An Interview with Musician, Raconteur, and Fellow Hairless Pig-Insect JOHN RODERICK
By Jonathan Metzelaar
Roderick on the Line is one of my favorite things. Not just one of my favorite podcasts, mind you, but one of my favorite things. It feels strange to admit that, because just a year ago I didn’t even know what a podcast was. In fact, prior to discovering Roderick on the Line, I assumed podcasts were iPhone-exclusive talk shows that were broadcast over the radio airwaves–in case you can’t tell, I’m not very tech-savvy–and I was so uninterested in them that I never even bothered to find out what they really were. But about ten months ago I found myself following a long and strange trail of internet links that ultimately led me to a short article about a guy named Merlin Mann, a prolific podcaster and quasi motivational speaker who is based in San Francisco. Intrigued by the article, I decided to check out some of the podcasts that Merlin hosted, and in the process I discovered Roderick on the Line.
Roderick on the Line, for the uninitiated, is a weekly podcast that takes place in the form of an hour-long, seemingly unedited phone call between Merlin Mann, the host, and John Roderick, the eponymic “star” (for lack of a better term). There’s no apparent format, and topics run the gamut from 7-11’s pump chili to Hitler. Listening to the podcast is like eavesdropping on a conversation between two very interesting, very intelligent, and very eloquent friends, and that alone makes it an absolute pleasure. But there is also an added joy that comes from listening to John Roderick’s stories.
John Roderick is a truly gifted storyteller, capable of making even the most mundane stories seem fascinating. It’s a skill that is accentuated greatly by the fact that he doesn’t seem to possess many mundane stories. Aside from being frontman of the rock band The Long Winters, John has toured and collaborated with bands like The Decemberists, Harvey Danger, and Death Cab for Cutie. He has also traveled extensively throughout the United States, walked (yes, walked) from Amsterdam to Istanbul, and spent most of his childhood in Alaska as the son of a state legislator. His life is one rife with stories, and fortunately he possesses a voice that does them all justice.
John was kind enough to take the time to share some of his thoughts on America, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Jonathan Metzelaar: You seem to be an eloquent speaker, a gifted storyteller, an avid traveler, and a pretty serious history buff. When and how did you end up becoming a musician, and why did you choose to pursue music over your other interests?
John Roderick: I grew up thinking that the ultimate goal was to live a life full of travel, art, music, literature, love affairs with French women, politics, and sport. Unfortunately, that value system turns out to be largely the province of people who inherit their money, or people who own fast-food franchises and want to appear to have inherited their money. Chasing after that kind of “life of leisure” can cause middle-class people to die in despair, their lives filled with buying lottery tickets and salivating over MTV’s “Cribs”. My father and grandfather both tried to live like princes even though we had no money to fall back on, and it killed my grandfather and kept my dad on the run. The American dream is almost entirely a combination of wish-fulfillment, fantasy, and bullshit. But that’s how I was raised and it’s worked for me so far.
I started playing music seriously during the grunge years, because I lived in Seattle and I thought, “Jesus, these grunge people are assholes. I can do better than these dinks.” So I started making the intentionally awkward and atonal music that was a precursor to indie rock. It turned out that it was harder than it looked, and a few of those grunge dinks were actually pretty good, although I was right about most of them. So then I wanted to get good at making music, because it was a challenge, and I was a sad bastard, and being a musician in Seattle from the 1990’s through the 2000’s was the greatest time to be a sad bastard in the history of time. And then I traveled around the world playing music, which has had a profound effect on me.
JM: How did you meet Merlin Mann, and how did Roderick on the Line become a thing? I know his interview with you for The Merlin Mann Show was something of a precursor to RotL‘s formation, but what made you decide you wanted to turn that into an hour-long, weekly thing?
JR: Merlin is a character that no novelist or screenwriter could create. I’ve known him ten years and I still cannot comprehend how multifaceted he is. He and I have been passionately discussing our mutual interests, arguing about pop music, and confounding one another with our strongly held beliefs about how people should behave in public places for the entire length of our friendship. The decision to record these conversations and call them a podcast was entirely Merlin’s. I have no idea how podcasts are made, and I can’t believe that so many people listen to them, but talking to Merlin is one of my favorite things, and I’m glad other people can share my astonishment. I will keep making the show as long as Merlin wants, and the day he doesn’t want to anymore it will stop, because, like I say, I have no idea how podcasts are made.
JM: In one of your earlier RotL episodes, you and Merlin were talking about recreational drugs, and you were saying that former alcoholics and drug addicts were having their wisdom confined to what I guess you would call the “addiction-recovery industry.” I’ve always been curious about what you meant when you said that. How do you feel the wisdom of former substance abusers could benefit society outside of the addiction-recovery setting?
JR: Well the wisdom of conventional, unimaginative thinkers who live humdrum, conformist lives that adhere to platitudes and doctrines espoused by churches and corporations is more than adequately represented in our public sphere. The human cause is almost always advanced by the prophets and lunatics, the reviled and the ostracized, the heretics and the iconoclasts. People have traditionally had to be legitimately insane or inspired to have the visions and insights that move the human story along.
In the last fifty years, however, the proliferation of psychedelic drugs, in conjunction with the explosion of leisure time in the wake of capitalism, has made fantastical visions that were once the province of genuine madmen like William Blake, Lewis Carroll, and James Joyce available to college kids and loser dropouts. And these kids also have access to opiates, 150 proof alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, and crazy shit like angel dust and bath salts, and all of this is basically at their beck and call. Humans have never been so fucked up on so much shit at once at any time in human history.
So we unleash this power, people freak out, we don’t like what we see or hear, and our culture reverses gear and calls all substance use “abuse” and all drug takers “addicts”, effectively reducing all drug-induced insights to the manageable category of pathology. It’s hilarious and criminal. There are alcoholics and addicts, to be sure, but most of the people in treatment are just dumb assholes who got too fucked up and couldn’t deal with the consequences.
JM: You’ve done some pretty extensive traveling in your lifetime. What have been your favorite cities to visit, and why?
JR: I love them all. 80% of people live in cities. I appreciate why people hate them and prefer to vacation in the woods or at the beach, but life is all about other people, sorry to say. Cities are giant hives, and even the worst cities like Hull, Marseilles, and Charlotte, North Carolina have amazing features. I’m pretty sure that people who hate cities just haven’t yet confronted the fact that they are hairless pig-insects living short, striving lives among the writhing masses of their fellow swine, all of them stacked high in crudely fashioned dirt shit-heaps. Once you accept that fact, there’s nothing not to love about cities.
JM: I know that on your podcast you guys generally try to eschew any talk about politics, but since that seems to be mostly at Merlin’s behest, I figure this is a good opportunity to ask what you would consider the biggest problem in America at the moment.
JR: Willful ignorance. Since the time of Andrew Jackson, there’s been a thread running through our country of suspicion towards education and pride in commonplace wisdom. This thread grows thick or thin, depending on the era, and it has never been thicker than it is now. The greater part of our country, even at a time when there are more college graduates than ever before in history, prefers to style themselves as “country,” “gangsta,” “street,” “Tea Party” or some other version of “stupid, uneducated dickhole.” Why are we so proud to be idiots? Our whole national dialogue is confined to the idiom of the lowest common denominator. It’s dull and suicidal.
JM: What’s the creative process like for you? Is it epiphanic, or slow and plodding? Do you ever find yourself in a creative rut, and if so what do you do to try to pull yourself out of it?
JR: Bleh. This question makes me feel like you’re in a creative rut in coming up with questions.
JM: You got me there.
You released a book awhile back called Electric Aphorisms, which, as far as I understand it, is a large compilation of your tweets. What interested you about doing something like that? Have you considered releasing any other books of prose in the future? And how do you feel about social media’s role right now in both art and culture?
JR: When I first started tweeting, I understood the 140-character limit to be a kind of challenge, and I strove to make every tweet exactly 140 characters. I didn’t care how Twitter worked, I didn’t care that you couldn’t “retweet” me, and I never replied to anybody or answered mail. I just sat and tried to dream up little 140-character prose bites.
After about nine months I figured out that Twitter was a social place, and I gradually quit working so hard and became just another mildly humorous, full-of-himself, social networking douche-sack. But before that happened, some friends of mine who run a hotel in Seattle called the Sorrento Hotel suggested that we publish my 140-character tweets in a book that they would offer on their room service menu to hotel guests. I thought that was hilarious and great. The publisher, Matthew Stadler of Publication Studios in Portland, Oregon is also a friend, so it was just a lark among friends. But it became semi-popular and sold a bunch of copies, because the world is full of dorks.
I am totally addicted to my phone now, and Twitter plays a big role in that. I can’t defend the practice and it concerns me, but I also don’t hate it. There are plenty of people who got famous on Twitter who now try to disavow it, and I don’t admire them for trying to throw Twitter under the bus.
I didn’t become famous on Twitter. My last album came out in 2006 and sold 25,000 copies. There are about that many people listening to my podcast with Merlin, and I have 23,000 Twitter followers. The world is making it abundantly clear that whatever I do, it only appeals to 25,000 people at the most. As long as every one of those people sends me five dollars a year I’ll be fine. Seattle is a pretty cheap place to live.
JM: Do you have any projects you’re working on that you’d like people to know about?
JR: God no.
John Roderick is the frontman of The Long Winters and one of the hosts of the Roderick on the Line podcast. He has contributed as a writer to publications like The Stranger and the Seattle Weekly, and is the author of the book Electric Aphorisms.
Written and Edited by Jonathan Metzelaar
Photography Courtesy of John Roderick
Design by Jillian Mercado
Photography Courtesy of John Roderick