Clip: John Vanderslice
Vanderslice likes to go with the flow -- especially if it's not digital
Aidin Vaziri, Chronicle Pop Music Critic
Wednesday, January 26, 2005
John Vanderslice is having a crisis. Standing in the control room of Tiny
Telephone, he says he just found out that the only analog tape manufacturer
in the world has shut down operations.
Surveying the odd assortment of outdated recording equipment with bulky
knobs and multicolored dials crammed into the Mission District studio he
opened in 1997, he sighs, "This place is turning into the museum."
Rather than accepting the inevitable and buying a digital workstation
decked out with latest production gear like Pro-Tools and Auto-Tune,
Vanderslice has instead decided to max out his credit card with $7,000
worth of obsolete analog tape.
The first thing anyone should know about Vanderslice is that he's a
wonderful, eccentric songwriter. The second is that he's a terrible
Since releasing his fourth solo album, "Cellar Door," last year, the former
member of MK Ultra has played more than 100 shows, cultivated a national
audience via NPR and glowing write-ups in magazines like Esquire, and spent
nearly seven months at Tiny Telephone working intermittently on a
worthwhile follow-up with engineer Scott Solter.
Vanderslice is aiming for a double album, scheduled for release in April,
but admits that he rarely enters the studio with any kind of idea of what's
going to happen.
"It's so much easier to come in here and keep it an open table," he says.
At around 6:15 on Friday evening, Vanderslice and Solter are working on a
song titled, for the moment, "Trance Manual." Keith Cary, a keyboard
repairman whom the songwriter recently met over the Internet, has driven
all the way down from Winters in Yolo County just to play a 7-foot upright
aluminum bass on the track.
"I'm laissez-faire about direction," Vanderslice, wearing a floral shirt
and flared blue jeans, tells him in the recording booth. "You can just
Solter, a bearded man with a captain's hat and specs, punches a button on
the mixing board and the music starts. A dreamy Middle Eastern meditation
builds over chiming keyboards and hypnotic strings and then in comes Cary's
bass, a ghostly hum that floats just beneath the surface. It's unlikely a
humming Macintosh could ever re-create such a soulful listening experience.
Meanwhile, Vanderslice paces around the studio, pointing out various pieces
of cast-off equipment he has collected and put to use over the years:
vintage BBC announcement microphones, National Geographic-style field
recorders, Moog synthesizers, a Studer 827 24-track recorder, and, in one
corner, the upright Baldwin piano he grew up with in Gainesville, Fla.
There is the constant smell of something burning in the air.
"These things just sound like nothing else," Vanderslice says. "There's
just no substitute. I love computers but my ears cannot accept them."
The recording schedule for the as-yet-untitled album largely depends on the
plans of the other bands that have booked Tiny Telephone. Because of
Vanderslice's complete lack of entrepreneurial skills, he actually loses
money on the days he uses his own studio, so he must accommodate everyone
Vanderslice hopes to have at least 16 to 18 new songs completed and ready
to turn over to his label, Barsuk, within the next few months. So far he's
got roughly eight in progress with working titles like "Dead Rabbit" and
"Radiant With Terror."
"I want this to be different from any other album that I've done,"
It only makes sense that in an era when most popular rock albums are
actually getting shorter and more economical Vanderslice is going headlong
into the opposite direction.
He has a good reason, though.
"I just feel like it," Vanderslice says.