Clip: Tiny Telephone's John Vanderslice
Bright knight of the analog soul
Going deeper with Tiny Telephone's John Vanderslice
By Duncan Scott Davidson
John Vanderslice goes straight for the guy with the bouzouki. He's
taking me on a tour of his recording studio, analog haven Tiny
Telephone, located in an industrial space at the base of Potrero Hill,
directly across from a giant, rusted rocket engine belonging to
Survival Research Laboratories.
He's about to pick the melon-shaped instrument up from its stand out
of sheer exuberance, but he checks himself and asks its owner, "Do you
mind?" It has four sets of strings, paired in octaves like a 12-string
guitar, and some fancy inlay work. He gives it a tentative strum,
trying to suss out the tuning, before gingerly replacing it. "Anything
but an electric guitar excites me."
It's a strange statement coming from a guitar player. But Vanderslice
isn't simply a guitar player — he's a complex commodity. He looks calm
enough in his tattered, holey sweater and wide-wale corduroys. But
it's like the surface tension on a water droplet. It can only briefly
hold back an inexorable motion, and the seeming stillness on the
outside belies the seething, wild Brownian motion beneath.
Tapestry of the unknown
Google "'John Vanderslice' + 'analog'" and you'll get around 100,000
hits. This shouldn't be shocking. For one, there are five "official"
solo albums on Barsuk, as well as three with his previous band, mk
Ultra; for another, there's his studio, boasting a 30-channel Neve
mixing board that once belonged to the BBC, and dozens of vintage
amps, preamps, and effects, some of them fairly wacky, like the huge
anodized metal "plate in a box" reverb. One can comfortably call him
an analog purist. He even calls himself that. Sometimes.
Like most purists, there's a persnicketiness to his passion. I'm
reminded of the older guys at the BMX track who refuse to ride
aluminum bikes: "Steel is real," they're always saying. For
Vanderslice too, steel is real — as are the glass tubes and the
magnetic tape that runs from reel to reel to capture it all. When it
comes to his own records, he has "these militant rules about what we
can and can't do as far as using effects. If we want an effect on an
instrument, we have to record it that way. My thing is, if you want it
to be some way, make it that way and commit to it. Don't be
half-assed. If you want it to sound fucked-up or modulated or
distorted or delayed, let's go for it. Record it that way, print it on
tape, and then it's part of the tapestry. It's done."
"It is done" were that last words of Jesus Christ, and when
Vanderslice is up in arms, hunched over his cup of tea, the ardent
analog guru preaching the tube gospel, they're murmured with similar
prophetic urgency. But that's just the molecular lockdown on the
surface of the drop. Underneath: movement. His records — especially as
they move away from being "guitar records" — are all about that
tapestry. The song, lyrics, chorus, melody, and bridge — these are the
structural elements that build the house. But you have to peek in the
windows to see what's really going on: the art on the walls, that
tapestry he's talking about and how intricately it's woven. "Exodus
Damage" on his most recent album, last year's Pixel Revolt, has got
mellotron "synthesizing" (sans computer), a choir, pipe organ,
strings, and a flute. Instrumentally, the album's all over the place —
it's like a warehouse with cello, Hammond B3, Wurlitzer, glockenspiel,
vibraphone, steel drums, trumpet, moog, tape loops, and a "space
station," among other things. There's a lot going on, on different
levels, and you've got to do more than peek through the windows to
really get Pixel Revolt; you've got to come inside and sit down.
Vanderslice constructs his music in that honest, brick-by-brick way of
the analog stickler, but it's not as if he just mics it up, tapes it
down, and it's ready to go. He manipulates his songs using techniques
that might be more readily associated with the digital side of things.
He builds them, then deconstructs them and builds something else. I'm
reminded of Bob Geldof in The Wall, where he smashes everything in the
hotel room and builds something that, at first glance, is obtuse and
impenetrable but is clearly imbued with deeper meaning for having been
recontextualized. Vanderslice takes digital techniques and analog-izes
them. He uses Tiny Telephone like a punch card machine, a steam-driven
"I like using the analog instruments of the studio, meaning
compressors and mic pres and effects as instruments," he explains.
"When you start combining all these things — the keyboard into some
mic pre you found in a pawn shop into some weird compressor into delay
— you get some unknowable results. Chasing down that kind of shit is
fascinating for me."
"I'd harbored hope that the intelligence that once inhabited novels or
films would ingest rock," Lou Reed once said. "I was, perhaps, wrong."
Like most Lou Reed quotes or songs or looks, he's both right and
wrong. Most rock has ceased to even aspire to the literary.
Traditional rock lyrics are the domain of the first-person diarist.
Vanderslice's songs, however, are sonic novellas, small, encapsulated
narratives whose meaning sometimes bleeds into the silence between
tracks to form the greater novel of the album. Not surprisingly for an
artist with so much happening musically on that other level, stories
of the covert permeate JV's records. Mass Suicide Occult Figurines
(2000) takes us behind the scenes of a drug operation on "Speed Lab."
Life and Death of an American Fourtracker (2002) follows the
semi-institutionalized ruination of its lead character's life and
love. Of late, 2004's Cellar Door features the shaky ruminations of a
special ops type, musing on shady dealings from Columbia to
GuantÃ¡namo: "The screams I've heard / It'd fuck up a weaker man / But
I'm cold, I'm so untouchable."
The characters that inhabit Vanderslice's music are not the musician.
But, then again, maybe they are. "'Speed Lab,'" he tells me, "is a
metaphor for starting a band or starting a studio and having those
things implode." Pixel Revolt's "Dear Sarah Shu" reads like a Gabriel
GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez magical-realist rendition of a spy novel, a
world-weary resignation note from an outgoing CIA station chief to his
replacement: "Your office will flood every night / It's water, don't
try to fight it / Suspend all your files using / My system of hanging
wires." On another level, it's a note written to himself at a moment
when he felt like giving up on music entirely: "In the end, it is love
/ You'll have to learn to survive."
And in the end, nothing is what it seems. With that in mind, how
apropos that JT LeRoy, San Francisco's own mythological literary
amalgam, enigma, and trickster, would strike up an e-mail
correspondence with Vanderslice. Long before author Stephen Beachy put
the screws to LeRoy, JV had his doubts. "I grew up in Florida and
Georgia," he says. "So I had a very thick Southern accent. JT LeRoy is
supposedly from West Virginia — I didn't understand where this dialect
was coming from." He parodies LeRoy's hodgepodge, quasi–Dirty South
e-mail stylings: "Yo, y'all up in the place ..." then breaks up
laughing. "I wouldn't say that I thought it was fake, but there was a
put-on aspect to it."
Why did LeRoy contact him to begin with? "The dialogue devolved into
me helping JT LeRoy with either gift items for a fundraiser or
contacts with my label — or to help him with shows," he recalls.
Apparently Laura Albert, the woman widely believed to be the pen
behind LeRoy's writing, is in a band, Thistle. "Lyrics by JT LeRoy is
their big thing, if you go to their Web site," Vanderslice says. "The
whole construct is to get their band some fuckin' love. It's so
Your personal Jazz Age
Vanderslice is not feeling scammed by the duplicity of the whole
thing. It is, after all, his "favorite story of the decade," and I
assume he gave up no signed boxer shorts for a charity auction. More
than that, I get the feeling that whatever one does artistically is OK
with him, as long as one commits to it and, most important, does it
Sometimes one of Vanderslice's favorite bands will come into his
studio and will end up making a "terrible" record. Conversely, there
are times when, he explains, "I'm like, 'This band's not my thing.'
They come in here and they make a record that's mind-blowing. Art is a
blank slate. You can't ever know where someone's going to come from or
what they're capable of. You have to have ultimate faith in creative
As the soldiers in Vietnam used to say to echo an uncontested fact of
reality: "There it is." When I was sitting across the table from
Vanderslice at Tiny Telephone, and later at Martha and Bros. on 24th
Street, we talked about a lot of things. Two guys, shuckin' and
jivin', taking the piss and holding court on everything from politics
to inflatable love dolls. Two guys who like to talk. JV has this way
of saying, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," when you're making a point. He's not
interrupting or trying to speed you up — he just agrees and wants you
to know it.
But there was a pause after "You have to have ultimate faith in
creative people." I damn sure paused in front of my Mac and let that
line sink in while typing this interview up. That was some serious
science, some Yoda shit: "Try? There is no try. There is only do or do
It hit me. Not because it was some cool rock 'n' roll power statement,
but because it was a vow I needed to renew within myself. Humility
aside, it's not the talent or lack thereof that kicks me in the ass as
a "creative person." It's the fear. It's the lack of belief, the idea
that, well, Fitzgerald was Fitzgerald when he was in his 20s,
listening to jazz and drinking champagne in Paris. By the time he was
my age, he was a self-admittedly miserable drunk who'd sold his soul
to Hollywood: "In the long dark night of the soul, it is always 3
o'clock in the morning."
But he didn't go down without a fight, and not without Gatsby. So when
I'm feeling that 3 a.m. of the soul, I'm going to go back with a
flashlight, and I'm searching for that ultimate faith. SFBG
With Laura Veirs and Division Day
May 12, 9 p.m.
628 Divisadero, SF