Editorials — August 19, 2013 3:11 — 0 Comments

The Monarch Drinks With John Roderick


John Roderick stood center stage at the Alberta-Rose Theater in Portland, OR, telling jokes, stories and, later, playing his acoustic guitar, singing to the hundreds in the audience for NPR’s Live Wire show. A tall man, bearded, with glasses and a booming voice, John entertained. I was in the audience, having been given tickets by mutual friend and host of the show, Luke Burbank. I stared on attentively, listening to John’s stories and quips as he went back and forth with Luke.

I think about this performance now about a month later as I sit at the bar of Ruth’s Chris steakhouse in downtown Seattle waiting for John to come meet me for an interview. He strolls into the place a few minutes before seven. We shake hands and go to our table.

He wears a white windbreaker, which he takes off, revealing a plain dark t-shirt. I almost wore a tie, glad now that I didn’t. John removes his glasses and sets them by his water glass. I have about a dozen questions prepared but our dinner table isn’t large enough for our elbows, our plates, forks, wine glasses and my lap top. So, I wing it. “I looked at the menu for this place online,” I begin.

“You looked at the menu online? I love that.”

“I had to do something for research, John.”

“You young people,” he says, practically snorting. He, however, admits that he had one of the first IBM P.C.s and that his mother was a computer programmer. So, whatever. We muse on the facility of Apple products but quickly our conversation turns to another mutual friend: the songwriter Robb Benson.

“How do you know Robb?” John says, looking up from his menu. His voice is slow and stern, as if he’s protecting something cherished. I tell him how Robb and I met where I bar tend and how we’ve been playing music for four or five years now, very close friends. I’m immediately ingratiated: “That is the best resume you could have presented to me,” he says. “I think Robb is spectacular. He’s one of the most intuitive melodists I’ve ever known.”

The server comes to our table then and I order a lobster tail and broccoli gratin with French onion soup to start (spare no cost!). John orders the veal osso buco ravioli as an appetizer with a bone-in fillet, medium-rare, and a side of asparagus for his main course. I ask for another I.P.A., John sips his sparkling water. I was interested in meeting him because of his facility with language. Whenever anyone introduces John they reference his band, saying, “John Roderick of The Long Winters” but that somehow doesn’t totally fit. “So,” I ask, “Where did your aptitude for storytelling come from?”

He puts down his bread and butter and begins with his story. “As a teenager, I loved music like anyone else, but I was pretty lazy. My dreams weren’t to be a musician. All of my friends played guitar but it was clear early on that I was the only one with the lack of shame to be a lead singer. Everyone wanted to be the guitar player, the hero.”

“And the singer isn’t the hero?”

“Not in Metal,” he says.

John, who didn’t record his first album until he was 31, grew up in Alaska but moved to Seattle after high school. John Roderick also has 25,256 Twitter followers. But one, he said, “is the Producer of the show The Bachelor. He flies all over the world and he’s 29 years old. When I was 29, I wasn’t doing anything, I was working at a shop on Broadway selling magazines, smoking cigarettes and going to rock shows. Having an imagination and being lazy is a terrible combination for resume purposes.”

“I’ve heard you describe yourself as a loner.”

“Well, probably the word I used was ‘introvert’,” he says. “Spending time with other people is an energy drain, for me. And being alone is where I re-charge my batteries.”

He stopped drinking 20 years ago, and working in a profession where everyone drinks, I can’t imagine how difficult this must be. “Are you involved in AA?” I ask, a bit nosy, recalling my own history with the program, my alcoholic father and my mother, a member of Al-Anon.

“It’s how I stopped drinking,” he says. “I consider myself a fellow traveler but I don’t go to meetings.” John has soft, concerned eyes. If I hadn’t just met him, I’d reach over and hug him. I tell him about my parents, to which he offers, “If you’re raised by an alcoholic it does a number on you. My dad was a drunk but he got sober. My grandfather died and was buried in a potter’s grave in L.A. My brother has been drinking himself to death his whole life.”

The first course arrives. French onion soup with a molten layer of cheese on top is presented before me, and a plate with half a dozen rich, brown ravioli are placed in front of John. We begin to eat. It’s strange, John holds a fork like my father used to, delicately. He soaks up the sauce and has a general lack of care as he eats, swabbing butter off his fingers with bread, also reminding me of my father. I can’t help but think how my dad would be today if he’d been sober. I didn’t expect this thought.

“I guess the long and the short of it is that music gave me access to a quadrant of language where other language failed me. A lot of my issues now, a lot of the reason why I haven’t put out an album in six years, is that my life has changed dramatically. For one, my father died recently. And I bought a house from the money I made as a musician. A lot of these things felt very grown up.”

On the sidebar of The Monarch Review’s web site, we have a quote from the poet Richard Kenny, which reads, “The answer isn’t poetry, but rather language.” It is language we’re ultimately interested in, which is why John Roderick is a fascinating character. The Long Winters was the invention that confirmed Roderick’s life of musing, thinking, talking, and tangling with language and music. “All of this was fodder for this unrealized art project that was going to validate the whole thing. And in my case it happened somewhat by accident. The rock band, The Long Winters, was the great art project that validated the way I’d lived. I had the experience of achieving the dream I’d had when I was 24 of what my life was going to be like when I was 34.”

As if to authenticate his progress, a server comes up to us to take our plates, now mostly clean, and another brings the main courses. The lobster tail is placed in front of me, the fillet in front of John. We are eating like kings. Quite a difference from his life having first moved to Seattle, working in six-month increments, getting canned frequently, saving paychecks and repeating the process. “I’d never quit, I’d always be fired,” he said, chewing his steak.

But what now, what’s ahead?

John, who graduated last in his high school class (364th of 364 graduating seniors, “I was immensely proud,” he says), admits he has an antagonistic relationship to work. Despite this, his parents wanted him to be a lawyer as he was growing up. “They felt thwarted,” he said. “But no one ever pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, look, once you get out into the world none of this matters really. You can make your own life.'”

“So do you feel as if you’ve found a place now?” I ask.

“No.” He pauses, “But I realize I need to develop a healthy relationship to work. It’s the classic example of sitting around the chocolate shop and waiting for a Hollywood director to come in and say, ‘You’re the most beautiful girl in the place, I’m going to make you a star!’ I’m still waiting for someone to sweep through and say, ‘We’re looking for a guy in his mid-forties that’s a little bit rough around the edges and twenty pounds overweight to be the sardonic extemporizer in our new television show.’ If it happens we’ll look back on this conversation and laugh.”

I think: BUT YOU’RE SUCH A NATURAL SPEAKER! Instead, I say, “What about Live Wire?”

“They’re very friendly to me. They like me a lot,” he says. “But I spent a couple weekends telling those people they should focus on Luke Burbank. He’s a great host, way better than me. Luke is a natural, he loves people. He wants to be in the center of the action with his leather-soled shoes. I am much less viable. Luke is capable of plenty of depth and very capable of sparking conversation. I tend to be more of a buzz kill. Luke’s combination of smarm and smart is once in a lifetime.”

Projects continue to come John’s way and the idea of making his own show has indeed crossed his mind. But since nothing is certain as of yet, we move on from the subject. It’s nearly impossible to talk about Seattle art these days without mentioning Macklemore. The night before our dinner at Ruth’s Chris, John and I were both in the crowd at the music video shoot for the rapper. Thousands of people had gathered on Broadway in Capitol Hill to see him perform on the top of Dick’s Burgers and maybe be a part of his next music video. The shoot took longer than expected and both John and I didn’t see him perform. But John, in general, is a fan. “I really like him, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. I think they’re both smart, cool, down to earth artist dudes. So, I’m thrilled for them, for their success. And I think it’s good for the city. But it’s a weird genre of rap to come out of Seattle.”

A server comes by and John says he’d like a bit of foil to take the fillet bone home to his dog. He continues, “For twenty years, people have been saying that the next big hip-hop scene that’s going to blow up will be Seattle. There’s no shortage of good hip-hop. But the problem has been that the scene is described as too intellectual, too progressive, too sophisticated and melodically complicated. So, the last twenty years, we watched various other scenes come out of nowhere and become the center of a huge hip-hop movement.”

“Always the bride’s maid.”

“Right, and for Macklemore to become the break-through artist, the lilliest-white dude you ever saw, and politically-light, I think there are a lot of Seattle hip-hop musicians that are like, ‘Are you kidding me?'”

“Does there need to be a political message in music?” I ask.

“Not at all, there’s none of it in mine. But Seattle is a self-serious town. Sometimes to the point of ponderous. Grunge was so humorless. Same with the indie rock that has been coming out for the last twenty years, so nose-in-the-book. Other than Jimi Hendrix, there aren’t any musicians redefining their instruments. If you go down to Austin or to Nashville, there are some incredible players, but their songs are mostly out of a box. Seattle’s role has been fostering writers.”

“So where does Macklemore fit in all this?”

“His backstory—he’s lived a varied life. He’s not a suburban dude, but at the same time, he’s just having fun, and that comes across. You have to go back to The Presidents of the United States of America or to Sir Mix-A-Lot to find a Seattle artist that blew up onto the national stage where the predominant message was: Let’s Party! I like that about him.”

Our server comes up to us and John orders a cup of decaffeinated tea and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I order a third beer. I feel like I must switch topics and ask him the most important question of the night: “Do you ever karaoke?”

“No,” he replies quickly, “it’s like a busman’s holiday for me, I can’t stand it. I don’t like watching it, I don’t like performing it. Here’s the thing, I don’t even really listen to music at home. I used to go to five rock shows a week. But I never owned a stereo, never bought records, it wasn’t a thing that I was into. Everybody would be talking about the new Yo La Tengo record, for example, and it would be influencing everybody and I would be in a vacuum. I just wrote the songs that occurred to me.”

If language is indeed the through-line to John Roderick’s career inside and outside of music, then, of course, social media must come into play. “How did you get involved in Twitter?” I ask him.

“Some friends of mine encouraged me. When I first tried it out, I took the 140-characer limit as a challenge to have everything I posted be exactly 140 characters. So for the first nine months, I’d post three times a day and it was always exactly 140 characters with punctuation and grammar always correct. I gained a following that way. People appreciated it—it was sort of a modern haiku.”

He acknowledges quickly, though, that there is a ton of boring stuff on Twitter. Having at one time followed multiple hundreds of people, he is now down to a trim 300. “I used to intentionally not use the word ‘tweet’ because I didn’t want to be coopted into, say, a Coca-Cola culture, but you just have to succumb to a certain extent—on the one hand, it’s so dumb. Yet, I’m transacting real culture there. I follow this woman who’s the Book Editor for New York Magazine and she curates her Twitter feed as a space to marvel at the world.” But sometimes, he admits, there is too much digital stimuli in his life, leaving less and less time “for daydreaming.” I almost get lost in thought.

I’d been nervous to meet John. He is an eloquent man, large in stature and something of a folk hero in Seattle. Hell, even his Wikipedia page says he was voted one of the Sexiest men in town in 2006 (“an apocryphal story,” he assures me). But the evening had gone well. We shared stories, talked about mutual friends, ate and drank like superstars. John admits, just before we get up to leave the table, that he has the intention to get better at “ceding control” to people he works with—not blindly, of course, but more as a means of collaboration. It’s a version of adulthood,” he says, recalling his father’s relationship with their family lawyer, a sense of longing in his voice.

We leave the restaurant and walk to his scooter parked on Pine. He puts on his helmet and I ask where he’s off to for the rest of the evening. He says he’s going to a party thrown by (Guns N’ Roses bassist) Duff McKagan off Lake City. Of course he is! I shake John’s hand. He departs up the street. I walk around a corner toward my car, cell phone out, ready to call Robb and see what he’s up to.


Jake Uitti is a founding editor of The Monarch Review.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney