John Vanderslice

Monday, 27 August 2007

John Vanderslice is a small man (stature-wise). He’s not particularly short, it’s more like he’s compact, with no wasted space. Like the buffalo/Indian relationship, every part of John Vanderslice is usable by John Vanderslice.

It’s extremely apparent in his music. There’s a deliberateness that reaches far beyond even the most focused recording impresario, the kind of deliberateness that only a man who owns his own (well-respected) studio can afford.


“On Cellar Door, we wanted to make a distorted album.”

Vanderslice makes a lot of these “simple” statements. It’s rock music, of course you want to make a distorted album. But then the deliberateness kicks in, and it becomes clear that the statement isn’t all that simple.

“We wanted it to be two dimensional and distressed sounding,” he says. The “we” is him and Scott Solter, who has been Vanderslice’s production partner on most of his recorded output. “I don’t know if we were totally successful in doing it, it’s hard to be distorted all the time. You want oxygen, you know?”

“We’ve always felt that distortion is the Holy Grail,” he continues. “Quality, interesting, full-range distortion is the hardest thing for us to get on tape. I mean it’s easy to plug in a Rat and get screeching annoyance, but it’s very difficult to get different textural, almost different fabrics of distortion.”

He’s very sincere and knowledgeable on the subject, and explains it with patience and without patronizing, like a good teacher. He talks about Cellar Door’s “They Won’t Let Me Run,” telling me “those vocals are very distorted, but it’s front end distortion. It’s like the sound of a FET mic hitting a solid state preamp, not the sound of a tube mic hitting a tube preamp, which is totally different.” While I (okay, most of us) couldn’t tell between the two, to Vanderslice it makes all the difference.

Here comes more deliberateness: it turns out that said distortion wasn’t there for shits and giggles. Like all things Vanderslice does, there was intention. “We went for so much distortion on Cellar Door because that’s what I was feeling. I wanted things to be fucked-up sounding. I wanted there to be a lot of tension musically. Even when there wasn’t harmonic tension, I wanted there to be textural tension going on.”


The question you are asking yourself now is “what the hell’s all this talk Cellar Door for? Wasn’t that two albums ago? What about the new one?”

Here’s the deal: You can’t talk about Emerald City, the new album, without talking about Cellar Door and Pixel Revolt. For that matter, you can’t really talk about Emerald City without talking about Iraq, or Homeland Security, or 9/11, and specifically how those things flow through John Vanderslice’s filter.

So sit tight. It’ll all make sense in the end.


In an attempt to establish context for Emerald City (think the Green Zone in Baghdad), I throw out a few themes that seem to tie the progression from Cellar Door to Pixel Revolt to Emerald City together, lyrically at least. When I tell him I think they’re linked, he says “Oh yeah, absolutely.”

“It seems like Cellar Door was focused on a distaste for the duty that you feel like you are required to do.”

“Yeah, family and otherwise,” he says.

“And Pixel Revolt was more about disillusionment.”


“And now this one is so much more about distrust of the official line that we’re being fed.”

“Yeah, state power,” he says.

At this point, I start to worry that maybe I’m not as brilliant and analytical as I think, that he’s just being nice. Because he is nice. And genuine. And eager to talk, which he’ll say with a smile comes from being egotistical. An egotistical, self-centered bastard, in fact:

“Basically,” he says, “the new album could be seen as an anger and distrust towards state power. It’s a love album, written while I was struggling—and I’m still in the middle of this—dealing with trying to get a visa for my girlfriend, and realizing that the state had everything to do with my personal life. And also that what we’ve done in the world and what’s happened to us in the past five years—but also our history as an empire, a fading empire—has everything to do with the events that made it difficult for me to be with my girlfriend.”

“In a way, the personal is political,” he continues. “Singer/songwriters are egotistical people, and I’m such an egotistical, self-centered bastard, and I’m so interested in what I want that I see it as a matter of the state.”

It’s that interweaving of the personal and political that makes what Vanderslice calls a “love album” such a dark piece of work, to the point that it catches the man himself off-guard.

“It is a love album, and in some ways I think it’s more gentle and has more acceptance of beauty, like in “Kookabura,” but sometimes I listen to it and think ‘man, it’s so dark!’’

The darkness he’s referring to includes: blackout bombs, vaporized dust, phosphor rain (“Kookabura”), cannibalism and Bakersfield (“Time to Go”), the fall of the world trade center, and implied war (“The Parade”), and kidnapping and strangulation (“White Dove”). And that’s just the first four songs.

“On Kookabura, even musically,” I say, “it seems like there are parts that are really sweet, but then there is this urgent build of darkness, especially in the second half of the song. I feel like that holds true over the course of the album, the interspersion of the two.

“Yeah,” says Vanderslice. “I think that there’s a lot of distortion on the record, and there’s also a lot of really patient singing that Scott Solter made me do on Pixel Revolt. I brought that into a more distorted and distressed fabric. In that way, musically it’s really linked for me to Cellar Door and Pixel, because it has those elements.”


See, I told you it would all mesh up.


“I really had less to do with the record,” Vanderslice says. “We recorded much faster, and it was recorded with my band. We tracked it mostly live. It’s probably better because I wasn’t so involved with every aspect, so I was able to spend a lot more time on lyrics and the overall arrangements.”

It’s a record that showcases the partnership with Solter, who Vanderslice insists is more than a producer.

“He makes the records with me. He does more and more heavy lifting. I get lazier and lazier I think. I wouldn’t have any trouble just having everyone make the record for me,” he laughs. I don’t have any problems with how much Scott had to do with the record, and my band had to do with the record. It’s their record, that’s why their names are so big on the record. I really tried to spend time on singing and writing lyrics. The only thing I played is acoustic guitar on the album. I really played almost nothing. I played here and there, when no one else was around.”

This marks a significant change from previous albums where Vanderslice played most of the instruments and split the production duties with Solter. Another change is the fact that Vanderslice didn’t tap The Mountain Goat’s John Darnielle for lyrical editing, as he had previously.

“I didn’t work with John at all. I thought I’d give him a break because I bugged him so much about Pixel. Also, I felt like it was a great thing to do for one album, and it’s kinda cool to move on. I’m trying to keep myself unsteady and off-kilter, because I think when you get yourself too much into a routine you have to do little things to do that.”

The talk turns to the heavy political bent of the last three albums, and whether or not it has alienated previous fans.

“Man, I hope so. I really do,” he says. “I think it’s amazing when people jump ship, because people get on the ship. It’s like a city transit bus. Some people get off on Hollywood and Vine, and it’s okay, the bus goes on. I mean, think about how many fans Bowie lost in the ‘70s every record. I wish I had that kind of balls. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I don’t really care who likes it and who doesn’t. I just don’t care, in a very healthy, very Zen way. I’d rather fail big time on my own terms, I don’t have any problem with that.”

“I made so many four-track albums on my own when I was growing up. You figure out then that you are really adhering to your own aesthetic principles. After a while, you scratch and claw on your own in your own room. I was a cliché. I was a kid who lived with his mom, who had a four-track and lived in the basement. I really did live that life. I think you get so into pleasing and challenging your own music taste. That’s all it is, that’s all you have, and that’s all I care about.” 

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