John Vanderslice has been around long enough to know that you aren’t doing anything worthwhile if you aren’t doing it your way. That’s why he can release both a new record and a David Bowie-centered project in the same year, start his own label and just cut out all the details associated with the typical rock star life because they just don’t interest him.
If anything, Vanderslice is the anti-rock star. He’s worked hard to carve out his corner of the industry, and his latest album, Dagger Beach, shows the beauty from eschewing such convention. Here’s an inside look at an important yet atypical artist, one we admire and appreciate.
Stereo Subversion: Dagger Beach is really warm and inviting, and yet it has these left-of-center moments. And then I read a quote from you that described the album as ‘weird and wonderful.’ Can you tell us more about what you mean by that?
John Vanderslice: I’m a songwriter of a fairly conservative and well-trodden lot, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I grew up being obsessed with Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan and a lot of the bands that a lot of other people are obsessed with and there’s nothing wrong with that either. [Both laugh] But essentially, a good singer-songwriter sitting down with a guitar, you’re firmly in a history of a knowable performance and lyrical narrative.
For me, the thing I really try to do with my albums is to take a song that makes sense structurally on a guitar, and lyrically make sure it’s something that’s interesting and compelling. The heaviest lifting I probably do is on melody lines; that’s the thing I probably change the most when I’m writing the lyrics.
You owe it to the listener. There has to be newness, and there has to be an unfamiliarity. There has to be new territory in there somewhere.
So the challenge for me is how to take this song and make it very abstract and surreal and sonically surprising, while having it retain its basic structure so that somewhere inside the song it completely makes sense. That involves a lot of trial and error.
SSv: Any examples?
John: A lot of the songs—like, for instance, the second song on the record, “Harlequin Press”—that’s a very irrational presentation of a very simple song. It’s really like a seven-verse song without a chorus, and there are only two melody lines in the song. So you’re dealing with, in some ways, very restricted material, and the song itself makes no sense.
If you were to chart it out, count measures, count the time signatures and key changes and also try to make sense of that middle figure—which is completely irrational that it would essentially go into an anti-drum solo with a clarinet and flute [both laugh]—I mean, that’s the stuff that is thrilling to me.
That, to me, is what is weird and wonderful. It pushes against everything that a songwriter would want to do to a song. All of those changes were very involuntary. Basically, I wrote a very simple song, I had my drummer go into a room and play a completely disconnected drum beat to the tempo that I wanted, and I fit the song on top of his drum beat, and it took me about four months to do it.
SSv: What is it that makes you want to take these sort of dissonant things and link them together? Is it about staying interested or appreciating a challenge?
John: Probably. I mean I think that’s there, but I also think you owe it to the listener. There has to be newness, and there has to be an unfamiliarity. There has to be new territory in there somewhere. Lyrically, I feel like that’s there. I can make weird stories. The whole point of “Harlequin Press” is that a girl tries to sell a romance novel and then decides that instead of just adding more sexual content, which is what the editor wants her to do, she makes it horrific. [Laughs]
I like narratives like that, but the music has to mirror that. There’s nothing more thrilling than something irrational working out, musically. For me, that’s thrilling. I’m addicted to it.
But also, as a listener, I’m completely enthralled when someone like the Animal Collective does it, or there are some moments on the new Atoms for Peace record where I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t know what the fuck they’re doing.’ I’m not really hung up on genre or anything, but there’s a point where you hear something that’s so firmly placed, and I need something weird, that’s off the reservation, or it just doesn’t seem valid.
You think of David Rawlings or Gillian Welch and that’s very extreme, very unusual. You have live analog performances in 2013, you know, with a couple that’s sitting in front of a microphone like it’s 1940. So it’s not just going forward, you know what I mean? It’s not just being futuristic that interests me, but I do like making futuristic music that’s all analog-based.
SSv: Let’s talk about both projects through a bigger lens. It seems like a lot to bite off to have such a robust vision for the year. Were there any concerns about that heading into the projects?
John: I’m not saying no because it looks pretty mapped out, but the David Bowie thing was accidental. I was asked to do a local show in a theater. My friend bought a movie theater and he asked me to do this Folk Yeah Presents show where I pick a movie and play a record that has a San Francisco theme. I started thinking about it and I was like, ‘Man, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do Vertigo and then play some, like, hippie record.’ So I emailed him back and asked him if I could just do anything and he said I could, so I said, ‘I’m gonna do Scary Monsters and Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York.’
I started thinking about it, and I went hiking once and I got really high and was listening to Scary Monsters, and I was like, ‘No, this is not the record to do.’ So I thought about it again and decided to do Bowie’s Diamond Dogs and Science of Sleep, and they both felt very connected to me. They had this similar future/past problem.
So we paired them up and my band and I learned Diamond Dogs, which was really difficult to do. It took us maybe ten rehearsals, and then we did one stupid show. [Both laugh] It was like 100 people there and I was pissed because it was so much work. It was an awesome show and the people were great, but that was it; it was just a one-off. We didn’t record it, it was just gone into the ether and I just thought, ‘I’ve got to record this.’
It was so much fun and so different than the album, and my bandmates don’t know David Bowie, nor did they care at all about David Bowie, so I thought that was even more interesting. They never heard that album. They knew “Rebel, Rebel” and that’s it. So basically I just decided, “I’m going to put out a record, maybe I should be on my own label. I don’t want to be on a label anymore.” All of this stuff was kind of accidental.
So I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll be on my own label and put out my record, so maybe I should put out a companion something because I’m probably going to have to do a pre-order,’ so then I started thinking about recording the Diamond Dogs stuff. We booked five days in the studio and so then it was like the die was cast.
So then as we got closer to the album, I realized I have a lot of money problems. I’ve had to borrow a lot of money and I’m constantly buying audio equipment. I don’t really care about money. I don’t have any control over my bank accounts, because if I did then I would just buy stuff. I’m really irrational with money. I want to buy a 1904 Steinway, and everyone in my life is trying to prevent me from doing that. My accountant, who’s my ex-girlfriend, really shields me from terrible decisions. [Both laugh]
So then I realized that I couldn’t put out an album on my own because of my finances. There was just no way I was going to be able to come up with $30,000 to print the album, so that’s when the Kickstarter stuff came in.
So all of this stuff, it’s not accidental, but it was very casual. It was like, “Hmm, maybe I should talk to someone about Kickstarter,” and then I thought, ‘Wow, that might actually be smart.’ And then we were just going to do a free download of Diamond Dogs but then we said, ‘Fuck, this album sounds good. Let’s print it on two-hundred-gram vinyl.’ And then before long your whole year gets crazy busy and you put out two records and you’re running a real label.
SSv: So this whole thing felt very organic from start to finish?
John: Yeah. I knew it would be very smart for me to pair up the new album with something. I have this really cool record of demos I haven’t released yet, so my first thought was “I’ll do White Wilderness demos.” And then my friend was like, “Fuck that, man. That’s old hat. Do something new.” So I thought, “I’ll just do this Diamond Dogs download,” and it wasn’t until we recorded it and spent so much time getting inside it…we rehearsed so much. The whole record, top to bottom, is killer.
SSv: Is this going to be difficult for you, promotion-wise? Is one album going to get shortchanged? How does releasing two albums in a year affect your rhythm?
John: I guess it kind of works out because Dagger Beach was the exhausting record that took nine months to record, and Diamond Dogs, because we were working from a template, was so much easier to deal with and make. And also the art work and everything around Dagger Beach is way more intense. It’s a four-color deal with inserts and it’s just kind of done up, while Diamond Dogs is much simpler. And also, I just feel like I don’t even have to pay attention to Diamond Dogs because it’s like a lark, you know? I definitely play Bowie covers now because of it but they’re often not from Diamond Dogs.
I feel that maybe from a shipping standpoint…we had a lot of pre-orders on the Kickstarter and I’m kind of a lone wolf. I have really good friends, but I’m kind of just doing stuff on my own. I mean a couple friends have offered to help me ship, and my girlfriend won’t be here at that time—she would be fucking awesome to have help with this stuff—but I think that that’s when it’s going to get intense, when I’m actually running the mail order department of all this stuff.
SSv: But you had to be so pleased with the response.
John: It was way beyond what I expected.
SSv: What do you learn about your fanbase as a result of such an outpouring of support like this?
John: The thing that I think is interesting is that you can make a fan and that there is a longevity that feels pretty rewarding. If you’re in a band and you get a fan, you bled for that fan. People will email me and say, ‘I saw you at Grog Shop in 2003 and then again in 2009,’ and then you think, ‘Man that show in 2003 was terrible. That was a really hard part of the tour.’ Then you think, ‘Shit, in 2009 I was actually sick on that part of the tour,’ or ‘that was at the end of 40 shows in a row.’
So it kind of reminds you how difficult it is to do this door-to-door selling stuff, you know? And there are just flashes of, ‘Wow, I was physically in this place that many times?’ Like I’ve probably played at least 9 or 10 shows in St. Louis, and that’s a town you don’t hit every tour.
So there is a reminder, but it’s a pretty amazing thing when someone says to you, ‘I’ve been following you since this time and bought all these records and I want to buy these other ones I don’t have yet and want to pre-order the new ones.’ It feels like no matter many busted experiences you’ve had on tour, it may just be your brain’s chemistry just tricking you into surviving a little bit longer, but it feels really, really worthwhile.
It feels pretty amazing, and so I don’t have a real conflicted feeling about creativity or touring. I’m definitely touring less now because I made a decision that it’s much better for me to be at the studio every day, and it’s better for the engineers and I just don’t like being in bars. It’s just not who I am. I like gardening. I like working on cabinetry. I’m a weird person. I like watching Turner Classic Movies and walking in the park. [Laughs]
Torture for me would be being at a rock club. It would be utter, complete torture. I would rather be washing dishes in the back of the rock club. And that’s honest. I just don’t like it and I never really got into it. I don’t drink. I mean I love alcohol in theory, but I just don’t drink that much. I don’t know, I’m just into being with my girlfriend and hanging out with my cats.
There are a lot of artists who despise touring. I mean they hate it so much, you would not believe it. And they’re forced to do it, really mostly by a voice in their own head because labels cannot be blamed for pushing bands out on tour. The bands feel like it’s a requirement of being part of a band that they have to spend six months out of the year touring, probably doing permanent damage to their hearing, possibly undermining their relationship with their significant others and their friends consistently—which I used to do, and I don’t want to do that anymore.
SSv: Do you feel like the anti-rock star?
John: I do because if I ever feel any sort of hierarchical excitement from anyone at the studio, like if someone gets excited because someone has a cultural position they want to be around or eventually get, that makes me feel sad for them and it makes me feel queasy. I really don’t give a fuck about anything like that, man. I just don’t get it. Philosophically there’s no difference between people, so why would it matter?