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Music Reviews

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October 18, 2004
A far cry from the vaunted glamour and excess of the Rock and Roll lifestyle, the ins and outs of the daily grind for indie rockers are at best better than a day job, at worst unbearable, and on average decidedly un-decadent. In spite of the relative lack of perks inherent in bypassing the man, the majority of "successful" indie rock acts seem to really love what they do. Sure, many occupy eccentric niches that ultimately limit the extent of their popularity, but even for the most oddball of acts there emerges, after a time, a wicked fanbase. In the case of John Vanderslice, however, the indie rock life can look like a slice of heaven, with followers coming out of the woodwork to hear their favorite songs from his multi-album discography each time his well-used road vehicle swings on to the highway for another couple thousand miles of touring.

Of course success stories wouldn't be quite so sweet if there weren't trials and tribulations to overcome. In the case of Vanderslice, the road to making a comfortable living from independent music has been a long and sometimes rocky one, beginning well over a decade ago with the band MK Ultra. From that band's acclaimed forrays into experimental pop until today, Vanderslice's dogged work ethic has earned him both a reputation as a competent studio operator (he founded the Tiny Telephone studio in 1997) and a feircely loyal following.

I have been personally keeping tabs on Mr. Vanderslice since first hearing the title track of his second album, 2001's Time Travel is Lonely, and having immediately fallen for his catchy but not pandering, literary but not stuffy, lo-fi songs. Having released Emerald City, his sixth album in seven years, in July, the guy seemingly has five times the creativity of your average girl-spurned indie dude. But Vanderslice doesn't weild his songwriting skill with abandon; he's careful with it. Careful in that his creativity is reserved - although his releases come at a prolific pace, they are dependably full and well-constructed, never phoned in - in a manner that puts him in a category all his own. There are great songwriters, and there are musicians who issue copius amounts of music, but rarely are they one in the same. In that way Vanderslice is a wiz kid par excellence.

With Emerald City garnering the expected praise from critics, Vanderslice's touring ensemble having wrapped more than 80 dates this year, and an impending 20+-date tour of Europe set to kick off in two weeks, now is as good a time as any to revisit an earlier LAS interview, conducted inside Vanderslice's tour van, parked outside of Chicago's Abbey Pub, shortly before the release of his breakthrough album, Cellar Door, in 2004.

---

LAS: The first time I saw you live was when you were opening for Spoon. You have a pretty close relationship with them, is that correct?

John Vanderslice: Yeah, that was a really great tour to be on. The tour itself was too short - I really wanted it to go on a lot longer. It was only 12 shows or something. It was as good of a match-up as [this tour] is currently with Beulah. We're all good friends, so it's always great to be out with them.

Didn't you help them out with their album Girls Can Tell?

Yeah, I did end up helping Britt [Daniel] with some lyrics on that album... No, wait... it was Kill The Moonlight. They actually cover one of my songs on their Insound tour support CD.

And Jim Eno helped out on your last album too, yeah?

Yes. He played drums on a couple songs. We both own studios and have been really influential on each other's decisions and buying of gear. He's actually sold me a lot of gear and has put me up a lot. He's a great guy.

I read about another great tour you took part in - the final tour of Japan with the Dismemberment Plan. How was that?

That was really fun. The audiences in Japan are really attentive and passionate. They are hyper-aware that there is a show going on. They know you are going to be getting on a plane and leaving. It's a very cool feeling. They take it all in while they can and it's really powerful. What people had told me is absolutely true; they do not say a word during the show. The crowd has lazer beam eyes fixed on you. Quruli - the band we were touring with - is really big over there. They're like Beck, and the last show had 2000 people at it. That is the most I'd ever played for and I was very nervous. It was nerve racking, but a lot of fun.

How is it, being in Japan, compared to being in the Unitd States?

I'll tell you, the things I thought were against how I imagined it - it's very industrialized. You can imagine it's very compressed. There are a lot of people everywhere and it's relatively built up - at least where we were, along the Southeastern coast. It wasn't the best time of the year to be there while we were. It actually was so overcast it reminded me a lot of Portland, just overcast the entire time. People kept telling me that I have to come back there in the fall. I'll bet it is really beautiful.

All the architecture is very new - having been destroyed by wars. So being able to compare the new architecture with the old shrines in Kyoto, which were spared from the wars, it gives an idea of what Japan was like.

Overall, it was very exhausting. We were there for two weeks and it was really tiring. I've been to Thailand and Malaysia, but in a weird way it was more foreign. One of the strangest parts about Japan is that it is so industrialized; yet it isn't Westernized. It is Japanese 24-7. And there are a lot of people. Walking around, you get to some crosswalks and you just get swallowed up. I'm used to being in bigger, busy cities - but it was so much more intense than being in, like Times Square. Like a hundred times worse. I would have to go home and lie down after walking around for an hour. It was that tiring. And I have a high tolerance for that stuff.

It's unlike anywhere else in the world. It's a great place to go, whether you're playing shows or not.

The people there seem to always be having fun. All smiles.

They really are very gracious. The best hosts you could ask for.

How was it, being there with the Dismemberment Plan?

Well, we had toured with them before, here. It was the third time they had been to Japan - so they were showing us the ropes. It was great.

I know you have worked with the Mates of State a lot as well, when they lived in San Francisco - did they record Team Boo with you?

They recorded that in Texas with Jim Eno, and a little at Willie Nelson's studio. We actually stopped by that session and sang some vocals on Team Boo, and we actually just bought the record yesterday and haven't had a chance to listen to it yet. Jason and Kori are great.

Back to Jim Eno and musicians-slash-engineers, you also work pretty closely with Chris Walla [of Death Cab For Cutie fame] at Tiny Telephone, don't you?

Yes, Chris is in the studio a lot. He engineers a lot of bands at Tiny Telephone.

What about you, do you engineer for anyone else?

No, just for myself. I would never inflict... I'm a very self-taught, kind of slow... I wouldn't be good for other bands. I've been asked to do it, but I think it would eat into my creative energy. And it's hard enough to tour four months out of the year. Then go home and make a record! The thing is - it's kind of easier to own the studio and not engineer. It gives me a little bit of distance and it doesn't burn me out. I've done a little bit of production stuff, but that just means I'm the "overseer" of the project. I'm really guarded with my time. I don't want to run out, because my records would suffer. So I'm always sort of protective. I need to have the time to be lazy and zone out and think about my own music and songs. It's a creative rush to work with someone else and, honestly, I don't want to fulfill any of my creative urges with someone else. I'm too... I mean, I know that I have so little - everyone does. Tou only have so much creativity, I'd hate to waste it.

So Chris doesn't mind being the engineer extraordinaire at Tiny Telephone?

Chris is a natural. He is one of the few people who can do both. He's actually making a great solo record [under the name Martin Youth Auxiliary] and he is the key to Death Cab For Cutie. He is an elevated human being, a very talented person. Most engineers have their own method - there's a craft to it and you see them get into their own way to do things and it's not like they really challenge themselves with every project. Chris is one of those few guys who is making strides with every record he does. He makes adjustments and changes as it goes - he's very curious in that way and that is a rare trait in engineers. Plus, he's such a good guitar player.

Outside of music, what are some of your creative outlets? I've seen the photography on your website, and the images really look great.

I like taking photos. I like the Internet. I love interfacing with the world through the Internet. I absolutely love Blogs and music sites. I'm a junky, just like everyone. I wake up and read all the music sites.

I really like movies. I've been buying a lot of DVDs on this tour: Adaptation, Last Picture Show, Election. We've bought a lot on the road. We have a TV and a Playstation 2 right here, so sometimes on the road we play.

But sometimes, on the road... It's so fragmented, your schedule. Which makes it hard to sit down and concentrate on anything like a movie. Though some drives you can sit and watch three movies in a row. It all depends on where you are and what's around. At home I probably watch three or four movies a week.

And how long have you been in San Francisco?

Ten years, and if I didn't own a studio there I wouldn't still be there, because it's too expensive. I do have rent control, so I'm shielded a little more than other people, but still.

The last time you were here in Chicago, with Spoon, that drummer was a blast. I'm sorry I can't remember his name...

Christopher McGuire. He is now a permanent member of Quaruli, that band in Japan. They hired him away from me. It was very nice that they asked me - it's the Japanese way - and it's a great move for him. I'm totally behind it. His best friend Peter Anderson plays with me now - he's from Minneapolis. So, it's all in the family. But Mac's great. He comes out and records with me, but he's on a contract and he gets paid a hell of a lot more with them than I am able to pay him. And he deserves it.

He was such a fun element of the show, just to watch him work.

He was great for me, too. He was my right-hand guy. He's a force. He's a rare musician.

Can you talk a little about MK Ultra?

Yeah, that was a band I was in before I started doing solo stuff. We played for about five years in San Francisco. Totally obscure band. Even in our hometown of San Francisco, where we played a lot, we were unknown. I don't know why, but we just were.

With projects like the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, which was just so... interesting, to say the least - it's hard to believe you guys didn't get more recognition.

Yeah, I was always a little shocked that nobody paid attention, but I learned a lot in that band. I learned you have to keep doing it. You have to make a lot of records and stay on it and it's not easy to make records.

Especially albums with that much creativity - to fall on deaf ears.

And it was really heartbreaking the way the band broke up. I didn't want to break up, but everyone was getting offers to play in bands on labels, major labels - that's payroll being offered to people - and they left and it was a really rough creative time for me. Up until then I had never even thought of doing anything on my own. I wanted to be in a band. But the breaking up eventually became the best thing that ever happened to me. It made me make music that was weirder, a little more idiosyncratic. It's weird how close I am to those guys still. I see them all the time. Dan, the bass player, has toured with me a bunch of times.

Well, breaking up the band doesn't mean it is the breaking up of friendships.

It's rare you meet people that you can relate to on that level, and I'm not going to give it up because of my ego.

How do the people at Barsuk treat you? You've been with them since you started out solo.

They are great. They are a good label. Since I started - they were a two-person operation and now they have a warehouse space and a staff of employees. They're totally legit. It's unbelievable how many people come up to me and try to get some sort of "in" with that label. Every band on there and everyone that works there, they all have the same vibe, it's all just super cool. And I work out well on the label because we're all pretty rational, even people.

I can see that, with bands like Death Cab for Cutie...

Yeah, they're totally accessible, they're super mellow - and they're fucking huge. They are such a big band and they are the most unpretentious guys. It's pretty amazing.

The same can be said about Spoon as well, going back to them.

Yeah, I've known all those guys for a long time. I actually called Jim Eno out of a 411 once, like 5 years ago. I saw them once and thought, This is the best band I've ever seen, so I called up 411 and got Jim Eno's number. He said, Wait, who are you? I'm just a huge fan... And we made contact. I was actually calling to get the engineer's contact, John Croslyn, who eventually ended up being my partner at Tiny Telephone. It's all pretty intense, a close relationship. Jim ended up starting a studio after I did, so I gave him a lot of input.

I read recently that Eno and Britt worked with Sally Crewe in the studio. She's this Texas girl who moved to England or something?

Actually, she's a girl from London who came to visit and record in Texas. She lives in England. She's got a beautiful, killer accent. She's a great girl.

So what about Cellar Door?

I am probably the least reliable source to talk about it. I've worked on it for 12 months and I'm really glad it's finished. I'm glad I'm not working on it anymore. They're pressing it right now and it's going to be a 180-gram pressing on vinyl, which is awesome audiophile from RTI. I'm really excited about that. I can't imagine working on that record another minute. It's absolutely finished for me. I had a lot of time and it was all that I could do at the time. I am actually really excited to start working on a new record. Whenever you go on tour it happens. Tour is like output. I mean, I'm just playing songs that I've played and I want something... that spark of newness. We will be playing three new songs from that record tonight, so you be the judge. It's a very orchestrated... You know, actually it's exactly the same as the other records for better or for worse.

Sure, from your end.

There are a lot of songs about movies and a lot of songs about family, and there's no conceptual tie-in whatsoever. So it is a normal pop record with a lot of songs about the confinement of family and the difficulty therein. Each song is a separate narrative, some of the songs are autobiographical - and I'll never say which ones - and some of them are fictional narratives. And the other half of the songs are love letters to movies: Donnie Darko, Mulholland Drive, HUD, Far From Heaven, Requiem for a Dream. I really watch a lot of movies. They're very important to me. If I could be anything, I'd be a director. I'd be like Paul Thomas Anderson.

Have you thought about it?

It's too difficult - it would be too Svengali if I did. Too much shit to learn and take care of.

SEE ALSO: www.johnvanderslice.com
SEE ALSO: www.barsuk.com
SEE ALSO: www.tinytelephone.com

--
Bob Ladewig
Having been introduced to good music by his sister in the early years, Bob Ladewig has been searching out all the best in indie music ever since. He also rides a skateboard and performs/directs comedy shows and, like all great men, he's afraid of really growing up.

See other articles by Bob Ladewig.

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