RL341 - The head of Two-Thousand

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The problem: John started to have cool, referring to John developing the kind of cool that his High School friend Kevin Horning also had.

The show title refers to John not being able to get inside his head of the year 2000 anymore to understand why he selected those particular songs for his album of the Western State Hurricanes.

This episode was pre-recorded on 2019-06-03.

It is a bright and beautiful June 17th, like it says on the calendar right now, and John is on his trip! John would have thought that they were further along than that. Join the club! Merlin is like an ongoing Wren (?) song that is only partially recorded. Charles had a very good dad joke this morning about the doctor’s office (? Find on Twitter!). A lot of it is probably drums and drum sounds, but it is very hard to get good drum sounds.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

Genesis and Phil Collins, Mike + The Mechanics (RL341)

Merlin likes the podcast Hit Parade, even though one episode is about Red Red Wine. The guy Chris Melamphy did a deep dive on the phenomenon of Genesis being a little bit of a black swan in that the emergence of the solo careers did not harm Genesis’ prime, but in fact helped it. They talked a lot about Phil Collins and he cites other examples, but the asterisks are that it is unusual for a person to have an ongoing very successful solo career that just keeps going up alongside an ongoing actual band venture. Then you bring Peter Peter Gabriel in the mix and at one point there was a week where Genesis and Peter Gabriel were 1 and 2 in the charts and then they swapped positions the next week.

Merlin liked to hear the full story of In The Air Tonight and the debunking of the myths. When Phil Collins had a rough time in his life they gave him the prototype of a drum machine, pre-808, which is why there is In The Air Tonight. He was also in Mike + The Mechanics! Merlin was on Parnassus Avenue waiting for his Lyft when he heard that and had totally forgotten! The other guys in Genesis were Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks.

Mike + The Mechanics had a lot of songs that you forget. All I Need Is A Miracle, Silent Running featuring the wonderful Paul Carrack who sang Tempted in Squeeze. That guy has got pipes! The other one, All I Need Is a Miracle, was sung by Paul Young. Merlin and John were weird fans of Paul Young. The first time Merlin heard Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Division was his cover of it and he really liked it. John did not know that the Paul Young was in Mike + The Mechanics.

John using songs from his previous band for The Long Winters (RL341)

A lot of people re-record their music. Jeff Lynne is beard-deep in re-recordings. Cheap Trick might have done some re-recording, which is understandable because then you get the money. John did re-recordings, but not of previously released official material. There were many Western State Hurricane songs on his first album The Worst You Can Do Is Harm. Carparts was a very different song in the Hurricanes, and also Mimi and Unsalted Butter were very different.

The Western State Hurricanes was John's band with that lady (Stephanie Wicker), Michael (Schilling) and somebody else (Bo Gilliland). John has gigged those songs so many times and recorded the demo with friend of the show Phil Ek (Merlin knows too much about John, it is creepy) and Merlin can’t imagine To reimagine those in a way that was utterly fresh! Carparts is a very different song!

The songs on The Worst You Can Do Is Harm that were not Western State songs were not the ones John wrote in Harlem on a mattress, because that was the second Long Winters record. Give Me a Moment, the song that opens the Long Winters catalogue, was actually a Bun Family Players song, but The Western State Hurricanes hadn’t even ever played it. John had a vision, but he didn’t communicate it well and The Bun Family Players didn't really like it and it went into a hat somewhere. As John was trying to come up with songs for a first album he rediscovered it.

John cannot get inside his head, the head of the year 2000, to figure out how he was choosing the songs to record on that album because he had written 40 songs by that point, and he doesn’t know how he was combing through them. He felt like he didn't have enough songs for the first Long Winters record and the only new songs on that album are Government Loans, and (…) John refuses to answer questions about his favorite songs because he couldn't think of his songs that way. He couldn't even tell you his favorite song on this one album.

The life of a song (RL341)

Every time one writes a song, even a piker like Merlin, it has a life in that something welled up enough that it chose to come out somewhere. It is a sand in a pearl kind of thing, like most things, even if you are scrounging like John famously did, writing lyrics while the band was already recording the other tracks. You dredge up something to say and before it became a song it could have had a life you may not even have really known about. Then it had a life as a thing you had to record tracks for over and over and Ken Stringfellow was punching in and out and all of those things.

Then it has a life as a recording and it has several lives after that as your band lineup would change and you would choose to perform the songs differently. Merlin has seen John play some of his songs live in all different ways, and maybe you do a throwback and do it the original way and maybe Sean is there and maybe it is Nabil or maybe it is Michael. Then you get this weird interregnum or latent time where these songs are not top of mind, but then maybe you think of one of them again. John got that x 40+. The lives of a song are very interesting to Merlin.

John’s first album having bad reviews on Allmusic.com (RL341)

John hasn’t looked at this in a decade, but according to Allmusic.com his first album was apparently a 2.5 star album. Merlin is still so fucking mad about this! The review says that the striking thing about John Roderick is his vocal similarity to R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, which is pretty uncanny, and The Long Winters are not only a slightly mellower R.E.M., but Soul Asylum, Counting Crows, which is interesting.

For a long time the first review that went up on Allmusic.com was from a girl saying it was a hookless something something. Because Allmusic.com is a portal, it was the first thing that came up if you googled The Long Winters: ”Hookless Something of Indie Rock!”.

This is one reason Merlin avoids review-sites for a movie he wants to see. Whether he wants it or not, a baseline has been established, even if it is a baseline that he would later hugely disagree with. People google John’s band and the first thing they see is that they are tuneless and at that time this site was relatively canonical for being where you find out how good a record is hated on.

Letting others make important decisions about your music (RL341)

The difference between a song and a recording has plagued John his whole career because a recording is a snapshot of a minute. John never had a very strong aesthetic, he was never Goth or Punk or even Indie, really. He didn't go into the studio with a vision of how the recording was going to sound, but he was very open to hearing from the people that were standing around. Especially in the early days he didn't understand how a bass line would work or how a drum-part would work.

People would sit around him and talk about drum-parts and how this guy's drum-parts were great and made the song. Especially when it comes to drum sounds John had no idea what they were talking about. To Merlin that seems like something Chris Walla in particular really cared about and the production on Give Me a Moment got an atmosphere that sounds very Chris Walla to him.

Chris Walla did really care about it, but John doesn’t look back and think: ”Oh, that was amazing!” The sounds they got were very Indie, but they were not sounds that John has chosen because he didn't know enough to choose. If he heard two drum sounds right next to each other he would sit there just dumbfounded. It wasn't just the sounds, but it was also hard for him to have an opinion about a bass part, for instance. Bass parts can do a lot of different things and he didn't understand what any of those were.

John knew from listening to The Beatles that Paul McCartney's bass line was doing something and he appreciated it, but also Geezer Butler's bass line is doing something in Black Sabbath tunes. He is playing the same part as Tony Iommi and it is amazing! When recording one of John’s songs like Samaritan, which one do you do? Do you find a really great bass player and turn him loose on it? Or do you have somebody just play the root notes? John never had a solid band that just developed a sound. It wasn't John and three friends who started at 15 years old and their sound was the sound of the band that you couldn't separate from John’s songwriting.

Merlin played the bass like Lou Barlow: He played like a guitar player who was like: ”Oh, I see, these strings are pretty much the same, just bigger!” and he would do a Black Sabbath type thing or a Ramones type thing.

There was a kid in John’s High School who decided some time around the age of 15 or 16 that he was identifying as a bass player. It was extremely unusual because there were 20 kids who were lead guitar players and there were a bunch of kids in choir who toyed around with the idea of being singers, although a lot of them were piano singers, but considering how many metal guitar players there were, there was a surprising lack of metal singers. There was just this one guy who talked about bass lines. He was evangelizing about it, like: ”You got to listen to the bass line!” because the assumption they all had was that the bass player was the guy in the band who wasn't good enough to be the lead guitarist and got handed the bass. John had never even heard the term "bass line", of course.

For every song John has ever recorded most of those decisions were not being made by him. It is a character that follows him throughout his life, a feeling about a lot of stuff: He just wants somebody else to do it and take ownership of it and either send him the receipts or tell him about it later. It haunts him because you would think he was pretty controlling about stuff, but he actually just wants to be on the receiving end of good fortune. John was really lucky to meet up with Eric (Corson). When Eric auditioned for the band everybody else in the band said: ”Not that guy!”, but John just connected with him right away. It was luck as much as anything because Eric was the only person who auditioned for the job.

If John wants a brick path laid in his yard and a person offers to do it, then: ”Great! Well, I would like it to be a herringbone pattern” - ”Fine! Great!” and then John goes inside and pulls the blinds, he doesn't stand there on the porch and watches them, he doesn’t say: ”Oh, hey, you know, I want it like this, not like that!”, but he will come out later and look, and if they got it right, he goes: ”Yeah, right, that is what I meant!” and it is somewhat obvious, so: ”Right on! High Five!” If they get it wrong, which happens a lot, John is super-devastated and confused and he doesn’t understand how somebody could have made those un-obvious choices.

You get this a lot in the world: You can get three people together and ask: ”What is the way to do this?” and all three of them say exactly the same thing. Then you hire a fourth guy to do it and he does it completely backwards, and all three of the other people wonder: ”It was obvious how to do!”, but it is not always and people make really weird choices. John always handed stuff like that off because there were people in the room who wanted it. Chris Walla and Sean Nelson wanted to be in charge of it and John was grateful: ”Yes, I don't know what a baseline is, I don't know what a drum sound is, I am going to play my song and you guys take it!”

The choices they made were personal to them and would follow John for the rest of his career. Eric Corson was the one constant in the band and he doesn't even play on the first record, but it was Joe Bass (Joe Skyward) who had played in The Posies and in Sky Cries Mary and 100 other bands. Joe had a lot of names! He died a couple of years ago, widely regarded as one of the most creative and interesting bass players in Seattle. His bass parts on John’s record are phenomenal and John was super-lucky that Joe agreed to play on the record. Joe has always been a hero of John's‚ even though he was a freaky nut. Brian (Young) from Fountains of Wayne played drums and it was a nice group. Choices were made in the recordings about tempo or as basic as: ”Is this going to be Rock or Pop or Slower Fast?”

Toward the end of John’s Long Winters recording career he covered his own song Ultimatum, which he had done as a lush electro sad pop version of on the Ultimatum EP and then completely rejiggered as a hard rocker on his last album. He got angry letters: ”How dare you!” People were upset because they really liked the first version and John agrees with them and is very proud of the first version.

The lost Western State Hurricanes record (RL341)

The influence of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction

John had come up listening to 1970s AOR (Album-oriented Rock) and the arrival of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction in the mid to late 1980s really changed the direction of Alternative Rock. John went to Punk Rock shows up in Anchorage and was exposed to a lot of Punk Rock, but while he liked the Rock aspect of it, he didn't click with the subculture. It was pre-hardcore and there wasn't that righteousness to the politics that came with Hardcore. The politics were either nihilist or hyper-revolutionary, but in a dumb young-ones way. The politics of Punk Rock in the mid-1980s were dumb as filtered through Anchorage Alaska.

John wasn't there for Hardcore. When it came in and the politics got sharp he was already kind of ”Meh” about it, but then Jane's Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers introduced Funk to big Stadium Rock. They put that weird (John) Frusciante guitar on it and John thought that was cheese ball. He loved Jane's Addiction, but that ”chicka chicka bang” aspect of it was not the thing that made it great. It was just an interesting element of it like the Reggae sound of the early 1980s. The Police are great and the Reggae aspect is crucial to the sound of The Police, but it is not the cool part. You don't go like: ”I can't wait for the two Reggae songs on the first Pretenders album!” They are there, people were trying to process that into music, but that is not what is great about it.

The same was true for Jane’s Addiction, but John's best friend from High School Kevin (Horning) really dug that head bob. The reverberations of the Red Hot Chili Peppers are visible in a whole strain of Alternative Rock that went in that direction. Merlin finds Jane's Addiction an interesting one to mention because they seemed so odd and that album seemed so weird, but a lot of it comes down to his singing.

The politics of Punk Rock and its nieces and nephews was a pretty un-ironic post-Clash earnestness that led to a lot of things and there was not room for that much fun. Fishbone seemed like such a breath of fresh air to Merlin. When he first heard Party at Ground Zero, he wondered: ”What is this with the horns?” He never saw them live, but everyone who saw them live said they were the most amazing live band they had ever seen. Living Colour was doing a version of that and was drawing from Ska.

Mudhoney biography

John read an incredible book from British writer Keith Cameron, a biography of Mudhoney (Mudhoney: The Sound and the Fury from Seattle), and what has John not heard about the Grunge scene? He feels like he knows as much about it as you could know. The book is about the formation of the band and John knows all the characters, he knows some of them personally, he knows the environment, and this book is talking about streets in this town that John was walking down not long after the events depicted.

Yet this book is really illuminating as a pretty specific Northwest reaction to Punk: There was an absurdist take on it where the earnestness of post-Clash Punk was given the send-up treatment by people who were also Punk, but too Punk to be Punk, or not Punk enough to be too Punk to be Punk. People were taking the piss at the same time that other people were dead-earnest about it, and that was John’s instinct.

You can read about that little group of dudes, Mark Arm, Steve Turner and their weird connection to Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard at a point when they were all right out of High School and they were going to shows with each other. Jeff Ament is self-admittedly a humorless dude from Montana who is Punk-adjacent and just wants to play Hard Rock. They are all rich kids! Both Steve Turner and and Mark Arm are middle class suburban kids from Bellevue who are going to these Punk shows and they are developing this thing: ”We are going to make a band that is so bad, it pisses off all the Punk Rock kids!” That was where John was coming from, too: ”Are we all trying to sound terrible? I can be even more terrible sounding than that!”

It was the "Hard Fast rules!" days where bands were playing as fast as they could play. John didn't emotionally respond to that music at all, but it felt like a sport and it was dudes with the blood vessels in their neck bulging out. It was why the Sex Pistols record hit John like a fucking wall in a way that nothing about the Clash ever did! John would make that stand on city streets in the 1980s and 80% of the people still roll their eyes at him, but the Sex Pistols record is better than anything the Clash ever did because it is fucking great and the politics in the Sex Pistols record are just: ”Fuck you! What have you got? Fuck you! Fuck that!”

John being in a low slung black Les Pauls band

John was very briefly the lead singer in a low slung black Les Pauls band where the other dudes had really long hair and the music was all ”Boum Dididididi Boum Di Doung Didididididi” They knew that John could sing and he was still on drugs and had met these dudes while freebasing crank at some party late one night. They had talked for 48 hours about the band they were going to start and all of a sudden John was in this band. It was a completely drug-based band-genesis.

They wanted John to sing like (John making a soprano sound) or the Grunge version of that, and John did it in practice, but they never played a show. For six months they would get together as an excuse to get messed up, get high, and play. They had all the gear! They shared a practice space with a guy who ended up in Built To Spill and this group of people ended up being in a successful band when everybody dried out a little bit from the harder drugs and got just beer-soaked. They had a band called Goody Blick and the Country Kind that was a fucking country band, but at this point in time they were trying to hit the Zeitgeist in 1993 and John was upfront with this mic on a mic stand, which he had never done before, looking for something to do with his hands.

John didn't own a guitar at the time, he didn't even have a fucking house. He didn't own anything and nobody was going to loan him a guitar. He was not trusted with a guitar either because he looked like he didn't know how to play the guitar. He would pick up an acoustic and strum along and they would just go: ”Yeah, aha, great!” because John actually was terrible at it.

Six months after John left the band Their practice space got broken into and all their shit was stolen. John was very high up on the list of suspects. He found out later that these guys believed he would break into a practice space and steal ten guitars and amps or whatever, but how would anybody have loaned John a car when they wouldn’t even loan him a guitar? How would he get those black Les Pauls anywhere? Running down the street with them with the strap-locks around his neck, waiting for the bus?

John couldn't believe they knew him so little that they would suspect that he would steal something even in his darkest darkest day, that he would break into a place that was owned by a friend and steal a thing in order to keep his drug habit alive. He would rather fucking die, and he is saying this as someone who is convicted of burglary in Boulder County Colorado on a trumped-up charge because he had an electric razor in his pocket that he found in an a bathroom somewhere. It showed how little they knew him or how much they were projecting their own values onto somebody else. You could only believe that about him if you sir are a burglar in your own heart!

John being a polyamorous music appreciator

When John formed a band in Seattle in the mid 1990s he was trying to fit into a world that was already very well developed. He was certainly not going to come in with a band in 1994 and be good at Grunge, he wasn't Punk or Punk-adjacent, he wasn't going to be good at Punk because he didn't understand the codes and he didn't believe in them, and he wasn't going to be good at Glam Rock or Rock really any kind of Rock with swagger. He couldn't do Grunge or Punk Rock with a straight face!

Anytime somebody would suggest to play a song twice as fast he would start making a funny face because it felt like parodying Punk or Grunge. None of that stuff was natural, but it often happened because the people in the band were coming out of a subculture that they already belonged to and identified with. It was the thing John didn't have in High School or college! He was extremely polyamorous and he still is. He can go to any show of any kind with anybody. He is friends with people of every stripe.

John goes to Punk Rock shows as an appreciator, but never as a member. He can go to a Grunge show, a Hip Hop show, Classical music or whatever and he appreciates it, he is there with you, he is consuming your media, but he is not there either as a member or repping a different thing. He is not a chameleon and he is not trying to pretend he is anything. John took his sister to all those shows and he sat in the back of the room listening to all those bands and he slam-danced. He saw it all, he saw the fucking Agent Orange and whatever else you got. He even saw Dio!

The point of all this is that by the time John was about to record the music he had been writing on the acoustic guitar, he had no idea at all what he wanted it to sound like because all he could think of was ”Guy with an acoustic guitar!” Sometimes he wanted strings on it. Merlin wanted his music to sound like a band, like R.E.M. or Hüsker Dü.

John never playing songs by other bands

John never learned to play a song by another songwriter and for the first twelve years of playing the guitar he had never covered a song. He learned to play the guitar by somebody writing out the chords on a piece of paper and by looking at the piece of paper and making the chord and strumming and as soon as he could put three of them together he started singing. When he had C-D-G, he immediately was just like ”La la la la la la la la!” Covering other people's music never even occurred to him!

Somebody bought him a Beatles chord book, like ”Easy Beatles” and even in Easy Beatles the chords were really hard! Even if he learned the verse G-D-C, now they were going to the chorus and it starts with a B minor 7, or a T augmented 35. "Is that even a chord? I don’t think that is a thing!" This Paul McCartney shit wasn't the music John wanted to learn how to play.

In the Mudhoney / Steve Turner story their guitars were always amplified. The first instrument they ever picked up was a guitar with a distortion box on it that was plugged into an amp and they were making music right away. You can make music on one string with an electric distorted guitar, but with a $20 acoustic guitar that your mom's boyfriend bought at a swap meet which is hard to play anyway? John didn't start there!

John's friend Kevin as a musical collaborator

What John wanted was a band! He wanted the friends and he wanted the feeling of Hard Day's Night. He also thought that a band was a thing that people would coalesce around. He didn't have to be in a band that was part of a scene, but if you had a band, a scene would form around you, which he didn't think about directly. He wasn't trying to impress anybody that he admired, but he was trying to impress people who were looking for a thing that nobody else was making.

Billy Gibbons is probably not the greatest hang or an amazing dude, you don't read stories about Billy Gibbons doing things like jumping his motorcycle over the Snake River, but Billy Gibbons plays guitar in ZZ Top and the thing he conjured appealed to John so much although he had no desire to be a grease monkey in Texas. John played the tennis racket to Eliminator (album by ZZ Top) and did not want to start a Texas Blues Rock band, he was not thinking he needed to inhabit this universe, but it just felt good to play the tennis racket to.

John’s friend Kevin was more literal about it. He liked ZZ Top and Jane's Addiction, he wanted to put those sounds together and make an amalgam of them. He wasn't writing lyrics and he wasn't trying to put verse-chorus-verse together, but he was playing guitar, which at the time was a very common leisure time activity for American teenage boys. Kevin was a good guitar player and John was grateful to have him interested in John’s songs because Kevin was both older and cooler than he was.

At this transition moment, this inflection point right at the end of High School, John was starting to develop a kind of cool that was not like the other kinds of cool. There was an independence to John that other kids had always found threatening and distasteful, the fact that he didn't obey the kid-rules. By the time they were 18 the kids that found it threatening and distasteful moved on and went somewhere else like the University of Arizona, or they did whatever they were going to do, but John started to see that there were other kids from other places that are also doing things that are threatening and distasteful and he was a chimera who could move between things. John started to have a cool, but he still really admired Kevin because he just had confidence and capabilities John didn't.

They started playing music together and John can’t decide whether it was the best thing or the worst thing that ever happened to him. John hitched his wagon to the idea of Kevin as a collaborator and they were going to write songs together. Kevin's songs were riff based, but as John got older he started to get into styles of music that were other things.

Built To Spill affected so many of them with their weird sounds. It was fuzz and it was there for emotion, it was very emotional and psychedelic music. It sounded weird that they were playing these songs so un-ironically on undistorted electric guitars. It was its own sound and it wasn't trying to be jokey and twee, but it was all in the service of this feeling that John could build with his songwriting and performances. It sounds like a basketball and five tennis balls going down in a dirty-clothes chute and calling it a riff is really doing it a disservice.

When that came on the scene Kevin listened to it politely, but it didn't grab him, but what grabbed him at that point in time was the music of Filter or whatever, which John loved. Hey Man Nice Shot is a killer killer tune and it is amazing that there was ever a time in the world when that could have been racing up the charts. Contrast that with Ultimate Alternative Wavers and you are in a separate universe!

Finding your own sound, not imitating others

The Bun Family Players were a crazy group. Kevin (Horning) was playing Funk Metal and John was trying to write really intriguing songs with a lot of different parts and surprises and anti-pop moments. They went through a succession of bass players and drummers, sometimes really cool dudes who were bad at their instruments, sometimes cool dudes who were great at their instruments, but it ended up as a vehicle for John’s songwriting as interpreted by his best friend who wanted to play really Hard Rock Funk Metal over the top or adjacent to it because John would sometimes write songs with his riffs.

The band that Merlin essentially got thrown out of in college turned into that. There were all of those bands in 1988/89, post good Chili Peppers, that were all about that pop and bass and big tracks and laconic vocals or over-passionate vocals. It is difficult to just have a little bit of something from a genre without it sounding like you are doing a genre thing. If you start playing Country licks it sounds like Country Rock and if you are not careful about it and you even introduce pedal steel, it is going to feel like a country song.

John never understood and couldn't embrace genre rock. Like every media thing he ever tried to make, he couldn't imagine why you would imitate someone who had done something already because: They did it already! Why would you want to sound like another band that innovated a sound? Wouldn't you want to innovate your own sound? It is the thing that drives you to parody other things. The way that Mark Alm and Steve Turner and Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament invented a couple of different versions of Grunge was just how seriously they took blending Punk and Metal. Stone Gossard blended them with a lot of seriousness and put a bunch of that Funk chicka-chicka in with it.

It is cool to look back and say that they are referencing Led Zeppelin, and somebody like Soundgarden are very heavily referencing Led Zeppelin, but tons of those bands are actually referencing something that in retrospect is not as historically cool, stuff like Foghat. A lot of British Blues Rock cites Aerosmith over and over because it was the one thing they could all agree on. They felt like Aerosmith was good and nobody was apologizing for it.

A lot of the people in the book about Mudhoney are apologizing for ever liking Ted Nugent. You don't have to apologize for liking Iggy Pop because Iggy Pop ended up being in the canon eventually, but alongside with the Ramones he was just critically savaged and not even as popular as the Ramones. The Stooges were a really dumb band who just happened to be way ahead of their time in some ways. Mark Arm was talking about trying to find those records and couldn't even find them, and the only reason he wanted to find them was that they had that energy and that ”Fuck you!”-spirit that connected with him in his cul de sac while watching other kids skateboard or whatever.

They continue their conversation in Episode 342.

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