A delicious last name like Vanderslice gets you remembered. But one gets the sense that John Vanderslice could have the most generic, lost-in-the-crowd name in the universe and still be a standout in indie rock, that non-navigable vastness of musical landscape.
Since breaking with Bay Area-based alterna-rockers mk Ultra in 1999, Vanderslice has notched a hot streak of terrific, narrative pop gems, not least of which was 2005′s parable-laden Pixel Revolt. The Gainesville, FL, native, 39 this month, has certainly cemented his credibility as a musician and songwriter. And then there is his techie jones: a tireless and self-professed production geek, as much enamored of sonic tweaks and the magic of a well-kept studio as he is of guitar strums and performance.
Owner of a San Francisco-based studio, Tiny Telephone (itself fast becoming a temple for an eclectic range of artists), Vanderslice is also known through his work with Mountain Goats linchpin John Darnielle, his friend, editor, and stylistic support network. Like Darnielle, he’s painstakingly methodical, from the wiry intensity of his live shows to his steadfast (and oft-remarked upon) preference for analog over digital recording.
Vanderslice is a tough guy to nail down, that’s for sure; European tours, South by Southwest, and the throes of being such a music industry Renaissance Man have sidetracked our interview plans on one or two occasions. Although he’ll take most of the summer off, he never really slows down. He’s released five new albums in five years, and has no plans to break the chain in 2006.
I caught up with John at home, in a rare break in the action.
So you’re home now, at long last.
Thank God! I’m off until about September, and the only thing I have to do this summer is write a record. It feels really good to be back, and to be honest all I want to do is super mundane domestic shit right now.
I want to bake things and work in the garden. Also, I’m building an overdub studio in my basement.
Now that you’ve been through several tours behind Pixel Revolt, do you have any new impressions of the material?
We seemed to become more aggressive as a band, and the shows actually became more about the older songs in the end. Pixel Revolt is a very mellow album, particularly arranged and in many respects, discreet. But performing, we got to the point where we wanted the faster, more rock ‘n’ roll stuff.
A lot of the Pixel Revolt songs are very hard for me to play. They’re very orchestral, with lots of finesse, and so revealing of harmony. A song like “New Zealand Pines” we’d only play when we had to. So I guess what we learned is that the songs on Pixel Revolt are too hard to play. [laughs]
Where are you headed next, music-wise? Are you branching off from Pixel Revolt? Turning a corner?
The next record is going to be more of a band album. This is the first time I’ve had a consistent band on a record, and I think it’s going to be a lot more live, and aggressive of an album. That’s a very nice shift for me, going into the studio, because I can get off the 500 to 600 hour schedules I was on with Cellar Door (2004) and Pixel Revolt. It’s going to be a lot more brutal, a lot more disturbed.
Are you apprehensive at all about doing it that way? So much of a switch from being totally in control and a bit of a “lone ranger” to working toward more of a full band mode?
I’m apprehensive about everything, no matter what it is—every small and large decision. But I’m kind of zen about it, too. When I’m working, I’m an autocratic editor, and I don’t really ask or care what people think. But during the process, I also allow people to contribute and I definitely don’t micromanage. It’s enjoying lots of ideas while knowing that in the end, I can fix and change things however I need to.
As a young musician, what drew you to the producing end of things? How did you get so interested in recording techniques?
I listened to a lot of Who, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, the Kinks—those big, early 70s concept albums coming out of England. That’s when I knew I had to start a studio; all of those albums use the studio itself as an instrument. It’s the idea that you can use the recording process itself to actually influence the narrative content of an album.
There were so many great big studios then, those big, large scale facilities. Now it’s tons of great private studios, but who knows, maybe those are dying off, too.
Tiny Telephone is certainly a key example. To you, what makes a great studio?
You need a very good mixing console—really, a totally hi-fi, badass mixing console. And that’s going to set you back $100,000. How many people really want that kind of debt? From an analog standpoint, you need to invest in and maintain your tape decks. That’s one of the things about digital studios—they allow you to completely ignore your tape machines, which isn’t good.
And of course you need a good sounding room, one that’s acoustically responsible and versatile. You learn about all this stuff yourself, but maintaining a studio is very disruptive, especially financially.
The last time we spoke, you discussed your affinity for recording industry conferences. What can both recording neophytes and veterans hope to gain from niche events like that?
You’re surrounded by people who are incredibly motivated to do what you’re doing, and meeting like minded people who are in the same spot as you are. That’s very important. You get in contact and meet with people, so that when you have $2,000 available to buy a microphone, you can ask them. There’s so much shitty gear out there, and you need to get the good stuff from the people you trust. The best stuff? You still can’t Google it. You can’t just find it anywhere.
During our previous discussion, you mentioned digital “catching up” to analog at some point. When is that point?
Well, it’s only a matter of time before people troubleshoot it, sonically. And the useability with digital is great. Me, I’m so knee jerk—analog has always fulfilled the sonic vision I’ve had. But many times I’ve heard records that sound good, so it becomes more difficult and ultimately foolish to keep saying analog is better, even though my brain wants me to say that’s true. Right now, I could make very good sounding albums on digital. People can do incredibly high-res things. SACD [Super Audio CD] is huge, and it’s really a bummer it’s not catching on faster, but it will eventually.
But all things being equal, it’s stupid to turn your back on analog. Digital will be fine, but at the same time, I don’t want to be a guinea pig, you know? I want to make great sounding records now. To not have to worry about digital aspects, knowing that the sound is what I want it to be frees up huge sectors of my overworked brain for content ideas.
You manage to stay remarkably plugged in given your schedule. Where do you go to learn about new bands, music developments, and gear? What are your favorite resources?
MP3 blogs are pretty much the only thing I read now. And I don’t obsess about gear like I used to. I used to be the ultimate hobbyist, and I’d stay up all night reading everything I could find. But I think I got it all out of my system.
It’s very important to hear new bands, and it’s important to me to tour with bands I’m inspired by. I think it looks good when you actually care about what’s happening, and knowing what kinds of records are being made today. Great albums are being made all the time. I don’t think there’s anything more dull than being at a party and hearing a guy say, “There’s just no one making good records now.” I just want to throw him out the window.
Chad Berndtson lives in Boston and writes about music for The Patriot Ledger, Glide, Relix, Jambands.com and other publications. Drop him a line at [email protected]