John Vanderslice: Doctor of Music
We talked with the San Francisco musician who's re-releasing his debut album 'Mass Suicide Occult Figurines.'
“Hang on a second,” John Vanderslice says to me over the phone from his studio in San Francisco. He’s talking to a couple musicians in the background: “Yeah, just go ahead. Everything is hooked up and ready to go. You want me to put on some coffee? Yeah, OK. I’ll do that.”
John Vanderslice, of course, is preparing to record a band. Because that’s what John Vanderslice has always done and always will do: He record bands. The musician has run a studio called Tiny Telephone in San Francisco for nearly two decades. On top of releasing ten solo records himself—his 2000 debut Mass Suicide Occult Figurines is getting a 15 year anniversary release in May and we’re premiering the re-mastered version of the LP's opening track “Confusion Boots” below—Vanderslice has produced hundreds, maybe even thousands, of albums. Throughout the aughts, Tiny Telephone became a go-to place for the who’s who of indie rock: Death Cab for Cutie, Spoon, Sleater-Kinny, St. Vincent, Deerhoof, and the Mountain Goats have all had sessions with Vanderslice, just to name a few. Whether you know his name or not, the 47-year-old has quietly helped shape and define some of the most influential music of the last two decades. Funny fact, though: “About 90 percent of the music I care about is hip-hop,” he tells me, later noting that he thinks Kanye West’s Yeezus is a masterpiece.
The solo work of John Vanderslice feels effortless, hodgepodges of chirpy and bouncy indie pop that are so complicated yet fool your ear into thinking they’re simple. Since Mass Suicide, his work has pushed further into the orchestral realm, getting bigger while still maintaining an approach that weirdly feels a bit like childlike wonder. This past fall, The New Yorker described his work as “folky and approachable, built on simple chord progressions and sung in a in a high, clear voice, yet his records grow strange on repeated listenings.” But the kicker here is, at least for now, Vanderslice is done making music and focusing on just engineering and producing records. The reason? He wants to live. While on tour back in 2013, his van nearly crashed. “I made ten records, man. I realized I didn’t want to die driving down America’s broken highway system.”
Noisey: Where do you feel you are as a musician versus when Mass Suicide released?
John Vanderslice: If you are a songwriter that grows at all, you look back to three, four years ago and say, “wow who the fuck was that guy?” And that’s healthy and normal and great, you should always have a little bit of horror. If you look at photos of yourself from high school and are like, “wow look at that young cool guy,” you’re probably still a tool. I’m like a doctor with music. Because I work with it so often, I don’t have very complicated emotions about my own albums. Often I hear my own records and think, wow I did something then that I couldn’t do now. You actually lose skills sometimes. You learn a lot, but you forget a lot. And there’s a kind of reckless, I don’t know, intuitive kind of vibe that I hear on Mass Suicide that I don’t have anymore. And that’s fine, that’s evolving. I made ten records, man. When I hear it, is it a cringe-free experience? No way. I hear that shit and I’m like “ah fuck, what was I doing?” But that’s great! I embrace that.
How did Mass Suicide shape the following nine records?
That record was a big deal for one reason. That was the end of my band, which at the time no one gave a shit about, but now people do. Which actually fills me with resentment on a certain level! [Laughs.] But that was really the beginning of me recording with any success. And it was the first time I wrote something that wasn’t based around bass and drums, and band ideas. I mean, shit, I put out like 20 records at that point so it wasn’t the “first,” but it was the first record I put out that was actually on a label. So that was a really big point for me in my life.
Do you ever have a disbelief that you’ve been successful—almost wondering if it could all get taken away at a moment’s notice?
Well I do, but in some ways, I’ve been through so much emotionally in my head that I don’t care if it gets taken away. And I mean that in a good way. Any time I’ve suffered a perceived loss in my life, it’s like not that it’s benefited me, but it’s been such a complicated event that there’s no way to look at it as a negative. Yesterday someone asked me what would happen if we lost the lease in San Francisco, or there was a fire. And I thoughtfully answered, “it doesn’t matter,” and it’s actually totally fine in a philosophical, global way. I just want my mom, girlfriend, brother to be healthy. I just don’t think anything can be taken away from you, other than your ability to pump blood. [Laughs.] But I just don’t think any of this stuff matters. First, like the art game is irrelevant in the scope of most things, which is fine. But I still believe in it, every second of the day. I still produce records, like records of someone you’ll never hear in a billion years, and also records of someone you’ll probably hear later this year. So it absolutely doesn’t matter to me, it’s just about a craft and respect for other creative people. Yeah, it’s a long answer, but it honestly doesn’t matter if any of this stuff gets taken away from me.
You’ve been quietly involved in the indie scene for about two decades, just producing and recording constantly, helping shape the sound. People love to talk about what indie means now. How do you view the commodification or change of the culture over the past two decades?
Well, in many ways, and in a refreshing way, I don’t think anything’s changed. It’s always been impossible for bands to monetize what they do. I do think the quality level now is probably better. Maybe if I was starting in a band now I’d be bummed out because there’s a lot more competition, and there’s a lot more content where I don’t think there’s one human being desperately looking for “a band.” Whereas in the 80s you were like “I need that band, I need XTC,” whatever it is. I’m an avid hip-hop guy, and how much good hip-hop comes out every month is just unreal. There’s a glut of good content, which is probably difficult for the content providers and difficult for everyone else. I’m not surprised at low payments for streaming; that’s just supply and demand. Artists have been screwed forever, and the idea that right now is a unique time, like, come on man.
What do you think of Tidal?
First off, I highly encourage everyone to Bittorrent records unless you’re buying records from independent artists. You should probably Bittorrent the new Rihanna record. [Laughs.] I bought the new Open Mike Eagle record on Bandcamp, and I was so fucking psyched to send this guy an email. It’s amazing! Listen, I think there’s great mainstream music. I never pick on big artists, but that’s the great thing about art. It’s so fucking democratic, man. You can have Yeezus come out which is one of the greatest records of the past five years, and then you can have some weirdo nobody match it in their bedroom. That’s art for me. So I won’t pick on the big people, but what the winners do don’t matter for me.
I didn’t realize you’re a big hip-hop fan.
Yeah, about 90 percent of what I care about is hip-hop. [Laughs.] Yeah, and I’ve never recorded any hip-hop in my life because it’s too much pleasure for me. I just want to keep it in fantasy zone. I think America has produced some pretty amazing things, and I think that hip-hop and the speed, the narratives, the invention and creativity in lyrics in hip-hop is unmatched anywhere. It’s unbelievably fascinating, and interesting to me. And I’ve been a hip-hop fan for a while, and it’s survived and thrived in a way I would never see ten years ago. There’s so much interesting shit going on, and it just keeps reinventing itself.
How do you see rap and hip-hop influence your music?
The average indie rock fan is so much more conservative musically than you would ever guess. Like they’ll namedrop Stockhausen or Laurie Spiegel—stuff that seems so much more deconstructed and dissonant than what they’re doing. And when you make the simplest decision, you can see the terror in their eyes. You don’t want to get out of line. The conservatism in indie rock is just stunning to me. And in hip-hop, like Yeezus is a much more experimental record than anything that comes out of Tiny Telephone. And that’s really fucking sad. Because there’s a new dawn of possibilities in deconstructing music right now. I don’t know, you’ll hear more strange stuff on a Bus Driver record or a Freddie Gibbs record ever than from—what did St. Vincent call them, “white guys with feelings standing on stage”? Of course, I love indie rock. I love all these guys, but the narratives are so fucking boring. It’s almost what people were making fun of emo music for. That’s why I got interested in John Darnielle and David Berman because their narratives were fucked up and so much more like what I was hearing in hip-hop. Wordplay, invention, interesting metrical themes, and fucked up lyrics. And surprising dangerous ideas. And I hear that in rap, and I don’t often hear that in indie rock.
Are you still writing and recording your own stuff?
I stopped. I’ve probably produced 30 to 40 records in the last year. When I almost flipped the van on tour, that’s what made me stop. Like “let’s not do this for a while.” I got back and thought, hey, I made ten records, what a fucking great run. I mean, shit, I almost sold 100,000 records! And that’s not easy to do. Fucking Christ it almost killed me. I mean shit, you look at bands that sell way more than that, shit it took me fifteen years to do that in one year. Like I don’t know how you survive that; it’s very difficult to what it does to your own inner chatter. When you start getting in that game, it makes you really weird. So it was exciting to step out of that. And I just do whatever I’m inspired to do. Who knows, I might write a record next summer. But right now it feels really great to help with other people’s records, and for me it’s more of a challenge and I got really used to making records. It was a very patterned thing.
Eric Sundermann has too much time, too much time. Follow him on Twitter.