RP1 - We Switched Babies on the Day You Were Born

This is an interview of John, done by his friend Jason Verlinde from the Fretboard journal at the beginning of 2020 a couple of weeks after the release concerts of the Western State Hurricanes album (here on Bandcamp, see also RL341, RL342).

Meeting Stephanie, helping John to produce a demo (RP1)

So why don’t you paint the picture of The Western State Hurricanes circa 1999 when you guys broke up and give me the background info you have probably given to everybody else?

The band was formed by accident. I had left my band The Bun Family Players and I was looking for a way out of it because the band stopped being what I wanted to do creatively. I met Stephanie Wicker at one of the final Bun Family Players shows when her band opened for us and I immediately thought that on the Seattle scene of the time she was a pretty compelling creature, not that her band was successful, but you could just see as soon as you saw her: She was fronting her own band and she just had a vibe that was pretty unusual. She wanted to be a producer, we knew we wanted to work together, but we weren't sure how. She was focused on her band, but she wanted to have me in the studio, she recorded some tracks on her 4-track and then she was going to ”produce” them and show me what she was capable of.

I went into her practice space down on Western Avenue in Belltown and without a drum track or a click track we recorded 4-5 songs with her engineering. I wasn't able to keep my tempos straight and some of the songs were ones I hadn't fully fleshed out, so they were bouncing around between parts, and I left that day feeling like I had embarrassed myself and played this garbage stuff for her. But she called me a week or 10 days later and played me a tape that she had made where she had added a hand played drum machine - she was doing all this on a Tascam cassette 4-track -, she put keyboards on and had played the bass and some harmony vocals.

At that point in time I had a 4-track, but I couldn't make it do anything, I was never good at that stuff, and she had made a cassette tape that to me felt like the best sounding recording I had ever made. It was creative, it had parts. She and I started to work on the idea that I was going to put a demo together and I was going to use that demo to find a band, to get a record contract, all the stuff that we all thought in 1997. We went looking for a rhythm section to help us make the demo, I knew Michael Schilling as a tangential member of my social group and everybody said he was a good drummer. Bo was in Severna Park and a half a dozen other bands and everybody said he was a good bass player, so they came in and we learned the songs with the idea that they were helping me out make a demo.

The formation of the band (RP1)

As soon as we played together it really was one of those things where we just looked at each other in the practice space and said: ”Wait a minute, what are we doing? We are a band!” and without even needing to shake hands on it we all agreed that this was what we were focusing on now. Stephanie still had her band, and for a while Bo was still in Severna Park, but we were the thing that we were all going to focus on.

When it came time to record, both Stephanie and I knew Phil Ek. I met Phil when he was still under 21 and he was working at The Off Ramp as the assistant sound guy. He had to have an X on his hand to even come into the venue, but he had gone to the Art Institute, he was a young sound dude, and I was the cook at The Off Ramp at the same time. Phil had become Seattle-famous by producing the second Built To Spill record There's Nothing Wrong with Love, which we all loved and admired, and the fact that we knew Phil was pretty exciting to us and we booked some studio time with him and played him the cassette that Stephanie had made.

This was pretty early on when we had only been together a couple of months and Phil wasn't really turned on by the tunes. He was making a career for himself in a certain genre of Indie music and I don't know what he didn't like about it, but it didn't stop him from taking the gig. We were ready to record a 10-song record, but when we went in he put the kibosh on that and wanted to just make a quick and dirty demo with us, which was a disappointment. We had 10 songs, we thought they sounded good, we were ready to put them down and either have that be our record or - more likely - take that 10 song record, sell it shows, and use it to get a record contract.

We were basing all that on the Harvey Danger experience, which happened just happened the year before: They made a record with John Goodmanson for $500 or $5000, and it produced a hit song and we thought maybe we would pursue that route, but we came out of it with a 5-song demo instead that had been recorded well and the performances were good, but it had been given a quick levels-up mix like a demo mix, which was not very exciting. We mixed the whole thing in a day. We made cassettes and started selling them at shows, but particularly given that we had the money and we had the songs it felt like a stopgap measure and we thought we really should have recorded a full-length record at that point two months into the band. We had that energy! But we should have done it with John Goodmanson.

Being offered a record contract at Sub Pop (RP1)

Within a few weeks we were talking to Jonathan Poneman at Sub Pop. He had come to see us at our 3rd show and said: ”Here is a record contract! Come be on Sub Pop!” Obviously that was super exciting, but it was at a weird time right when the Steve Albini article came out where he talked about how record companies were all out to screw you, a long cynical take on how record companies were the worst. We all read it and were very influenced by it. That had happened just at the same time when we were also talking to Sub Pop about signing. I liked Jonathan Poneman a lot, we like each other, those were heady days.

John’s early songwriting without a sound in mind (RP1)

At this point in my life I was a songwriter that had not studied songs, I was not a young person that had a huge record collection, I didn't start studying the guitar and recording at a young age, I really was an accidental musician. I picked up the guitar in High School because it was what my friends were doing and I became a singer because none of them wanted to sing. I started writing songs because it was easy for me to come up with stuff, I knew three chords on the guitar, but I didn't have a very strong aesthetic.

I didn't think of myself as a Punker or a Rocker or a New Waver, but I never identified with a subculture and I never developed a sense of sound. If I had strongly identified as a New Waver in 1983 I would have approached songwriting with a sound in mind and that would have suggested all the production decisions and would have suggested parts and attitudes, but not having that I was just writing songs in a liminal space where they were ur-songs and you could make them Rock or you could make them Pop or if the bass player decided he was going to play Reggae you could make them Reggae.

I didn't have a really strong guiding attitude about it, but I deferred to people that I felt were cooler than me, but I was busy writing songs, I had a guitar, and if you heard a song and felt strongly about it, I would say: ”Oh, great! Good idea, I guess!”

When it came to this point in my music, Stephanie and Bo in particular had strong feelings about what a good drum sound was and what a bad drum sound was. I had never thought about the drums having a sound. I just assumed that the drums sounded like the drums and when I listened to The Beatles or to Led Zeppelin or to Tom Petty I certainly heard the drums and I appreciated that they sounded good, but I don't know if I could have differentiated between the sound. All that recording stuff and record label stuff? I was in the dark and highly suggestible.

If you think about the bands that were coming out around that same time, like Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, or Death Cab for Cutie: Modest Mouse and Death Cab were taking a lot of pages from Built to Spill, and Built to Spill was one of a lot of bands that were taking their pages from Pavement, and to me it all just sounded like magic: Some new crazy music, and I didn't even connect it to whatever history of Pop music it was a part of.

Passing on an offer by Chris Walla to record their record (RP1)

The first time we played with Death Cab we immediately fell in love with one another and I got a phone call the next morning after the show from Chris Walla, who at the time was 22 years old, and he said: ”Hey, it is Chris from the band that played with you last night! I really loved your set and I made a list of the 10 bands that I thought probably had influenced you as a songwriter and I wanted to just run that list by you so you could confirm or deny that these were your influences because I really liked your songwriting and I just did this as a homework assignment!” - ”Okay!” and he read me this list and XTC was the only band out of the 10 bands that I had even heard of.

Chris was hearing all these influences in my songs from bands that I had never heard of because I was just inventing it. It was just coincidence. He and I met on this crazy field where we stared at each other and he was like: ”What? That song sounded exactly like a song by The Weakerthans!” or whatever band it was at the time before that. ”It sounds exactly like Zumpano!” or something ”I never heard of Zumpano. Don't know what you are talking about!” That confusion actually was at the core of our relationship for the rest of our friendship.

When it came time to start thinking about where we were going to record and what kind of record we were going to make the people around me had really strong feelings and I felt really at sea, totally confused, not sure how to make those decisions. When people would ask my preferences I didn't know how to answer: ”Do you want a wet or a dry sound? Do you want it to be heavy or…” - ”I don't know. Is heavy better? I think heavy is better, right?”

Chris Walla had just finished recording Something About Airplanes in the house that Death Cab shared with one another in A Hard Day's Night style up in Bellingham, and Chris asked the hurricanes to come up to Bellingham and record an album with him in that house before they moved out and tore the whole studio apart. The tracking room was in the upstairs bedroom and they ran XLR-cables down through the heating vent into the living room. Chris offered to record us and the people around me said: ”Well, we are not so sure about the drum sound on Something About Airplanes. It doesn't sound like he likes to have a full sounding kit!” and I said: ”Oh, okay, then we shouldn't do that because we want a better drum sound!”

Never being offered a contract from a major label (RP1)

We passed on the offer to record with Chris because there was some feeling that we needed a bigger sound than he could accomplish. We were pretty confident, given the excitement about the band, that we were going to get tendered an offer from a big player to produce it and a label to pay for it. This was right at the last hour of the true major label era of the music industry when there were 40 major labels and they were all throwing money at bands.

Within a year of this time all of those people were fired, all those labels had been gobbled up by other labels, and there were dozens and dozens and dozens of albums made during that period that never were released. There was a big budget for them, the band got signed, they made the album, and somewhere in that period their label got bought, their A&R guy got fired, and the record got shelved. I saw that happen to a handful of my friends, so nationwide it must have been dozens if not hundreds of bands.

Other than the Sub Pop contract we never got an offer from a major label, and we had achieved a level of local fame where every year there is a band that achieves that level of local fame: ”Whoa, these are the next guys!” and you realize when you are in bands that there are so many tiers that you bounce up: You go from playing first on the bill on a Tuesday night and you make your way up the ladder, at least this is how it used to be. To get to be the big local thing that looks like something cool is going to happen just feels like such an accomplishment in the moment!

To take the next step, to go from being a big thing in your town or in the three towns that comprise your scene and go to the next level is such a massive exponential jump in terms of resources, talent, and connection with people. We sat for a maybe four months in that space where every day it felt like we were a phone call away or one show awy where an A&R dude happened to be there or came there on purpose.

We were that close to getting that opportunity plucked and groomed, but it didn't happen. Part of the reason is that the songs were more complex than they needed to be. If you were and A&R guy and you heard the Western State Hurricanes you might have a hard time pulling one of those songs out and saying: ”This is going to connect with people on the radio!” We were making album-oriented proto-Indie Rock.

Even Sub Pop, even Poneman said: ”I am not sure if you guys have written your single yet! We want to sign you and we want to get you in the studio and we want to hear the next 10 songs you write and probably in that next 10 songs you are going to hit your single!” I am a slow songwriter, I only write 10 songs and then I make an album, I am not somebody that has 40 songs and I think I was a little bit offended by that: ”You are waiting for the single? What are you talking about?”, but looking back on it now I can understand because all of our songs were 6.5 minutes long.

Stephanie’s co-worker offering to record their record (RP1)

After about four months we realized that in order to keep the momentum going we needed to make a record, again thinking of it as a demo, but we needed to make a full length. Stephanie at the time was working at The Trading Musician, which was a super cool job and it reflected well on the band that our lead guitar player worked at The Trading Musician in that strange way where your cool guitar player works with the cool guitar store and every guitar player in town is going to bump into her at one point or another in the course of a month. It is like being the bartender at the cool bar.

She had a co-worker there from Texas who was really talking up his home studio. He said he was a professional engineer and producer, he had come from Texas and he built a studio in his house and he would record us for free in exchange for exposure, he was convinced that the Western State record was going to be the thing that got his name out there, and for as much as we were seasoned veterans of the music scene, we were still such children and that proposition sounded like a good value.

The fact that this guy had zero credits to his name, worked at a guitar store, had built a studio in his basement, and offered to record us for exposure all sounded perfectly reasonable. A lot of good producers had studios in their houses at that point. One of the guys we talked to was the second guitar player of Blind Melon who had moved to Seattle and he built up full-on 2” 24-track studio in his house and we considered recording there, except we also wanted $900 a day. It was really a weird period!

We went into this guy's studio to record and the first day we arrived I should have been evident that this was not a professional recording environment. He had a 16-track machine that is legendary for being the lowest fidelity of any recording medium. 16 tracks on a tape with worse fidelity than a cassette tape by a fair margin. He had some mics, and he had a lot of drum kits, which impressed us, but he was a music person and he just had a bunch of amps and drum kits.

He set up his stuff and he had a lot of rules. His wife came home at 5pm and so we had to stop recording at 5pm because it gave her a migraine, and the space we were recording in wasn't heated and it was the dead of winter, so it was freezing in there, but we set about making a full length record with him. We were very rehearsed at that point, we really understood the music we were trying to make, and we recorded 10 songs with this guy. It was a bummer experience. It wasn't a friendly environment, he was not a friendly guy, and we didn't feel like there was a ton of creativity happening. We were basically just playing our live set in this cold basement.

Not being able to master the album, going to South by Southwest (RP1)

When we got the tracks we were headed down to South by Southwest. We wanted to get this record made so that we could take it with us because Death Cab had finished Something About Airplanes, it was coming out on Barsuk, we were going to go down there together, and we wanted to have an album too to hand out. Getting invited to South by Southwest felt like the first step in bumping up from being a big local act to being something else.

I took the ”mixed” tracks to be mastered by Rick Fisher who had worked with Steve Miller Band and became a legendary masterer around Seattle before he sold his mastering studio to Ed Brooks. We spent a couple of hours listening to the tracks and Rick didn't have a great bedside manner and he turned around in his chair at a certain point and was like: ”I can't master these tracks! There is no low-end information on them. The drums and bass are so poorly recorded, it is not like I can add any low-end, there is none there!”

Again I didn't really understand what he was saying. I was like: ”Well, I don't know, can’t you turn it up?” -”That is what I am saying: There is nothing to turn up! The drums sound like wet cardboard and the bass is just recorded at 4K and there is just this tiny little mid-range sound!” - ”Well, do the best you can!” I gave him a couple of the PHil Ek tracks, too, and he burned it all onto a CD, 4 songs from this recent recording, a couple of Phil Ek songs, and it just sounded like garbage. It was hot garbage!

The songs were complex enough that a poor recording of them really emphasized the fact that you couldn't hear the single. Not only couldn't you hear the single, but you couldn't hear the point. It is like if a Rush song was poorly recorded and it just sounded like three guys that weren't playing in sync, not because they weren't, but because it just sounded so thin and weird.

Going on their first tour on the way back from South by Southwest (RP1)

We went to South By, we toured back with Death Cab, in fact we played the show with you when you were playing your Musical Saw (?) in Sacramento on the way back. It was a tough tour, we had never toured with each other obviously, and when I was younger I did a lot of hitchhiking and a lot of freight hopping and sleeping outside and so when we left on tour I assumed that we would be camping. It hadn't occurred to me that there was another thing.

We all had sleeping bags and our first night somewhere in Eastern Oregon I pulled over at a rest stop and was like: ”This looks like a good enough place to spend the night!” and my band mates were mortified. They said: ”We need to go to a hotel!” - Those costs money! We don't have any money!” and we didn't, but they insisted and we went to a hotel and I was confused. Honestly I had never checked into a hotel. I had stayed at youth hostels, but I had never gotten a hotel room in my life and I was 30 years old.

The tour was hard, but it filled me with songwriting ambition and I came back to Seattle and had written five songs. It felt like the band was still right on the cusp of something. We were playing The Showbox for the first time, we still had not even been together a year, we were only 9 months in or something, and it still felt like we were on the verge of something, but when we listened to this record we had made, it sounded so awful it took the wind out of our sail, and the tour had felt somewhat fruitless.

Bo and Michael breaking up the band (RP1)

When we got back Bo and Michael called a band meeting and said they were leaving the band. They wanted to focus on their jobs, or I forget what their reasoning was. Even though we had started the band just as a temporary demo project, the fact that we had formed such a tight bond so soon and had had so much success on a regional level, it really made me feel like this was what I had been waiting for all of the years that I had been playing music in Seattle, which at that point was six years of being in bands and playing shows and trying to get to demo tape heard by Christine at the Crocodile or whatever.

The idea that this band was going to break up and that I was going to try and replace them with a new drummer and a new bass player? Jason Finn was standing there at the last show on the side of the stage and said: ”Screw those guys! I will be the drummer in your band. Mike Squires will be the bass player. We won't even miss a beat. We will be able to play a show in two weeks!”, but I just couldn't imagine it. I was so devastated by the breakup, partly because being in a successful band had not had the effect on my life that I had hoped it would. I didn't suddenly feel loved and capable and confident.

You always believe that as soon as you are successful, all your personality problems are going to go away and I had this successful band, but I still felt just as bad and incompetent as I had the year before, and that really influenced my feeling that I had tried, I had succeeded beyond my ambition, and then spectacularly failed. I broke up the band, I quit playing music, I quit my job, I left my apartment, and I walked from Amsterdam to Istanbul by myself with the idea that I was not going to return to making music. I was going to come back, finish my degree, and become a teacher and continue to go to school until I was a college teacher, which was my fallback.

John getting hired by Harvey Danger and starting The Long Winters (RP1)

I came back from that trip and got hired by Harvey Danger, not because I was a good musician, but because Sean Nelson and I got along well and he needed someone in the band that got his jokes and honestly I feel like I was hired for that reason. Sean was successful and lonely and none of the people around him understood his jokes, which as you can imagine really increases your loneliness, if you are making jokes and nobody gets them. Joining Harvey Danger was what kept me in the music making thing.

The whole story of The Long Winters sounds just as accidental as everything I have described. The first record was supposed to just be a demo, almost like a consolation prize, like a vanity press thing. Chris Walla and Sean Nelson were going to record those songs just so that when I was an old man I would have something to play on the record player to say: ”Once I had been a musician!” They were all pretty upfront about that and were like: ”You wrote so many good songs, we should just record them just so you have proof that you ever passed through the world!”

It was only after we recorded those songs, most of them Western State songs, that Josh Rosenfeld of Barsuk heard the recordings and said: ”Wow, this is a record that we want to put out!” and subsequently I had another ten year long career in making music.

Chuck Robertson failing to revive the missing Western State Hurricanes album (RP1)

The Western State record sat there on the shelf through that whole process and I didn't want anything to do with it. It was an embarrassment to me, I knew it sounded terrible, I didn't want to revisit it, and I was performing in a band that was playing versions of those songs and I didn't want to be reminded of the earlier versions and so those tapes sat on the shelf and when the guy who recorded them moved back to Texas he took the masters with him to Austin.

About a year or two later a good friend of ours by the name of Chuck Robertson, the guy that took all the liner notes photos for the Harvey Danger records. He had been a real fixture on the Seattle scene at the time, he was doing a lot of live recording of bands, he was taking a lot of photographs, he was the first guy to come to me and say: ”The missing Western State record is a cultural artifact that needs to be released because those songs and that band were important and if that record comes out the world will see how important that moment was.” and I said: ”I don't think so! I am moving on with those songs, and that record sounds terrible!”

But Chuck couldn't be dissuaded and he flew to Austin and met with this guy who said that he had recorded the tracks for free, but since the record never came out he felt ripped off because he had done all this work and had not been compensated in exposure, so he told Chuck that he wanted $5000 for the masters, which was outrageous. They weren't worth $500, but Chris bought them, brought them back to Seattle, actually hired John Goodmanson, the guy who we should have used from the start, the guy who should have made the Western State record month two if I had any brains.

Gudmundsson got Stuart Hallerman to find one of these 16-track 1/4” players, he hooked it up, he called up the tapes, and he ran them through a Quad Eight board and tried to make sense of them. I remember going down to John and Stu’s one time and it was John sitting at the board, Chuck was there, we were listening to the record, and John eventually turned around in his chair just like Rick Fisher had, and said: ”There is nothing here. It is unusable! The drums sound like wet cardboard and the bass is just nonexistent!”

It was a confirmation, but it was also really devastating to now for the third time attempt to make some Western State Hurricanes recording and utterly fail. At that point Chuck renounced ownership of the tapes. He realized that it was a folly, and the tapes stayed at John and Stu’s for two years until I got a call from Chris Walla who was saying he was cleaning out the studio and: ”Did I want them?” and it was a good question, but I am a pack rat, so I went and got them, and they sat on the wall in my basement from 2001 until 2017.

Pete Greenberg making another attempt att releasing the album (RP1)

Gradually over the course of that time other tapes joined them on that wall, the 2” tapes for all of The Long Winters albums, three full length and an EP, there are some 2” tapes from an aborted that Sean and I did, and little by little the pain of those tapes got mitigated by all these other recordings I had made.

In 2017 I got a call from Pete Greenberg who basically said the same exact things that Chuck had said back in 2000: This band was important, this record that never came out was important, he had a label that was rereleasing old vinyls and he wanted to try and put it out. I said: ”There is nothing there, it is not releasable, it is not listenable!” But Pete wasn't convinced and Pete is very persistent. Eventually I said: ”Look, I will give you the freaking tapes and if you want to go to all the pain of trying to figure them out, be my guest!”

He took the tapes and once again took them to Stuart Hallerman who is an incredible resource in Seattle music and always has been. Stuart was an incredible resource in the 1990s and remains an incredible resource! Stewart was able to still find one of these tape machines. Almost every other one of them surely was used as a boat anchor, but he found one that was working, they took the tapes, they baked them to get the moisture out of them, and they spooled them up on this machine and they ran the tracks into ProTools.

That was the first time that those tapes had ever touched digital. When we recorded that record no studio in town was using DAWs. When John Gudmundson called them up in 2000 I had never seen a digital recording platform at that point, but for the first time they went into a computer and those guys all sat around, I didn't go in to the session because I knew what was going to happen, and they reported back that the tracks were unlistenable, the drums sounded like wet cardboard, and I was like: ”I told you so!”

Eric Corson demonstrating that the bad recordings can be saved with modern technology (RP1)

This was the 4th time I had to suffer through this ignominious defeat, but somehow - and this is the part of the story that I don't exactly know how it went down - Pete got the tracks to Eric Corson, bass player of The Long Winters who also is a producer and an engineer with a great basement studio, with the idea that Eric might be able to do something. Eric had a lot of general misgivings about working on a record that were a bunch of songs from a band that he was in, but his band did them differently. It was emotionally complicated, probably. Also, I am not sure he understood or enjoyed working with Pete, it was personality things, and Eric and I of course have 15 years of working with one another and he felt like he might be going down a rabbit hole with me, too.

Just in the spirit of experimentation Eric started working on one of the tracks. Eric is a very gifted recordist and he started layering samples, and by samples I mean that he took the wet toilet paper drum sounds and used those sounds to trigger actual drum sounds. It is quite a nuanced process to get the computer to hear real drums and sample good-sounding drums without it sounding like samples. I am not sure how much Eric worked on it, but he tinkered with it and he ran the bass out through a base amplifier and rerecorded it and EQ:ed it and probably added some samples or used it to trigger, I am not exactly sure what he did. I know he didn't work on it forever.

I was over at his house for a different reason, we were sitting in his studio and he said: ”Oh, I got something to play!” and he played me this song that he had tinkered with. Again, still I couldn't tell you a cool snare sound from a bad snare sound unless you 8-beat them (?). When I hear a song go by I am only judging it on the emotional impact of the music as a whole. It is very hard for me to zoom in on something. I heard this song that I had recorded almost 20 years prior and it had come alive. Eric had added the sound back to it. The guitars weren't recorded badly, it is not hard to record a guitar, and the vocals were recorded at least competently, the information was there.

All of a sudden it sounded like a song and it was the first time I had ever heard the Western State Hurricanes! The Phil Ek recordings were at an early point and pretty flat mixes, but the track that Eric played me had the energy of the band. Eric was quick to point out that it didn't sound very good, that he would need to work on it for a long time, et cetera, but all of a sudden I became energized because the possibility existed. Shortly thereafter, Eric demured at working on the project, he just didn't want to be involved for whatever reason, but I had heard that track.

Floyd Reitsma and John putting in the energy and the money to make it happen (RP1)

Up until that point I had been very hands-off with Pete and Latent Print and my attitude was: ”It is going to sound like shit. If you want to put it out, that is fine, but I wash my hands of it!”, but all of a sudden I was in it. I took the tracks and I booked some time with Floyd Reitsma at Litho and because of scheduling we worked sometimes at Hall of Justice, sometimes at Litho, but Floyd and I started meticulously pursuing that idea: ”Can we use the tracks that are there to trigger actual sounds of well recorded drums and bass while keeping all of the weird little grace notes that Michael put in to his parts, to keep the dynamics?”

It is extremely complicated and the more that we zoomed in on it, the harder and harder and harder it got. What we ended up doing was: We would have the drums trigger some samples, then we would mix those samples pretty low, We put them in with the original tracks, the tracks that had all the high end, the little grace bits, and then we would take that comped track and use it to trigger a different set of drum samples, and then we would run all that out through the big speakers in the main room at Litho and rerecord those stereo drums, but in a live room with Floyd EQ:ing it and compressing it and to give him the information that he needed to then put back in and then use that whole collected bit to trigger various samples.

We layered this drum sound over and over, tricking the machines so that the sampled drums would fit into this sandwich we were making. We always used the original track, the original track is still in there, but I don't know how many layers of snare there are to try and get it to sound like a natural snare. We were running the bass out into the room and we were running the bass and drums out together and we rerecording them.

At a certain point in the process Ben Gibbard came in and spent a day in the studio, listening to the tracks, and he really got a whince face. Although it was exciting to hear that music, Ben is extremely attuned to good drum sounds and he was very conscious of the fact that these were not those. We had at that point built up these tracks so that it was listenable, you could hear the band, they were alive, but Ben could he could hear that they were samples. He could hear that there was something chemical about it. We were still finessing, but we kept working at it, and Floyd was extremely patient, absolutely willing to try every kooky idea I had, all the stuff that you get from Tape Op magazine: ”What if we put a microphone inside of a cone underneath the toilet tank?” and all that stuff.

We tried we tried a lot of different Indie Rock recording stuff and a lot of it worked. Little by little we put the rhythm tracks back together and made it sound like the band sounded when we recorded them in the first place. We were a heavy band. We played through big amps and Michael Schilling hit his drums really hard and even though a lot of our songs were mid tempo, we wanted to peel the wallpaper off the back of the room. This was before Quiet Is The New Loud, back when loud was still the old loud, and we were loud!

These recordings started to sound loud, but with all of Michael's intricate parts, and suddenly you could hear the bass lines, which were so creative and so different from the versions of these songs that were recorded by The Long Winters. When we made that first Long Winters record it was me and Walla and Sean Nelson and Joe Bass and Brian Young, we were just making these songs as a summer school project, we weren't trying to duplicate the sound of a band, we were just recording to play around.

The first Long Winters record didn't have any of the urgency that the Western State Hurricanes had. Ben came in toward the end of the recording session and he was so excited, he was jumping up and down in the studio because he heard this band from 20 years ago that he loved and here it was. That was my feeling, too! Somehow all of those many times that this album and that band had been a defeat for me, all of a sudden there was this possibility that it wasn't always going to be a defeat, right as I finally put the cherry on top and Floyd and I felt like we were in the process of really making this sound like an album.

We took the Phil Ek tracks and even though they were well recorded we had to make them sound like they belonged on the same album as the other songs. When you played them side by side before we had done all this work they just sounded so much better, but we started to use some of the same techniques on the Phil Ek tracks to bring them into the same family. They were recorded really well, but had never been properly mixed.

Getting the band to listen to the album for the first time (RP1)

At a certain point I invited the Western State Hurricanes themselves, Bo and Michael and Stephanie, to come into the studio and hear what we had made. Bo came in first and listened to it all the way through. I always held Bo responsible for breaking up the band because he was responsible for it, and I didn't continue to hold a grudge because it was 20 years ago and I had gone on and had a full career as a musician, but it certainly impacted our relationship. Bo spent a day listening to the tracks, and Bo is not a super-emotionally demonstrative guy, and neither am I, but we have this incredibly emotional experience of basically getting to go back in time and live through that whole time again by listening to the music and talking about it, because we didn't really talk about it then. We were just dudes in a band.

Bo said some wonderful reflective things about how at the time he had taken for granted that we were popular, he had taken for granted his position in the world and his talent as a musician, but that in retrospect his work in the Western State Hurricanes was his creative peak because he was inspired by the music, he was trying really hard to make his basslines as creative as possible to reflect the creativity in the songs, he said that over the course of the year of the band he decided more and more that he just was never going to play the root note if he could avoid it, always looking for a part that became a third melody. Those were busy basslines, but incredibly creative ones that really made the songs which were already very complicated chord progressions and many parts and just added an entire other level of complexity.

His confession or admission was unapologetic and had the feeling that this was the best it ever was, and in saying that he took away the sting and he made this record suddenly seem less like some vanity project where I was just trying to resurrect some old thing, and made it into - for me at least - a healing process. I had been experiencing that in the studio, working with Floyd: Every time we made something sound good I felt a little bit of the pain and bitterness of my early 30s depart, a little bit of the bad memories, a little bit of the sting of my broken relationships at the time, a little bit of the feeling of being lost and reviled went out of me.

Then he and I got to sit there and have that happen for us both. When we called the other two Hurricanes in, Stephanie and Michael, and we all listened to the records together, it was a very teary-eyed listening party because we all had hard feelings about those years, not necessarily toward each other, but Stephanie's music career ended more or less after the Hurricanes. She put out a solo record, but through a series of unfortunate social misfortunes, that record never got an airing. She felt betrayed by the local scene and rightfully so. There was a lot of pressure on her as a female Rock guitar playing singer/songwriter and she got turned upon in a way that was undeserved.

She was reliving all of that era and putting those demons to bed one by one. All this catharsis was better than any vacation I have ever taken. However much money it was costing me to remake this record, to spend those studio days with Floyd, if I had spent that money on a beach vacation in Mexico or a trip to Paris I would not have gotten 1/10th of what I was getting out of this trip I was taking.

What if that album had come out back then? (RP1)

It really was incredible and it really is, still! It is an incredible event, a moment in my life and in our lives that I never could have predicted. I am not very woo-woo, I did not have any interest in reliving the Western State Hurricanes year, I thought that they would always be what they were, and part of it was that we had the chance of sitting there and listening to the record and realizing how good it was and how good we were. We had a chance to sit there and speculate: ”Well, what if we had done it differently? What if we put this record out? What if we knew then what we know now?”

As we ran those scenarios we realized that if we had put that record out almost every possible alternate reality would have been not as good as what actually ended up happening to all of us. If we had put that record out on Sub Pop I probably would not be playing music now, or I wouldn't have made five albums of music. If we put that record out on Sub Pop and it had been successful we all would have been worse people for various reasons. We were all egotists, we were all engaging in risky behaviors at the time, and putting that record out would have only increased our chances of bad things happening. Almost without fail the more successful it would have been, the worse it would have been for us!

That was inescapable! We weren't sitting there running scenarios and hoping that that was true. I really wanted to sit and luxuriate in an alternate universe where the Hurricanes had been a big deal, but every time I did it, I was like: ”Oh, that would have sucked!” I didn't have to play that out very far before before I had to confront the fact that I did have friends that that had happened to at that time and it didn't pan out well. Even Harvey Danger who was the most successful of all those bands, none of them are playing music anymore. Maybe Sean Nelson does a show or two every once in a while. What it would have been was something in our youth, the Hurricanes were the last gasp of our youth. The making of it was like going to three years of family counseling.

The songs being very complicated, making them simpler for The Long Winters (RP1)

One of the interesting things from somebody who has heard these songs in their later incarnations is: They were, as you have said multiple times, very complicated. Did that just come naturally to you? Was it that there were all these disparate elements and everybody was bringing in their own sound and vision? Or did you just with maturity pare things down to the hookier side of things?

No, the song structure of all those tunes was how I wrote them. It wasn't like we workshopped them and said: ”Why don't we add another three pre-choruses to every chorus, except each iteration of them has an additional new 7th chord?” That is just how I wrote them. What made the Hurricane sound so loud was that Michael played as many drums as he possibly could at every given moment. He showed no restraint because he doesn't have restrained. Bo was being a scientist of making his basslines equal to or greater than the song structure in terms of complexity.

Stephanie was a piano player who understood music theory, but who had only recently picked up the guitar. At one point when we were listening to the recordings play back, she pointed out: ”This guitar part was the first time I ever jumped from one string to another! Up until this point everything I ever played on the guitar was just one finger moving up and down one string!”, and she pointed out the moment and it was like: ”Whoa, you went to a different string!”, but it wasn't evident, really. It was, but she has a dark melodic sense and the limitation of her playing really just focused her melodicism.

Her stuff is sometimes pretty atonal. There are already so many stacked notes making very complicated chords and then Stephanie's guitar part comes in and turns the whole chord upside down because she is playing in Eb minor and the song is in A#7 or something. Beats me! I don't know anything about that stuff!

When I went to record those songs for The Long Winters I felt like all that complexity was a burden that I didn't want to take forward. Even though The Long Winters songs are also much more complex than what a Pop song is, there are a lot of time signatures, there are time signature changes within songs, there is polyrhythm, there are a lot of accents in weird places that define The Long Winter sound, but I took fully 1/3 of that complexity out of those songs before I recorded them. Part of it was that I didn't want to teach another bass player all the parts. I just wanted to teach the bass and drums as the three main parts, and let's just leave the whole D-part and the pre-pre-chorus out and let's just cut to the chase.

It was only when I was re-learning the songs to play those live shows with the Hurricanes that I realized how much I had cut out, how much of the drama I had taken away. Each of those Hurricaines songs takes you on a long journey and in some cases in order to record them with The Long Winters I had taken out of an important part of the journey. Reintroducing the extra narrative was like finding lost chapters of The Lord of the Rings. It was extremely hard to get my hands to do these things because I had been playing them the other way for so long, and also it was hard because I was inventing six fingered chords.

John’s guitar style (RP1)

To make a clean break did you even use a different guitar?

I kept using those same guitars, weirdly. My guitar sound in The Long Winters was always pretty clean. I was never somebody that played very thick distorted chords, I did a lot of picking and I wanted the notes of the chords to be articulate. I hardly ever just played 5ths or the normal bottom three string bar chords, but I always play through all six strings and I am always augmenting and adding little bits and I always prefered a clean sound because I wanted all that stuff in there.

The Rickenbacker that was my main guitar through almost all of my career is a 1966 Rickenbacker 330, but in the early 1970s somebody puts Gibson Patent Granted pickups, not the ones that came in the mid 1970s, but early 1970s / late 1960s Gibson Humbuckers. The Humbucker nerds can tell you all about them! Somebody put them in there and had put in active electronics into this 1966 330, and like all the 1960s Rickenbacker the neck is incredibly thin, the lacker is so thin that the wood just really breathes and it sounds like a cigar box, almost, like it is made of cedar. When you play it acoustically and not plugged in it just broadcasts a very distinct tone.

When I thought about the Hurricanes I always thought that we were a much higher gain band, but when I listened to the tracks I realized that all that gain was Stephanie. She was playing a (Gibson) 1964 SG Junior through a Hiwatt 50 and I was playing my Rickenbacker through a Traynor YBA-2A or whatever those fucking Traynors are, a Traynor that weighed as much as a Volkswagen. It had a transformer that - I swear to you - was heavier than a bowling ball. That Traynor was so loud and yet so clean! Listening to my tracks on the Hurricanes record I realized I always had that clean tone. I stepped on distortion boxes, but I always turned the fuzz down and the clean boost up.

That was really instructive because for years I have wondered: ”Why didn't I just make it easy on myself and just play higher gain? Just turn the distortion up and let the tone do the work!” If you listen to Nada Surf, the creaminess of the distortion does so much work in communicating vibe. It is not even heavy, it is just smooth and satisfying. ”Why didn't I do that? Why didn't I just make it easy on myself and play 5ths through a (Ibanez) Tube Screamer into a (Marshall) JCM800 and just have a good time? Why was I trying to play these fucking six-fingered chords and then add all these dimension notes to it? What am I?”

Because I didn't learn songwriting by learning cover songs or by emulating my favorite bands, every time I learned a new chord I absolutely put it into the next song I was writing, and if I learned three new chords, I put all three of them into the next song I was writing. In relearning these Hurricanes songs, there are all these chords that I'm like: ”Where the fuck did…? I don't play that chord! Nobody plays that chord! It is hard to play that! You don't need it. You don't need to have it!”, but in fact it is one of the things that makes those songs so intriguing sounding.

When my mind spends time with all this music, on the one hand I feel like if I just turned up the gain and played all my chords basically with one finger on one string up and down the neck, my life would have been so much easier! Maybe I wouldn't have been drenched in sweat three minutes into the set! But on the other hand, what if I had continued to put every last idea I had into every single song? What would that have produced down the road? It is not like there is not plenty of that in The Long Winters, but every record has 3-4 songs where you can hear me trying not to overcomplicate things, just try and make a pop song. I did it over and over: ”Just try to make a Pop song, just try!”, but I never completely succeeded at it.

Whatever it is that makes what I like about you by the Romantics into an ur-form of Pop Rock I was never able to do it, never able to write Walking on Sunshine or whatever, as much as I had set that for myself as a goal. Just write Walking on Sunshine! Maybe if I had done what most musicians do, which is put Walking on Sunshine on the stereo, learn it, and then rewrite it, which I think is actually what a lot of songwriters do, just turn the chords around and turn the melody upside down, and it is like: ”I got a new song! It is Sunshine on Walking!”, but instead I would sit there with my guitar and try to conjure Walking on Sunshine, except with 11 chords and it still plagues me.

The two live shows for the album release (RP1)

Was there any talk or thought of not bringing the band back together necessarily, but doing more shows than the two at the Tractor?

I don't know how much demand there would be for the Western State Hurricanes to play again right away. I think maybe when summer comes around if the West Seattle Street Fair or something, if somebody makes a compelling enough offer that it is worth it for Stephanie to fly up from California where she lives now, but we had such a good time, we are still basking in the glow of it, it was only a couple of weeks ago, and I think that all four of us are probably sitting there, trying to decide whether it was so good as a one-off and maybe we should leave it alone, or do we risk trying to do another thing with the risk being: ”Well, that wasn't as good!”

Trust me! We are doing that with a Fretboard Journal event that was magical the first time around and I am about to do a third one. I am completely terrorized and paralyzed!

You answered every question I was going to ask and then some. I am glad I didn't email you questions, this is why, unless you write really long emails!

I am really a monologist and there is an awful lot of TMI that happens when I am going without a tether. What was your experience? You are one of the few people that saw the band in its time!

I actually wrote about it. It hasn't seen the light of day yet, but I never felt a need to go to any of my High School reunions, but I was determined to go to this show and bought a ticket whenever they were announced back in November. Then my wife booked us to go skiing at Crystal Mountain that weekend and I actually booked a hotel up there and I was still going to drive from Crystal Mountain after a day of skiing to see it and then magically there were mudslides so I didn't have to drive to Crystal Mountain. No one was skiing.

It was intense! I stood next to Alison Levy whom I hadn't seen in 20 years. We stood next to each other and Ben was over there and I did a double take and was like: ”There is no way I last heard she lived in Brooklyn!” I used to play Scrabble with her in her and Ben's apartment while he was off playing and I was just some awkward guy who was new to Seattle who was happy to have someone to hang out with. That says nothing of the music itself, which was amazing, but it felt very much like a cathartic reunion and at least those of us who were at the show all survived, we all made it!

A big part of the whole experience was like: ”We all made it! We all survived!” Not everybody did and we wouldn't get together for very many other reasons. What would bring all those people together again? Alison flew out!

This has nothing to do with your reunion, but in the last six months I have become good friends with Mike Squires who I had no connection with at all when he lived in Seattle, but through the magic of guitar geekdom and him doing that podcast and occasionally texting me for advice that I could give him he has turned out to be this really solid guy and I am grateful to cross paths with him whenever I can.

He is one of the all time mensches (?)

All of the things that Chuck Robertson said back in 2000 and all of the things that Pete Greenberg said 17 years later that I scoffed at about this record: Although it ended up being in a very different way than I think they meant… I remember Chuck saying: ”This record is going to really connect with people in Australia!” and at the time that just was ludicrous-sounding. ”What are you talking about, dude? Nobody gives a shit about this record in Seattle, let alone Australia!”, but a bunch of people in Australia have bought the record and it is not what they meant, it is not shooting up the charts in Australia like that statement would have meant in 2000, but it is in Australia.

To think that that any of us would have thought in the year 2000 that Alison Levy would fly out from Brooklyn where she has two kids in order to see the record release party for this album recorded in 1998, none of those words would have made any sense to us at that time! The fact that you are still working in music, that I am still tangentially working in music, that Stephanie is teaching piano lessons, it is crazy!

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