they released Piece of Mind and just had six full years of good news forward. The same had happened to Death Cab for Cutie when they released their second album. They would always play in the next bigger venue and it felt like a methodical process. It is tantalising if you are doing the same work, yet you play the same venue every time and you are lucky if you can get the same number of people as the time before. The Long Winters got very good response, but that little element when your band catches fire, when you sell 50.000 records instead of 20.000 records, when you cross the dividing line… That little element was always missing. They had all felt this potential energy that this record would catch fire and it sort of did, but just enough that you look around and say "What are we doing wrong?" They started to blame the record label because the record was not in all the record stores of a given city or because there was no review in the local alternative weekly.

When it works it seems like a science, but then the next band comes along and you do exactly the same things and it doesn't happen and you are left wondering what the hell happened to the first time? It is very tantalising to say that the reason it worked for us is because we are great. Then you hand-pick an amazing young band and say "People love me and I'm going to anoint this young band with my magic fingers" and make them huge, but then that doesn't work. John's record label was run by some young, intelligent and creative people and they have the same feeling as a young band has: the success is inevitable and of course they know how to do this better than other people do. The reality is: It's not a science.

Back on tour

In 2003 the Long Winters were in a stable incarnation,

  • Michael Schilling on drums,
  • Eric Corson on bass,
  • Sean Nelsson and
  • John.

They had come a long way, they no longer had to share beds or even rooms in the motel. They went all around the world with really good success. They went to Europe, did a pretty great tour, but it didn't ignite. When they came back, Sean and Michael left after having been in the band for two years, which felt like a pretty reasonable thing to do: It had been cold and wet, everybody was expecting them to blow up and things were supposed to get easier. Although The Long Winters always got better and their popularity increased, they never blew up and both Sean and Michael felt they were doing things they had already done many times before: get in the van, drive long distances and play for 300 people. After such a long time you want to play for a 1000 people and get in a real tour bus.

In January 2004 there were just John and Eric left in the band, but they wanted to keep the ball rolling. At the end of the second album it felt that maybe they were done. The band had done it's thing and maybe it should be over, but they had enough steam and were critically acclaimed, so they went into the studio and started right away working on a new album that was going to be a different sound, taking reviews (in magazines, still not the Internet) to heart in a way that in retrospect might have been unwise. For the first two albums John just wrote songs out of his hair because he couldn't make a relationship with a girl work, but all of a sudden he had feedback and he was trying to make an album to capture all this energy that people threw at him.

They went into the studio with just some ideas and without having any finished songs. They recorded with a guy named Tucker Martine who later made a couple of records for The Decemberists, but at the time they were recording in his basement without a band and with mostly John playing things, putting it together and taking it apart. They worked for months and the business people said they had to get back out on tour, so John promised to find a drummer and told them to say Yes to everything. John went to Death Cab for Cutie's old drummer named Michael Schorr who had quit his career as a musician and was working in a record store. Still, he accepted to be the drummer in the Long Winters and Michael, Eric and John went out on tour right away without having finished their third record yet. They toured through the US with the Pernice Brothers, then on to an European tour, then played the Sasquatch Music Festival and went on tour in the US once again opening for The Decemberists.

Halfway through the Europe tour, when there were still 1.5 months left, Michael Schorr decided he didn't want to do this anymore. They were playing shows every night, ended up having some screaming fights and by the end of those exhausting three months they were crushed. What really drove the final nail into the coffin was when they went on the third leg, opening for The Decemberists. The Long Winters had to win over the crowd every night, because the audience was not very deep into the Indy rock scene, but consisted of 800-1000 arms-crossed cardigan-sweater wearing college hipsters. There was a lot of tension. It was soul-killing. They were opening as peers, but it was the Decemberists who blew up. Halfway through that tour, the shows were selling out, getting moved to bigger venues and every newspaper you picked up, the article said "The Decemberists are making an erudite kind of pop music where the lyrics are really smart and they made music for smart people" and John felt that this was supposed to be him which devastated him fundamentally. This little thing that was supposed to happen to his band was happening right in front of him to another band. Their songs were great, their melodies were catchy, but it was happening right in front of them and they were a 3-piece band that was struggling to put all their songs out and the drummer didn't even want to be there.

In retrospect, The Long Winters should have headlined the tour with the Pernice brothers, but the Pernice brothers was a legendary band, so of course the Long Winters would open for them. Unfortunately, most people would not look who the first opener was when they checked who was coming to town, so those shows were underattended and a lot of people were there to see the Long Winters. Maybe if they had flipped roles, maybe that would have catapulted John and his band to the next level?

In and out of depression and a 5-song EP - Ultimatum

After the tour, John got back to the studio with Tucker Martine to work on their third album for months and months. John didn't have 10 or 12 songs good enough to make an album and Tucker was the type that would just let the day take you where the day takes you. He would even work on songs he didn't like for days. The role of a producer had changed from the day when people wore white lab coats: Unlike before, when you now learned the technology of being a recording engineer, you could record bands in your apartment and you became a producer, but there is more to being a producer: giving the right kind of feedback, the artistic emotional side. The producer needs to shape what you are doing and that's why John sometimes would bring Sean into the studio who would tell him "I wasn't really believing you on that last take" and so on. Tucker was an enormously creative producer, but he never drew a line. As a result, this record cost 3 times as much as the second record cost, because John was paying by the day and after 9 months Tucker had other things to do and the whole thing just ground to a hold.

At the time, John was 35 years old and he had made a pretty good run at being an Indy rocker, but lost half his band and the replacement drummer, and had poured money into making an album he can't seem to finish. The wheels just came off of him. In the fall of 2004 John spent a year sitting in his bed, growing his beard really long and eating a lot of Macaroni and Cheese, not able to muster up the energy to rejoin any of these games. At one point he flew down to Texas and tried to re-record some of the songs he had worked on with Centro-matic from Denton as his backing band, but that didn't really come together either, so he went back to Seattle and went back to bed.

John was not able to see his situation as an enviable one or one that he could comfortably live in. He was creatively thwarted and had all those unmet expectations. His dark, brooding temperament put him into a state where it felt like he was offered the opportunity of being a contributing member to the world, but he squandered it and missed his chance. 2004 was a really bad year for him. At one point he talked to his friend Mike Squires, the guitar player who had gotten him into Harvey Danger, and he played him some of the stuff he had worked on together with Tucker (Mike had been - besides John's mom and a couple of other people - a relentless supporter over the years), among others The Commander Thinks Aloud. Michael found it to be a great record - they just needed to finish it up and go on tour. John was not convinced.

Out of the blue in spring of 2005, John got an email from Keane, a band based out of England. They were in the process of blowing up, had discovered his record and wanted The Long Winters to open for them during their US tour. John called up Mike Squires who wanted to bake the 5 best songs into an EP and go on tour with Keane. They rushed it together, hired Nabil Ayers as the drummer (Michael's old band mate) and learned all the songs which were very hard because they had a lot of Harpsichord. The first show was in the Parish in Atlanta, a giant venue. The Commander Thinks Aloud really connected and resonated with people.

John hadn't played a live show in almost 2 years. The audience was very supportive and John got back on the horse. He had a band with his friends and he had a magical night playing at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. There were some movie stars backstage, attractive people John had seen in inflight magazines and it felt like a Hollywood-experience. Two women he knew from television walked over and said that they came just because they were huge Long Winters fans, which felt really good. After this tour John had banished the spectre of depression with some good news and propelled by friends. Keane were promoting them because they thought they had found something that not enough people had heard.

The third album - Putting the Days to Bed

Immediately after the Keane tour they went back to the studio. The solution was to not obsess over your music, but just go into the studio and crank a record out and then do it again and again. John didn't want anybody to produce him, but he wanted to produce the album himself. He had his band together and the record would just be down and dirty and sassy and punky and smart. Ted Leo better watch out and The Decemberists better watch out! Everybody better watch out! John made this record with Floyd Reitsma as the recording engineer who was fine with John producing it himself. Floyd created the sounds, but John was producing it dictatorially.

At the end of this session his relationship with Mike was impacted, because John would tell him how to play it differently and Mike would only do it lacklusterly in order to pick a fight. Mike had been in the US Marine Corps and went to war against the marines at one point, so the marines kicked him out. He is not somebody who says "ok, boss, whatever you say". Mike left the band in the studio while they were finishing the album and John went back and out of spite either re-recorded the parts where Mike was playing or just muted them. As a result, Mike barely appears on Putting the Days to Bed. It was an uncomfortable and rough recording session, but as soon as the record was done John felt that it had all the elements that all the magazine articles had claimed were missing from past Long Winters records: Sassy, punky and fast tempos. Every single person he talked to in the music business said that this was to be the era defining album.

The album came out and really good things happened. They toured all over and the response was fantastic. Mana Mana opened for them on their European tour and they got really good responses and great experiences from their fans in Europe. It was hard to make money in Europe, because the tours would beat the shit out of you and you went home with no money left. The American record label couldn't find a way to support them in Europe, so they were on their own. Maybe they didn't get all the money they were supposed to get from all people, but they didn't have any recourse.

The unfinished fourth album

After 1.5 years of straight up kicking it, touring and playing big shows the experience was commensurate with expectations upon their return. They were playing bigger venues than before, long time fans that helped them over the years, and they had built a thing. This means: Back to Seattle, they went back into the studio and they started recording with John's old friend John Goodmanson. Before they had all the songs done, John knocked his front tooth out on a microphone, his dad died, he bought a house just outside of town so that nobody stopped ever by, he found a cat that he really liked, then the cat died, he was growing his hair really long, and John Goodmanson had a kid and stopped working on the record.

In the aftermath of that, Eric Corson and John recorded on their own in the basement of John's house, working on the record with 13 songs every day - every day for 2 years and they made a beautiful thing, an album that on every song had every melody in history that God would allow. Neither of them had the ability to say Stop, and little by little the other guys in the band, Jonathan Rothman and Nabil Ayers wanted to move to New York because they felt they were popular enough now as a band that they were citizens of the world. Jonathan wanted to become a math teacher and Nabil happened to be at a cocktail party and became the American president of 4AD records. Once again, John's band was gone, this time without a fight, just because they got on with their lives. John considered moving as well, but he and Eric wanted to finish the record and then get the band back together.

Little by little they pushed themselves into a situation where the record didn't make sense anymore, and then it really made sense, and nobody in the world would ever understand it. John's hair was 2 feet long, he had never fixed is missing tooth and looked like a troll, so his neighbors were terrified of him. In 2009/2010, the album was 200% done, but never quite done. Eric and John started producing other people's albums to keep themselves occupied: They made a great record for John's niece, Elisabeth Roderick, produced Shelby Earls debut record and an album for Eric Hauck.

Eric and John worked great together as a production team and they were very proud of those 3 records, but they finally got into a dispute about the question between engineer and producer. Eric wanted to be called the producer, too, because he created those sounds, while John said "well no, you are the engineer, I'm the producer". In retrospect John realises he should have given Eric whatever he wanted. Eric was trying to build a reputation for himself as somebody who could make records for people. Instead they let this dispute fester between them, Eric as a Scandinavian was not good at communicating emotions, and John was starting to spiral into another place where he was getting paranoid, and hearing voices in the trees. His 10-year long bandmate was giving him this bullshit about being the producer, he was making a dumb stand and was falling out with Eric, the capstone of his musical life.

Resuming songwriting and regrouping the band for a single show in 2017 (RW64, RW65, RW67)

In August of 2016, John mentioned on Episode 39 of Roadwork that he had resumed composing songs and that the fourth album has come in reach. After not talking about this topic for a while, John announced in May of 2017 that he is putting together a new formation of The Long Winters, one that never existed and one that seemed very unlikely before. All those people are very long-standing members of the band, but have just not been in the band at the same time:

- Sean Nelson, one of the founders of the band.
- Eric Corson, their second bass player. He didn't play on the first album, but on all subsequent records.
- Nabil Ayers, who was the third or fourth drummer, and who was the glue of the last few years of the band.

They will be playing one show - for now - on May 12th of 2017 in Seattle at Paul Allen's brand new Upstream music festival, aimed to become kind of a Seattle-based SxSW. They had asked a variety of people to curate different stages, one of them Marco Collins, the former main DJ on the main alternative Rock station in Seattle KNDD. Marco was the one who made Harvey Danger famous and he was part of this mid-90s Seattle thing when grunge was big. It truly surprised him that John said yes!

John is very excited about the show! They just need to get back together and start playing. They all know the songs and they all know their instruments. In three days they can be fully ready to play a full rock set. If they went out on tour there would be a moment 10 days in, where they would start to play on a different level of togetherness, but that would be mainly something that they themselves would notice and would only be very subtle for the audience. (RW64)

John wrote some songs and wanted to put them on the Internet, but he never found out how to do that. He was proud of the songs and wanted people to hear them immediately, he even almost recorded them on his phone. John played a part of the song "Sleepless" for the Patreon-supporters in Episode 64 of Roadwork and people loved it. The danger is that you put all your demos on the Internet and then nobody is going to buy your record. John doesn't have an opinion about selling music on the Internet because we have been through 3 iterations of selling music on the Internet since the last time he put out an album and he has no way of knowing how to even begin doing so, but he is going to find out. He is going to write some songs in 2017, it does feel like the time to do it. (RW65)

John brought a bag of kazoos to sell for $5 each. As he had played his last chord, he said "Thank you everyone, I'll be selling kazoos right here" and he immediately sat down criss-cross-applesauce right on the stage with his bag of kazoos, the audience reached into their pockets and he sold $150 worth of $5 kazoos. (RW67)

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