Clip: John Vanderslice gets political
Pop & Politics
SF's John Vanderslice gets political on his radiant new CD, Pixel Revolt
Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate
Thursday, October 27, 2005
"It's hard not to write about the war," John Vanderslice said,
acknowledging the anti-war themes that crop up in several songs on his
radiant new CD, Pixel Revolt. Far better known for his meticulously
crafted and painstakingly produced pop songs and his dogged devotion
to analog recording techniques (institutionalized in his Tiny
Telephone studio in San Francisco's Mission District) than his
political opinions, Vanderslice couldn't suppress his outrage over the
invasion and occupation of Iraq.
"I have enormous sympathies with people who have been scammed into
joining the military and who are put in a horrendous, horrible
position for some unknowable geopolitical reason," the singer,
songwriter and guitarist explained last week in phone call from his
tour van on the road between Boston and Washington, D.C. He and his
band perform Saturday, Nov. 5, at The Independent in San Francisco.
Vanderslice doesn't mince words in conversation. "I really hate George
Bush. Every day it's like a bomb ticking in my skull." But, at least
since penning "Bill Gates Must Die" (from the perspective of an
Internet porn addict) for his first solo album, he is generally more
judicious in his songwriting, perhaps reluctantly so. An avid fan of
rap, from commercial product like Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP to
such underground artists as Murs, he envies the latitude hip-hop
artists enjoy in their lyrics. "The one thing that I really resent
rappers for is that they get to have these assassination fantasies,"
he said. "They can use the most graphic imagery and get away with it.
If I could do it I would."
But Vanderslice -- who has recorded and released five CDs under his
own name since he debuted with Mass Suicide Occult Figurines in 2000
(also the year his former group, MK Ultra, issued its final album) --
opts for more oblique and suggestive imagery in his own songs. In
Pixel Revolt's "Plymouth Rock," for instance, he creates a damning
vignette of military duty from the perspective of a soldier who is
quite possibly mortally wounded during a "moonless night" raid on the
heavily armored Iraqi nuclear facility at Tuwaitha: "When we jumped
off the deck / white bullets tore right through my neck ... sew me up
again / get me out of here," he sings, coming to question the
rationale behind his assignment, "I lost the reason / I lost the
reason I'm here."
"I do think that it's hard to write a protest song or an anti-war
song," Vanderslice said, "and part of the reason is that it's kind of
like, 'duh!' There's nowhere to go from there, so I thought I'd take a
different angle." Musically, "Plymouth Rock" gains power from its
deftly molded dreamscape of acoustic, electric and Ebowed guitars,
analog synthesizers and electric piano, drums and manipulated effects.
Like most of Pixel Revolt, the sonic elements -- along with
Vanderslice's vulnerable vocals -- are compulsively positioned in a
3-D space that draws the listener in.
The effect, replicated all over Pixel Revolt with different
combinations of instruments, is deliberate, explained the Florida-born
and East Coast-raised musician. "I wanted to foreshorten the distance
between me and the listener, both from the lyrical point of view and
also sonically," he said. "There are less distressed sounds and
distortion and off-putting dissonance. It's more patient.
[Multi-instrumentalist and longtime musical collaborator] Scott Solter
has everything to do with that. He laid out the case right at the
beginning. He wanted to make a more pretty record, and he wanted me to
sing differently -- use more of the falsetto and softer tone of the
top register of my voice. And I went with it 100 percent."
Instruments associated with '60s pop and '70s art-rock -- Wurlitzer,
Mellotron, celeste, Hammond B-3 organ, "sky saw" guitar -- mix with
the guitars, string sections, and borderline fussy ornamentations of
church bells, glockenspiel, vibraphone, Javanese percussion and much
more in arrangements that cut broad swaths through pop history,
conjuring Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, Hunky Dory–era David Bowie
and Fripp-Eno collaborations and post-rock electronica.
A zealous film buff, Vanderslice appreciates the collaborative process
that belies the more glamorized auteur theory of pop culture
creativity. He readily cites the pivotal roles played by Solter, New
York improvising cellist/string arranger Erik Friedlander and a host
of other musicians in the making of Pixel Revolt. "I'm very, very
lucky to have the people around me that I have," he said. "I try to
note that as much as I can, because in many ways the name on the
record should be John Vanderslice and ... and ... and ... and ... ."
For assistance with song titles, Vanderslice turned to Silver Jews
honcho David Berman -- "a huge figure in my mind for a long time."
(Vanderslice is even calling this his "I've been living in a k-hole"
U.S. Fall Tour, in homage to the opening track of the new Silver Jews
CD.) And unlike the stereotypical solo singer-songwriter, who you
might imagine holing up in a garret to scrawl his confessions in total
privacy, this bard relied on his friend John Darnielle, better known
as the Mountain Goats, to edit and tweak his lyrics. "John was
involved from the very, very beginning," Vanderslice noted.
The new songs range in subject matter from conspiracy theories around
Sept. 11 ("an hour went by without a fighter in the sky / you said
there's a reason why / so tell me now, I must confess / I'm not sick
enough to guess" -- "Exodus Damage"), the nuclear threat ("Radiant
with Terror," adapted from the Robert Lowell poem "Fall 1961") and
star-struck stalkers ("Peacocks in the Video Rain") to a murder
mystery ("Continuation") and an accidentally freed pet bunny
("Angela"). Characters with complex motive move through fragmented
narratives, evocatively framed in poetic language. Vandersclice
credits Darnielle with helping him refine his often metaphorical
"I would write a first version of a song and send it to him. It was
all e-mail, but sometimes, when I was really far off base he would
call me, sometimes within 20 minutes. Sometimes he would say, 'Change
this one word,' and sometimes he would say, 'You need to explode this
narrative and bring it outside of its location or its intent or its
emotional range.' He's my guy. He's my psychiatric nurse. And I am
his. We're extremely linked up. This is a tough gig. It can be a kind
of unnatural life, and if you have even the slightest mental
instability, it can exacerbate it -- you need a support network of
people who are doing it."
Asked to single out one album from his childhood that inspired him to
pursue this aberrant line of work, Vanderslice named the original-cast
recording of Hair. "It was a really big thing for me when I was very
young," he explained. "It had humor, drama, playfulness, darkness,
psychedelic intensity with elements of Tin Pan Alley and Brill
Building pop and classic vaudevillian songwriting." The Who, the
Kinks, Pink Floyd and David Bowie also populate Vanderslice's
classic-rock pantheon, and such contemporaries as David Bejar
(Destroyer) and Radiohead fuel his record-making passion.
In 1997, he opened up Tiny Telephone, which quickly gained notoriety
for its once-upon-a-time, state-of-the-art analog equipment. Although
such indie stars as Spoon, Deerhoof, Jolie Holland and many others
have flocked to the facility, Vanderslice said, "I started it for one
reason only, and that's to have enough cash flow to record my own
records in the way I had imagined I would need to. I really wanted to
have the freedom to orchestrate stuff inside the studio."
Seeking to emulate his idols, who used the studio as an integral part
of the creative process, Vanderslice continued: "I am definitely
pretty hard-core stridently analog. I started out with Pro Tools and a
tape machine in my studio, and I was kind of convinced that it was the
best of both worlds. There's definitely a financial incentive for me
to have both formats, but after two years of hearing the difference in
sound quality, I took my Makita drill and I just backed that Pro Tools
rig right out. It's not like I'm depriving the world of anything.
Digital recording is available everywhere. Tiny Telephone is more
useful if we just specialize in something else."
Vanderslice's commitment to the warmth and purity of analog sound
prompted him to stockpile $8,000 worth of recording tape in a closet
in his apartment when it looked like no one would be making it
anymore. He also convinced his label, Barsuk, to press 500 numbered,
double-gatefold LP versions of Pixel Revolt on 180-gram vinyl. "They
are totally wonderful, but I really had to fight them on doing a vinyl
pressing," he said. "They thought I was committing suicide. It sold
out in six days."
Vanderslice is old school about his work ethic as well. The former
Chez Panisse bartender ("It wasn't just a restaurant, it existed on so
many different levels, and it had everything to do with how and why I
started the studio") puts out an album a year, while major-label
musicians commonly celebrate several birthdays between releases.
"David Bowie averaged more than a record a year in the '70s and did
stadium tours and collaborations," he explained. "It was de rigueur.
This is my full-time job. It's all I do and all I think about -- this
and NBA basketball. I just don't see any reason why there has to be
three years between records."
John Vanderslice performs Saturday, Nov. 5, at The Independent, 628
Divisadero St., SF; showtime 9 p.m.; tickets $10 advance, $12 door;