CS77 - Primary Source Material

This week, Myke and John talk about:

  • What does John like to be known for? (Attitude and Opinion)
  • How does John create an album? (Career)
  • Where does John record his music? (Career)
  • Does John get that feeling when he goes into those places where great albums from artists he respects have been recorded? (Music)
  • Does John have a team of people that he trusts to record with? (Career)
  • How long are you in the studio in total? (Career)
  • How does promotion for a record work? (Career)
  • What emotions do you go through when releasing an album? (Music)
  • When John writes his music, does he ever make considerations for how it will sound live? (Career)
  • What does 2014 hold for John? (Attitude and Opinion)

The show title refers to John wanting to create primary source material instead of commentary on other people’s material.

What does John like to be known for? (CS77)

John has arrived at a transition in his career where he hasn’t released any new music for a while and he has instead been falling into the habit of being a public commentator, partly because he has a podcast which has given him an outlet for speaking directly to people instead of communicating through the artifice of song, and partly because he likes to write prose and he also had a column for a while. Esquire Magazine wanted John to write an article for them, he wrote an article for the Village Voice and he has been writing some music criticism for the website TalkHouse. He burbled along writing these pieces that don’t take much out of him to do.

Then John realized that he was writing commentary on the world, but what he was formerly known for and what he likes to make is primary source material. Making a song or writing a story is primary source material, because your song is presumably not commenting on some earlier song, but you are making a thing that didn’t exist before. Writing a song is not like the chattering criticism and culture digestion that takes up so much of the Internet content, people talking about this guy who was talking about that thing. There is going to be a great wind coming through that blows all that stuff out to sea and what will be left is primary stuff. When the first few records of The Beatles came out, there were probably a million words written about them, but none of that early criticism survived or matters, while the records are still there. John was feeling like he was going to retrench as a maker of things during this year 2014 and he doesn’t just want to write articles for Esquire on how the Internet is stupid, but he wants to be known as a maker of art. The onus is on him to do it and to have ideas instead of being content to just talk about the culture and being satisfied that it is enough for him to leave behind.

How does John create an album? (CS77)

Traditionally, John's process of songwriting was driven by a kind of mania, which is a description of a feeling that he could not process his emotional life in a direct fashion. Writing songs was an outlet and a venting of those built-up emotional frustrations or episodes that he needed to process and clear somehow. Although he had a tremendous facility of language, he didn’t have access to any emotional language and his intellectual overseer kept his emotional life in chains. Songs enabled him to express those frustrations, because the music did a lot of the heavy lifting and the lyrics could be opaque while still allowing him to get through these experiences.

When John was young he had all these confusing life travails where he couldn't seem to make it work with this girl and he couldn't seem to figure out how to keep a job. He didn't understand why he was so under-appreciated and he all these kind of problems that characterize your early 20s if you are not one of the fortunate ones who can breeze through life. Songs were a place where John could get that stuff out. Writing songs was an ungoverned process where he would sometimes come home, throw his coat on the floor, and was pacing around the apartment. Rather than punching his fist into the wall he would grab his guitar and start strumming it and the words would come. He would be engaged in writing this song and have this animal redirection of his base energy. Instead of killing this person he was going to play these chords.

John would build up this catalog of songs and he had a band early on that enabled him to get up on stage and yell and scream. When he started making records, it opened up a whole new window of opportunity to take a much more active hand in making those songs sound like he wanted them to feel. He wanted them to conjure the same feelings that he was struggling with in other people and through his music he wanted to be evocative of common emotions that we all share. The recording process was this tremendous opportunity to be in a place of calm, revisit his emotional songs and bring them to life in a way that he maybe wouldn’t have thought of initially. Maybe he couldn’t have pictured some of those other hidden melodies, but now he could find them and they had all this other information that added to the story.

John finds the songwriting process excruciating and will do everything in his power to avoid it. He will sit down with is cup of tea, his favorite guitar and his best little amp, he has his pencils all neatly sharpened and here we go, we are going to finishing this song that needs to get done for that thing. He will sit and stare at a spot on the wall for 5 hours or he will decide that he can’t play the guitar until he files his nails and so he files his nails and takes a bath. He will do anything to avoid the really hard work of writing songs. When you are not in the hot fire of inspirations, the songwriting process is this brutal, grueling work and he loathes it.

Eventually there comes a time when John arrives in the studio, they record all the songs that he knows how they go and they get six songs ready for the album. They are feeling great, they are hot, they have six great tunes and everybody looks at him asking about the seventh tune. John had been dreading this moment since he walked in because he had been holding a doctor’s bag of fragments. He doesn’t know what the seventh tune is, but here is a fragment. He has to trust the people he is in the studio with and the clock is ticking. These songs have traditionally been midwifed in the incredible pressure-cooker of being in a room where everybody is counting on you and no-one can do anything before you finish the song.

Some of John's favorite songs have been written this way, like Scared Straight from Pretend to Fall. The lyrics were written on the last possible day of the recording session. Everything else was done and here was this song, but there were no words for it. Everybody was looking at him through the control room glass at 9:15pm and John had to pull his notebooks out and write a song. He did it and Scared Straight is one of his favorite songs. On the subsequent album Putting the days to bed, the song Hindsight was also written on the last day in the studio in the last possible moment. That hot cauldron sometimes produces work he is very proud of, but he doesn’t like it and doesn’t want to go there.

It is a tremendous feeling to walk out of the studio at the end of an album, feeling all this cocksure sense that what he would need to do is not be so precious and go back to the studio immediately because he is firing on all cylinders right now. He should just write another record right now and artificially create a deadline situation where he just has to write. He should try and make that process a method and convert it to put him in charge of it. It is the Randy Newman method, who shows up to work every day at 8am, writes songs until 7pm and presumably does not belabor the process. At the end of every recording session John feels like this is the dawn of a new era and he is going to start working this way instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, but inevitably, he never made that change, because he has that little bit of confidence that when he needs it, it will come because it always does.

When it does not come, John would have forced himself into a failure position and that is where he is now. He has a complete album where the music is entirely recorded. He pushed himself way beyond of what he had ever done before by going into the studio and making an album entirely of fragments. He did not have a single finished song! He was just going to push himself into this situation and make 12 songs this way, but he flew too close to the sun and fell from the sky dramatically. He has 13 songs completely recorded, they might as well be mixed instrumentally, but not a single one of them has any vocals on. He also has a 3-foot high stack of lyrics that he was been working on over the course of 5 years, but there has never been that come-to-Jesus-moment where someone was standing there with a cimeter held up over his head who had the power to say that they will lop off his head if he doesn’t write a single song today.

The scale of it was so daunting that he has not been able to pick it up. So many well-meaning people have offered to be that cimeter and force him into that posture, but he is 45 years old and has worked for 25 years to be in a position in life where no-one can tell him what to do. Having achieved that goal, he thought that he had made an incredible victory to finally be beholden to no-one, but that was no advantage to him at all! No-one can tell him what to do and even if he was in a studio and the engineer would be looking at him through the glass, saying ”Today is your last day!”, he has the power to say ”No, it’s not! Let’s keep working tomorrow!” and no-one can tell him ”No!” That has not been helpful!

That unreleased album was recorded as a Long Winters album with The Long Winters as the band. It is a fully fleshed-out evolution of The Long Winters from the record prior and a hell of a good record. If you could take dream balloons and turn them into song lyrics, it would be a fantastic album already, but dream balloons are not song lyrics and song lyrics are brutal to make if you are trying to make them good. Trying to make them good is the problem. John has plenty of song lyrics and he could have put that record out 5 years ago if he even allowed his lyrics to be at the level of proficiency that you might find on a Killers record, but he wasn’t willing to do that. He wanted them to be indicative of his voice, of what he likes about his own voice and of what is unique about it. He has lost that and he is struggling to find a thing that satisfies him.

Where does John record his music? (CS77)

During the big hot time in Seattle in the mid 1990s, people built a lot of recording studios in the city. The big Grunge era coincided with the last dying days of the big money music business and you could build a recording studio in Seattle and charge $1200-1500 a day. If you are making Alice in Chains or Heart records, the major label has all this cash and nobody is keeping track. They built all these incredible studios, but then the music industry and the business dynamics of recording really changed. Now there is an archipelago of world-class studios that you can get for a small fraction of what they were charging in their hot times.

Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam built a studio for himself, called Studio Litho, then Perl Jam recorded for a couple of days and never worked there again, but the studio is still owned by Stone and used by a lot of local bands. John recorded Putting the days to bed there. The first two records of The Long Winters were recorded at the little project studio where Nirvana’s Bleach was recorded as well as all the Built to Spill records and all Sleater-Kinney records. Many early Seattle records were recorded at a place that used to be called Reciprocal and then was John & Stu’s and then became the Hall of Justice. It is the same little tiny triangular building, but it had all these different names.

Does John get that feeling when he goes into those places where great albums from artists he respects have been recorded? (CS77)

Yes. John is fairly dubious about this kind of feeling. There are plenty of recording studios where you go in and say ”This place sucks!”, but the great music recording studios are also just great places to be. The Hall of Justice is a drafty, soggy, weirdly shaped moldy spider-filled little shack. At one point during the recording, a rat came up through the pipes and arrived in the toilet bowl and the only reason the rat wasn’t running around the room was because the lid on the toilet seat was closed. It was a terrible place to be and yet you wanted to be there.

John has been sleeping there many times over night because they were working until the wee hours and why would you go home? You just pull a comforter up over yourself on the couch and go to sleep, even knowing that the couch is a breeding ground of giant Pacific Northwest spiders the size of a mole. Yet, the place was amazing and you wanted to stay there! This was true of Litho, too! On the last day of recording you are loading your stuff out and you feel like you don’t want to leave. You want to do this every day: Being in this room, making music, playing guitars. You get a sense of what the Beatles must have felt like in Abbey Road Studio B. They lived in there for the last six years of their career because if you could, why wouldn’t you? It is surely an amazing place!

Does John have a team of people that he trusts to record with? (CS77)

Creatively, John went through a process similar to the one in which he endeavored to never have to answer to anybody. Collaborating with other people is so frustrating that John tries to learn all the aspects of making records in order to not having to entrust another person and not having to acquiesce to another person. It was this gradual process of being the creative force of the record, but as time went on also trying to be the technical force, trying to figure out the business of recording and have more and more input into that side.

John is of course not an engineer, but he wanted to learn that stuff because he wanted to get his point across without having to say to somebody ”I want the guitars to sound more yellow, man!” and count on some guy to know what he means. First he wanted to learn what he was talking about and then he wanted to learn how to turn the knob himself or being able to tell the guy ”Can you notch the 4K a little bit”, or whatever it is that people say. In learning that, he learned what his limitations were and he worked with a lot of different people. He came out the other side feeling like collaboration is necessary and crucial, but also frustrating. It is in some ways the worst, but that is how you make a thing that is bigger than yourself. John could record himself, but to make a thing that transcends his limitations, it requires that other people are not just working on it, but are invested in it.

How long are you in the studio in total? (CS77)

How much time you will spend in the studio is a little bit of a ”You get what you pay for” question. When John was first starting out, studios and engineers were expensive. They still are today, but they were especially then and John was significantly poorer than he is now. There is all this underground economy that goes along with making records. Engineers, producers and studio owners have a lot of flexibility in what they charge, because if the guys from Staind or the Stone Temple Pilots come traipsing in with a team of accountants trailing behind them, you are going to charge them $2000 a day, because they don’t know what money is and what it is worth. $2000 a day sends a message back to Hollywood that this is a really important record and this is a top-notch studio. People there are signing cheques for ridiculous amounts of money because Hollywood is morally bankrupt. Exploiting these people is worked into the fabric of the business. Steve Albini still makes a name for himself with his ethical stance that he is going to charge you the same rate no matter who you are, because he is a working man. That pose belongs to Steve Albini, but everybody else is trying to milk the big shots so they can provide the little guys with a really discounted rate.

You see this all the time: You are just starting out and the producer likes you and wants to work with you. His normal rate is $700 a day, but he is going to make an exception for you this one time. He is going to charge you $300 a day or he will take no money upfront, but wants to own a portion of the album, like a combination of a flat fee of $5000 plus 2% of your royalties. 80% of being an independent musician is navigating these kinds of little deals that are worked into the fabric of being a musician in a way that you wouldn’t expect from the outside. There is a guy in Seattle owning a recording studio that his parents have built. A little band called the Lumineers were looking for a place to record and he offered them to record at no charge, but he was going to have a percentage of the back-end, a deal that ended up being enormously profitable for him. It more than made up for the 25 times he has done that same deal with a band that made nothing. You can’t know that in advance and not every guy stumbles on a cash cow like that.

When John was starting out, he was offered these kinds of opportunities, but he didn’t want to give a percentage of his music to anybody while he also wanted to record cheaply. What ended up happening is that he got offered the dribs and drabs. For example, one guy has a 10-day session with somebody, but then he got 2 days off and can record you on those 2 days, or he can only record you after 11pm because he is doing these TV-commercials during the day. You are doing a patchwork quilt of recording. The first Long Winters record started in December of 2000 and they worked on it in this piecemeal fashion until probably May of 2001, never having 5 contiguous days. John doesn’t know how much time he spent in the studio and he can’t believe he didn’t keep a meticulous diary. It seems like you are in the studio constantly, but you are not.

This fashion also has advantages because you record something and then have 3 or 4 days to think about it before you get into the studio again. The alternative is that you book 3 weeks solid and you record and mix your record in 10 days, which requires that you have all your songs and everybody knows how to play them. You go in and bang them out, you get a live sound that is natural to the band and for a lot of people that is the preferred method. The Punk Rock method is to record your album in 3 days, but for the Long Winters records, there were all these prolonged ethereal months and months of going in for 3 days, then disappearing, coming back for a few days, working at night, and building a record out of all those different experiences.

How does promotion for a record work? (CS77)

10 years ago, promoting a record was a mysterious world that John had no understanding of. It was almost completely deferred to the label and it even was the justification for the existence of the label. They were not just manufacturing the record and fulfilling orders for it, but they were contracting with the publicists and talking to radio program directors and to magazine editorial people. There used to be a tremendous diversity of how you would promote your album, but it was also a closed system. A band wasn’t going to take an ad out on the back of Rolling Stone magazine, but you were dependent on this whole cultural architecture of magazine writers, daily and weekly newspaper writers, college radio, commercial radio and public radio.

If your record got into the stream and the right person liked it and talked about it, you would start to see more and more of the right people talking about it which would pretty soon create a storm of interest that started with one or two people deciding that this record really mattered. It was hard to get these people to be interested in your record, because everybody in the world knew who those few people were and they were inundated with albums. Even if they listened to it, if they just didn’t like it, then you were struggling and grasping at every opportunity to get someone further down the food chain to take any interest in your album. You would covet the college radio program directors in medium sized markets like Nashville, Atlanta and Saint Louis. When the program director of the college radio in Saint Louis loved your album and played it every day, all of a sudden you would come to Saint Louis on tour and your show sold out. You couldn't get arrested in Atlanta, but in Saint Louis you were the big deal right now.

You were counting on all these people, especially 10 years ago when an artist was supposed to cultivate an air of mystery that would make them fascinating to college radio program directors. You would be a little bit elegantly wasted and you would be articulate, but in a kind of dumb sounding way that was cool. You were trying to be authentic and at the same time putting the best Rock ’n’ Roll version of yourself out there as an allure. You wanted to get people to put your record on and give it a chance as they were looking at this stack of 50 records on their desk. 5 years ago, the conventional wisdom all of a sudden started to change and you didn’t have to do any of that anymore. You just put your music on the Internet, everybody could listen to it and the crowd decides. You don’t have to do any of that bullshit anymore, but you just tweet about your record and everybody is going to listen to it and love it.

For a brief moment, at the time when the Internet was still comprised mostly of all the right people, like the early days of music on the Internet, you could put out a record on MySpace and the cool kids would all get it. That window was short-lived and we are now back to a world where every single person in the fucking world is on the Internet and nobody cares, nobody is following your Tweet-link to your record anymore except for the people who do already like you. John’s Twitter feed is 85% links to people’s Kickstarters and YouTube videos. John would do nothing else and he only follows people he knows. If you would be following all your favorite bands, it would be never-ending. Imagine everybody trying to promote themselves the same way! If you were hiring a publicist, they were also just tweeting about it because the magazines and the record stores are gone. It is everybody’s guess now.

John hates to sound curmudgeonly, but it is inevitable that the mean quality of everything is declining. In the early 1970s it was very expensive to make a record and you had to be very good at it to even get into the studio and give it a shot. Record companies were very selective and the music that made it all the way out to the marketplace was astonishingly good! The music that came out between 1962 and 1972 was of high quality in every genre and ten new genres of music were invented and perfected during that time. We now live in a world where more records will come out this week than what came out in the entire year of 1967. Despite that quantity, there is probably not a single record that is as good as the worst record that came out in 1967.

Everything is easier to make and therefore more people are making it, but the standard gets pushed much lower! We are not back to where we were, but we are somewhere down the road. As a culture we are increasingly satisfied with worse because there is so much more of everything. When a Marvin Gaye record came out 40 years ago, you would spend your record buying allowance on it and you would bring it home and listen to it exclusively for two weeks because it was an investment and because all you had was that record, an AM radio and the newspaper. Now we are just clicking through songs like we were flipping through index cards.

What emotions do you go through when releasing an album? (CS77)

Right before an album comes out it consists of potential energy that you are trying to convert into kinetic energy. You are living in a state of pure excitement because it is still absolutely possible that two weeks after your record comes out, it will have been universally embraced. You can conceive of a moment in the very near future when you will be lauded for your work and that is as seductive as anything in the world. It is like the feeling of having bought a lottery ticket, they are drawing the numbers and the first four line up with the numbers on your ticket. You listen to your album that no-one else has listened to yet and you have accomplished what you have set out to accomplish. If there is any justice in the world and if people have any taste, they will recognize that you have made the thing you were trying to make. You can not but have faith in it that it will reach the people it is meant to reach, which you hope is everybody. The power of this moment right before it comes out is extraordinary! It almost can’t fail to be a huge disappointment no matter what happens, because it is so rare that anything meets the world with that kind of praise.

When John writes his music, does he ever make considerations for how it will sound live? (CS77)

John absolutely does make considerations during the songwriting process for how his music will sound live. He came up in Alaska in the 1980s and they were listening to a lot of British Heavy Metal, but also to a lot of American Southern Fried Rock. A lot of that Southern Rock, starting with Creedence and moving through Lynyrd Skynyrd into Little Feat and Points Beyond, had influences of weird chicken pickin’ Funk in it. If you put the first wave of British metal into a big kettle and mix it with a bunch of Chicken Fried American 1970s Rock, a lot of terrible things can come out of that, Funk Metal being one of them. You can end up with lame white Funk of every sort and playing a funky guitar is very seductive.

If you are a 16 year old in Alaska and someone teaches you <John gives a sample>, then you are ”Wow, that makes me want to groove!” As a kid you are a product of the taste of your friends and of your time, and so John came to Seattle in the height of a scene that was coming from a very different place. The people in Seattle were listening to the first wave of British heavy metal and they were listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival, but they were not listening to Little Feat. That crucial substitution of The Clash for Little Feat changed that funky back beat into a kind of Ska-like Skank beat and then ultimately even the Ska beat was taken out and replaced with just a 4-on-the-floor Punk Rock downbeat.

When John was 14/15 years old, that was one of 10.000 different sounds that he was exposed to and he held it in equal esteem: 4-on-the-floor downbeat or Reggae upbeat or Chicken Fried white soul, they were all equally interesting. In fact, John’s favorite bands used all those sounds, but as the 1990s sound morphed into Indie Rock, very little Funk remained. Indie Rock is as un-funky a genre as it can possibly be, because most of that music is made with a very 4-on-the-floor sort of downbeat. As John was writing songs in the late 1990s, he still had a lot of this swingy wrist picking in him (<John gives an example>) which was greeted with incomprehension when he would play with bands who were a generation younger than he was. They would ask him if that was Jane’s Addiction!

Over time, trying to learn the new language of the people John was in a community with and the people he was trying to reach, his taste evolved. For 10 years, when he would write a song in that certain swingy way, he would call it the Bare Naked Ladies version of the song, but then he would straighten it out and play the same chords without the swing. It was a discipline he was trying to practice, but in the last handful of years, he decided to quit fighting it and quit putting the music critic before the guitar player. John has banished that music critic to a windowless room and found that a little bit of swing goes a long way, frankly. He still tries to bleed a lot of that funk out, primarily because it is too busy and you don’t need it, but he also doesn’t hate himself for it.

What does 2014 hold for John? (CS77)

John feels very much at a turning point because during the last few years he has increasingly made a living and made a name for himself as a cultural commentator, as a man about town and as a raconteur freelance minister without a portfolio. Just recently he realized that the center can’t hold all of those side-activities and that being a toast-master is not a career for him. It is certainly part of the fun and it is effortless work to get up and say ”I listened to this record and I thought it was lame!” and write 1500 words about it, but that is not a job for him! To get back on the horse in middle age and start making real stuff again is going to be a process of relearning what he does. He can’t just slouch into it, but he has to go back to school and learn how to make music again. John is glad they are talking on January 2nd, because the whole year still stretches out before them!

John is about to launch his new website johnroderick.com with everything on it: It will link to the songs he is working on now, the shows he is doing in a variety of formats and to the music across the whole spectrum of what he is trying to make. There will be new music all the time! Hopefully the site will be launched in the next month! He will also do a new series of cabaret shows in Seattle and down in San Francisco, all with the ultimate goal of coming back to the world with new music to share with everybody. That is probably what every listener wants John to do!

The audience for podcasts is a self-selecting group where the ninnies just wander off. No dingelings are forcing themselves to listen to podcasts. It is just people with long attention spans, like our people!

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