John Vanderslice on White Wilderness, photography and how he receives criticism
In the middle to later half of the 1990s, John Vanderslice (due tonight at the hi-dive with Damien Jurado) was a member of the respected Bay Area alternative rock band, MK Ultra. When the band split in 1999, Vanderslice took the delicate intensity and experimental edge he had brought to that outfit to a critically-acclaimed solo career. For over a decade, Vanderslice has run Tiny Telephone, a studio that has recorded a veritable who's who of recent indie rock, providing up-and-coming bands with affordable rates on quality recordings.
Autumn De Wilde
Across eight albums, including the recently released White Wilderness, Vanderslice has created a body of work that is remarkable not just for the songwriter's constant willingness to change up his sounds and compositional approaches, but for lyrics that -- sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully, sometimes humorously -- strike out to understand the human heart and how we make sense of the world. All with intelligence and with words that clearly come from a person who appreciates how those words can have a literary quality in a pop song context.
If you read any of his numerous interviews, it quickly becomes obvious you're dealing with a guy who has clearly thought things through but has tempered his thinking with compassion and humility. We recently spoke with the cordial and incredibly gracious Vanderslice about aspects of his songwriting, his photography and his take on handling criticism.
Westword: In an interview you did for Splendid, you mentioned William Blake and the structure of his poems and how his use of language is so modern. What is it about that era of Romantic poets, or specific poets, strikes a chord with you?
John Vanderslice: What I think is always astounding to me is that someone can write something or paint something that's five- six- seven-hundred years old that is completely understandable to us. I feel like we're almost a different species, I think even more so after the Internet.
What's amazing is that vocal choral music, like late fifteenth century or early sixteenth century vocal music, is so harmonically modern-sounding that I can't make sense that it was written five hundred years ago. I can't grasp that. It's kind of reassuring that there's this common thread throughout humanity that's kind of immune to technology or wars or anything else. I find it kind of heartening.
You're well-known in certain circles as not just a great songwriter but as an engineer par excellence. What did you have in mind to do with Tiny Telephone when you started it up, and what would you like to do with your studio that you have not yet?
The reason why I opened the studio is that my first band, MK Ultra, we were in such a typical predicament: We were a band that had rehearsed a lot and had done some rehearsal recordings on borrowed gear and had scraped together whatever resources to eke out a demo. We were looking to record in a studio with an engineer and have an experience that was comparable to the experience we had imagined you had to have to make the kinds of records that we were listening to -- we were listening to Pixies records, or XTC records or Gang of Four records. We wanted to be in rooms that looked like those photographs that we saw. We wanted that experience, and I had also grown up listening to classic English rock on vinyl.
Whether I could intellectualize it or not, I could tell the difference between a shitty local studio with bad microphones and what I was hearing on these Kinks records or these Who records. What I didn't know at the time was that I'd be chasing that sound and that feeling for twenty years. At the time, I just thought, "Well the first thing is we need to get into a studio." The problem with that equation...
This was 1996, and in San Francisco, when we toured studios, there were just two distinct categories. One was terrible, grimy rehearsal rooms with cigarettes on the floor and old carpeting and, like, broken duct-tape mike stands and SM57s. The other category was studios in top buildings with hard wood floors and uptight studio owners. There was nothing in the middle at all, and to me, that made no sense because bands can't afford to go to those hard wood floor places and being in those terrible rehearsal room places was so depressing that we couldn't do it.
So I opened a studio to fill that universe in the middle of the market. That's what I initially tried to do with the studio. The thing we haven't done yet, which is incredibly difficult, is to emulate those phenomenal English studios of the '60s and '70s that produced all those records that I like. Part of that is that I don't have ten million dollars.
You're a proponent of analog recording and have talked about that at length in various interviews. How has your approach to recording and the technology you use changed in the last several years, or has it?
I made this promise to myself that I would make a record on Logic and make my first digital record, and I just couldn't do it. I think part of the reason is that I had to source out a new ProTools system for a new studio. We just built a new B room for Tiny Telephone. I got so frustrated looking into that digital world again trying to find out what would work.
It's probably how people feel when they're in the freezer section of Costco trying to sort out food for their dinner party. It just feels very unwholesome, you know. I kind of backed off on that, but I should fulfill that promise to myself because I know that it can be done. I know that it's better than I think it is. It can be done in a way that's interesting, that's forward-looking and that's sonically above the line for me. I haven't quite gotten there.
I would say that the one thing I have explored is live recording. White Wilderness was done as a live, orchestral, almost like a live soundtrack recording with everyone in one room, just doing very few takes. That's the best way to do a record by far, as far as anxiety goes, and time. It's so much more fun.
How did you get involved with Magik*Magik Orchestra, and in what ways, if any, was it involved in the songwriting process for White Wilderness?
The initial contact was Minna Choi, the director and arranger, writing me an e-mail about two years ago, where she proposed the totally bold and awesome idea that her modular orchestra wanted to be the house orchestra of Tiny Telephone. It was just the boldest, coolest idea I'd heard in a while, so I aggressively went toward that idea and pulling them into the studio as much as possible. They now rent an office in the studio, and they do a lot of sessions there. It's a pretty incredible connection, I think, for all of us.
As far as the content side of it, I did almost zero writing on the new record. I did very minimal demos and simple song structures and rudimentary recordings and gave them to Minna. Then me, Jason Slota and Max Stoffregen kind of workshopped the songs for a month or two and came up with a great barebones trio feel for the song.
And Minna did everything else. She did all the heavy lifting with the strings, woodwinds and with the horns and was really given full control over the songs. To hear how great she is, listen to "Convict Lake," and listen to the interplay between the woodwinds and the horns and strings, and it's magnificent. So our next record will be with Minna and Magik for sure.