In a Slog post from April 6, Heidi Groover told you about Seattle musician and Music Commission member John Roderick’s plans to run for city council and his views on many issues. Now seems like an opportune time to get the singer/songwriter/guitarist to discuss in more depth his ideas about/plans for the city’s music scene and nightlife ecosphere—and about that long-awaited fourth Long Winters album. Our interview ensues after the jump.
The Stranger: If elected to city council, what would be your first order of business with regard to Seattle’s music scene and infrastructure?
John Roderick: The City of Seattle has made great progress trying to incorporate the music and art communities into the way local government thinks about city life. There have been good advocates for music, art, and film down at city hall for the last few years, but those advocates are typically from the business side of the music and art business. They’ve been making the argument that the music scene is a BUSINESS community, and the city has been receptive and responsive to that reasoning. That’s been a crucial first step. My position is that the music and art scenes, and their contribution to the cultural life and welfare here, cannot be reduced to an economic impact statement. We are more than just a bunch of small businesses; we are artists working at the level of conscience and community, and we’re giving far more than can be measured using the current yardstick.
Artists need to live in the heart of the community to do good work. You cannot push your arts community to the residential fringes by charging impossible rents, because art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The music scene has a healthy constellation of bars and venues now, but that’s not enough to make a music scene. You need affordable rehearsal space, affordable rent for people who have to work all day in order to pay for the privilege of working all night on their craft. It’s not just the artists, either, it’s also people struggling to open record labels, to establish themselves as band managers and promoters. A healthy arts community is a network of people, not all of whom are generating money yet, or even have money as a prime motivation, but who are working in concert to elevate the entire dialogue within the city. Amazon is using the cultural life here as a recruiting tool, so are all the other tech companies moving here. We have to take a systemic view, to recognize that every musician and artist we drive out of the city is one step closer to transforming our culture into something unlikable and unrecognizable.
My first order of business will be to take a seat on the council as a representative, not just of the arts community that produced me, but as a representative for the idea that the arts are not just window-dressing that a city applies after the fact. The arts are central to civic life and need to be a crucial part of the framework of our urban plan. There’s no simple solution to the housing, transportation, and social justice issues facing the city, but the art and music scenes here have a lot more to contribute than just a soundtrack and some public sculpture. I don’t mean we need to be a part of the conversation, we already are. I mean we need to be part of the structure.
Do you perceive any glaring problems with the city’s nightlife regulations? If so, what would you like to change?
The "nightlife community" has become a euphemism for the club and bar owners, and they are very good at advocating for themselves. It’s important to differentiate the MUSIC scene from the BAR scene. The glaring problems facing the music scene are unique, and a good place to start addressing them is by creating opportunities for youth to engage constructively with music. The Vera Project is a great institution, EMP does a lot of youth music education, and there are several private companies that provide music education, but there are huge gaps in access to these programs. Rainier Beach has a brand-new community center that should be hosting music education programs, after-school programs, that give South End kids some of the same opportunities that North End kids already enjoy. Community centers all over town are ripe for this kind of after-school program, maybe administered by the folks at Vera, funded by a partnership of institutions. The music and arts commissions have successfully reintroduced art education into Seattle schools through the Creative Advantage program, but that program is starting out focusing on elementary education. We need to address the kids that are already teens, who have never had access to art education. That’s a bigger issue for me. It doesn’t matter if Seattle has a great selection of bars and nightclubs if we don’t also encourage talented young people to create new work to fill those nightclubs with fans of their music. The alternative is a world where Seattle bars host LA musicians, which I find intolerable.
A few years ago there was talk about staggering closing times for bars to lessen the potential for drunken brawls and ameliorate the general chaos of the 2 am club/bar expulsion of humanity. Is this an idea you’d like to reexamine and champion?
It’s such a good idea, and it would have an immediate positive effect on public safety. I wish that idea hadn’t stalled in the political process a couple of years ago because it enjoyed broad support, and the police and Liquor Control Board seemed to support it, too. I’d like to lobby Metro to expand their late-night service in conjunction with staggered closing times, as well. It’s important that people get home safe and feel like they can take transit when they have a night out. Seattle has come a long way from the time, not that long ago, where people wanting to have a drink and listen to music were regarded as a FRINGE ELEMENT by city government. There are still elements of that mentality, particularly directed at the hiphop community. Staggered closing times are a good step towards erasing the mentality that it’s the city’s job to tell everyone when it’s time to go home and go to bed.
How do you think your candidacy will impact your music in general and, specifically, progress on the Long Winters’ long-awaited fourth album?
You mean PERSONALLY? Well, on the one hand it’s nice to feel energized, and declaring my candidacy has involved talking to so many new people in such different ways, it's exhilarating. Talking to people has always fueled my creativity, but right now I’m directing that creative energy to learning and understanding the myriad complex systems that make up a city, and the tens of thousands of personal anecdotes of people trying to navigate those systems to live rewarding lives. From a practical standpoint, I probably won’t be able to spend three weeks in a studio with Dave Bazan producing a new record right now, but from a songwriting perspective I’m going to be downloading such a huge rush of new information and emotional input, it can only ultimately produce something new down the road. People tell emotional stories of their own experience to politicians, just as they do to musicians, but the language of those stories and the intent in telling them is very different. People don’t just want my sympathy now, they hope that something practical might change. My ears are hearing new tones.
Any other campaign promises or goals re: Seattle music you’d like to trumpet?
I’m a product of the Seattle music scene and would be the first musician to hold this kind of office in city government, but that doesn’t make me an expert on the music community that exists now. I came up in an era that faced enormous challenges, but the scene changed and evolved continually in the 15 years that I was a street fighter for music, and it continues to change on an hourly basis. I need to listen to working artists just as much as I need to listen to transit experts, and not think that my experience in the music community represents everyone. I know what it was like to struggle as a young artist. Listening carefully to people from my own community is my priority, because I believe that the artists are the conscience of the town. If that’s a campaign promise it’ll be easy to uphold, because it’s a core value of my life as I live it.