John Roderick is the lead singer and songwriter for Seattle-based band The Long Winters. His Reverb column runs every Monday.
The next few weeks are going to be a stressful time for me. After a period of many months where all I’ve done is restfully contemplate my navel and dig holes in my garden, my band is now preparing to play a spate of shows--including the Showbox, July 5th with The Cops and BOAT--and then sequester itself in a recording studio to make a new record. These are things I love doing, of course, but they’re also a tremendous amount of hard work and I’m starting to feel overwhelmed and unprepared. Why did I think it was a good idea to book several shows during the same few weeks that I set aside to record? Preparing for the one activity is very different from preparing for the other, and they can’t help but be in conflict. We need to rehearse our catalogue enough that our upcoming shows have the tight feel that we get after weeks on tour. We should be working on our new songs too, except writing new material requires that we spread out on the floor, literally and figuratively, monkeying with gizmos and trying out new things. It’s surprisingly difficult to do both.
The same goes for writing. I’ve always wanted to believe that since prose and lyrics seem to come from two very different places in the brain it should be possible to work at one kind of writing until you are tired and then switch to the other. Unfortunately, although the styles of composition are very different they draw energy from the same well. After I write my weekly column I’m out of things to say for a while, and likewise if I’ve been working on lyrics. For the past several years I’ve been working on a travelogue of my adventures in Europe, but I’m never able to devote the months I need to finishing it because the cycle of record-making doesn’t leave enough time. After a long string of tours in 2004 I budgeted some time away from the band to sit and write diligently in my book, and the result was a three-year gap between albums, which frustrated our fans and our label to no end. For me to keep the music coming I have to be careful what else I take on, because in spite of believing that I can do everything all the time, it’s clear that I can’t.Working up against a deadline has always worked for me. In the best of circumstances the extra pressure of a looming due date adds a vein of electricity to what I produce. Some of my favorite songs have been written at the last possible minute, oftentimes in the studio with the producer staring through the glass and pointing at his watch on the last scheduled day of recording. The extra stress on everyone is incalculable, but it’s been hard to argue with the results. I work well under those conditions. Unfortunately it’s not an exact or dependable science. I’ve also worked right up do a deadline and flamed out, producing nothing but gibberish. Many of my music-writing peers work diligently at their songs over the months, eventually piling up a reservoir of tunes that have stood up to weeks of scrutiny. I’m envious of my friends who head into the studio with twenty-five songs to choose from. Their hardest task is deciding which songs to axe from the final album, and they agonize over it while I ruefully shake my head. In contrast, the Long Winters have never entered the studio with more than a handful of completed songs, and on only a couple of occasions have we had anything left off at the end. If I write ten songs it’s almost guaranteed they’ll all be on the record, and in every case I’m scrambling to finish that final song on the last day. My bandmates roll their eyes at me, half in amusement and half in frustration. Musicians like to rehearse, they need time to figure out their parts and to learn to play the songs with feel, but I’m always changing things or bringing in half-finished songs that I intend to record that afternoon. They joke that our songs aren’t just recorded on the first take, it’s often the first-ever time the song’s been played.
In the past few months I’ve worked diligently to be better prepared for our next record. I intended to walk through the studio doors with an embarrassment of songs, and I scheduled time for the band to learn and rehearse the new material confidant that the extra preparation would relax everyone and allow us to really swing when the tape was rolling. And we have been rehearsing—the band has never sounded better—but I’m acutely conscious of how much more work I have to do. The truth be told I have almost no idea how any of the songs on our next record are going to sound, unless I decide to scat over a bunch of grooves and just put it out. I’ve written a ton of music, and I have sheaves of lyrics, but I haven’t combined the two parts into a single complete song, and we begin recording in a week. Since I was a teenager I’ve struggled with this daredevil trait--playing chicken with every deadline to see who flinches first--and in recent years I’ve given up the struggle a little bit and resigned myself to working in manic blasts of twenty-hour days. But our organization has grown. More people than ever before are counting on me, scheduling their lives and their business around our productions, so that my high-wire act begins to seem reckless and irresponsible. It’s fine to work frantically, but my methods force other people to work frantically who might not enjoy the thrill quite so much. I’m typing this column while watching the clock, conscious that there are people at the Seattle Weekly who are getting used to cursing my name.
The deadline is necessary. It is never a problem of not having enough time. If we pushed back the recording sessions until January I would probably show up with much the same hodge-podge of half finished songs, because without the looming threat of disaster—recording budget off the rails, band members in revolt-- I would have no compulsion to finish them. A half-finished song is truly a thing of beauty; it has enough shape and melody to suggest its final form, but all the blank spaces and missing parts are tantalizing. An unfinished song can still be ANYTHING! To finish a song is satisfying, to be sure, but leaving them incomplete keeps them half in the world of dreams. I know that sounds lazy and self-justifying, but how else to explain the dozens of half-completed melodies I’m content to tinker with and leave incomplete?
The next few weeks will once again reveal whether this method is folly or inspired. A month from now I’ll either be cursed by the label, by my band, by our producer and a hundred others, or it will seem as natural and casual as ever. I’m putting my money on the fact that the songs will come.