Stock up on Sweaters

Cultural isolation is comfortable incubation for the mind of Long Winters' frontman John Roderick

John Roderick, mastermind behind Seattle indie rock band The Long Winters, is sitting in the parking lot of a McDonald's in the Bronx, where he's stopped to get a strawberry McSundae. Asked if he's seen the documentary film Super Size Me, in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock eats nothing but food from the Golden Arches for a month, Roderick replies, "Have I seen what?"

He heard the question just fine; it's just that he's never heard of the film.

This episode is mentioned because, unlike most musicians and songwriters, Roderick has very little interest in pop culture. And not just films, TV shows, or who J. Lo's married to these days, but music, too.

"There's something about the way that my brain is wired, all of the media--music and film and, really, books and magazines ... . I hit a wall at some point several years ago where I wasn't participating in the culture anymore," he explains. "It wasn't that I dropped out in protest or anything; my attention just went away from pop culture and, I guess, culture in general.

"I basically don't buy a lot of stuff," he says. "I don't spend money on things that are supposed to entertain me. And that gets me in hot water, because the whole culture in which I live is one where I'm producing this material. I'm hoping that it's appealing to people who are interested in buying records. And I'm playing shows with a lot of bands where your typical songwriter/musician-type is totally digesting new music all the time. And that's what they want to talk about. ... So we need to find something else to talk about, and sometimes, that's actually difficult, because people love to talk about music.

It shouldn't be surprising, then, that The Long Winters' music, other than falling squarely into the realm of the somewhat generic tag of indie pop/rock, is a bit tough to pin down; it's difficult to find other bands to which it could be compared. The songs on the group's excellent second album, 2003's When I Pretend to Fall (Barsuk), utilize a total of 26 musicians, including such notables as Sean Nelson (Harvey Danger), Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, Big Star), Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Scott McCaughey (the Minus 5, Young Fresh Fellows) and Chris Walla (Death Cab For Cutie). (On the current tour, the band is a mere, stripped down three-piece, comprising singer-guitarist Roderick, longtime bassist Eric Corson and drummer Michael Schorr, formerly of Death Cab.) Thus, the arrangements are fully fleshed out, a horn section here, some cello there, aptly suiting the wildly diverse songs without overbearing their basic fruits: Roderick's instantly familiar-sounding, slightly sandpapery voice; hooks that compel the listener to hit the repeat button; and intelligent lyrics that range from straightforward to complex, even cryptic, the latter requiring close explication to fully grasp.

"What's at work in my lyrics is very cinematic," Roderick explains. "When the lyrics are coming out, I'm trying to capture these sort of snapshots that are maybe more visual than anything. And to me, even the songs that other people would describe as cryptic, to me it's a very linear progression because I'm seeing these--it's like a storyboard for a film, where you don't have all the explicating material in between. ... And I'm hoping, I'm assuming, that it's as clear to everyone else as it is to me what's happening in between those scenes. The problem is that, then, later, I read those songs again, and I realize, Oh wait, it's not clear at all. There are 10,000 possible interpretations of these scenes, because the crucial material that ties it all together is left out."

Whether they be directly written or obscurely so, one element that ties all 12 songs found on When I Pretend to Fall together is that they are all about relationships, most of them rocky.

"I can't think of a single song I've ever written that wouldn't qualify in some way as a breakup song. That may be more telling of my relationships than it is of anything," he laughs. "There are a lot of songs on that record that are about just that feeling of being really close to someone, and yet feeling the writing is on the wall--feeling that curious combination of being really close and really estranged from someone at the same time."

So, even if a song like opening track "Blue Diamonds," whose meaning is one of the most difficult to penetrate on the album, appears to be a tale of a not-so-bright couple who have just completed a petty jewelry store heist and are holed up in a motel room, giddy at the fact that they've pulled it off, even if they're about to get caught, it carries a greater meaning. Roderick explains: "In the case of the song, the metaphor is that they're a couple of petty thieves, and they're in over their head. But at a deeper level, it's a song about a man and a woman, and they're in a relationship, and they're over their head. They're maybe not smart enough to solve their problems."

One of the most straightforward tracks (and the one from which the album's title is culled: "She laughs when I pretend to fall"), "Stupid," finds the narrator defending his pursuit of a woman for whom he's fallen, for fear of missing a waiting opportunity and regretting it later. It's chorus is: "Stupid, you could call it that / Stupid, but you have no idea / How stupid I would feel / If 15 years from now I see her / And she says why didn't it happen between us, stupid?"

It's probably the most purely romantic song on an album that's not exactly encouraging regarding the issue of romantic relationships. Luckily, Roderick's pain is the listener's pleasure.

"What interests me most about people is that, here's two people, and they're either thrown together or they've chosen each other, and somehow, you know, when you've found your long-lost true love, nine times out of 10 you're just more miserable than you were before," he says, laughing again. "Why the fuck is that?"