Despite a childhood spent in Northern Florida and an adult life spent as a peripatetic musician, John Vanderslice has never played a show in South Florida. That will change on Thursday when the 44-year-old singer takes the stage at The Speakeasy Lounge in Lake Worth.
Vanderslice, who released his eighth album, White Wilderness, in January, is an intellectually and emotionally stimulating storyteller in the company of Will Sheff (Okkervil River), Colin Meloy (The Decemberists), and John Darnielle (Mountain Goats), a good friend and frequent collaborator. His sweet voice, pretty melodies, and vivid lyrics conspire on songs that delve into just about everything: politics (“Do You Remember the Man”), history (“Sunken Union Boat”), technology (“Bill Gates Must Die”), war (“Heated Pool and Bar”), and literature (“Radiant With Terror”, an adaptation of the Robert Lowell poem “Fall 1961”).
Considering his career-long eclecticism, Vanderslice flabbergasted few fans when he announced that he’d be collaborating with Minna Choi’s Magik*Magik Orchestra, a “modular” ensemble unconstrained by traditional classicism that is now the house “band” at Tiny Telephone, Vanderslice’s highly regarded San Francisco recording studio. (Cody Chesnutt, Okkervil River, Spoon, tUnE-yArDs, Deerhoof, and Death Cab all record at the 14-year-old studio.)
With his first South Florida show around the corner, Vanderslice recently picked up his normal-sized telephone in San Fran to discuss the audacity of Minna Choi, how he came to terms with John Darnielle’s cannibalistic tendencies, and why Dennis Rodman’s Hall of Fame speech haunted him.
How did you hook up with Minna Choi and the Magik*Magik Orchestra for the album and how did they become Tiny Telephone’s house orchestra?
JV: Minna emailed me about two years ago completely out of the blue saying, “Hey, I’m a friend of this person that you know from New York and I run this modular orchestra and I’m moving to San Francisco. I want to become the house orchestra of Tiny Telephone.” And it was the most audacious, awesome, and inspiring email. Usually people don’t ask you crazy shit like that, and it was such a good idea!
It was just the perfect timing for me because I’m always … trying to move the studio out of “bring a drum set in, distort a guitar in there, and let’s record three songs over a day and dump it into a computer.” It’s so mundane, it’s so boring. I want the studio to be a completely heightened experience.
We’re also making it almost impossible for bands not to record on tape. We’re giving them free tape. We’re really trying to push them into analog recording because it’s so much more intense than just coming in and recording on a computer. Also, this idea of having a house orchestra … It’s such a different universe! Anything to make the studio a much more unique and some kind of transcendent experience. Everyone can record at home, everyone can do that stuff in their basement, so it has to be something different than this.
What was the process like between you and Minna on White Wilderness?
Actually what I decided from the beginning, and how I kind of sold it to Minna, was I said, “Minna, I want to make a record with you, and I want to give you very, very simple demos that I recorded in my basement.” And I tried to limit myself to one instrument and one voice. I told her from that point on that I didn’t want to hear anything else that she did. I wanted her to have complete freedom in instrumentation and in arrangements. For instance, I didn’t ever suggest to her that “English Vines” should have a clarinet and a pedal steel and Michelle Kwon playing this incredible cello part on it. Whatever decisions were made were completely her decision.
I think with her, she knew that she was never going to have to defend or edit one note that she didn’t want to edit … I think it was the most realized thing she had ever done up to that point. She’s done a lot of records since then, and I can kind of see that she’s going further out, she’s exploring more. You know, most bands are very nervous when they hire an arranger or when they hire string players. They’re like hovering parents. They ruin everything. They’re such a buzzkill … I didn’t even want to get into that and I think it emboldened Minna. It seriously gave her a lot of juice.
I had no idea that she had that kind of control. It’s really great to know that it’s as much a reflection of her work.
Yeah, one day I’m going to release the demos just to show people how incredibly bare-boned the stuff I gave her is. I stuck to my guns, I never said a word to her about anything. If you collaborate with someone, you have to commit to it.
Every John Vanderslice album I ever bought was a Barsuk record, but not this time. Why the move to Dead Oceans?
I think the main thing for me was that I wanted to feel challenged and intimidated when I turned in a record. When I turned in a record for Barsuk, man, I was like best friends with everyone there. I knew everyone from the shipping department all the way to the top. So I wanted to feel, in some ways, disoriented and challenged by a new situation. And it is really intimidating when you go to a new label. You go to a completely different system. Dead Oceans does a completely different thing. They have so many different bands, and you’re in the Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar system. It’s a big move, almost like moving to a different city. You know, some people do that just to challenge themselves and to destabilize their system.
To me, it was a move almost for the sake of a move. I don’t regret it but of course I do have misgivings about not being as close to the Northwest scene in general. There are a lot of people connected to Barsuk and the bands are very close. I was very good friends with a lot of them — Mates of State, Death Cab, Nada Surf, and [John] Roderick [of the Long Winters]. I was friends with all those people.
The physical move is the perfect analogy. It’s pretty ballsy to remove yourself from a comfort zone like that.
It did feel ballsy and it felt really dangerous. I do think it panned out for me pretty well.
You’ve been working with John Darnielle for roughly 10 years now. You two seem like kindred spirits, but how did you come to collaborate?
The first solo show I ever played was opening up for Mountain Goats for a Noise Pop show here in San Francisco. John and I hit it off then like we were brothers. In many ways, we had come from a very similar place and we just very organically kept in touch with each other. It just always made sense to be around each other, to hang out. I think our sensibilities are very similar, and he’s been a mentor to me in a lot of different ways. And we’ve helped each other. I got him his current booking agent … I also got him his accountant, which I’m very proud of [laughs]. We’ve just had an incredible overlap of musicians, engineers, and touring band mates. You know, we’ve collaborated on much more than just music. It was pretty essential for me to meet him.
Speaking of, I want to talk about your 2009 collaboration, Moon Colony Bloodbath. Where the hell did the concept of an organ-harvesting colony on the moon come from?
Darnielle emailed that to me as kind of like a challenge for the most ridiculous concept album. We were almost in tears coming up with this ridiculous shit, and when it got time to make the record we got very serious about the concept. In other words, it started out as something ridiculous and absurd, but when it got down to [it] we were dead serious about it. I took his cannibalistic urges very seriously. I ran with that character and it was a pleasure. We had a great tour on that record too, man. That was one of the most fun tours I ever did.
And that EP was made special for the tour, right?
Yeah, it sold out pretty quick. We only printed a thousand of them and it sold out. We gotta put it up on the internet at some point.
You’re known for understanding and embracing the online community and you did so early on with your mp3 blog. As someone who makes a living off of his art, how did you come to grips so quickly with using the internet as a tool?
Well, I’m a very open-source person, for lack of a better way to say it. I believe that, in general, information not only wants to be free, but is going to be free. For me it was very simple to realize that no one was stealing from me if I put zeros and ones up on a server and there are no throughput costs. If someone’s downloading a song, then you’d have to be pretty insane to see that as lost income. The funny thing is that the bands that were originally the most paranoid about their stuff getting stolen on the internet were the bands that had no fans [laughs]. And I would always tell bands like that, “Man, you guys should be begging people to be interested in your music!” It’s an honor. This is an incredible era. It seemed to me that it was the greatest thing that ever happened to art. And I still believe that. Now we’re entering a time of streaming and cloud stuff, and it’s gonna be incredibly awesome for everyone. I still believe in free records. I always try to put out free records. There should always be aspects of art that are free. It has to be that way.
Finally, how about Dennis Rodman’s Hall of Fame speech?
Oh yeah! Un-fucking-believable! I mean, holy shit. I grew up watching that guy play ball and I knew that he had a hard time. But hearing him talk about his father, you know, not bothering to say hello to him. That was one of the most real and shocking comments. The whole speech to his mother! It was un-fucking-believe. What was so shocking was that when he mentioned his mother, I was thinking, “Oh, here we go. I love my mother…” And that’s what I would say, I’m a mama’s boy. I worship my mom. But when he went into the whole thing of how his mother couldn’t hug him … Oh my god. That was the most real and, really, the most surprising thing I can remember seeing on TV. It was the most unfiltered real shit I’ve ever seen in that context. I really did haunt me the whole day after I saw it.
[To dispel the confusion you should be experiencing, that last question was apropos of this tweet.]
For full details on Vanderslice’s Lake Worth show, check out the Speakeasy’s Facebook page.