ES2x10 - John Roderick

Hi! You are listening to My Favourite Elliott Smith Song. This podcast is all about keeping Elliott Smith's legacy alive in our own very small way and we do that by speaking to well-known fans about their favorite song of his. So: ”Hi!”

In today's episode we have musician, writer, and fellow podcast John Roderick as our guest. John was born just a year before Elliott Smith and was part of the music scene in Seattle just as Elliot was making a name for himself in nearby Portland, first with Heat Miser and then as a solo artist. And in this interview John talks about their time as part of similar scenes and why Elliot was able to stand out from the rest of the crowd. He also discusses what it was like seeing him play live and why he has what he calls a complicated relationship with Elliott's music. So here he is: Here is John Roderick in conversation with Elizabeth Withstandley.


My name is John Roderick. I play in a band called The Long Winters, which was a Seattle band that started in the year 2001. Before that I was in Harvey Danger and then in the mid 1990s I played in a band called The Western State Hurricanes, which was a Seattle band that almost released a record. But I was in Seattle during the time period of Elliott Smith's early career and was at some early shows and then followed him throughout his all too brief arc.

Speed Trials

My favorite Elliott Smith song is the first song that I really drove into, which is Speed Trials, the first song on Either/Or. Hearing it the first time had a world-altering effect on me. At the time I had seen Elliott Smith already twice. He played a lot in Seattle during this period. In 1997 he played half a dozen times and I was at that point someone who went to five shows a week. Indie Rock and live music was my whole life, it was everything I did. I was either playing or I was going to shows and at the show I saw at the Crocodile Cafe sometime in 1997 the audience all sat on the floor, which was a thing I had never seen before and he was up there with the acoustic guitar and playing very quietly.

During that period, it was post Grunge, everybody was trying every kind of thing they could to have some sort of Pacific Northwest music that wasn't Grunge. I saw this show where he was performing so quietly and the audience, which was a little bit younger than me, was so reverent that I was suspicious of it. I felt like: ”What is this?” It was before we even had a word for Emo, but it felt Emo in a what struck me as a self-conscious way. Elliott Smith just seemed like somebody on the scene in the Northwest that was doing something and there are so many bands that were just doing something.

But then Either/Or came out. This was also a time where when a record would come out one of your friends would rush out and buy it and really show up at your door, like: ”You got to hear this new record!” and come in and put it on. The record went on the turntable, Speed Trials came on, and the sound of it was the opposite of everything I was trying to do as a songwriter: Acoustic guitars, it felt like a strange amount of compression, the drums were quiet and it didn't even sound like the snare was on, but it was being played with brushes. The intro has this drone and one guitar is just pedaling while the chords change underneath it.

It felt like an assault almost, an assault on everything that all the bands that I knew and I was trying to accomplish with music, which was to make a massive emotional impact on people, to hit them with that My Bloody Valentine wall. We were all trying to hurt your feelings with our music, and not in a way where we are insulting you, but hurt your feelings by sharing how hurt our feelings were, and here was this music that was just devastating! From the sound of his voice the moment it comes in, actually before that, just in the instrumental opening, you know that it is a gut punch. It made me just suddenly evaluate my whole approach.

His songs are not narrative. In my own songwriting, my songs also are not narrative. There are a lot of people that write songs that walk you through a story and what he is doing is creating a story by way of sense-impression: Each line is a story and you are brought along by listening to all these different events. Each line even in that first verse: ”He is pleased to meet you underneath the horse” and then the next line is: ”In the cathedral with the glass stained black.”

Those are different times, different events in his life, and they made it into his notebook, they made it into his world, and they belong together. He feels like they belong together, and in listening to the song and listening to it over and over you are transported to not just one day, but to the scope of his whole feeling that he never made it, he never succeeded being of a whole self, he his damage was too great.

He says: ”You are such a pinball! Yeah, you know it is true!” and that is me. I also feel like that. I didn't have the agency personally to choose my fate as much as I just responded to what happened. Decisions weren't made for me by other people, they were just made for me by coin tosses. I am not listening to the song and imagining Elliott Smith in that moment, or what is going on with him, but he has done what he tried to do, which is get me to be in that song as if it belongs to me.

Waltz #2

That is a song where he is telling the story of his mother and I can't be in that song as me. I can be in that song only as Elliott and the parallels between his childhood and mine evoke my own childhood, but when I am in that song I'm over his shoulder. But in a lot of his songs he is just evoking my world. That is the thing that I think is magic about his music and about the best non-narrative music.

Yeah, I think people find little bits that they can relate to and, just like you mentioned, you explained that very well.

”You little child, what makes you think you are tough when all the people you think you are above, they all know what's the matter!” I just am there as a kid with presumption and also feeling the humiliation of knowing not just that that described me and I see it now, but it described me and I knew it then. He is not unconscious of conjuring that, he has that vision, he has the sight to see that in himself and to describe that humiliation without self-consciousness.

Because if you describe your humiliation then now, from a voice of someone reflecting, you are at one remove from it and it is not as hurtful because now you are an adult and you can look back at yourself as a child as another person. He is confronting the child in an uncharitable way and there is embarrassment that was present for him in real time that in myself, as attempting to be a healthy person, at some point I tried to erect a wall between the humiliation I felt as a kid and the self I was trying to become. It is one of the things that he never accomplished as a human, that humiliation, that childhood he woke up with it every morning.

Elliott Smith’s music being about heroin

I lived with this record and loved it and only later understood that a lot of what he was talking about was heroin. That hurt my feelings, frankly, because I don't think heroin is a particularly interesting topic. Drug addiction is a thing I also lived through and it absolutely is a part of why so many of us were so damaged. It was the time we lived in and the world of our parents that did the number on us, but some of us responded by going into drugs in a way that at the time felt almost like a collective action.

Then it became extremely personal and of course later you write about it. In my case: I got sober when I was 26 three years before this era and it tarnished it for a time for me because that whole heroin scene that whole time, there was something about the grossness of it that was indulgent. We wallowed in it, lavished ourselves in it, and the way it was destroying our time and my community. It is sick to say, but there wasn't one of us that wasn't conscious of the glamour! The glamour ran out of it, drained out of it, and it was infuriating to me especially being a few years sober at this point.

Did you come around at another point and reconciled with the song?

I had to come around on Eliot and later times when I went to see him in concert, one time specifically at The Showbox, he was nodding off on stage. He sat on stage with a cigarette in his hand and went to sleep in front of a sold-out crowd. I was a practicing musician, playing that same venue, trying to accomplish what he had accomplished, trying to make beautiful music, trying to sell out The Showbox, and it felt disrespectful, but I still listened to Either/Or.

I'm not somebody that has 600 records. I have a small little collection that I go back to, and Either/Or stayed in that small, in-constant-rotation selection of records. It was just a place that I felt refuge. When XO came out, at least in my community there was a feeling of: ”Now wait a minute! He is going electric all of a sudden? He is the one that showed us the way and now he is making a Beatles record?” Of course he pursued that as moving forward.

My relationship with him was extremely complicated. I was on tour when he died. We played that night at Irving Plaza, it was Death Cab and Nada Surf and The Long Winters and we were backstage before the show and we find out that Elliott Smith has died. It was similar to when Kurt died. You don't know what to do! This was somebody that was speaking for us, but we had been hearing for a long time that he just wasn't functional anymore. We each got up and Death Cab threw together a cover. We couldn't not refer to it in the moment, in the time.

Covering Pictures of Me

I noticed that The Long Winters did a cover of Pictures of Me.

It feels like a century ago and it was a long time ago. That particular cover of Pictures of Me actually happened at a 10 year anniversary party for Barsuk Records. The thing about Elliott Smith is that he is one of a few artists that you are kind of not allowed to cover, at least in my community. You play a lot of different covers, every one of us has played a Christina Aguilera cover at one point in our careers, but it was just so fun to do, to play this thing and to try and try to approximate the…

One of the disciplines that he has as a songwriter is he often saves it to the end of the song. He is still delivering something in the last few bars that you didn't even realize you were waiting for it. In Speed Trials the last two times he runs the last line of the chorus he switches to a major chord and it changes the melody. It is the same melody, but it is now bouncing off of this major chord that appears nowhere else in the song and you realize: ”Oh, how do you save a hook to the run-out groove?” and he does it over and over in his music, where it is just like: ”Yeah sorry man! The bass doesn't come in until after the bridge!” You are like: ”The what? How do you make a choice like that?”

What it does is that you never feel like the last chorus is just running it one more time before the end. It hands you in some ways some little small thing. Changing that chord is a tiny little thing and Pictures of Me is the same: It evolves, the song ramps up, and then the end is this total drag slow-down, like ”Oh, everybody is dying just to get the disease!” It is double/triple heavy because the song comes unravelled. When you do a cover like that you are trying to you learn to play it because you are trying to understand it better.


Would you say that Either/Or is your favorite Elliot Smith album?

Yeah! Partly because of that punch, partly because I can hear the gears turning, I can hear how much he did with so little. Also I know that he was working within the same scene I was and he knew… Heat Miser was a fucking Rock band: loud, obnoxious even sometimes, and this thing he was doing was something utterly else and he knew it and he didn't flinch, he definitely said: ”People are going to think this sucks!”, but it didn't stop him from making it. I felt in myself that feeling when I would start to work on something and I would go: ”Oh, people are going to think this sucks!” and I would quit or I would change what I was doing because the idea of standing up on a stage and playing my own music and having people think it sucked was a real fear, a fear that has inhibited me as an artist.

Outro, Tom Lee

Thank you then to John and to Elizabeth for that great interview! When I was listening back to it I really appreciated John's quite well-rounded view on Elliot and his music and how that, although there were certain aspects he wasn't a fan of, that there is just so much there that he admires too. And as we have been talking about it so much, for our listener pick we stick with the Either/Or theme. Here is musician Tom Lee from Leeds here in the UK:

My favorite Elliott Smith song for the purpose of this is Say Yes. My favorite song changes weekly, if not daily, but I believe this song was the first song I ever heard from Elliott, it is definitely the first song I have latched onto and fell in love with, and it is a song that made me want to dig deeper into his back catalogue and discover what album this was of: Either/Or. Going back to the song itself I think it carries a lot of the attributes that I love Elliott’s songs have, which makes me love it in terms of the intricacies and depth of the songs. I feel like the more you listen to them, the more layers you pull away and the more you realize everything is so purposeful and with his music, which I love, lyrically and sonically etc.

I also think this song is presented in a way that seems so simple and so easy and accessible. It is definitely one of Elliot’s most accessible songs, partly because it is the song that first grabbed me, but also that juxtaposition that the more you listen to it, the more fresh it feels because every time you listen you feel you are discovering something new in the song, in terms of whether it be something in the phrasing or the wordplay or an extra guitar line you didn't notice earlier, or the way it shapes itself and with Say Yes it is really wonderfully crafted.

Thanks very much to Tom for sending that in. If you want to be featured in this show then all you have to do is send us a voice note telling us what your favorite Elliott Smith song is, to moc.gnoshtimsttoilleetiruovafym|ofni#moc.gnoshtimsttoilleetiruovafym|ofni and that is pretty much it for this episode. We will be back in two weeks time when our guest will be Sameer Gadhia from the band Young the Giant, so I hope you can join us for that one. In the meantime, do follow us on social media if you can: We are on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook and if you are listening to us on Apple, leave us hopefully a 5-star rating or review, too.

Lastly, thank you very much to our guests today, thank you to John Roderick and Tom Lee, thank you to Elizabeth Withstandly for producing the show with me, and of course thank you very much for listening to it! See you in a couple of weeks!

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License