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.