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Harm's Way

John Roderick headed up Western State Hurricanes, a local band that almost got famous. Then the Hurricanes imploded. Roderick fled Seattle and walked across Europe. Here's how a 33-year-old born-again nobody came back to make the best '90s album of 2000.

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Alice Wheeler
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Alice Wheeler
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Alice Wheeler
The Western State Hurricanes played their first show on May 4, 1998, at the Breakroom. The band opened for Sycophant, another Seattle ensemble that at the time was in top form and had an impressive local following. The show was sold out.

"We were all shitting our pants," recalls singer/songwriter John Roderick, the former Hurricanes frontman. "But we played the show and it was just awesome."

The Hurricanes were an instant success. Local media pounced on them, and at the band's third show Sub Pop's Jonathan Poneman approached Roderick to talk business. "By the second month of the Hurricanes we had been offered a recording contract with Sub Pop, and we were like Seattle's buzz band," Roderick says.

Roderick recalls a meeting in Poneman's office at Sub Pop. The band had been called in for negotiations with the label, and the frontman's ego wrought its customary bad magic. "At one point, when we were getting into a heated discussion about how much he was going to give us to record, I put my feet up on his desk and my hands behind my head," he gloats. "I was like, 'Let's talk turkey.' And he was apparently really offended by this. But we had been talking for two months, and Jonathan had been telling me that I was the future of rock, and we were going to be best friends. You know, he was really giving me the business. So I was like, 'All right, if we're best friends, you certainly won't object to me being very casual with you.' Well, he did object."

According to Roderick, that was the end of Sub Pop's interest in Western State Hurricanes. Via e-mail, Poneman suggests a bit of mythologization on Roderick's part. "My recollections are considerably different than John's," Poneman writes. "But, frankly, his story is more interesting so I'm sticking with it. Who does that guy think he is anyway?" Poneman adds, "Besides that, however, I think John's a swell fellow, and I hope his new band shakes some action."

The new band Poneman is referring to is the Long Winters, for which Roderick is the singer and guitar player. The band has just released its Barsuk Records debut, The Worst You Can Do Is Harm. It's a beautiful rock record that should be shelved next to great American bands like Spoon and Cracker. It recalls Sebadoh, R.E.M., Pavement, and Bob Mould, among others. And, being of such an early '90s tradition, the lyrics are delightfully unhappy: They're totally self-loathing, but smart. Think Sub Pop's "Loser" media campaign or Richard Linklater's Slacker.

Perhaps you've moved beyond the sad, naively existential stuff. You have a killer job and a clean apartment now. You gave up cigarettes, hallucinogens, and binge drinking a few years back, and you'd currently rather scour your bathtub listening to KEXP on a Saturday afternoon than get high with your friends, talking shit about rock. That's just fine: You can't possibly be blamed for growing up. But you will connect to The Worst You Can Do Is Harm regardless. The Worst You Can Do Is Harm is a rich record, swollen with slacker self-sabotage. It's the work of a smart, tortured guy who makes perfect little pop gems, sort of hating himself as he does it. Just about every Long Winters song is packed with rewarding hooks and smart, self-deprecating lyrics. It's a sparkling new album that feels as if it could--or should--have been released eight years ago.

Why wasn't it released sooner? Because it took John Roderick a long time to get to the point where he could make it. This is the story of a guy who's shot himself in the foot over and over again for 33 years, before getting to the point he's at now. Today Roderick is the remarkable leader of a very promising new band, and a self-aggrandized nobody. Both are qualities of the virtuous slacker.

"That's a lie, but I said it with a smile"
from "Car Parts"
John Roderick was born at Group Health on Capitol Hill in Seattle, September 13, 1968. His father, David Roderick, was a local politician and attorney who had been a Washington state senator in the 1950s. His mother, Marcia, was a computer programmer. John has one sibling, his sister Susan. Both of Roderick's parents were educated and encouraged their children to think for themselves and to have, as John puts it, "a sense of being an adult from a young age." David Roderick got a job in Alaska in 1971, when John was three, and the family relocated to Anchorage.

In 1973, David and Marcia divorced, and Marcia took the kids back to Washington. The split wasn't amicable, and the parents no longer spoke. John attended kindergarten in Shoreline, but Marcia soon realized she had made the wrong decision for her children, and the family returned to Alaska. Marcia worked her way up to an executive position with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. John and Susan spent the remainder of their childhoods in Anchorage, where they both received their diplomas at East Anchorage High.

John's education was a point of contention between the child and his parents from as early on as fourth grade, when he ceased doing any of his assignments. His parents were furious. "But I was super-willful," Roderick says with a ring of pride in his voice. "My parents were really confused by me. They tried every kind of discipline and restriction. But they were the ones who had set things up that way. They wanted their kid to be a non-conformist; they just weren't prepared for what that was going to look like."

Interviewing Roderick is easy. One needs only ask a few basic questions, and he talks. He's like the lead character in that Irish film The Commitments, who spends hours alone in his room talking out loud, pretending he's being interviewed by a journalist in anticipation of future fame. Roderick's stories are better, though, and he makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is painting a romanticized portrait.

Despite his substandard academic performance, Roderick recalls being a social overachiever. From an early age he remembers assuming the role of "middleman," a sort of by-default liaison between his sister and his estranged parents. "I was a perceptive kid. They would tell me one thing, but I could see that something else was the case. I was functioning, emotionally, on a lot of different levels from the time I was pretty young. So childhood was pretty melancholy for me. I learned to be an entertainer. If you keep them laughing, you keep the pressure off. I don't know if I was destined to be a sad person, or if I was just a sad kid. Now I'm just trying to be less melancholy."

Roderick's "middleman" social skills made him popular, even among many of his teachers and the multiple counselors who attempted to intervene in his academic self-sabotage. Roderick recalls an amusing story about his graduation day: "The principal called me into his office, unfolded a list of all the graduating seniors, and told me to find my name. So of course I started at the top. 'Oh, I'm not number one; not number two.' So the principal was like, 'Let me save you some time. Go down to the bottom.' And I was last on the list. He's like, 'You worked for this for four years, and I just wanted to congratulate you on accomplishing what you were after.'"

"I gladly waive my rights to find the real world"
from "Scent of Lime"
By the time Roderick had graduated high school, his sense of disconnect from what he calls "the real world" in his song "Scent of Lime" began to affect his major life decisions. He may have been too young to realize that his uniquely fearless brand of adolescent Sturm und Drang was still something of a cliché.

He and a high-school friend left Anchorage together and traveled down to Seattle. "Growing up in Alaska," he says, "we were Americans, but Alaska is not in America. So I developed this America thing. I really wanted to know about the country." The two tried hitchhiking, but Roderick rejected it, on account of there being "too much standing around and waiting" involved. Shortly thereafter the two hopped their first freight train, from Tacoma to Portland, and that method of travel excited Roderick, as it provided a perfect outlaw means of escape.

Roderick and his friend ultimately parted ways, which would become a pattern with Roderick. "I would pick up floaters after that," he recalls. "You know, you meet someone in a town and you decide to travel together, and then you do, and it doesn't work out so you drop them." He had a sense of being destined for the path he had chosen. "Partly my life was chosen for me," he reflects, "by the fact that I was an underachiever, and partly I was choosing it for myself, to try and be a different kind of person."

Throughout high school Roderick had written songs and even played in a band, but it seems that during his early travels he began to develop his character as an American songwriter. "It was sort of Woody Guthrie-style traveling hobo music, except I was 18 years old, and I didn't know the first thing about anything," he says.

"Drink up your life, but only taste the dying"
from "Medicine Cabinet Pirate"
Roderick began drinking at 15. Alcoholism ran in his family. He remembers that the first time he drank, he blacked out and urinated on the floor of his family's living room. By the age of 18, he was "living for the party, and then making the party stand in for the life."

In 1987, after a year of traveling, Roderick returned to Seattle and made his first brief attempt at social assimilation by enrolling in college, at Gonzaga in Spokane. "It's a Jesuit school," he says. "They had a program that accepted underachievers."

Not surprisingly, the maladjusted teen was a disciplinary problem. "If it broke, I would break it. If it burned, I would set it on fire. At that point I was drinking and partying like a maniac. And I knew I could do the homework and stay in school with my hands tied behind my back. So I spent the vast majority of my time getting high.

"I was a medicine cabinet pirate," he reflects, referencing the title of his own song. "If it changed the way you felt, I would put it in me." Roderick somewhat ashamedly admits to having smoked crack on more than one occasion ("You might not want to put that in your article"), but won't go into detail. "I never shot drugs," he offers. "And here in the '90s, that was a challenge. But I always had a limit. Or, I should say, there was always a part of me that wanted to survive. But I did everything else."

After two years at Gonzaga, a restless Roderick left the country to travel in Europe. Upon his return to Seattle in 1990, he took a job at legendary Seattle rock spot the Off Ramp, working his way up from dishwasher to assistant manager. He also enrolled in Seattle Central Community College and, recognizing that his life was out of control, quit drinking for 18 months.

But his self-destructive streak proved resilient, and by January of 1992, when things were somewhat on the mend--he had a job, and was enrolled at the University of Washington as a Comparative History of Ideas major--Roderick began drinking and taking drugs again. He didn't quit for good until December of 1995, and by that point Roderick recalls having lost everything.

"I was fucked-up," he says. "I couldn't hold a job anymore. I didn't have a place to live. I was living in a van that didn't run, that was parked in a carport behind a friend's house. And I just got incredibly sick." He repeats himself. "I got really, really sick. And I had been sick for a long time, but I got really sick. Catastrophically."

"This is what they mean by standing in for the sane"
from "Samaritan"
By the time Roderick's second and final recovery was underway he had played in many short-lived music projects, and had been fronting bizarre, mathy pop band the Bun Family Players for about two months. The band developed a small, loyal cult following, but never took off.

The Bun Family stayed together for three years, during which time the group played with Harvey Danger, then a small local band. Roderick became acquainted with his future bandmate, Harvey Danger frontman Sean Nelson, though the two didn't become friends until after the Bun Family Players broke up in October of 1997.

"Being in a band is really emotional and frustrating," Roderick reflects. "You work really hard, and in most cases nobody gives you any props at all. You barely get a feeling of accomplishment."

Roderick thought about giving up music. As would happen many times in Roderick's life, however, fate intervened in the form of someone else's generosity.

At one of the last Bun Family Players shows, Roderick met a woman named Stephanie Wicker, whose band Algae opened that night for Roderick's band. Roderick liked her voice--he liked it so much that he suspended his doubts about making music and called her. The two got together to play casually, with the aim of "recording some singer/songwritery boy-girl harmonies." Both musicians enjoyed playing together, and Wicker recorded Roderick playing acoustic guitar and singing.

A week later, Wicker played Roderick's music back to him, with programmed drums, bass, organ, and vocal harmonies on it. Roderick was floored. The Western State Hurricanes were born out of this union, but only as a temporary project that would enable Roderick to play his songs. The lineup featured Roderick on vocals and guitar, Wicker on vocals and guitar, Bo Gilland of Severna Park on bass, and Michael Shilling of Jeffrey Nothing on drums.

"We had only been in the band for a little while," Roderick says, remembering the Hurricanes' first show at the Breakroom, "and the only person even committed to being in the band was me."

The Western State Hurricanes continued to play, and won considerable attention from music audiences, writers, and at least one record label--but not all of the attention was positive. Former Stranger music editor Everett True made his hatred of the Hurricanes a very public game from the moment the English journalist assumed his position at the paper. "The first show of ours that [True] saw was a Faster Tiger CD release party, which we opened for. His first column just started out like, 'I can't believe how shitty the music scene is in this town. I can't believe that I am here to work with this crap.' And he just ripped us a new one. It felt a little over-the-top, like he came to town, heard we were the buzz band, and decided to take us down a full notch-and-a-half."

The following week, The Stranger's letters page included several hostile responses to True's attack, including a letter from Roderick himself. "I was like, 'Welcome to Seattle. It's quite a career trajectory from being editor of Melody Maker to being fucking assistant music editor of The Stranger.... Your presence here will be a great complement to the normal Stranger music staff of alcoholic starfuckers, Fizz magazine copy boys, and one-eyed sea captains.'"

Everett True continued his relentless campaign against the Western State Hurricanes for months. Roderick recalls laughing with True later on, but admits to having been overwhelmed by the journalist's efforts at the time. "They had it in for me bad," he says. "Every week there was something new about the Hurricanes in the paper. I was just like, 'God!' I couldn't believe it."

True himself sees things differently from Roderick. "I never attacked Western State Hurricanes when I was music editor at The Stranger," he writes from England. "All I did was write the truth as I saw it: a mediocre band onstage like a thousand mediocre bands before them. I had no axe to grind, no grudges against them (it was my first evening in town). I just wanted to set everyone straight on the mediocre part." True closes his e-mail, characteristically flip: "Perhaps they got better later? I have no idea, but let's hope so."

The band went on to record a demo with local producer Phil Ek who, at the time, was working as a sound engineer at the Off Ramp. Hundreds of copies were sold to fans, and though the logical next step for the Hurricanes was to record a debut LP, the band's efforts at doing so were ultimately thwarted.

"We went to record with this other guy," Roderick recalls. "He was a total shitbird." The band spent two months recording in the shitbird's basement.

"We didn't go to a studio," Roderick continues. "We had this whole indie cred idea that we were going to do a basement recording on somebody's Tascam. But the dude was a mess. He was a bad engineer and a bad guy."

The poor album quality was a great disappointment for the Hurricanes, who then went on, without a viable release, to tour with Death Cab for Cutie. "We went to South by Southwest," Roderick recalls. "We toured in a minivan, with all of our gear and us packed in the minivan. This was March of '99. Death Cab's first record had come out. They had a van that worked. They were doing it right. We were doing it wrong. Michael and Bo, the rhythm section, were like, 'Dude, that was really hard.' And they both had jobs. They were like, 'We don't want to live like this.'"

Michael Shilling remembers the tour and the Hurricanes' breakup as a particularly sour time in his life. "We went on the tour and it was fucking horrible," he says. "So I decided that I didn't want to have anything to do with a completely toxic situation. There were a lot of nasty looks and non-communication happening, and everybody was fighting. When we got back to Seattle, we got together for practice, and I said, 'I'm not doing this.' We had a show like six days later, and we decided to play it. It was scary, because when John gets pissed off it's fucking weird. It's just not your normal kind of anger. And he was mad at me."The Western State Hurricanes played their first show on May 4, 1998, at the Breakroom. The band opened for Sycophant, another Seattle ensemble that at the time was in top form and had an impressive local following. The show was sold out.

"We were all shitting our pants," recalls singer/songwriter John Roderick, the former Hurricanes frontman. "But we played the show and it was just awesome."

The Hurricanes were an instant success. Local media pounced on them, and at the band's third show Sub Pop's Jonathan Poneman approached Roderick to talk business. "By the second month of the Hurricanes we had been offered a recording contract with Sub Pop, and we were like Seattle's buzz band," Roderick says.

Roderick recalls a meeting in Poneman's office at Sub Pop. The band had been called in for negotiations with the label, and the frontman's ego wrought its customary bad magic. "At one point, when we were getting into a heated discussion about how much he was going to give us to record, I put my feet up on his desk and my hands behind my head," he gloats. "I was like, 'Let's talk turkey.' And he was apparently really offended by this. But we had been talking for two months, and Jonathan had been telling me that I was the future of rock, and we were going to be best friends. You know, he was really giving me the business. So I was like, 'All right, if we're best friends, you certainly won't object to me being very casual with you.' Well, he did object."

According to Roderick, that was the end of Sub Pop's interest in Western State Hurricanes. Via e-mail, Poneman suggests a bit of mythologization on Roderick's part. "My recollections are considerably different than John's," Poneman writes. "But, frankly, his story is more interesting so I'm sticking with it. Who does that guy think he is anyway?" Poneman adds, "Besides that, however, I think John's a swell fellow, and I hope his new band shakes some action."

The new band Poneman is referring to is the Long Winters, for which Roderick is the singer and guitar player. The band has just released its Barsuk Records debut, The Worst You Can Do Is Harm. It's a beautiful rock record that should be shelved next to great American bands like Spoon and Cracker. It recalls Sebadoh, R.E.M., Pavement, and Bob Mould, among others. And, being of such an early '90s tradition, the lyrics are delightfully unhappy: They're totally self-loathing, but smart. Think Sub Pop's "Loser" media campaign or Richard Linklater's Slacker.

Perhaps you've moved beyond the sad, naively existential stuff. You have a killer job and a clean apartment now. You gave up cigarettes, hallucinogens, and binge drinking a few years back, and you'd currently rather scour your bathtub listening to KEXP on a Saturday afternoon than get high with your friends, talking shit about rock. That's just fine: You can't possibly be blamed for growing up. But you will connect to The Worst You Can Do Is Harm regardless. The Worst You Can Do Is Harm is a rich record, swollen with slacker self-sabotage. It's the work of a smart, tortured guy who makes perfect little pop gems, sort of hating himself as he does it. Just about every Long Winters song is packed with rewarding hooks and smart, self-deprecating lyrics. It's a sparkling new album that feels as if it could--or should--have been released eight years ago.

Why wasn't it released sooner? Because it took John Roderick a long time to get to the point where he could make it. This is the story of a guy who's shot himself in the foot over and over again for 33 years, before getting to the point he's at now. Today Roderick is the remarkable leader of a very promising new band, and a self-aggrandized nobody. Both are qualities of the virtuous slacker.

"That's a lie, but I said it with a smile"
from "Car Parts"
John Roderick was born at Group Health on Capitol Hill in Seattle, September 13, 1968. His father, David Roderick, was a local politician and attorney who had been a Washington state senator in the 1950s. His mother, Marcia, was a computer programmer. John has one sibling, his sister Susan. Both of Roderick's parents were educated and encouraged their children to think for themselves and to have, as John puts it, "a sense of being an adult from a young age." David Roderick got a job in Alaska in 1971, when John was three, and the family relocated to Anchorage.

In 1973, David and Marcia divorced, and Marcia took the kids back to Washington. The split wasn't amicable, and the parents no longer spoke. John attended kindergarten in Shoreline, but Marcia soon realized she had made the wrong decision for her children, and the family returned to Alaska. Marcia worked her way up to an executive position with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. John and Susan spent the remainder of their childhoods in Anchorage, where they both received their diplomas at East Anchorage High.

John's education was a point of contention between the child and his parents from as early on as fourth grade, when he ceased doing any of his assignments. His parents were furious. "But I was super-willful," Roderick says with a ring of pride in his voice. "My parents were really confused by me. They tried every kind of discipline and restriction. But they were the ones who had set things up that way. They wanted their kid to be a non-conformist; they just weren't prepared for what that was going to look like."

Interviewing Roderick is easy. One needs only ask a few basic questions, and he talks. He's like the lead character in that Irish film The Commitments, who spends hours alone in his room talking out loud, pretending he's being interviewed by a journalist in anticipation of future fame. Roderick's stories are better, though, and he makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is painting a romanticized portrait.

Despite his substandard academic performance, Roderick recalls being a social overachiever. From an early age he remembers assuming the role of "middleman," a sort of by-default liaison between his sister and his estranged parents. "I was a perceptive kid. They would tell me one thing, but I could see that something else was the case. I was functioning, emotionally, on a lot of different levels from the time I was pretty young. So childhood was pretty melancholy for me. I learned to be an entertainer. If you keep them laughing, you keep the pressure off. I don't know if I was destined to be a sad person, or if I was just a sad kid. Now I'm just trying to be less melancholy."

Roderick's "middleman" social skills made him popular, even among many of his teachers and the multiple counselors who attempted to intervene in his academic self-sabotage. Roderick recalls an amusing story about his graduation day: "The principal called me into his office, unfolded a list of all the graduating seniors, and told me to find my name. So of course I started at the top. 'Oh, I'm not number one; not number two.' So the principal was like, 'Let me save you some time. Go down to the bottom.' And I was last on the list. He's like, 'You worked for this for four years, and I just wanted to congratulate you on accomplishing what you were after.'"

"I gladly waive my rights to find the real world"
—from "Scent of Lime"

By the time Roderick had graduated high school, his sense of disconnect from what he calls "the real world" in his song "Scent of Lime" began to affect his major life decisions. He may have been too young to realize that his uniquely fearless brand of adolescent Sturm und Drang was still something of a cliché.

He and a high-school friend left Anchorage together and traveled down to Seattle. "Growing up in Alaska," he says, "we were Americans, but Alaska is not in America. So I developed this America thing. I really wanted to know about the country." The two tried hitchhiking, but Roderick rejected it, on account of there being "too much standing around and waiting" involved. Shortly thereafter the two hopped their first freight train, from Tacoma to Portland, and that method of travel excited Roderick, as it provided a perfect outlaw means of escape.

Roderick and his friend ultimately parted ways, which would become a pattern with Roderick. "I would pick up floaters after that," he recalls. "You know, you meet someone in a town and you decide to travel together, and then you do, and it doesn't work out so you drop them." He had a sense of being destined for the path he had chosen. "Partly my life was chosen for me," he reflects, "by the fact that I was an underachiever, and partly I was choosing it for myself, to try and be a different kind of person."

Throughout high school Roderick had written songs and even played in a band, but it seems that during his early travels he began to develop his character as an American songwriter. "It was sort of Woody Guthrie-style traveling hobo music, except I was 18 years old, and I didn't know the first thing about anything," he says.

"Drink up your life, but only taste the dying"
—from "Medicine Cabinet Pirate"
Roderick began drinking at 15. Alcoholism ran in his family. He remembers that the first time he drank, he blacked out and urinated on the floor of his family's living room. By the age of 18, he was "living for the party, and then making the party stand in for the life."

In 1987, after a year of traveling, Roderick returned to Seattle and made his first brief attempt at social assimilation by enrolling in college, at Gonzaga in Spokane. "It's a Jesuit school," he says. "They had a program that accepted underachievers."

Not surprisingly, the maladjusted teen was a disciplinary problem. "If it broke, I would break it. If it burned, I would set it on fire. At that point I was drinking and partying like a maniac. And I knew I could do the homework and stay in school with my hands tied behind my back. So I spent the vast majority of my time getting high.

"I was a medicine cabinet pirate," he reflects, referencing the title of his own song. "If it changed the way you felt, I would put it in me." Roderick somewhat ashamedly admits to having smoked crack on more than one occasion ("You might not want to put that in your article"), but won't go into detail. "I never shot drugs," he offers. "And here in the '90s, that was a challenge. But I always had a limit. Or, I should say, there was always a part of me that wanted to survive. But I did everything else."

After two years at Gonzaga, a restless Roderick left the country to travel in Europe. Upon his return to Seattle in 1990, he took a job at legendary Seattle rock spot the Off Ramp, working his way up from dishwasher to assistant manager. He also enrolled in Seattle Central Community College and, recognizing that his life was out of control, quit drinking for 18 months.

But his self-destructive streak proved resilient, and by January of 1992, when things were somewhat on the mend--he had a job, and was enrolled at the University of Washington as a Comparative History of Ideas major--Roderick began drinking and taking drugs again. He didn't quit for good until December of 1995, and by that point Roderick recalls having lost everything.

"I was fucked-up," he says. "I couldn't hold a job anymore. I didn't have a place to live. I was living in a van that didn't run, that was parked in a carport behind a friend's house. And I just got incredibly sick." He repeats himself. "I got really, really sick. And I had been sick for a long time, but I got really sick. Catastrophically."

"This is what they mean by standing in for the sane"
—from "Samaritan"

By the time Roderick's second and final recovery was underway he had played in many short-lived music projects, and had been fronting bizarre, mathy pop band the Bun Family Players for about two months. The band developed a small, loyal cult following, but never took off.

The Bun Family stayed together for three years, during which time the group played with Harvey Danger, then a small local band. Roderick became acquainted with his future bandmate, Harvey Danger frontman Sean Nelson, though the two didn't become friends until after the Bun Family Players broke up in October of 1997.

"Being in a band is really emotional and frustrating," Roderick reflects. "You work really hard, and in most cases nobody gives you any props at all. You barely get a feeling of accomplishment."

Roderick thought about giving up music. As would happen many times in Roderick's life, however, fate intervened in the form of someone else's generosity.

At one of the last Bun Family Players shows, Roderick met a woman named Stephanie Wicker, whose band Algae opened that night for Roderick's band. Roderick liked her voice--he liked it so much that he suspended his doubts about making music and called her. The two got together to play casually, with the aim of "recording some singer/songwritery boy-girl harmonies." Both musicians enjoyed playing together, and Wicker recorded Roderick playing acoustic guitar and singing.

A week later, Wicker played Roderick's music back to him, with programmed drums, bass, organ, and vocal harmonies on it. Roderick was floored. The Western State Hurricanes were born out of this union, but only as a temporary project that would enable Roderick to play his songs. The lineup featured Roderick on vocals and guitar, Wicker on vocals and guitar, Bo Gilland of Severna Park on bass, and Michael Shilling of Jeffrey Nothing on drums.

"We had only been in the band for a little while," Roderick says, remembering the Hurricanes' first show at the Breakroom, "and the only person even committed to being in the band was me."

The Western State Hurricanes continued to play, and won considerable attention from music audiences, writers, and at least one record label--but not all of the attention was positive. Former Stranger music editor Everett True made his hatred of the Hurricanes a very public game from the moment the English journalist assumed his position at the paper. "The first show of ours that [True] saw was a Faster Tiger CD release party, which we opened for. His first column just started out like, 'I can't believe how shitty the music scene is in this town. I can't believe that I am here to work with this crap.' And he just ripped us a new one. It felt a little over-the-top, like he came to town, heard we were the buzz band, and decided to take us down a full notch-and-a-half."

The following week, The Stranger's letters page included several hostile responses to True's attack, including a letter from Roderick himself. "I was like, 'Welcome to Seattle. It's quite a career trajectory from being editor of Melody Maker to being fucking assistant music editor of The Stranger.... Your presence here will be a great complement to the normal Stranger music staff of alcoholic starfuckers, Fizz magazine copy boys, and one-eyed sea captains.'"

Everett True continued his relentless campaign against the Western State Hurricanes for months. Roderick recalls laughing with True later on, but admits to having been overwhelmed by the journalist's efforts at the time. "They had it in for me bad," he says. "Every week there was something new about the Hurricanes in the paper. I was just like, 'God!' I couldn't believe it."

True himself sees things differently from Roderick. "I never attacked Western State Hurricanes when I was music editor at The Stranger," he writes from England. "All I did was write the truth as I saw it: a mediocre band onstage like a thousand mediocre bands before them. I had no axe to grind, no grudges against them (it was my first evening in town). I just wanted to set everyone straight on the mediocre part." True closes his e-mail, characteristically flip: "Perhaps they got better later? I have no idea, but let's hope so."

The band went on to record a demo with local producer Phil Ek who, at the time, was working as a sound engineer at the Off Ramp. Hundreds of copies were sold to fans, and though the logical next step for the Hurricanes was to record a debut LP, the band's efforts at doing so were ultimately thwarted.

"We went to record with this other guy," Roderick recalls. "He was a total shitbird." The band spent two months recording in the shitbird's basement.

"We didn't go to a studio," Roderick continues. "We had this whole indie cred idea that we were going to do a basement recording on somebody's Tascam. But the dude was a mess. He was a bad engineer and a bad guy."

The poor album quality was a great disappointment for the Hurricanes, who then went on, without a viable release, to tour with Death Cab for Cutie. "We went to South by Southwest," Roderick recalls. "We toured in a minivan, with all of our gear and us packed in the minivan. This was March of '99. Death Cab's first record had come out. They had a van that worked. They were doing it right. We were doing it wrong. Michael and Bo, the rhythm section, were like, 'Dude, that was really hard.' And they both had jobs. They were like, 'We don't want to live like this.'"

Michael Shilling remembers the tour and the Hurricanes' breakup as a particularly sour time in his life. "We went on the tour and it was fucking horrible," he says. "So I decided that I didn't want to have anything to do with a completely toxic situation. There were a lot of nasty looks and non-communication happening, and everybody was fighting. When we got back to Seattle, we got together for practice, and I said, 'I'm not doing this.' We had a show like six days later, and we decided to play it. It was scary, because when John gets pissed off it's fucking weird. It's just not your normal kind of anger. And he was mad at me."

The last Western State Hurricanes show took place on April 17, 1999, at the Showbox. The band's members were barely speaking. "During the last song, John flipped out," Shilling recalls. "The song we always used to play last was called 'Nora,' and it's just this sludgy, dirgy kind of song, at the end of which John would always do this kind of masturbatory guitar solo, and he would always pull an Ian Curtis--he would fall on the floor freaking out. There were times when it was completely amazing, and times when it felt like total shtick.

"At the end of 'Nora' that night," Shilling continues, "he started to play his solo, and then he just whipped off his guitar and just smashed it to bits, and it was fucking scary. You've been at shows where instruments break, right? You know how all the music stops and the only sound is the guitar breaking? Everybody stopped playing and there was just complete silence. It was up there with the scariest moments of my life, for sure. John smashed his guitar, walked offstage, and disappeared. I found out recently that he had hid out under a table for an hour and a half. Of course, with John, that may or may not be true, but it makes for a good story. And John always knows the value of a good story."

The Hurricanes broke up, and Roderick hit bottom. To romanticize a life you have to find a point in the story when redemption kicks in, and redemption usually kicks in after a moment of absolute defeat. At that point, a moment lower than any other, the protagonist is faced with two choices: kill himself or begin the hard work of rebuilding his life. If the Hurricanes were a story I made up, Roderick would humble himself, find a crappy job, get his shit together, and do what it took to patch things up with his friends. But real life isn't like that. Roderick fled.

"I felt like I didn't have any friends in Seattle anymore," Roderick says. "I'd wanted to be a musician for 10 years, and a musician who was popular. When I finally was, it sucked."

Within six weeks, Roderick hopped a flight to Europe. On a whim, he decided to walk from London to Istanbul. He e-mailed parts of his journal to Professor Jim Clowes at the University of Washington, and selections were published in the UW Daily. Roderick says he didn't learn very much during his long walk across Europe. He remembers it like Siddhartha in reverse. "I learned that you can't just go walking and expect to find the answers you're after." Nonetheless, Roderick says he returned home with a sense of accomplishment, although he still felt desperate and lost.

"Hold my hand through this long walk"
—from "Samaritan"
"When John got back from Europe he was all gaunt and depressed," Sean Nelson recalls. "He couldn't even pick up a guitar. That's when I met him, and that's why I recruited him." At the time, Nelson's band Harvey Danger was still together, enjoying its freak national success. Nelson asked Roderick to accompany his band, as its keyboardist, on a tour of the country.

"I knew he didn't really play keyboards, but the parts weren't that hard," Nelson says. "I also knew he'd have fun doing it, and that we would have fun with him, because Harvey Danger wasn't having very much fun amongst ourselves at the time, and John's really hilarious." The tour was good for Roderick, who was a member of the band from January of 2000 until April of the following year, when Harvey Danger imploded.

"My master plan was always just to get John excited about music again, so that he would start making his own records," Nelson continues. "He'd come out of the spiral he'd entered after the Hurricanes' breakup, but he was still basically paralyzed. After coming so close to getting what he wanted and then seeing it vaporize, it was like, 'What can I possibly do next? Why would I want to?'

"There's no end to people like John in Seattle," Nelson continues. "People who talk a lot of shit about art, and maybe even make art, but never really do anything with it. And they all think they're geniuses. The difference with John is that he actually is a genius."

While both musicians were still in Harvey Danger, Nelson and Roderick began playing acoustic shows on the side, as a duo, mostly performing Harvey Danger and Western State Hurricanes material.

In December of 2000, Roderick, Nelson, and Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla began recording Roderick's songs at Barsuk Records' Hall of Justice studio. By March of 2001, the three musicians had finished producing what was to become the Long Winters album. Six of the tracks were reworked Western State Hurricanes songs. The talents of notable local musicians like Joe Bass, Brian Young, Jason Finn, and Ben Gibbard had been culled for performances, and the album turned out better than all involved had anticipated.

"The plan was simply to get the songs recorded," Nelson recalls. "It was hellish at times, fun at others. By the end we were barely able to look each other in the eye." But the finished product was undeniably good, and Roderick was revitalized.

The Long Winters didn't become an actual band until October of 2001. Nelson, who had sung backup vocals and played keyboards on the album, became an official band member. Bassist Eric Corson, formerly of 5 Gears in Reverse, was called in, as was keyboardist Chris Caniglia, an old friend of Roderick's. At that point Roderick and former Hurricanes drummer Michael Shilling had worked out some of their personal differences, and Roderick asked Shilling at random one night in a bar if he would be interested in being the Long Winters' drummer.

"We've always had this intense relationship," Shilling says of his decision to join the band. "The kind of relationship you'd have with someone you're dating. We have all these trust issues and vulnerability issues, because we really get each other. There's a lot of 'you always hurt the ones you love' stuff with us."

The Worst You Can Do Is Harm
The Long Winters are opening for Jon Auer at the Sunset Tavern. The room is crowded, and there is much chatter about the band throughout the audience prior to the show. The players take the stage a bit awkwardly. One can't help but smile at how out of place Roderick and Nelson--both unusually tall men who have performed live shows in sold-out stadiums with Harvey Danger--look on the Sunset's tiny, ground-level stage.

The show is solid. Roderick's guitar is the loudest instrument, and his solos are more aggressive than on the album, specifically in the extended version of "Medicine Cabinet Pirate" the band plays to close the set. Roderick is smiling and amused for the entire show. Say what you will about Harvey Danger, but Nelson, in trademark suit and glasses, is a born pop star. The audience is attentive and supportive. Shilling is an excellent drummer. He's all smiles, as are Roderick and Nelson. Nelson's "bah-baah" backups and Americana vocal harmonies are a perfect complement to Roderick's honest American voice. This is a band that genuinely sounds like it should be playing together. Tormented lyrics aside, it's a happy sound.

The afternoon prior, I had asked Roderick a question that might offend him. I told him that I love his album, but that I think it could have been made about eight years ago. He agreed, some undisclosed thought registering on his face.

"You know, I envy 22-year-olds who know that this is the world they want to live in. The ones who know how they need to dress to be in it. The ones who know what all the right bands are, and where they're supposed to live, and who their friends are. When I was 23, and even 26, I walked through the world going... well, I was an island."

Roderick is pleased by the great '90s record he made in late 2001. "This is what I really needed to make to have closure, you know? To this decade of feeling like I'm in a relationship with this beautiful person, but still feeling like I'm on the moon. From one minute to the next I never knew if I was going to be sleeping in a loft with 30-foot ceilings or under a tree somewhere. And now I feel like my life is finally starting, and I'm onto something. The title, The Worst You Can Do Is Harm, is a jab at myself. It's a joke. I've always lived like, 'Hey, what's the worst that can happen? Fuck it, bring it on. Light the fuse.' What's the worst you can do? Well, you can do bad harm. And at a certain point you have to take responsibility for it, or you have to actually stand up and be there for somebody. And sometimes the things that you do are bad. Really, really bad."

Other times, the things you do are just right.



FULL DISCLOSURE
by A. Birch Steen
Stranger
Ombudsman & OSHA Board of Governors Member

Not noted in Jeff DeRoche's fine feature on the Long Winters are the numerous CONFLICTS OF INTEREST that may have colored the writing and editing process. Indeed, the very selection of the Long Winters for a feature article in The Stranger smacks of favoritism. To facilitate the drafting of outraged letters to the editor, I have been asked to identify each instance of COI. · Mr. DeRoche's article is about one JOHN RODERICK, lead singer/guitarist/songwriter for the Long Winters. Mr. Roderick has, in the past, been an occasional contributor to this paper. · The Stranger's film editor, SEAN NELSON, is also a member of the Long Winters, and Mr. Nelson was once the lead singer for the band HARVEY DANGER, which featured EVAN SULT on drums. Mr. Sult, like Mr. Roderick, has occasionally contributed to this paper. Additionally, Mr. Sult is the co-owner of 10TH AVENUE EAST PUBLISHING, a local publisher that recently released a book by Stranger calendar editor BRIAN GOEDDE (This World Is Yours, $10). · Continuing along the Mr. Nelson vein, Mr. Nelson once worked at Metro Cinemas with BRADLEY STEINBACHER, with whom he now works with at The Stranger. Mr. Steinbacher's former ROOMMATE used to date John Roderick who, readers will recall, is the subject of Mr. DeRoche's article. Mr. Steinbacher's former girlfriend, STEPHANIE PURE, went to high school with BO GILLILAND, former member of Western State Hurricanes, Mr. Roderick's former band. Additionally, Mr. Nelson's grandmother, the late Evelyn Barrows, was a Polish Jew. POLAND is a country in EUROPE, and Europe is the continent that Mr. Roderick WALKED ACROSS; Mr. Roderick's walk across Europe is the central metaphor of Mr. DeRoche's article. Mr. Goedde studied in Madrid, a large city in Europe, and Harvey Danger toured Europe, but did not play Madrid. · The drummer for the Long Winters, MICHAEL SHILLING, a Jew--like John Roderick, a Jesuit-educated Protestant, and Evan Sult, also a Protestant--has written for The Stranger. CHRIS CANIGLIA, the keyboard player in the Long Winters, once wrote a strongly worded letter to Mr. Nelson regarding something Mr. Nelson wrote about Mr. Caniglia's then-girlfriend, a known lesbian. Mr. Caniglia's letter to Mr. Nelson appeared in the letters section of The Stranger. · Moving on, The Stranger's former editor, EMILY WHITE, is married to RICH JENSEN, the former PRESIDENT of Sub Pop, the record label that courted John Roderick's previous band, the Western State Hurricanes. Current Stranger editor DAN SAVAGE, his partner, and their child briefly lived with White and her husband. Mr. Savage edited the feature in question, including the sections that dealt with SUB POP. Moving along, KERRI HARROP, a former SUB POP EMPLOYEE, is now the booking agent for CHOP SUEY, the music venue formerly known as THE BREAKROOM, where the Western State Hurricanes played their FIRST SHOW, as mentioned in Mr. DeRoche's article. The aforementioned show was attended by EVERETT TRUE, former Stranger music editor. Mr. True is quoted in Mr. DeRoche's story in reference to this incident. On several occasions, Harvey Danger appeared at the Breakroom. · Mr. DeRoche's feature was copyedited by SARA DeBELL, who once wrote a gossip column for The Stranger under the name of Shirley Rodell-Szyzmyjek. In her column, Ms. DeBell, a.k.a Ms. Rodell-Szyzmyjek, made fun of both Mr. Nelson's former band Harvey Danger and Mr. Roderick's former band Western State Hurricanes, as did KATHLEEN WILSON, former Stranger music editor and current It's My Party columnist. Ms. Wilson is a recovering alcoholic ["Now You Don't Because You Can't," Jan 3], as is Mr. Roderick. Mr. Nelson's mother and three of Mr. Savage's grandparents are/were alcoholics. · Mr. DeRoche's article was designed and laid out by The Stranger's production department. AARON HUFFMAN, former member of Harvey Danger and known associate of Mr. Roderick, is a former employee of The Stranger's production department. Mr. Huffman attended the recent Long Winters show at the SUNSET TAVERN, which was mentioned in Mr. DeRoche's article. · The publication of Mr. DeRoche's article was made possible by the efforts of The Stranger's advertising sales department. RACHEL FLOTARD, a Stranger ad representative, is also the guitar player and singer for the band VISQUEEN. Ms. Flotard's band practices in the same rehearsal space as Mr. Roderick's band, the Long Winters. That rehearsal space is also shared by JASON FINN, who played drums on the Long Winters' debut LP. Mr. Finn was once the drummer for Presidents of the United States of America, which once recorded a song entitled "The Stranger." Mr. Finn is not openly homosexual. · Finally, the aforementioned Mr. Gilliland, who is, as already noted, a former member of Western State Hurricanes, is currently the boyfriend of former Stranger contributor (and current associate editor at the Seattle Weekly) LEAH GREENBLATT. Ms. Greenblatt has a pretty sweet ass, as does Mr. Roderick.

 

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