Shit-Talking's Only a Problem When You've Got Something to Hide

Originally published in Seattle Weekly

Recently I was talking to a local music-industry guy about the social awkwardness he felt when he moved to Seattle from the Midwest. Specifically, my friend said that the hardest adjustment for him was that musicians in Seattle talked shit about each other.

"In the Midwest, you would never, ever talk shit about your friends in bands," he said, "but in Seattle everyone talks shit about their friends constantly. It's been very hard to get used to."

I've been in the Northwest music scene for 20 years, and I have to admit that a fair amount of shit-talking goes on here. It's not universal--some musicians wouldn't talk shit about you if you were driving out to Enumclaw with a video camera and a copy of Horse & Rider--but most people I know will drop a dime on their closest friend without much prompting. As a result, I've never felt it was particularly noble to "not talk shit." There are ways to talk shit about people that essentially hold to lines of mutual respect, admiration, good humor, and a code of honor, while also leaving it clear that the person you're talking about is a four-flusher who should not be left alone with the cocaine. It's basic musician grammar.

John blogs on contribution

A couple of months ago the folks at GIVE asked me if the Long Winters could drum up a song for their benefit project, and it put us in a tough spot. We didn't have a finished track from our new record, but we DID want to contribute something. I'd been playing a couple of new songs live during a short tour I did with Jay Ferrar and Ben Gibbard--trying out different endings, messing around with the feel--so I suggested recording a song in raw form. GIVE liked the idea and doubled down, offering to help make a video to go with the track.

Luckily my good friend, Toronto's Kathleen Edwards, was visiting me at the time, so the two of us popped down to the studios at Clatter and Din and recorded the song in a couple of takes. I couldn't resist playing a little piano on it too, because I'm a sissy who likes sad piano on everything.

Bumbershoot: America’s Next Long Winters Drummer

Originally published in Seattle Weekly

A couple of months ago, the Long Winters got some mixed news: Our drummer, Nabil Ayers, was taking a full-time job in New York that would preclude his touring, and our band was invited to play Bumbershoot. We cried, we laughed. Happy as we were for our friend, his new direction meant we would have to start searching for a new drummer, a grueling process under the best of circumstances.

Since then, we've been auditioning drummers from all walks of drummer life, playing with a dozen different characters in search of a good fit.

How to Maintain Your Beard

Originally published in Seattle Weekly

In 1986, when I first attempted to grow a beard, the general consensus was that beards were for murderers and maniacs. Almost no one in mainstream America wore a beard during the eighties, and even in Alaska a beard was a serious statement that the wearer ate cold beans from a can and slept with his dogs. The only public figure of any note who wore a beard at that time was Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who also wore a bow-tie, rode a mule, and carried a blunderbuss.

I always felt that clean-shaven adult men were suspicious-looking—either too vain or too conformist to let their face do what nature intended—so I strove to grow a beard from the first sign of a fuzzy wisp under my nose. In every country from Greece to Pakistan adult men wear flourishing moustaches as soon as they are able and until they die, just as they are expected to wear pants, and many of the world’s religions consider the beard an obligation for the observant men.

Sex and Being in a Band

Originally published in Seattle Weekly

"My reputation as a ladies' man was a joke. It caused me to laugh bitterly the 10,000 nights I spent alone."
-Leonard Cohen

It is almost universally assumed that rock musicians avail themselves of copious, practically on-demand casual sex with their fans. The images of rock stars lounging backstage after a show literally covered in a blanket of squirming young girls, or running for their lives from hungry teens willing to perform any deed no matter how depraved are so pervasive they practically define the job. It’s a case of collective wishful thinking, shared by the fans, their detractors, and the musicians themselves, that casual sex is a crucial and inextricable fringe benefit of being a musician. My married friends accost me with salacious and knowing winks, our female fans eye each other at the merch table like hungry cats around a wounded bird, girlfriends past and present peremptorily accuse me of everything short of sex-slavery and will not be assuaged, and interviewers leer and blatantly solicit for details— all while the unglamorous truth flops around like a beached carp.


Originally published in Seattle Weekly

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.

Light Rail and Liquor in Seattle and Portland

Originally published in Seattle Weekly

I took the train down to Portland over the weekend to play a variety show called Live Wire, which is broadcast on the Oregon Public Radio. The show is like A Prairie Home Companion if you replaced the laconic Midwestern drollery with a socks-and-sandals Oregon sense of absurdity. It was unpretentious and fun and it really set me thinking about Seattle’s character and how a few small changes, however unlikely, could make this city a much more livable and enjoyable place. Before I start, let me just say that no one hates reading “What Seattle can learn from Portland” lectures more than me. Portland, despite its charm, has one thousand percent more mimes, jugglers, and crusty potters than any city outside of Germany, and this fact permanently disqualifies Portland from teaching any civics lessons or from standing as an example of responsible growth. Until they fumigate their city of all its jugglers it will only be possible to appreciate their example by piecemeal.

Selling Out, Again.

Originally published in Seattle Weekly

One of the most prevalent misconceptions about music, and the music business, is that the truly talented musicians don’t need to, or shouldn’t have to, promote or publicize themselves. Publicity is naively thought of as the natural and direct byproduct of a musician’s quality: the better the music is, the more publicity it should generate. Most people don't want to think of themselves as force-fed their culture, they want to think that they like good things and that the things they like are good. If Miley Cyrus is the most popular teen pop sensation, then Miley Cyrus must make the most sensational teen pop. Likewise, if Lil’ Jeezy’s cousin has the most downloaded ringtone of the week, it must be the most bangingest ringtone available, at least from one of Lil’ Jeezy’s cousins. Stands to reason. Capitalism, Social-Darwinism, and American Norman Rockwellism all lead us to believe that the cream rises to the top without any outside help. Unfortunately, we know this is not true. As good as Lou Bega's Mambo Number Five surely is, I find it hard to accept that it is finer than any Leonard Cohen song, although it certainly charted higher.

Collaboration is Hard for Anyone

Originally published in Seattle Weekly

It’s not a simple thing to collaborate, let me tell you. Songwriting, unlike painting or novel-writing (or meditating) lends itself easily to team effort because there are two distinct halves to a pop song — music and lyrics—but that doesn’t make it easy or fun to work with someone else on a pop song. The Brill Building songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller, the Holland-Dozier-Holland team at Motown, and the classic rock archetypes of Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards have ingrained in people’s imaginations the image of songwriters huddled around a piano or guitar hammering out a tune in the spirit of good-natured one-upmanship. One person is absentmindedly tinkering on the piano while the other person is twiddling with a pencil; suddenly the lyricist hears a melody and inspiration strikes: “That’s it! Play that last part again!” He sings a line, the piano player inserts a minor seventh, and they quickly and effortlessly compose a masterpiece, laughing uproariously. Then someone does a tap routine with a coat rack, and an angel gets its wings.

Competition Among Bands

Originally published in Seattle Weekly

There is, of course, a lot of competition between bands. It’s an obvious thing to say—like saying there are a lot of Skoal Bandits at a Kenny Chesney show. But the competition between bands seldom looks like the clichéd Blur vs. Oasis, or Brian Jonestown Massacre vs. the Dandy Warhols pissing matches, where louche twits with shag haircuts deliver unintelligible insults like, “’Ere, them’s a bit all porgy, innit?” No, the competition I’m referring to, the kind I feel, is altogether more quiet, and mostly friendly. When you’ve been playing music for a few years it comes to seem like the only people with whom you relate are other people in bands. Musicians become your whole social network, they’re your peers and your close friends, but despite what you have in common you’re not really having a shared experience. You play your shows and I play mine, your bandmates drink cheap gin and cry listening to Bright Eyes, my bandmates can’t stop to tie their shoes without setting up a wireless network, and talk about their most closely guarded secrets using Rush lyrics. You end up in a situation where the only people who can even begin to appreciate what your life looks like are people you only see twice a year, backstage at some festival between their set and yours, and they don’t actually have anything in common with you at all.

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