John Vanderslice: Interview
The Hardest Working Man in Indie Rock
"I have had epic insomnia lately and have trouble getting my shit together in
the morning," warns the always-candid John Vanderslice via an email the night
before the morning that we're set to do what in journalist jargon is creatively
known as a "phoner." Such admissions are really quite rare among musicians, as
most seem much more willing to hit the snooze and let their publicist apologize
for them, but Vanderslice's disarming honesty as an individual is nearly as
notorious as his unassailable pop music acumen as a songwriter. He promises
he'll be up and awake for the interview, and I have no reason to doubt him.
Such dependability is similarly reflected in the workmanlike way he has gone
about his creative business the last few years, laying down a stretch of sonic
turf nearly unrivaled among his peers. Now having released four albums in the
five years since his former band's split and logged more miles than everyone
outside Bob Dylan himself, the onetime MK Ultra frontman has wasted little time
in validating the sometimes-grandiose claims of those who rightly identified him
as one of indie rock's rising studio auteurs. As if that wasn't enough, he does
double duty at his own Tiny Telephone studio in San Francisco, tinkering in the
background for some of the greatest minds in indie rock. With the release of his
latest (and possibly his best), Cellar Door, the consummate prankster is
finally starting to get some of the national attention that has evaded him since
it was found out that Bill Gates actually wasn't trying to kill him. "Hey,
Matt," he answers fearlessly on the second wring, not knowing for sure whether
I'm a telemarketer, a wrong number, or his mother. Whether in music or life, his
instincts are dead on.
So how's it going?
JV: It's good. I'm up. I slept (laughing). And I'm
caffeinated, so it's good.
TMT: So have you been digging the reviews of Cellar
Door so far?
JV: You know, I have to admit that I almost completely
avoid reading stuff about the record, because I think it's kind of obscene. You
know what I mean? There is something really perverse about getting into the
reviews of your record. I know some friends of mine who will Google their name,
which I think is hilarious (laughing). I mean, I understand the impulse, but it
doesn't really jive with me. It's kind of self-involved…I'm self-involved
enough. I don't need to extend the hours of my self-obsession (laughing). So
when I'm on the computer I'm usually reading like some weird blog or something.
And this may be weird, but I don't want to be influenced either way. I love that
someone would have a dialogue about the record, but I think it's great if I'm
not included in that. I want to remain completely pure about what I'm doing, as
much as I can. I know that sounds ridiculous.
TMT: So you haven't read
most of the reviews of the last couple of records?
JV: I would say that I've read maybe 20% of the
reviews. And I would say…if it's someone I know…like because of the interview
that you did with me before, I would read that review, definitely. Because I
know you, and I like talking to you, and the intro was great. But beyond that,
people tell me that they see something, and I'm like, "Oh, cool." Again, it all
comes down to Google, man. I have friends who Google their names all the time,
and if someone posts their name on a message board, they will know what someone
is saying, and they will react to it (laughing). I just think that is totally
hilarious. It's like you're at a party and you're going up to people saying,
"Hey, what do you think about me, man?" Opinion, thank God, exists completely
separate from the work. And that's great.
TMT: Well, Cellar Door is
a really fantastic record.
JV: Thanks, man. I'm glad you like it.
TMT: What was your
experience in the studio with this one?
JV: Wow. Shit. It was a lot, because it took so long.
It was a lot of pacing. There was a lot of sitting on the couch, reading
magazines. I would say that it's the most deliberate recording, as far as Scott
(Solter, touring band member and house engineer at Tiny Telephone) and I saying,
"We're going to rent a tympani drum on Wednesday, and we're going to do these
songs." And we usually never do that stuff; we usually just show up and wing it.
But, because there were probably more session people on this record, string
players and friends who were playing on specific songs, we were trying to
control what would happen on the songs a little more. I would say that is was
more deliberate and thought out, and we had an idea before the record, where we
sat down with a notebook and made all these notes. And one of the main things is
that we wanted every song to sound different and have a different sonic
landscape. And for me, it was Radiohead that put that idea in my head. I was
listening to a lot of Radiohead, and Hail to the Thief is completely
that idea to its fullest. Every song is totally discrete –it bares no
relationship to any other song on the record. Even if it's just reverb time on
the drums or the vocal or what's producing the backbeat. It's unbelievable how
far reaching that record is sonically. And, also, I really wanted every song to
be a separate narrative. I wanted no overlapping narratives or conceptual,
overarching thing. It's funny because now, I had this idea the other day that
what I wanted for the next record is to have everything sound really similar. I
want to get rid of the invasive, intensive, self-conscious production stuff. I
love it, but on the next record I'd like to have things…more or less sonically
unified. Last night I was listening to After the Gold Rush by Neil Young,
and Neutral Milk Hotel, and all this stuff on vinyl. And I haven't listened to
my turntable in a couple of months, and I usually have CD's stacked on top of
it. But I'm listening to all these records that I haven't had in heavy rotation
in a couple months, and I was thinking, wow, these records are so pure in the
way that they sound. And every song sounds like the same people, the same
session, the same creative desire. So that's what I want for the next record.
So, I think maybe the production of all that stuff will just become a little
more invisible on the next record, and who knows after that.
TMT: I think even though Cellar Door covers a lot
of sonic territory, they feel very immediate. They feel as if they are connected
JV: Yeah, the one thing that I do is bring down my
acoustic guitar to the studio and play the song for Scott and whoever is there,
and we try to address that this is the song, and how do we make the
melody line -- I mean, it's pop music so that the main thing – but we try to
make that the most pronounced thing that is happening. Also, what can we do
underneath this that supports the lyrical energy or the direction? You know, the
narrative energy of the song. It gives us some conditions for what we do.
TMT: Right. So, at this point are you writing more
out of your imagination or more out of experience?
JV: I would say it's 50/50. It's so weird.
Sometimes…(long pause). You know, it's funny, because this week has been really
difficult for me (laughing). It has been extremely difficult, and I don't
usually talk about this stuff so directly, but I'm just going to say it. You
have to be interesting right? I'm an entertainer. But this week -- because of
some personal stuff that has been going on in my life, and with the record
coming out -- I've been, like, in tears on the floor in my apartment one day,
and totally euphoric the next day (laughing). It's not really related to the
record coming out, but maybe it's a kind of postpartum depression, and maybe
it's just excitement from knowing that it's going to be out, and I'm going to be
out on tour soon. And maybe it's related to some personal relationships of
people close to me, but it's really agonizing on a certain level. But I sat down
with my guitar, and I thought, this is too much reality. I'm not going to
reflect it in a song right now. It was one of the first times in my life that I
said, "This is just going to have to wait." Partly, I'm just kind of burned out
from recording right now, but the other thing is, I just reflect on something
months later. And there is a distance between me feeling something and
reflecting on it, but when it's happening, real life will trump any desire in me
to make it artificial. But I was just sitting there thinking, this is great;
I'll get something out of it. But then I thought, no, no I won't. I'm going to
go back to laying on the floor (laughing). But hopefully I'll be able to reflect
on it later.
TMT: Well, especially on this record, it seems that
you're very comfortable with being a first-person narrator, almost like Jeff
Mangum or John Darnielle.
JV: Well, those are two
are my heroes; those two guys and David Berman. Those are the three guys that I
think are absolute masters at withdrawing from a song and giving you a narrative
that is so surprising that you're like, "Who in the fuck is this guy?" You
really, really want to know who it is. Where is David Berman in these words?
Where is Darnielle in these words? So, yeah, I'm really into those guys, and
maybe I'm just trying to pull as much as I can from them.
TMT: It definitely seems that there are a lot of
family things that keep coming up. Is there any significance in that?
JV: Oh yeah. My family drives me crazy. Just kidding.
My family is very complicated, and they … you know, your family gives you this
neurotic energy. And they leave you alone with it because you moved 2,500 miles
away from them. So you live and you learn to exist on your own terms, and you go
back and deal with your family. And it makes you feel that you're like 11 years
old and you're smashing windows on a family vacation. It takes you back to a
primal place that's uncomfortable at the least. I think I'm terrified about my
family on a certain level, because I only have my brother and my mom. And when
there are problems in my family, there isn't much to buffer it. There is a
triad, and it's very difficult. And I think I'm terrified of losing my mom, and
I think, "Fuck. That's it. That's all I have for my family." So, I think the
whole thing makes me a little jumpy, and when there are problems in that
dynamic, it really…cooks my goose (laughing). But it's all better now.
TMT: Would you say that comes out in the
songwriting in an unconscious way?
JV: Yeah, definitely. Certainly, one of the themes of
the record is being trapped in familial relationships. And I definitely feel
that way sometimes, and I feel beholden to my mom and my brother on a lot of
levels. And I feel like I'm the most irresponsible in a lot of ways, even though
I'm not. I think I feel a lot of different things, and I can't say a lot of them
to them. So I sing them in a song, and they call me up when the get the promo
copy. And they say, "Man, you're cracked up." (laughing)
TMT: It seems that there is a strong cinematic
quality to these songs. And I know you're big into films, so how much of that
influence goes into your songwriting.
JV: Probably a lot on every record, actually. And
this is the first record where I felt the need to give a shout out, like a
rapper giving shout outs to Tupac or Biggie. But, yeah, movies are a big one.
Everyone who makes something, in their heart they want to do something else.
Their fantasy is to be a painter or something, and it's some sort of hilarious
transference thing. And for me, I'd love to be a cameraman. I would probably
drop everything to go into cinematography. I think movies are much harder to
make than albums, and I really admire people who can put together a film that
works…on every level. Like, a movie like Donnie Darko, which I've seen
tons of times, or Mulholland Drive or Requiem for a Dream,
those are all movies that I refer to or whose storylines have given me ideas for
songs. And I watch a lot of movies. I mean, I listen to music for ten hours a
day; it's what I do. For me, film is a way to get out of my head on a lot of
levels, but it's still creative. So it's a real outlet for me to watch a movie,
so I stay up late at night and watch Turner Classic Movies or IFC or whatever is
on. And I'll watch at least one movie a day, minimum. Is that crazy? (laughing).
Like last night, there was this John Huston movie on called Beat the Devil,
and I've seen it before; it's an absolute great movie. Truman Capote did the
script. And I turn it on at 1:00, and I'm like, "Well, I'm sunk. There is no way
I'm going to be before it's over at 3:10." So I watch it. And I can't believe
the stuff I see in these movies, even when I've seen them two or three times.
And that gets me out of my head. I really, really love movies.
TMT: So is "Wild Strawberries" an Ingmar Bergman
JV: Well, that admittedly
is a real cheap shot, because I couldn't find a title for that song. And I love
that movie. I was a Bergman fanatic for years. When I was in college actually,
there was a Bergman course. It was great. It was Tuesday and Thursday for two
hours, and they'd show one movie, and then the teacher would show another
Bergman movie after class for extra credit. So I'd watch four Bergman movies
every week, and he made like 53 movies, so it was great. And you're seeing stuff
like After the Commercial and Swedish television stuff and Hour of the
Wolf and some pure stuff. So I became a total Bergman fanatic. And I wrote
this song about kidnapping. Like some guerrilla group kidnaps this guy's wife,
or his girlfriend, and because he's a tourist with a rental car, he makes a
mistake. He loses his keys. That's a completely human, mundane way to get your
wife killed, right? And I thought about this shoreline and said, "What could he
see?" And I have no idea if in the Philippines there are strawberry bushes on
the beach; it's probably totally ridiculous. But I just thought about him
walking back to get help and walking through some beautiful, absolutely lush
scenery, and then the most horrible thing happening. (laughing) All in the name
of radical Islam. Those are the thoughts that I have. But that was a cheap
shot. I really just pulled that title out, and maybe it's overbearing, but I
wanted to keep with the theme of movies.
TMT: "Heat Pool and Bar" – that's a Neil Young
JV: Yeah, that's a Neil Young reference. And I have a
message board now, and I've titled that the name of the message board. My
brother had that record when I was in 7th grade, and those lyrics all the way
through that song are so amazing. I've heard them for so long that it's almost
like archetypal stuff. And I saw this photo of American servicemen in Iraq – it
was in The New Yorker, you might have seen it – of this private or
something diving off of Saddam Hussein's diving board into his pool. And it
really stuck with me, and I thought, what are Americans working for? And I
thought, oh, they're off in these bizarre third world countries staying in these
really fancy hotels, and they're in the green zone or whatever. It's really
bizarre. These press people, they're coming back to their hotels, and they're
probably just sitting by the pool, reflecting on what they've seen. And they've
brought this American comfort zone with them. It's so hilarious. That's why I
pulled that title, because that's what we're working for – our heated pool and
TMT: I also heard there is an album coming out with
you and John Darnielle?
JV: Well, I produced his new record (We Shall All
Be Healed) with Scott Solter, who did Cellar Door and Fourtracker
and is my right hand guy, and we did that at a studio in Washington state called
Bear Creek. And it is really something. I think John brought in tip-top songs
for that one, and for John that's serious business. Lyrically, top to bottom,
it's amazing. I was lucky to be there. And to have me listed on there with a
producer credit is hilarious, because the heavy lifting is songwriting. I just
did very gentle nip-and-tuck stuff on the record. Just suggestions and sonic
ideas. The one thing that I wanted to do was reintroduce this distressed,
distorted fury in his vocals that I felt was missing in Tallahassee,
because that's the Darnielle I grew up with. It's an unbelievable record, and I
sometimes wish I wasn't involved with it just so I could talk about it and tell
people, "This is it!" I mean, Mountain Goats are just tremendously influential
and this is a towering achievement. When you hear, I swear you're going to flip
out. I've listened to it daily or weekly since it was done last August. It's
TMT: You had worked on a collaboration with him,
too, hadn't you?
JV: Yeah, we talked about it, we had it slated, and we
had time booked. But a lot of touring got in the way and we couldn't do it.
We've been talking about doing it this year, but it's going to be a scheduling
thing. He wants to call (the group) the Comedians (laughing). I hope it happens
this year, because he's the man. The first solo show I ever played was opening
up for Mountain Goats, and it totally shaped and changed my life from that point
on. I gave him a record, and he called me up. I thought he was just being nice
and didn't give a shit or even knew who I was. But we kept up this
correspondence… and I got lucky.
TMT: Yeah. So over you're last two years at Tiny
Telephone, what have you learned that has influenced the way that you make
JV: The craft of recording?
TMT: I suppose, yeah.
JV: Well, it will totally rule you, if you don't try
to rule it. It will totally subvert you. That was the main thing that I learned.
Because sometimes friends will ask me, "What do you like in a recording?" And
I'll think, well, what do I like? And I realize that all I like in a recording,
in as far as hi-fi, lo-fi, and all that stuff – it really doesn't mean anything.
It just has to have style, and that style has to reflect what the appropriate
energy of the band is. Whatever the style is, it doesn't matter as long as it is
reinforcing and helping the lyrical and musical point of the music. When I think
about my favorite recordings, they are absolutely all over the map as far as
skill level and fidelity and clean vs. absolute destroyed sonic landscape. It
comes down to, does it support what's happening in the music? And that's hard to
address if you don't have some control over the craft. Like format issues. I
mean, I always felt that the history of rock and roll is distortion. And not
like overt levels of distortion, but very subtle levels. Like when you listen to
"Tutti Fruiti" or a James Brown recording or Creedence Clearwater Revival or
The White Album – tremendous amounts of distortion. It's incredible. When
distortion is not present in rock and roll, it's very disturbing to me
personally. That's the reason a lot of people like vinyl. Vinyl sort of lo-fi's
everything -- this texture and this noise floor and this stuff that people think
they don't like…but people like it.
TMT: It's tangible.
JV: It's absolutely tangible. And I think tension has
to be provided in music, whether it's in lyrics or in sonics. And I think if
even low levels of that tension is provided through distortion or some kind of
dissonance, it really turns me on. That's the main thing that I've learned I
think. You have to find some kind of style that supports what you do and then
learn tools that will give you results. Most of the rest is just fucking around.
TMT: So are you the type that gets lost in the
JV: No. It's always love-hate. It's painful to spend
12 hours hitting on a drum.