John Vanderslice has had an eventful and busy year. He released two albums, Dagger Beach, and a full-length interpretation of a Bowie classic, John Vanderslice Plays Diamond Dogs. In addition, he owns Tiny Telephone Studio in San Francisco and is in the process of opening another full-service studio in Oakland. In support of the recently released Dagger Beach album, JV will head out on a six-week national tour in October.
Often referred to as “the nicest guy in music” @johnvanderslice recently gave an interview via the Twitter-machine with his parasitic doppelgänger (yes, that is what we just said), @not_jv, about the new album, the upcoming tour, and some issues they clearly need to work out.
@not_jv: You’ve mentioned that this might be your last tour as a “band” and that future tours will consist entirely of living room shows. Why the change?
@johnvanderslice: Playing clubs can be very fatiguing. I think you have to be true to yourself. When I’m at home in San Francisco, probably the last thing I would ever do is go to a bar. I love people, music, and alcohol, just not in the proportions they’re served up in a bar.
@not_jv: Dagger Beach is one of your best records to date, but it is also the quietest. There is no anthemic sloganeering like, “Time travel is lonely,” or “Keep the dream alive.” The bite and volume of your earlier arrangements have evolved into some pretty complex, but subtle, sonic textures. Is it possible that you are maturing as an artist (HA!) and not afraid to break the rules? Because in many ways, while Dagger Beach is not a loud album, it is very much a groundbreaking album.
@johnvanderslice: Well, first off, thanks for that!!! I think as you keep making records you naturally shift your focus from album to album. A few years ago I was really interested in distortion and dissonance. I’m more into sonic surrealism now…maybe? That’s it sounds like to me with a little bit of distance.
@not_jv: I’ve seen you play solo, as a duo with Jason Slota on percussion and Moog, and as a three-piece with Jason and Daniel Hart on violin. You’ve also performed with the Magik*Magik Orchestra. What is your favorite line-up for a live performance?
@johnvanderslice: Damn–I miss Daniel. I really miss my old keyboardist, Ian Bjornstad, too. Each lineup has strengths. I like the challenge of smaller lineups but nothing beats being on stage with 35 orchestral players.
@not_jv: In your live shows the super-talented Jason Slota often plays percussion AND a Moog. Do you pay him double or does he just get an extra pack of Twizzlers at the end of the night?
@johnvanderslice: Jason gets hella paid. That guy is in demand. I was fighting multiple bands to get him for this tour. He should be getting $5k a week for what he does.
@not_jv: There’s a lot of really interesting (but very subtle) sonic stuff happening on Dagger Beach. What’s your plan of attack to translate the album into a live performance?
@johnvanderslice: SIMPLIFY! Well, we have to–it’s only going to be me and Jason. Jacob Winik will be doing sound and tour managing. That guy rules.
@not_jv: Which hair color have you selected for the tour? Or do you just walk into SuperCuts while you’re on the road and say, “Make it blue, motherfucker!”
@johnvanderslice: I am working class, I do it all myself!! I’m getting quite good at it too!
@not_jv: Yeeeaaahhh. It sort of looks that way. 😉
@not_jv: In almost every song on the album you very specifically mention the place/region where the story takes place. Why do geography and the environment play such important roles in shaping events and memories for your characters?
@johnvanderslice: That’s a very good question! I’m not quite sure why, but I’m always in favor of details and specificity. “Damage Control” has to take place in Utah!
@not_jv: Which song on Dagger Beach was the easiest to write, and which one was the hardest? And please, you don’t have to answer in terms of painful emotional bullshit. Which made it to tape fastest? Which took longest? I have a feeling that you’re not a one-take kind of guy (maybe OCD?). What was the total time for writing and recording the album?
@johnvanderslice: “Gaslight” was the most difficult because I don’t understand what time signature it’s in. Jason Slota has played with some Afro-Beat bands and he is the shit, I just don’t know what he’s doing on this one. I would guess that song took 30 hours of recording? (That’s a lot!)
“Sleep It Off” was live, that was fast. I wrote it the day before.
Actually I am very much a one-take guy! No one believes me, but I am incredible lazy with this stuff. I almost never listen to my own performances or vocal takes. With vocals, I usually keep take two or three. But I’ll never go deeper than that. And remember, I’m stuck on a tape deck, so these are entire takes, I don’t comp. I can’t watch bands in the studio edit vocals or drum takes, that is INSANE to me.
@not_jv: Some of your earlier albums were very political and focused on the external world (Emerald City and Pixel Revolt). On the last couple, your writing seems to have transitioned to a more internal world. Can you explain the shift in focus? And can you humor me and give me at least a couple of sentences on your take on how fucked we are as a species?
@johnvanderslice: I simply got too depressed, I couldn’t write about politics anymore. Obama got elected and things got worse in many ways. Watching the left defend him is pretty morbid. I’m still a huge fan of investigative journalism and outsider political engagement. Greenwald is probably the writer I most identify with.
Yes, we are very fucked.
@not_jv: You notoriously keep losing iphone and laptop chargers when you’re on tour and do some online begging to “borrow” one. That’s a total scam, right? You sell them on ebay.
@johnvanderslice: Ha!! Don’t forget I’ve also gotten two scarves from Twitter (Thanks Joe Campbell!).
@not_jv: In addition to releasing two new albums of your own year (as well as a Rarities album), you’ve produced two albums: Doe Eye and Strand of Oaks. What’s your comfort level like producing for some one else compared to recording your own material?
@johnvanderslice: I love producing records, but I have to feel like I have something to add to get on board. Most bands are completely fine on their own and they don’t need any additional input. I do think most bands make tragic decisions when it comes to process and engineers, but that’s just me.
@not_jv: You did some pretty major shit in 2013: Parted company with the Dead Oceans label, bought a bunch of expensive recording gear, released two new full-length albums, started work on a SECOND studio in Oakland, started your own record label, bought a bunch more really expensive recording gear, raised a butt-load of money on Kickstarter, and handled all of the order fulfillment. How do you manage this? Because it seems like everything is clicking for you. Do you at least use a distributor, or are you going to be driving a forklift in the Tiny Telephone warehouse too?
@johnvanderslice: Ha!! Yes, thank god I have Secretly Canadian distributing my stuff, otherwise I wouldn’t have made it through this year. This was the busiest and strangest year of my life. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
@not_jv: Which unreality are you most comfortable in? The disorienting daily grind of touring in a van or the disorienting daily grind of sitting in a studio with a bunch of musicians with questionable hygiene?
@johnvanderslice: I’d much rather be in the studio. I like being close to home and inside the studio community. Jason and Jacob are there almost every day anyway. I love my girlfriend and my cats too much.
@not_jv: You started out as a D.I.Y. artist, but owning a recording studio, and being on prestigious record labels kind of took you to a different level. Do you think you are moving back to your D.I.Y. roots now that you are an almost self-contained creation/production/dissemination unit? Has that change made life harder or easier for you?
@johnvanderslice: I do really feel like I’m moving back to my roots. In certain ways I haven’t really changed since I was 15, so it’s kind of a natural. I still record in my basement and I still listen to Led Zeppelin.
I’m more tired but more connected, and definitely more thankful.
@not_jv: Led Zeppelin…
You’ve been a long-time advocate of analog recording, though you’ve never played the role of analog snob (and you know what I mean). Digital media might not be your favorite, but it has created opportunities for many more artists to self-produce and distribute music, and some really great music. What do you tell people when they ask your advice (other than “Make the check out to John Vanderslice…”)?
@johnvanderslice: I’m all for democracy in the arts so for that I love the digital revolution. But for recording studios to charge big money and not to provide tape machines, that’s unethical. And lazy. For some bands, the experience of analog recording will transform them forever.
@not_jv: Many of the semi-autobiographical characters in your songs are coping with emotional problems, in therapy, and/or on medication. What are you taking these days?
@johnvanderslice: Weed 10 times a year, alcohol maybe twice that. Pot is the most amazing thing but it’s hard for me to block off the time. In general, I am pro-drug but very careful about what I put in my body.
@not_jv: Sometimes I’ve gotten a little douchey on twitter toward you and your friends, for which I sincerely apologize. But do people really think @not_jv is you?
@johnvanderslice: Yes, ALL the time I think @not_jv has insight into me that very few people have. My ex-girlfriend thought you were me!!!!
@not_jv: I am really almost sorry about that.
@not_jv: Aside from the music, you’ve gotten some interesting attention for your photography. Does the analog recording guy use a digital camera or wet film?
@johnvanderslice: I shot film for 10 years, 2002 to 2012, mostly on a Pentax K1000, then later on a Leica M6. One day I stopped, I think the overwhelming number of photos that digital life creates kind of cooled my passion. It’s not a bad thing, it just happened. I probably have 10,000 + photos in my office right now.
@not_jv: Obligatory bullshit question time: What are you listening/reading/watching?
@johnvanderslice: I love the 99% Invisible podcast. I’m pretty heavy into Best Show right now. This weird and awesome band called No Famous Death. Hitchcock movies. Miles Davis quintet records. Project Runway, Season 12. It’s pretty constant renewal.
@not_jv: That was almost awesome. HIGH-FIVE, man! I need another drink.
For more information on the fall tour and Dagger Beach: johnvanderslice.com.
Photographs by JV can be found at: johnvanderslice.tumblr.com.
Download “Raw Wood” from Dagger Beach here.