By the time Barsuk Records released the Long Winters' debut album, 2002's The Worst You Can Do is Harm, its mastermind John Roderick had already been through the rock 'n' roll ringer. As a touring member of Harvey Danger he'd briefly ridden the wave of their alterna-hit "Flagpole Sitta," and his pre-Winters band had faded away after an abortive Sub Pop deal.
But Roderick's first album proved that there are second acts. Like the two that followed, Harm is somehow epic and intimate, meandering and fiercely focused all at once; "handcrafted pop music," as Roderick calls it. He arrives in New York this weekend -- playing the Williamsburg Hall of Music with Aimee Mann tonight, and headlining Mercury Lounge tomorrow night -- at an indeterminate point in the creation of his next album. Not that he's been idle: in the years since 2006's Putting the Days to Bed, he's sired a kid, gigged with John Hodgman, co-founded the podcast "Roderick on the Line" and worked up such a robust Twitter presence that a year's worth of his tweets were collected in the book Electric Aphorisms.
PAPERMAG phoned Roderick in his hotel room in Alexandria, Virginia, where he's struggling to conjure that warm, vintage vibe on his iPad's GarageBand app.
What're you up to right now?
Trying to compose a song on an iPad, fumbling my way through making this little hip-hop jam. I'm not finding a very soulful performance from my swiping finger.
How long have you been out on the road with Aimee Mann?
We just started, actually. She's been playing all the barns of New England for the last couple of weeks and I just joined her last night. Seemed like a good way to get me out of the house.
When was the last time you played New York?
I came out and played one of Wesley Stace's shows at the City Winery [i.e. John Wesley Harding's Cabinet of Wonders]. That was probably a year ago. I did a few songs, and I dressed as Santa Claus, and girls came and sat on my lap.
What about with the Long Winters?
The last Long Winters show we played was at the Castle Clinton. It was now, what, three-and-a-half years ago? Whatever it was, it was a long time ago. In a castle. On a hot summer night.
I think you mentioned at that show that some of your bandmates were moving here.
Yeah. In fact, two of the members of that incarnation of the Long Winters are now New Yorkers. Our drummer Nabil [Ayers] took a job as the American head of 4AD Records. And then our guitar player Jonathan [Rothman] went to I think Hunter College and got a teaching certificate in high school mathematics. I think he's teaching math in the city someplace.
Have far along are you on the next Long Winters album?
We've put a ton of work into it, and those guys were the band that we recorded the basic tracks with. We've been monkeying with it for many, many months. And I've had a kid and bought a house, so there've been a lot of lifestyle changes. There's a lot of great music on the record as recorded; I'm just trying to figure out what form the next incarnation the band should take.
Your first album, The Worst You Can Do is Harm, came out ten years ago, right?
Yeah, that's very right. In fact, ten years ago next month.
Any reflections? Have you listened to it lately?
I haven't. I probably should. The funny thing is that I was already 33 years old when that record came out. And a lot of people, their first record comes out when they're 23. At 33, I had already had a music career in Seattle that had kind of run its course. I'd been in several bands, I'd been called the Next Big Thing, and then it turned out I wasn't the Next Big Thing. So I made that record, and there was almost a finality about it: Here are my songs, world. And kind of against the odds, that record connected with enough people, but it kind of gave me a new life as a musician. Normally you would reflect back and go, Oh, I was so young and I knew so little. But actually the feeling around making that record was very different. I feel younger since then, because I was given this second chance to make music and go on tour and be a musician. I might be in need of a rebirth again, actually.
Would your 33-year-old self have been surprised to learn that ten years later it was still going strong?
I grew up in an era when musicians either got signed to a major label and made a big production, which I never really felt was an option for me, [or] you were a punk rocker and you played in people's basements. It was only by doing it that I realized that there was a tremendous audience for handcrafted pop music. There's not a tremendous audience for it in any one city, but around the world, there's a very wide audience of people who are really listening and care that their music is made well, and care that their lyrics mean something.
What's the oldest song you still play?
Oh boy, let's see. Probably "Mimi." That song predates that first record by probably six or seven years. I don't play it all the time, but I do pull it out when I feel like there are fans in the audience that have been with me a long time.
How are you arranging your solo sets--taking requests? Trying out new stuff?
Opening for Aimee...it's much more of a theater setting than a rock club. I'm not really testing out new material with this audience. I'm giving them a brief and concise look at the history of the Long Winters. But the show at the Mercury Lounge, I'm assuming that everyone there is a Long Winters fan, so I do feel like I need to give people a glimpse behind the curtain of what I've been working on. Most of the songs I've been working on for the new record are still kind of unglued. So whatever glimpse behind the curtain I might give, it could potentially just end with, "Well, I don't know what else happens, so...anyway, thank you!"
Has Aimee Mann made any cameos in your set, or vice versa?
We are playing a song together in her set at the end of the night. She hasn't made any cameos in my set yet, but anything's possible. She might come out and throw tangerines at me.
Or rip up pictures of Sarah McLachlan, kind of like that Portlandia episode.
She could come out and clean the stage!