Slice of Life: John Vanderslice Intriguingly Fuses Art, Ambition, and Commerce
"I think all of my records are exactly the same," indie-rock singer/songwriter John Vanderslice reflects. "I'm not saying this is a good thing — it might be a bad thing — but I don't think my sensibilities have changed since I was 15 years old. I really don't feel that anything has altered."
In fact, Vanderslice is being unduly self-effacing. Over the course of a career that stretches back to the late '90s, he's shown a knowing sophistication that's marked him as one of America's most imaginative — not to mention prodigious — indie auteurs.
Vanderslice's ninth full-length, White Wilderness, is decidedly different. This time around, he ventured outside his comfort zone and practically ceded creative control of the songs he wrote to some special collaborators. Recorded with San Francisco's Magik*Magik Orchestra under the direction of artistic director Minna Choi, the album was created practically on a whim, live in the studio, with as many as 26 people playing in a room together after only minimal rehearsals. What's more amazing still, it was recorded in only three days.
Consequently, Vanderslice avoided any temptation to go back and tweak. "I love how unforgiving it is to record live," he admits. "We would do a take, and if it wasn't a train wreck, we would consider how it felt and the impact of the performance as a whole rather than focusing on individual sections. It was very liberating and a very holistic thing."
In crafting a sound that effectively blends Vanderslice's hollow-eyed musings with the orchestra's atmospheric invention, Choi was given carte blanche — not only for crafting the arrangements but for configuring the structure of the songs as well. "I gave her authority to change tempo, keys, and song forms," he explains. "And I also told her I wouldn't edit one note that she wrote and I wouldn't second-guess and I wouldn't even suggest or change the instrumentation. I thought that was very necessary to give her complete power so she could really explore what she was capable of doing."
Although that may have been a leap of faith, Vanderslice maintains that his concepts always dictate the direction of his songs, not the other way around. He recalls 2005's Pixel Revolt as a project focused on "church bells and strings and everything on the high end of the spectrum," and then Emerald City, created in 2007, was about dissonance and distortion. Once he decided White Wilderness would be a live record with an orchestra, then the songs came easily.
Born in Gainesville and raised in Tallahassee, Vanderslice's earliest influences were informed by the usual retro-rock suspects — Zeppelin, Creedence, the Kinks, and those loyal to the Southern rock regimen. In seventh grade, he discovered David Bowie, an artist who would help shape his sound, both creatively and conceptually. "When I saw the back cover of the Ziggy Stardust album and saw that psychedelic phone booth, I just thought, 'Who is this?' It was the most important thing that I had found up until that time. Then I bought Low, and that really changed my life. I realized that the recording studio and the treatment of instruments was everything."
Since 1997, Vanderslice's Bowie-influenced works have all been recorded at Tiny Telephone, the San Francisco studio he owns and operates. Death Cab for Cutie, Beulah, the Dodos, and Deerhoof have all had sessions there as well.
"I am really an archetypical small-business owner," Vanderslice says. "I wake up in the morning, I go down to the studio, sweep, mop, vacuum, take out the compost and the recycling... Growing up in rural Florida, I find there's something that responds to being grounded and totally connected to a working, realistic life. I have business loans, and I have a landlord I have to keep happy no matter what. So I have to be really paranoid and mindful of where I am. It's a very volatile business. But it really does keep you honest."
Vanderslice's early albums were also marked by a certain infusion of political commentary. People have asked if White Wilderness is a political parable, but Vanderslice says he's no longer interested in making overt observations. "I've entered into a period of total nihilism," he chuckles. "Otherwise I would still be political. But I've stopped being angry because there's nowhere to go with that... This seems like the worst era for me of all time [laughs] and the least appealing political window that I can ever remember... The politics never leave... but it might be completely obtuse or completely angular. There's a lot of stuff on early albums like Emerald City that's very direct and political, and when I sing those songs, I'm shocked how none of that has changed."
Which isn't to say Vanderslice doesn't harbor higher ambitions. "I think for the next record, I think I want to make the weirdest record that I've ever made," he hints. "It's so hard to go all the way out, like when you're swimming off the shore and you just keep going until the lifeguard's waving his arms for you to come back. I want to explore how far out I can go."
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