The making of the Long Winters’ When I Pretend To Fall
By Matthew Fritch
In 2003, the Long Winters released their second album into a crowded field of cleverly crafted, melody-driven guitar rock. Given the crop of that particular era—the Shins, Decemberists, New Pornographers, Pernice Brothers, Weakerthans (and lord, can I get a Beulah?)—you would be more than forgiven for not recognizing When I Pretend To Fall as the cream that rises more than a decade later. The album produced neither hit singles nor commercial jingles, and it all but destroyed the fragile league of extraordinary frenemies who created it. It’s the great sound of coming together while everything is simultaneously falling apart. John Roderick, the man at the center of When I Pretend To Fall, was striving: hoping to win back a girl and attempting to make his mark in a microcosmic indie-rock scene.
As one of the album’s producers (Chris Walla; we’ll get to him later) put it, “It was an exercise in trying to try.”
There are many paradoxes surrounding the album. It’s the sole domain of singer/songwriter and confessed studio tyrant Roderick but also the collective product of some of Seattle’s finest musical minds. (Not that Seattle, the crucible of grunge; rather, the Long Winters were midwifed by turn-of-millennium pop outfits Harvey Danger and Death Cab For Cutie, with an alley-oop from the Posies.) When I Pretend To Fall sounds big and barrel-chested yet sneakily baroque, emotionally earnest yet lyrically sly. During the recording, the 32-year-old Roderick—a tall, garrulous, mastiff-hearted man from Alaska, raised on Judas Priest and Scorpions—was the oldest guy in the room but the least experienced in the manners and customs of indie rock. Roderick’s education mostly came by way of a stint in 2000 as the touring keyboardist for Harvey Danger, the suddenly successful outfit led by Sean Nelson. (As a refresher, Harvey Danger is the band behind alt-radio workhorse “Flagpole Sitta”: “I’m not sick, but I’m not well … I wanna publish zines/And rage against machines.”) Afterward, Nelson and Roderick intended to collaborate on an album but ended up creating the Long Winters’ debut, a collection of Roderick’s songs produced by Death Cab guitarist/wunderkind Chris Walla and titled The Worst You Can Do Is Harm. Roderick, who’d befriended these younger peers while playing in local outfit the Western State Hurricanes, refers to the effort as a “charity project.”
“My friends didn’t want me to die without having made an album,” he says. “The Death Cab guys were all still in college when I met them, living in a big house together, and Harvey Danger weren’t much older. My songwriting chops and band chops were evolving right alongside theirs. The younger indie guys found what I did interesting, I guess, and just assimilated me into their scene. My old rock friends were embarrassed for me: ‘Why are you hanging out with those weird emo kids?’ But the kids accepted me and my songs without hesitation.”
Walla, seven years younger than Roderick, seemed to belong to another generation. Although Walla would later be Roderick’s go-to producer and benefactor, Roderick initially resisted Walla’s boy-genius DIY aesthetic during the Western State Hurricanes era.
“He meant to record us in the kitchen of the Death Cab house in Bellingham using microphones made out of soup cans and a drum kit made out of stacks of Tape Op magazine,” says Roderick. “I was like, ‘No way, indie dude.’”
In 2001, Roderick left Seattle to mend a broken heart in New York City, where the late-blooming songwriter found the creative spark and emotional thrust behind what would become the Long Winters’ masterpiece. He was bolstered by exposure to a class of albums—by Spoon, Belle & Sebastian, Nada Surf, Teenage Fanclub and others—that combined inventive hooks and melodies with astute lyrics on subjects that were mostly elusive and bittersweet.
“I was awkward and unlucky in love, constantly feeling bruised and battered, idiotic and embarrassed,” says Roderick. “So I wrote ‘Shapes’ and ‘Stupid’ and ‘Cinnamon’ and ‘It’ll Be A Breeze’ out of frustration, sitting on a mattress on the floor of a third-floor walkup in Spanish Harlem, in 102-degree heat. I’d never been happier, because I had songs. I was miserable and had never been happier.”
Roderick returned to Seattle shortly before September 11 and put together a band—bassist Eric Corson and drummer Michael Shilling—to play live dates and eventually record When I Pretend To Fall. The sessions began in late 2002 at Walla’s Hall Of Justice studio, a triangle-shaped building where Jack Endino had recorded grunge landmarks such as Nirvana’s Bleach and Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff. But even before the first notes were put to tape, the Roderick/Walla/Nelson triumvirate that had been responsible for the Long Winters’ debut began to fray. Nelson, not far removed from Harvey Danger’s chart-topping success, found his creative function in the Long Winters to be severely limited.
“I cherished him, but we occupied a similar space: loud-voiced, sardonic, unconventionally handsome frontmen, and there was a lot of competition between us,” says Roderick. “He was in my band and I didn’t need collaborators—so I thought—so I guarded my space jealously. Every night he would step forward into the light a little and I would hit him with my riding crop, even though we were playing Gabe’s Oasis or some pot-pie restaurant in San Luis Obispo. He quit the band several times and rejoined during the recording sessions mostly because he couldn’t stand the idea of my songs being recorded without his input. He had a much broader scope of musical taste than I did and offered production ideas, harmony vocal arrangements and constructive criticism, but he was always frustrated that he couldn’t play a larger role.” (Nelson declined to comment for this story.)
Roderick, it turned out, had found his songwriting stride and wasn’t about to cede an ounce of control. For all of the album’s talented contributors, Pretend To Fall is narrated by a central character (i.e., Roderick) with a shaggy-dog, sarcastic worldview, bouncing from one emotional dustup to another in a blur of clever one-liners and piled-on keyboards, guitars, horn sections, strings and gang-tackled backing vocals. “Stupid” details the moment when you summon enough future regret to ask someone out; “New Girl” is a scathing character portrait with an increasingly snide chorus that becomes a leering taunt: “Be kind to the new girl.”
The album’s apex is “Scared Straight,” which seems to roll downhill and gain momentum as horns swell and Roderick’s lyrics tumble out with sharp edges around them: “It’s true little miss mean mini-bar guard/We’re gonna have to try something new/Let me breathe fire down on you.” The song is one of drummer Shilling’s fondest memories of the recording session.
“Initially, John had it slower—it was more of a hymnal-ish kind of song, at least to my memory—but we turned it into more of the Style Council/late-Jam arrangement that really brought out the power of the melody and the narrative momentum of the lyrics,” says Shilling. “It was a nice collaboration.”
“All the stories are told impressionistically,” says Roderick. “There’s a narrator, but it’s hard to discern his plot, like watching through a picket fence from a slow-moving car. I’m feeding sense impressions, trying to get you to feel the story. I want to love people and I don’t get how, and people want to love me and I don’t get why.”
As the recording proceeded in financially motivated fits and starts—Walla had cut the Long Winters a deal, and they worked in between his other studio projects—Roderick became less loveable. Though the band generally got along while on the road (“Long Winters tours were just endless hours of eating corn dogs and throwing Dorothy Parker quips at each other,” says Roderick), the frontman cops to being dictatorial at times.
“In the studio it was probably worse,” he says. “I really tried to control everything because, my god, this was my legacy, and if one damn tambourine part got played without my supervision we might as well just shit on my birth certificate. They all contributed amazing things to the recordings, but I can’t imagine it was easy for anyone. At least I didn’t wear sunglasses the whole time.”
According to bassist Corson, the process was made more painstaking—but also more intense—by the fact that the album was being recorded to analog tape.
“Tape forces your hand in a good way,” says Corson. “There’s no ‘undo’ key command; if you replace a take, it’s permanent. You don’t have playlists with other performances on them that you can revisit a month later. If you want to make an edit, you grab a razor blade and cut the tape.”
Walla estimates the album was approximately three-quarters finished when things began to bog down in an impenetrable mess of disorganization, unfinished tracks, missing vocal takes and endless tinkering.
“[I had] no plan at all,” says Roderick. “I was just shooting bullets at the moon. Chris was cool with it when I was producing good stuff, but at a certain point he felt like we were wasting time. I remember him pushing the talkback mic and saying, ‘I’m not sure it’s useful for me to sit here with my finger on record while you teach yourself how to play the pedal steel.’ That’s a hilarious line now, but at the time I was really offended.”
After a particularly heated argument between producer and artist, Walla felt the need to step outside and clear his head for an hour or so.
“I went to get food, came back, and the studio was empty and all the tapes were gone,” says Walla.
“I said, ‘Fuck this working-effectively bullshit’ and packed up all my guitars and amps and just drove away,” says Roderick. “To this day, my Wurlitzer only has three legs because I’m pretty sure I dropped one in the grass. I didn’t even leave a guitar pick behind, but I don’t remember taking the tapes.”
Enter Posies singer/guitarist Ken Stringfellow. In Seattle, the Posies are a godfatherly presence, the band that broke out not due to the hype of grunge but rather the highness of their vocal harmonies. Stringfellow had recently released a well-received and stunning, ornate solo album (2001’s Touched) and had won acclaim for his production of Damien Jurado’s complex and moody Rehearsals For Departure. When Stringfellow agreed to take over production duties for the Long Winters, it provided an apposite stylistic counterpoint. Stringfellow’s take on the bare-bones, Walla-recorded “It’ll Be A Breeze” illustrates the two producers’ divergent approaches to making records.
“The song is sung from the perspective of someone in a coma who can sense their lover from inside the sealed darkness but can’t communicate,” says Stringfellow. “Heavy, tear-inducing. And for whatever reason, Chris had decided to record that song with the harshest, scratchiest guitar sound imaginable. It’s almost unlistenable if you solo up the guitar. I recommended we start over on that one and re-record it, but we ran out of time.”
Stringfellow was so disdainful of the sound, he later recorded his own version of the song and released it on a covers EP.
“It sounds pretty terrible, I agree,” says Walla, explaining that “It’ll Be A Breeze” was a demo recording. Walla was trying to coax Roderick into an intimate performance and convinced him to record with just voice and guitar; it’s a producer’s trick Walla would later use with Ben Gibbard on Death Cab’s “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.”
“John likes to have things completely figured out,” says Walla. “One of the things that’s special about that performance is that he’s not in his head about it.”
With all the various egos and claims to the producer’s chair—Roderick also has a production credit, as well as engineer Kip Beelman, an unsung hero who shepherded the mixing—the list of grievances grows long. Walla hijacked a bass line here. Some of Nelson’s backing vocals got elbowed out there. Stringfellow mixed the record and jetted to Spain the next day.
“Everyone wanted to get their fingerprints on that record,” says Corson. “I remember toward the end, there was a lot of jockeying for position.”
On top of the regular cast of players, Stringfellow brought in a few guests: Peter Buck played mandolin (Stringfellow was a touring member of R.E.M. at the time), and Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows and Minus 5 (also playing with R.E.M.) added harmonica. One of Roderick’s friends, a music teacher, was brought in to arrange and conduct the string sections. But it’s the contrast between the two producers that leaves a lasting impression on how the album sounds. “There’s definitely a kind of classic feel, a certain warmth, from elements like the strings and Hammond organ that I supervised,” says Stringfellow. “Chris’ tracks have a more modern, indie, unsentimental feel. Too much of my style and the album would have been potentially mawkish; too much of Chris’ approach and the album would have been cold and remote.”
In the end, Roderick reveals, it was all about a girl. The songs on When I Pretend To Fall were inspired by a romance and the subsequent heartbreak he felt in New York City after it was over. Roderick reunited with the woman after two years apart, and he played her the album on a long drive across the Puget Sound to the Olympic Peninsula, explaining that she was the inspiration for much of the record. It was supposed to be a soul-baring moment; a way to reveal things that most humans can never express with words alone.
“She reacted to the album the way you would react to a five-year-old’s drawing of a horse,” says Roderick. “She said, ‘Oh, that’s nice. It’s really good,’ and then we changed the subject to how the salmon can’t make it past the old hydroelectric dams. We never talked about it again. So it turned out I had to wonder a bit longer whether happiness was possible.”
“I think at the time I hated it,” says Walla, who eventually reconciled with Roderick. “I don’t hate it anymore. It’s a great record. The record is really a reflection of where John was at. We were trying to collaborate and make something big and beautiful. It’s a really honest record. It’s one of the best records I’ve worked on.”
Following its 2003 release on indie label Barsuk (home to Death Cab and Nada Surf), the Long Winters doggedly promoted the album: four European tours, multiple U.S. treks and lots of press and college-radio promotion. But it just didn’t take; and the world instead embraced the Decemberists and the Shins. Finding success in indie rock is akin to the classic tale of trying to become popular in high school: a seemingly small pond, yet endlessly difficult to conquer and nearly impossible to achieve satisfactory success.
“We were in the game, we made a thing I was proud of, but at the end of the day we were in the top of the middle of a thing I could never fully grasp,” says Roderick. “The Drive-By Truckers are in the book, Conor Oberst is in the book, Grandaddy is in the book, but the Long Winters? I’ll overthink that until the day I die.”