"I Operate Much Better When There's a Lot to Lose"

An Interview with John Vanderslice

by Zach Schonfeld

21 July 2013

Having found a brand new sense of independence, John Vanderslice is making music directly for his fans, and speaks to PopMatters unflinchingly about his career, Kickstarter, his personal heartbreaks, and all that went into making Dagger Beach, his latest opus.
cover art

John Vanderslice

Dagger Beach

(Tiny Telephones)
US: 11 Jun 2013

Review [25.Aug.2013]

One morning in December, 2012, John Vanderslice woke with a revelation. His wasn’t sourced to the Mayan Calendar, but it was radical all the same: he would leave Secretly Canadian, his record label of five years, and begin self-releasing albums on his own Tiny Telephone label, granting himself the autonomy he hungrily desired. Meanwhile, to account for the level of commitment involved—as well as the “psychic costs” inflicted from months of relentless touring, particularly following 2011’s White Wilderness—he resolved to tour much less and focus energy on his famously intimate living room shows.

Not that Vanderslice is any stranger to DIY production processes. Since the tail end of the 1990s, when he served as a member of the San Francisco band MK Ultra, Vanderslice has owned and operated Tiny Telephone, his own 3000-square foot, analog recording studio. Between recording everyone from Deerhoof to Mountain Goats, Vanderslice has taken advantage of the luxury of studio time and space to carve out a thrillingly experimental and often intensely personal solo career. His latest work, Dagger Beach, fits both attributes.

Still, the prospect of self-releasing chilled Vanderslice. Intending to make Dagger Beach, as well a song-by-song cover of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, available to fans, he naturally launched a Kickstarter campaign.

“Honestly, I’m terrified to put out my own records,” Vanderslice wrote in the pitch. “For a week after I made the decision, I had intense insomnia and deep regret. Later, I moved to something like terror + incredible excitement. Now, after further reflection, it’s clear to me: I was born for this.”

He went on: “Self-releasing facilitates a high level of productivity and quickens the production process—I also believe it provides an ultra-genuine, unmediated connection to people who care about what I do.”

Vanderslice maintains a closer-than-average relationship with said people, and he reached his stated goal of $18,500 within hours, eventually landing close to a staggering $80,000 in donations. And so after months of struggle, uncertainty, and post-Kickstarter envelope-licking, Dagger Beach was sent to donors in April—and made commercially available last month.

I caught up with Vanderslice in March, not long after the Kickstarter was unveiled. After several days of playing phone tag between our mutually busy schedules, the native Floridian left me a voicemail, inviting me to call him any time the following Saturday afternoon as he drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles. “I will be a prisoner of my car,” he promised, “and we’ll be able to have a much better conversation.” As he correctly surmised, we chatted for well over an hour, discussing everything from the new record to record label dynamics to listening to Joanna Newsom while “blazingly high on marijuana.”

Here is our conversation in its entirety.

* * *

Why leave your label, Dead Oceans [a subdivision of Secretly Canadian], and release your album on Tiny Telephone? What brought you to this decision?

I wouldn’t say there was a great negative of being on Dead Oceans. I spent years on the label. But there is a well-known album production and touring cycle that happens. It’s slower, it’s more deliberate, it’s more thoughtful. And that cycle and that kind of spacing of the process, it began to feel less and less modern. I’m an Internet person! I’m online, I listen to tons of stuff that’s being recorded by, like, some micro-artist last week and they just post it and then move on with their life and they’re not even releasing albums. They’re just completely off to the side of that. 

A lot of these people were in the studio. And I began to get jealous of these artists who could be incredibly fast and agile, and I felt that it was fostering creativity. They’re putting out like three songs—they’re not adhering to a label’s roster, they are completely untethered from any other system. And I began to feel like after eight albums on really, really good labels, I would feel really challenged by going on my own and it would probably change the type of record that I made. And that was the most exciting part.

So do you feel like it did change the type of record that you made?

Absolutely! For instance, I knew the sequence of the album as I was writing it. I knew that I wasn’t going to have to run the sequence, run the artwork, run the content by anyone. It’s not the fault of labels that they get involved. But there was something amazing about going back to this feeling like when I was putting together my own four-track stuff when I first started writing. There was no superstructure that was hanging over my album-making. And it definitely made a much different record.

There’s that whole idea in journalism of self-editing and self-censoring, and you certainly see that all the time in political writing today and it’s very powerful. For instance, I was able to just cover David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs without running it by my label. They might have said it was the greatest idea in the world or they might not have said it’s the greatest idea in the world. But I didn’t even think about. I just booked studio time and eight days later I’m in there with the band. Totally different process.

Has Dead Oceans ever asked you to change the sequencing on a record or change the artwork? Have they made creative decisions that you didn’t agree with?

Well, you’re often reaching out to your label. I was lucky to be on Dead Oceans. I was lucky to be on Barsuk. These labels are run by very smart people. Phil [Waldorf] at Dead Oceans and Josh [Rosenfeld] at Barsuk have very clear ideas about music. And that’s why they run good labels.

So you rope them in and before long someone else is roped in and before long someone else is roped in. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s awesome, because you are seeking feedback from a really, really good group of people, but the problem is the committee decision-making, it’s not the fault of the individual. And I think that there’s nothing like one person making unilateral decisions when it comes to art. You’re getting the most distilled essence. I do believe that Dagger Beach is a very pure statement of my aesthetic decision-making in 2013. There’s no doubt about it. There was no other person involved in the decision-making. And the musicians who played on the album—because they were the only ones who’d even heard it—had a much bigger voice than anyone else. And that definitely changed the album.

I wouldn’t say that any of my records suffered from being edited through committee, but I would say that it feels amazing to not have that. Who knows, two records from now I could be absolutely desperate for some kind of team to help me through the process.

At what point did you come to this decision about self-releasing?

I woke up one day, I think, in late December. I just woke up and it was very, very clear that I wasn’t going to be on a label for some time.

That was this past December? Wow.

Yeah, it was relatively recent. The record was in full swing. And I also felt that I was making a weirder record. From my standpoint—I don’t know how these things are perceived—I felt it was the most abstract record I had ever made. And I didn’t want it to be altered in any way. And so that was a big part of it. Also, I knew that it was going to be more dangerous for me to get off of a label. I knew it was going to be a riskier decision. I operate much better when there’s a lot to lose.

I just decided this morning—like, seriously an hour ago—to start a third studio in Oakland. It may be a completely crackers decision and I’ll probably end up blowing 200 grand to do it, but I’m really inspired and exalted by crazy risks in regards to creative ventures.

And you just decided this in the car?

Yes, about an hour ago. It will be called Tiny Telephone Oakland.

That’s awesome. So what frightens you most about self-releasing your records?

You worry that it’s going to be invisible. When I started the Kickstarter, I really was feeling that it was going to get to 20 or 25 [thousand dollars] and I was hoping to get to that point. Listen, labels are incredibly helpful. They’re like megaphones! Dead Oceans has good European distribution—they’re set up to broadcast you! So I was very, very worried that even announcing that I had a new record out on my own label was not going to be enough. Of course, the thing that we have on our side is that the Internet is also a great, beautiful, and very efficient megaphone. So that was extremely helpful for me [and] it kind of allayed my fears.

You know, I haven’t seen the artwork come back from the printers. Barsuk and Dead Oceans—they’re very, very good at producing artwork. They have production managers, they understand what happens to color when it gets printed on a specific paper. And I’m really, really good with fidelity stuff and audio stuff, but the other stuff is much newer to me.

It sounds like you were pretty surprised by how fans reacted to the announcement.

I was thrilled. It was funded in about two-and-a-half hours. I honestly could not believe it. I wouldn’t say it made me feel like, “Oh, this is the right decision,” because these are very, very complicated feelings. I’m really good friends with people at Dead Oceans and Barsuk. You miss them as your friends. You don’t necessarily feel that anything is good or bad or the right decision or the wrong decision, but it did make me think that I can go forward and make the type of record that I want. I’m printing expensive vinyl and I’m making records that cost about $25,000 or $30,000 just in the recording. And that’s what gets me interested, if that’s viable to do without going bankrupt.

You had some really creative prizes for the Kickstarter campaign. What was your favorite of them?

I was proud of the Taqueria Tour. And someone amazing bought that and we’ve been in touch. There are so many different rewards and it reveals something about the interest and the personality of the person that chose the reward.

I have a fondness—I have to say—for anyone that chose the $65 reward that was two new records, no bullshit. First 200-gram pressings of Dagger Beach and Diamond Dogs. Every time I saw that I thought, “That’s a smart motherfucker.” No bullshit, no T-shirt [laughs]. You just cut right to the content. And I loved that reward. I felt like that was kind of amazing, actually.

It’s the purest reward. You’re getting the results of what you’re donating to.

It’s totally pure. And, of course, you’re getting the link to the FLACs and the WAV files and four different gradations of MP3 quality. It’s portable in that way, too. You have a turntable in one location, and that’s going to be your listening environment and that’s a linear kind of space. What I decided to do, which was very important to me—I really hate download codes. I despise passwords. The whole idea of that is just, like, telling people not to smoke pot. It’s just total bullshit—it’s like parental nagging of the lowest order. So it’s going to be extremely accessible and it’s not going to be password-linked where you have this download code that expires. I’m sure you’ve had that happened to you, where you go to this link and then your hard drive gets corrupted and you’re like, “Fuck, I lost all those MP3s.” Maybe one day you decide that you want to have FLAC and that’s not accessible. So I decided to make it very easy for people to have lifelong access.

You also wrote in the Kickstarter pitch that you think this will increase your productivity, which is kind of crazy, since you’ve been steadily releasing at least one album every two years since 2000. How do you think you will be more productive than that?

Well, it’s very common that when you turn in a record—and I would not say that this is specific to Dead Oceans or Barsuk—but it’s very common that if scheduling isn’t right at the label—and what’s happening now is that labels are forced to put out more and more records because sales are going down—so what often happens is you have a window where you have to wait nine months or a year to have your record released from the day you turn it in. And it puts you in a holding pattern, because there is a great disincentive to be creative. Basically once that album comes out, you’re going to have to be touring on it for six months, eight months. There’s just no incentive to use that eight or nine months to make another record, which is the natural thing you should be doing.

You know, Secretly Canadian is distributing the record and that’s a very helpful thing. Still, I’m writing now and recording now, because I know that there will be no barrier for me to release something on the other side. And it’s a big difference. It’s actually much more inspiring.

And it’s not the fault of labels. Labels are in an impossible position; I don’t envy them at all. But I guess I am a label in some function. [laughs]

So do you think you’ll actually be releasing records at a more frequent rate? One record a year now?

What I would like to do is tour less and, as I mentioned in the Kickstarter, I really want to stick to house shows and maybe do one European and one U.S. tour only and make it very, very clear to everyone that that’s what I’ll be able to do schedule-wise because I’m opening a third studio.

I do want to revert back to the run that I had where it was Time Travel [Is Lonely] and Cellar Door and Pixel Revolt. That’s a pace that I really, really liked. It’s freeing, because sometimes the more you write, the more you write. And it’s a really wonderful feedback loop, and you get over this hump where you can start to throw away material. Writing a song can create another song. And once you shut it down and stop writing, it’s very, very difficult to start up again.

Did someone buy the house show on Kickstarter?

I actually sold four house shows. One of them was off of Kickstarter for various reasons, like deadline reasons.

Where are they all?

Philly. San Francisco. Austin, which is gonna be great. My girlfriend is going to drive down with me and I want to show her the desert, so it’ll be a really great road trip. There’s a fourth one in Bellingham, Washington.

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