As singer, songwriter, guitarist and figurehead for the Long Winters, John Roderick has a way with words. This may be an obvious point (he's a songwriter, after all), but his command of the English language and puzzling turns of phrase make him sui generis among rock songwriters. In fact, Roderick pulls off a rare feat: He sings obscure lyrics in such a way that listeners can still connect to his songs even if they never stop to fully dissect these song meanings.
Now, great songwriters always write about universal human emotions (love, death, fear, doubt) in new and unique ways. And Roderick may not be the first guy to write a song about the struggles of love and commitment, as he does on "Scared Straight" (from 2003's When I Pretend to Fall). But he is the first to refer to his paramour as "Little Miss Mean Mini-Bar Guard" while beseeching, somewhat tenderly, "let me breathe fire down on you."
This dichotomy between musical accessibility and lyrical obfuscation helps shape the Seattle quartet's sound, which Roderick describes as "zippy guitar pop" filled with "extemporaneous nonsense lyrics." (He's right about the music, which mixes kitchen-sink pop, fuzzy guitar leads and the occasional grandiose piano ballad.) Yet the band's songs never sound overstuffed. Take "Pushover," which opens last year's Putting the Days to Bed. A simple acoustic guitar strum opens the track before giving way to a barrage of Roderick's multi-tracked vocals, all rising and falling around the main vocal. By the time the lead guitar and clamorous rhythm section enter the song, the numerous layers have melded into one big indie-rock sucker-punch. It's a model that befits a band that looks small and sounds big.
"We try not to be limited in the studio by anything other than what we consider to be our mandate for the record," Roderick says. "We were trying to make [Bed] a little bit more of a band record, but we spared no extra detail in the tracks. We try to put the little twiddly bits and stuff that we love and admire."
Indeed, when the Long Winters recorded Putting the Days to Bed, they intended to strip away some of the glitter and pomp of sessions for Pretend to Fall and focus on the sounds a four-person rock & roll band creates. Fall glowed with the warmth of '70s AM radio and the pop expertise of the three Bs (the Beatles, Beach Boys and Burt Bacharach) but "was made very whimsically. There are a lot of musicians in Seattle and we were at the studio, and guys would come by and knock on the door, and we'd say, 'Since you're here, why you don't you play the flugelhorn?'"
Those musicians included members of Death Cab for Cutie, the Decemberists and Pedro the Lion, as well as R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, who added some deft mandolin work. While the latter's presence helped draw attention to the fledgling band, it also tended to obscure the Long Winters' own sizable talent.
"[For] the next two years, every interview I did, first question out of most people's mouths was, 'So what's Peter Buck like?'" Roderick says. "When we went in to make this new record, I was a little bit conscious about not having too many guest stars, because I didn't want it to be a selling point for the Long Winters, and I didn't want it to distract people from enjoying the music and from thinking of us as a band, first and foremost."
Perhaps another reason for the distancing between the Long Winters and its famous friends is the stylistic distinctions between them. The band doesn't have the heart-on-sleeve emotion of Death Cab for Cutie or the story-song tomfoolery of the Decemberists, although all three bands are able to wrap their songs in accessible arrangements. Despite the immediacy of many of the Winters' songs, the band's albums often get tagged as "growers," filled with songs that stick with you after repeated listens but may not grab you right away. Roderick admits that his approach to songwriting may put him at odds with the current state of music consumption, specifically MP3 blogs and the ever-shortening attention spans of listeners.
"Most songwriters are trying to connect with people in the first fifteen seconds of their song. The way people listen to music now they throw up an MP3 on their computer and they give it 30 seconds. And if the hook isn't obvious or if it doesn't leap out and say, 'This is a song about fucking! All right!' people just kind of go, 'Oh, I don't get it,' or 'What is that about?'
"It's one of the ways in which we kind of sabotage ourselves with the MP3 generation," he continues. "You're not gonna really get any of our songs until you listen to 'em five times, and that's maybe more of a commitment than most people are willing to put into it." Roderick says that while he may not be the poster child for the "MP3 generation," many listeners have told him that his songs appear on their iPod's shuffle mode and gradually seep into their unconscious growing, as it were, on the brain. It would seem that what the Long Winters lack in immediacy, they make up for in longevity and connectivity.
It's that sense of connection that pops up most on Bed, specifically on the album's centerpiece, "Honest." It's one of the band's rare straightforward narrative songs, in which a mother warns her music-obsessed daughter, "Don't you love a singer, whatever you do." When it is suggested that Roderick has written the first song to actively discourage young girls from sleeping with rock stars, he elaborates on the song's intention.
"There are a million songs addressed to groupies from lead singers it's a trope," he says. "When you're out on the road, those are the people that you interact with most intensely. I'm in a unique position in being friends with bands that are much bigger than we are. And I know a lot of bona-fide rock stars and I know them as human beings, and I see them and I see the way their fans are worshipful toward them. And we are more of boutique act, but we have similar interactions with a smaller group of people.
"It seemed like a story that has been told a million times, but there's gotta be a million mothers that loved Elvis or Aerosmith in their day, and now they're watching their daughters love the Arcade Fire or Death Cab for Cutie, and those mothers have gotta have something to say about it."
Roderick also confirmed this writer's theory, stating that the mother in the song is so protective of her daughter because she had a fling with a rock star, one that ended in the birth of her daughter, named Honest although he wouldn't go so far as to admit the identity of father/singer.
But while Roderick keeps the secrets of his songs close to the vest, he's showing his generosity with a solo in-store appearance at Vintage Vinyl on Saturday afternoon. The way he sees it, this is a small "thank you" to the city for its support of his band.
"Ever since we played Frederick's Music Lounge [in 2002] and particularly from the time we came to St. Louis with the Pernice Brothers [at Off Broadway in 2004], it always felt to us that St. Louis was one of the early adopters, one of the cities in the states that showed up and embraced our band before Los Angeles did, even," Roderick says. "It's sort of a special one-off between friends."
9 p.m. Saturday, April 7. Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, 6504 Delmar Boulevard, University City. $12. 314-727-4444. Also playing at 4 p.m. at Vintage Vinyl, 6610 Delmar Boulevard, University City. Free. 314-721-4096.