Systematic 160: Supine Podcasting with John Roderick

In this episode, Brett and John talk about

This episode has been published on 2016-03-25. John is making podcast history today, because he is podcasting from bed. He is supine. Brett tried that before, but his throat does not do well in horizontal positions in terms of vocal clarity.

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

Writing lyrics (SPJR)

John is back into song writing again and he is focusing especially on lyrics. Brett cannot listen to the Dave Matthews Band because the lyrics are dumb. John mentions the mid-70:s work of Paul McCartney as another example: If you let your ears hear the words, you will throw yourself onto the floor.

The enemy of writing lyrics is self-seriousness. It is very enticing to see yourself and your lyrics as something important. After John's last album he didn't want to leave the studio but he wanted to make another record right now and then. He had been making mental notes not to make the mistake again where you just go for it. "Be ruthless in editing it, no first thought is worth anything, just barf it out and chop it up!" Instead of staying in the studio he went on a wonderful tour for 2 years, he spent 6 months in Europe and when they came back and wanted to write their next record, they dove into the music part of it, recorded 13 songs in the studio, overdubbed them and put everything they could into the music. When the time came to write the lyrics, all this self-seriousness came upon him and he threw words at the page and forgot to be brutal with them. He couldn't get past all those dumb lyrics and thought he lost confidence that he could ever write again. John just forgot that everything you write is garbage at first. It is not about writing, but about editing!

John writing a song for Ben Lee (SPJR)

A couple of things happened during the last few years: Ben Lee, a songwriter from Autralia texted John about his Indy Rock choir and asked him to write a song for it. He wrote it in about 15 minutes, recorded it on his phone and sent it to them. They were pleased with it and recorded it with planted a little seed. John doesn't know why he could do it all of a sudden, because it took another year until he could go for that again. He didn't really write a choir song, but he wrote just a typical John Roderick song to an acoustic guitar with too many words and he sent it off. He liked it for about an hour, listened to it, realized it was garbage, was sad and frustrated, drank a Gatorade and said that if he was going to throw it away, then why not take another shot at it? Maybe it worked because he didn't give a fuck? He likes Ben Lee, but it was still mostly "whatever!". So John went in and did a ruthless edit, he had done this complicated, cool and smart chorus which was the part that wasn't working and so he wrote another thing that was equally interesting, all within the same day.

About the latest LW-album (SPJR)

John wrote both songs "Scared straight" (from When I Pretend to Fall) and "Hindsight" (from Putting the Days to Bed) while in the studio with the whole band on the other side of the glass, pointing at their watches and saying "Today is the last day int he studio, there is no more money and we have only 9 songs finished". The goal is always to have 10 songs. You can't manufacture that kind of pressure, but it worked! John finished the lyrics right when he was doing the 10th and last take and they started to mix it as soon as he was done. This kind of pressure is no longer possible to create. In 2005 they recorded to 2-inch tape in an expensive studio while the album they have been working on since 2009 has been entirely recorded into computers in people's houses. All records are about money. Had he finished that record in 2009, he would have made money off of it since then, but that is fantasy money until you're done! When you are in the studio and pay somebody $5.000 or $10.000, you don't have another $10.000 waiting, so the money is gone already and if you don't finish it, you have blown it! That was the pressure. Recording it at home on the computer and spending another day on the tambourine part costs nothing. Being in a studio lets the project feel real, especially with 2-inch tape. There are 16 tracks and you don't use any track frivolously. For the new album there are maybe 90 tracks for every song. What if you put air into a balloon, let is squeak out and put it through a delay peddal? There you have another track! John remembers the days when punching in and out was a matter of survival. There were tracks that have a rhythm guitar part, a tambourine and the chorus. A lead pops in and that's where the horns and the outro go. That's all on one track and you are moving the fader up and down as you are recording. During these mixes the whole band is in there: The producer, you, 10 fingers and 3 tracks on each hand, every fader needs to move at some point during the mix and the producer can't do it all on their own. A mix used to be a dance that you did live and when if felt pretty good for everybody, then you got your mix. In the computer nowadays you can do exactly what you need and you can work on your mix for months. All those things have taken the pressure out of recording and there are few restrictions, which makes it inhibiting to John. In every aspect of his life over the last 10 years when he had the freedom he wanted, it caused him to be less useful and more morose in the end. Turns out if he doesn't have to do anything, then he won't! Now John is back on the case and has made a lot of progress in the last 2 months that had eluded him during the last 9 years.

Hating his run for office (SPJR)

In August of 2015 John was sitting in a room with a bunch of friends, contemplating a run for Seattle City Council. He then pursued this [[[run for office |run for public office]] and spent solid 6 months of his life doing something that turned out being a thing he hated. It confirmed all the bad things he thought about politics and the Downtown. After that he really became a desperate person, woke up everyday at 06:00am, already in the middle of a panic attack, worked frantically until the middle of the night and when he laid in bed churning on all the things that happend. When he lost in the primary, there was a tremendous relief of being free of having to engage in that world. What you are supposed to do when you lose in the primary is staying engaged and continue to be a player. Then you run again, because now you know everybody and you know all the tricks and the rules and when you run again you are taken much more seriously, so the second or third time you win. But the day he lost it was just "Good bye!" John didn't want to interact with the Downtown any more than he wanted to interact with the Iraqi Army. He has no interest in them! He is an artist, what was he thinking! Before that, he was free, but now he is Downtown and somebody is yelling at him about the basketball stadium, somebody else is mad about the height limits of apartment development in their neighborhood, but they don't care about any other neighborhood in the town. It's like "Go fuck yourselves, you people!" His job is to sit with his guitar and dream up his little narratives.


John had been suffering from depression since he was 12 years old and from 2007 it just descended on him and never lifted until it was an enormous burden by 2010. The fatalism John talked about at the end of OJR ("in every way a man can defeat himself") was just a product from this cloud that John never recovered from. At the lowest points he was incapacitated and didn't see any solution to it. He didn't like the idea of taking antidepressants, was opposed to psychiatry and really opposed to psychology, because he thinks of it as a pseudoscience.

After his run for office, John had a real talk with himself, because he just tried to join the normals, but the normals also go to mental health professionals and doctors. He was in his mid-40s and hadn't had his prostate examined since he was 36 and that is a bad plan! He has moles on his back, can't see anymore, and he is limping around. He should go to a doctor and talk to the doctor about his cloud. He was still on the cusp of normals and stayed there long enough to acknowledge that he is a member of the world. John went to a general internist was a straight talking lady from New York City and 10 minutes in she said that she is not a mental health professional, but John seemed to be someone suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. His reply was that it was not undiagnosed because people have been telling him that for 25 years. She countered that it is a serious condition and asked why he hasn't done anything about it. John's answer was that people diagnose you with stuff all the time and it is all bullshit, but she countered that it is not bullshit and one of the ways they identify bipolar-people is that they are diagnosed with it all the time. John was just "Blääääh" and she said: "I didn't come to visit you, you came here and I'm telling you this."

After that he went to a psychiatrist and as soon as he walked into the door and filled out a couple of forms, she told him that he is not depressed, but has Bipolar II. Had somebody given him depression medicine, it would have been disastrous! In that sense it was a good thing that John thinks psychology is a pseudoscience. She told him that John does have Bipolar, they don't know what it is, but there is medicine for it. If you take Bipolar medicine and you don't have Bipolar it won't do anything to you. It is not like Ritalin, it is not a mood-alterer, it is not a speed, but it is a thing that only works on Bipolar. He got a prescription for Lamictal and it has been working wonderfully. It has anti-depressing qualities, mood-stabilizing qualities, and even some stimulant qualities to a very low degree plus anti-anxiety qualities, all of which have had an effect for John. It relieved him of paranoia and put a floor on what had been a bottomless chasm. It also lifted up a ceiling, a roof on how high he could get that had appeared during the last couple of years. When he had manic episodes while he was young, there had been no ceiling, but he was just flying through the sky.

While he was running for office, John was in a manic episode, feeling a little grandios, and every album he has recorded was probably in the middle of a mania, an absolute delusional state. The thing about Bipolar 2 is that it never becomes as delusional to make you gamble away your house. Instead, he experienced delusions of grandeur. You remain with one foot in reality, but the part of you that tells you that you can't do it disappears. Lamictol returned John to his normal state which initially felt like a mania because John had forgotten that this was his normal way. Minus the Bipolar, he had never been a usual person. When he was 7 years old, he wasn't like a normal 7-year old. It returned him to this state of unusualness that had been dampened by the disorder. In a maina you don't want it to end and you ask yourself all the time if it is going to last. Now it doesn't feel manic, but it feels normal.

John took a small effective dose of Lamictal in the beginning of December of 2015 and he almost immediately started writing a song. He didn't know what to do with it and texted it to Aimee Mann who put it on her record. A few days later she was already in the middle of putting a string section onto that tune. Now he was scared of his own album that was sitting there on his computer and had collected such an enormous weight, like a cartoon anvil over his head, but at the end of January of 2016, he just went in there and wrote the lyrics to 6 of the 13 songs, credit to this pseudoscience for lack of a better term!

It is amazing to John that the doctor was very candid about the fact that they don't know what Bipolar disorder is. They know that the EKG-readings in the brain during a mood-shift mimic those of minor seizures and they can tell you what the chemistry of the medicine is. They discovered Lamictal by accident, because they gave this seizure medicine to somebody who was also Bipolar and happened to solve their Bipolar. It is like "lick this poisonous toad from the South American jungle and it cures your Pleurisy". It is a bit like witchcraft and has restored John's believe in the human nature of exploring and pushing the boundaries. All that craziness around medicine where a new drug has to go through this incredibly expensive and long process to get approved makes drugs themselves expensive and you can't experiment anymore. One person gets a bloody nose and all of a sudden a drug that might be effective in treating cancer might just be eliminated. We spend so much money on erectile dysfunction drugs and we are frightened about all those amazing treatments, but we keep exploring and it isn't just about profit, it is like "what can we do?"

John is grateful and stunned by it, because he thought he would spend the rest of his life being contemptuous. He had seen so many of his friends take antidepressants and then their eyes just glazed over. They said they were not depressed anymore, but instead they had no mood at all and had to deal with a lot of side effects. John didn't want that! When he is bananas, that's the best time! The only real problem Brett had with Lamictol is this weird sexual dyfunction where everything feels normal, but you can't finish, but it was fine again when he lowered the dose just a little bit. John is taking the minimum effective dose, 150mg or 200mg. As soon as it started working, he didn't want to change anything and wanted to stop seeing his psychiatrist, but people told him he can't stop seeing him one month after he started with his medication. It is a prescription drug and he can only give it to John one month at a time, so he needs to come back and see him! Oh well, John is pursuing this notion that some things in the normal world are… valid. 47 is a reasonable age to decide that there is some validity to normality!

Acknowledging the validity of insurance and ID papers (SPJR)

At age 28 John acknowledged for the first time that there was some validity to insurance. Before that, he was strongly opposed to it. At 26 he acknowledged that having a state-issued ID-card was something he was going to acquiest to. From 24-26 he had no ID. He drank in bars where they knew him, but he could not order drinks in places where he wasn't known and when a police person interacted with him, he had no ID but would always give them his information. He always thought that having an ID card was an infringement upon his rights. He is no tea-party person or libertarian of most kinds, he understands why everyone else had ID-cards and insurance, but it just didn't apply to him. Still, he expected to have recourse to the law. When his house got robbed he called the police and expected them to respond. That was the time when it dawned on him that he could not have the one without the other: You are responsible to the law if you want recourse to it. If you want to be a free man and live in an encampment down by the railroad tracks and you bear the wound if you get hurt, then allright! Make your case! But you can't deny the rights of the government and then expect a government subsidy. When John realized that he wasn't going to live in an encampment down by the railroad tracks anymore, but he wanted to cash checks and wanted to call the cops, it made sense to him that his part in this is to willingly join and not be bitter about it.

Liberal arts

Going to a psychologist and having them tell you that you are depressed felt like going to a fortune-teller and having her tell you that one day you are going to come into money. In liberal arts, like in the Comparative history of ideas (CHID) field, applying the scientific method is a classical error. In a lot of cases they don't belong together. A lot of what happens in psychology is speculative. It is about dream analysis, which is not science, but Sophistry! It works if you believe in it in the same way that fortune-telling kind of works. John knows that calling psychology for pseudoscience is provocative. He says it in order to make psychologists mad and write him email. He understands what psychology is, because he is not an anti-vaxer. This is an example of the false application of Darwinism, which is a fascinating notion, but right on its heels comes Social Darwinism. Just because you call it "Darwinism" you make that false similarity between what you imagine you are doing over here and what evolution and science actually is. Applying the concept of natural selection outside of its original context, like "natural selection also works in terms of civilization or in terms of culture", is a common mistake in liberal arts. It all happened in the 1950:s and a case should have been made and they should have stood their ground and said that they do traffic in the land of dreams and that is valid outside of a scientific context. There was all this pressure on the liberal arts to prove that they are worth anything and so there is this recourse to science and the notion that interpretations of literature and social chemistry are real. Public policy has been made on the basis of those things. The whole 1960:s idea that we can socially engineer to create a situation where everybody has the same rights, for instance, is all based on the idea that we can use engineering principles to govern humans. All that is behind John's longstanding disagreement with psychologists and part of it stems from the fact that he watched a lot of people go through school and become psychologists and every one of those people was the most mixed-up person in the class.

John's favorite lyricists

Eliot Smith: There was a moment of disappointment after being a fan for a long time, when John realized Eliot was talking about heroin more than John thought. John appreciated that he had done an artful job of making the heroin talk into something that had initially captured John. It is the old problem that the artist turns out to be no good. It is the Bill Cosby problem. He is inaguably one of the great comedians, but it turns out he is reprehensible. How do you evaluate his art throughout the years? Heroin addiction is a topic that a lot of musicians in John's circle have covered over the years. It was a big part of John's musical upbringing. If he wanted to think and learn about heroin, he had ample opportunity long time before Eliot Smith came along. John had personal experience with it and lost friends to it, the whole spectrum! It was just less interesting to him. Had Eliot talked about a girlfriend, it would have been more useful to him, because it would have been generally useful. To Brett it was the other way around, as a long-time heroin addict, it made sense to him. But the body of his work was just lyrically so wonderful, he conveyed so much humanity. John met him a couple of times and he was almost like a cliché in the sense that he was almost impossible to approach or know personally.

Leonart Cohen: He is actually a poet, he is claiming to be a poet and he found a way to make it into music. You can read his lyrics as a book and never hear the songs. John writes all of his lyrics first as poems, but they are shite as poems. After the third or fourth edit he still hasn't fit them to the music, but they have become what John can recognize as pretty good poems. Then you continue to refine them to turn them into lyrics is an even deeper dive and Leonnart Cohen just kept going as a poem. For John they stopped being poems at a certain times. He is a poet who is telling a story that is more… a lot of people are hard-pressed to tell what the story of any one of John's songs is. John's intention is that the lyrics are meant to be impressionistic. Every line, even in their specificity is meant to be taken as an independent thought and you string them together and read an emotional story rather than a literal one. There are great song writers telling an actual story that is been narrated for you. John doesn't try for that, but he strives for impressionistic. You fill in the blanks whether the story applies to you and if you have a similar story. You can apply pointillism to it, getting an impression from a distance, but then you drill in to find all of those disparrate dots. People ask John routinely what they are supposed to take away from this song. Digest the little lines and how they interact with each other and how they foreshadow and call back to one another and then zoom way out and put all those feelings that the song inspires on like a jacket and feel them, because every one of them is a feeling.

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