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Long Winters & Guests – 2003

By Moni, Murmurs.com, 15 May 2003

Our opening scene is Austin, a sweaty night, I just basically hopped off the plane to be in time for the Long Winters gig at the SXSW-Barsuk showcase. Before I start throwing around goofy enthusiastic adjectives to describe the show in order to have a spiffy opening for this story, I guess I’ll just better get straight down to business. That is, The Long Winters’ new album When I Pretend To Fall, out on Seattle’s Barsuk label.

I enthusiastically cultivated a theory that there must be some really profound story behind the band name Long Winters, a theory that unfortunately evaporated when I was told that Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla had given them their name off a Japanese T-shirt. But Chris Walla did not just stop by to provide John Roderick’s band with a name – both Long Winters albums owe much of their sound to him. He produced and played various instruments on the first as well as parts of the second record.

But since Chris was not able to finish the recording, Ken Stringfellow stepped in for the second part of the sessions. Ken had ventured on an intense little tour (the aftermaths of which can still be observed in several spots on this site) with The Long Winters in Spring 2002, and now their collaboration resumed on another level. “Ken really saved my ass. Working with him was a great experience because he really tried to figure out what my process was,” singer/guitarist/songwriter John says. “He always seemed to have a plan but he was also willing to ditch his plan at a moment’s notice if something crazy happened. He’s a good communicator and he trusted me so I learned to trust him. I can’t say enough good about Ken in the studio. His influence was more in terms of creating an environment and an attitude in which I felt like being adventurous. I hear his influence in the richness of the sounds, because he encouraged me to do whatever I wanted.”

And Ken (aka Strings) brought some friends into the studio, too. “I was trying to play a ‘mandolin’ part on my guitar for the song Cinnamon and Ken said, ‘I happen to know a good mandolin player…’ Scott and Peter were on their way to Vancouver to start work on the new R.E.M. record and they stopped by the studio in the morning. Both of those guys are incredibly supportive of local music. They just love music and don’t have big egos about it,” John says. “[And] we wanted Scott to do something different from just guitar. When we made the first record we thought about just asking Scott to stand in the room with a mic pointed at him and we would credit him with ‘ambiance.’ It didn’t happen, though. This time he played his harmonica into a sampler and then sat and played the sampler as the track ran by. He’s brilliant.”

Yet there is more: Overall 26 guest players are credited on the album, including Jon Auer (aka the guy from The Posies who is not Ken Stringfellow), Sean Ripple (American Analog Set), plus an assortment of various brass- and string-players, and a plethora of other sounds and noises. But that is by far not the only difference from the Winters’ first album The Worst You Can Do Is Harm, which displayed a much more somber mood than the sophomore. Although some of the lyrics still somewhat recall some moments on the first album (namely some of the lyrics), here everything looks a bit… jauntier (if I may say so), and more vigorous. That said, if New Girl doesn’t get your sorry pants out of bed even at 7 a.m. in the morning, you have probably been on very wrong drugs the night before (or you might just need a better stereo).

The arrangements on the new album vary from vocals and acoustic guitar only (It’ll Be A Breeze) to elaborate orchestrations (Scared Straight); the sound goes from folk style-ish (Bride and Bridle) to cheeky pop tune (New Girl). It is not easy to describe a really diverse album in only a few sentences, and before I start mumbling something terribly cheesy about what a perfect spring album The Long Winters (seasonal pun!) have delivered this time, I better hand this over to John again:

“I think the music is more positive sounding now and it’s mostly because I’m much more positive than I was a few years ago. When I was making the first record it was a fairly melancholy time in my life. In contrast, I wrote the songs for the new record while we were touring and playing all the time, so I was much better off.”

But it is never just merriness and sunshine. How does one write really ‘happy’ songs anyway? John: “Every time I try to write a completely positive song, or an unambiguous love song, it always ends up being darkly colored. But then, I’ve never tried to write a completely bitter song either. The fact is that people are seldom completely happy or completely sad. Emotions are usually mixed. But if you’re partially happy and partially sad you’re more likely to characterize that feeling as sad rather than happy. It’s like happy is white paint and sad is black paint, any mixture of the two is described in terms of the color, not the whiteness.”

Following the release of the new record the band will soon be heading on a tour through the US and Canada with Nada Surf (who in turn will support R.E.M. in Vienne, France this summer). Later this year they might appear in some places in Europe for the first time. However, since the band’s first rehearsals in October 2001, the touring lineup has always been, let’s say, variable, from 2 to 5 players. “It’s great to be in a band with friends and to have the band feel like it’s a group effort, but it’s very rare that a band perfectly expresses the artistic consciousness of every member of the group… The lineup will always be flexible because people are always going to get opportunities to do other things, and I never want the future of the band to hinge on any one player. If someone needs to spend a year in a monastery they should be able to.”

Provided that no member will consider the monastery thing as a valid career option in the near future, the band consists of John Roderick (vocals, guitar), Michael Shilling (drums), Eric Corson (bass), and Sean Nelson (harmony vocals, keyboards, other noisemakers, spiffy stage outfit) right now. Since those guys have been responsible for some really great live shows, you might want to do yourself a favor and go see them on stage. They are going to hit the road soon and there’s no way to stop them. Cheers!