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

An Interview with John Vanderslice

by Zach Schonfeld

21 July 2013


Vanderslice on David Bowie's career arc, Twitter, and the Not-So-Mysterious "Dana Lok" ...

Of all the David Bowie albums you could possibly choose to cover, why Diamond Dogs?

It was a problematic album for me. I felt that it was a strange, transitional album for him. I also felt like it was the end of his really heavy drug use, his associative, cut-up lyric approach that he was using for the previous couple of years. It was the absolute death of any kind of glam or psychedelic influence. In some strange way, it felt like the end of his useful and kind of irrational music-making period. From that point on, things move very quickly. They move into a much different direction. You can draw a line from Young Americans to Let’s Dance.

Then you have the wonderful Berlin trio. And then you get to the record I was initially going to cover, Scary Monsters. I think in some ways it’s the last experimental record he made. His singing is at its most bizarre and in some ways most intoxicating. Honestly, I couldn’t find my way—I couldn’t approach it.

For me, Diamond Dogs had some of his greatest, most enthralling moments, even in some of his weaker and more confused songs, and I love that. His strength often was that he was clearly a genius who was in the middle of an unbelievable string of albums. I don’t think anyone is close to doing what he was doing in the ‘70s. Even from a sonic or recording point of view. But I do like that he moved so quickly. My bandmates were just like “This is terrible,” and I was like “I don’t have any distance, I grew up with this stuff.” It’s like saying the bible is hoaxy.

Have you heard the new Bowie album? What do you think?

I haven’t heard it! I’m definitely going to buy it one day. I’m always behind the curve, man. For instance, I just got Atoms For Peace. I’m a major Radiohead
fan. I’m not really on Spotify right now and I was for a couple of years and was hearing everything right when it came out.

Have you been into any other new releases lately?

The Samantha Green record just came out; that was the record I produced last year and I hadn’t heard it in five months and that’s arguably one of the best records I’ve ever worked on. There’s a lot of really interesting stuff happening at the studio. Definitely going back to a lot of Fiery Furnaces. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Destroyer, I got back into Rubies.

What sort of stuff were you listening to while writing and recording Dagger Beach?

There were two or three records that I was absolutely obsessed with [and] that I think really, really affected me. The first one is Have One On Me [by Joanna Newsom]. I heard it when it came out and I think that the overbearing marathon length of the album kind of pushed me away at the beginning. And basically I started just camping alone a lot, hiking a lot last year, and I would find myself drawn to that album. I think it’s a perfect pastoral album. I think it absolutely makes sense in a forest and also blazingly high on marijuana.

That’s interesting, since most of your own albums are so short. Dagger Beach is under 40 minutes.

I have a promise to myself. Pixel was the only record that ever went over 40 or 42 minutes. Personally, I think there’s a golden ratio of two 20-minute sides. Ingmar Bergman films are often an hour and 40 minutes, they’re not two hours and 40 minutes. I mean, houses can be 1,200 square feet or 2,400 square feet and at some point they’re totally inefficient. I believe that albums have been very, very compromised. I’m a major hip hop fan and I think hip hop has shot itself in the foot a thousand times by embracing the 65-minute album. It’s not possible to pay attention to that much content. You have your Quadrophenia, but shit—those happened in a couple-year pockets when these people were burning white hot.

[But] the high points on Have One On Me are some of the greatest music ever made.

Let’s talk about Dagger Beach. It sounds pretty raw and rough in parts, but also more synth-based than many of your previous albums.

I think that more and more I record and think about the sonic space that’s available. I mean, a painter has to look at a blank canvass and say, “What do I have available? What do I add here?” I was just in the Young Museum looking at the Pablo Picasso Minotaur painting, and it was just black and white and yellow. And you think, “OK, there’s just going to be one figure on this canvass and two colors and the negative use of a color.” And how do you want to fill up space? How do you want to use negative space?

There’s so much more control in the sonic space and dimension that [synthesizers] take up compared to an electric guitar. I’ve always favored acoustic guitars even if they’re distorted. Emerald City is completely drenched with distorted acoustic guitar. Distorted acoustic guitar has so much more of a fine, specific, and dynamic space.

Honestly, [Dagger Beach opening track] “Raw Wood” to me felt like one of the biggest departures I’ve done in years. There are 16 electric guitars on it. They’re all improvised. That’s why you have a lot of dissonance on that song. And there’s also a lot of accidental and one-of-a-kind errors that happened, whether it’s a delay sweep or a weird note cluster. I spent about an hour recording the guitars and I spent about four hours erasing the guitars. The whole album is linear—I just erased stuff. That’s very common for the way that I work. So I began to rely on synthesizers to provide me with counterpart without taking up a lot of space. And that became very, very important to the way that I was writing and working.

You’re able to get such a unique, powerful drum sound as well.

There’s a dynamic space in the drums. But it’s not macho. Often we’re using compressors as opposed to any kind of room mic to create this sense of volume. I’ve had really good luck that I’ve been able to watch a lot of great drummers work. Jason Slota is the drummer that you would recognize that sound. He’s on tour with Thao right now.

You recorded [2011 album] White Wilderness in only three days with a live orchestra and it was a major break from the production process of all your other albums. Do you think you’ll ever do an experiment like that again?

I’m open to doing an experiment, but I’ll never come close to that experience again. I actually got very sour on that experience. I really have very little regrets in my life because I think it’s essential that you fill out the outer reaches of the possibilities that are going to work for you. But the thing I’ve always done is have reflections. I’ve had time to experiment in the studio. And people watch me record and they’re really shocked at how fast I work. I think people hear the record and they overestimate how careful I am in the recording. I’m actually very lazy sometimes. I really like raw edges and I like stuff that doesn’t sound like it’s quite figured out yet. I don’t want to be stuck in a room for hundreds of hours.

I think the White Wilderness experience was a crazy reaction of “Let’s see what happens when I shut the door on this revision process or this erasing process or this introspective record-making.” The rule was that I wasn’t the one to go into the control room.

So I’m just not as inspired by a live recording. And that’s essentially what that is. I always feel that things have to be subverted. All the basics were done in 15 hours. Almost everything on that record was done in 15 hours.

So it sounds like you’re unsatisfied with how that album came out?

I am. I wouldn’t say I’m deeply unsatisfied because I don’t think it’s fair to engineers that worked on the record. I kind of created a problem deliberately. Everyone was certainly on board when I said, “Hey guys, let’s make a record in three days.” Everyone was like, “That sounds great, let’s do it.” Like it’s a Frank Sinatra record. I think that when you have essentially 45 minutes to get sounds, you’re putting everyone at a great disadvantage. I’m not into neo-realist film. I’m into Paul Thomas Anderson. I’m not interested in a live recording. I’m interested in Hail to the Thief. And it doesn’t mean I don’t like live orchestral recordings, because I do.

[White Wilderness] feels a little bit strange to me, and I think my singing could’ve been better. I felt the way most bands feel in the studio really intensely for the first time. I’ve always been shielded from, like, making records in an impossible amount of time because I’ve invested heavily in my albums. I started a recording studio to cover up this enormous expense that I’ve committed myself to doing on record. So I have complicated feelings towards that album in a way that I don’t have towards any other album.

Speaking of Paul Thomas Anderson, your songs are often inspired by movies.

They are because I just watch so many of them. During Cellar Door I was thinking I could forever just make songs inspired on or based on film. It’s the perfect medium. It’s the most complicated thing to get right, and when people get it right, it’s the most amazing thing. I would say that film has been the most inspiring thing for me. The film world for me is just a magic kingdom.

You tackled a lot of political subjects on Pixel Revolt and Emerald City, and it seems Dagger Beach and your other recent records have been about much more personal subjects. Has this been a conscious decision?

I think what happened was you—and this happens not only lyrically but also musically—you dig into the ground and you find this freshwater spring and you drink as much from the spring as you can and then you just move on and dig somewhere else. I think I just got it out of my system.
Dagger Beach was a period of great depression for me. I was in a six-year relationship where we were married and that person, who’s a fantastic person and still very much in my life, ended the relationship in a way where she might as well have said that she was trying out for the javelin Olympics team. It was the most shocking news that I ever received. And the timing of the news and the state of our relationship—it was an absolutely horrific blow that just tumbled me into profound depression. It’s very common, but I might as well have been 12 years old. It was a catastrophic event. And I navigated that event very much alone. I decided to keep it from all of the people in my life for two or three months. I’m in a very complicated social system with the recording studio; that person was then working at the studio and still works at the studio. So it was extremely difficult for me to navigate that separation.

That sounds so difficult. Can I include that information in the interview?

Yes, you can. If I feel like someone is evading a question or not being truthful or real about their life, I actually get kind of angry with them. So I don’t want to be that person.

Which songs on Dagger Beach do you think directly address this breakup experience?

Oh, man. Almost every song, in varying degrees. “Raw Wood” and “How the West Was Won” are clearly narratives at least taking into account this psychic break that I had with someone. And there are songs like “Song for David Berman”, which were born out of this period of becoming very re-obsessed with The Natural Bridge. And that feels like a profound breakup album for me. I really, really love his writing. And I wanted to write a love letter to [Silver Jews vocalist] David Berman. 

Do you know David Berman personally?

I’ve met him. We’ve been in correspondence, I’ve reached out to him. I wouldn’t say he’s a close friend of mine. He’s come to three or four shows of mine. I love him. But I don’t need to push it more than that.

There’s another song on the record called “Song for Dana Lok”. Who’s Dana Lok?

About a year from this breakup that I had with my then-wife I met someone named Dana Lok, who I fell intensely in love with [and] who I’m currently very much in a very intense relationship with. So I wrote her a song. I don’t think she knew how much I was falling in love with her. I essentially wrote her a postcard. She was coming to visit me, so I wanted to write her a postcard from San Francisco about why I needed her to come and visit me. And it was really important that I wrote her a song. I wrote a couple of other songs that were just for her.

I ended up liking the song so much that I had to put it on the album. And I think she was pretty stunned when I asked her if I could name it after her, but it is a song for her. I think she was, like, stunned and shocked and I think she knew that I was going to do it either way.

Oh look, I just crossed into Los Angeles County!

Cool! I meant to ask this because you mentioned it in your voicemail: what’s the deal with the landlords of Tiny Telephone? Why is there a song for them?

Let’s just say that if I name a song after you, you’re, like, wrapped into every fiber of my being. The landlords of Tiny Telephone are this wonderful thing. I won’t say their name. But they’re actually somewhat famous. They’re great people, but they’re landowners. They have their own needs and worries and agendas and pressures. And it’s a consortium and kind of a collection of family members with competing interests. My faith has been tied to them for 16 or 17 years. They’re sitting on some incredibly valuable land and they’re running into me with my two recording studios trying to eke it out in San Francisco. Part of the reason I’m going to open a third studio in Oakland is I don’t have space anymore in San Francisco and I just need a third room.

I wrote a song not really for them, but in the hopes that my relationship with landlords can remain pure and strong and they see fit to protect my very fragile interests.

You maintain such a close and positive relationship with your fans, and I think the whole Kickstarter thing and the decision to play more house shows is such a great example of that. Is it ever difficult for you to keep this up?

I would say no because I’m always so in tune with my personality. I’m a really democratic person; I’m really anti-hierarchical and very democratic and I don’t think that it’s any more interesting if you write a song or if you work at Apple or if you work at the Social Security Administration or if you’re unemployed because you’re disabled. What’s the difference? Who cares?

I could smell disdain that some bands that I knew had for their fans. And it was distasteful for me and so dishonest. I think that’s born of a certain self-hatred. I say this from personal experience, from going up to bands when I was, like, 18 and a super-fan and getting incredibly bad vibes from bands that I love. And even local bands. The great thing about the Internet is that it completely destroys a band’s ability to be snobbish to their fans. But it’s very easy to forget that before message boards, the default style of an indie band was not to be so caring or polite to the people interested in their music. I’m not going to mention some of the bands, but you would definitely know them. Some of them were very negative, and it really hurt my feelings. I’ll never forget the feeling of being dissed by your hero.

You probably know this, but I don’t write anything on Twitter unless I want to write on Twitter. I think people also appreciate communication that is somewhat genuine. For me, I’ve never been untrue to the natural feelings that I have towards people who like my music. I think we have an ethical agreement with other creatures, as long as they’re good people.

Do you often receive communication in return from fans of yours?

It’s been the most thrilling thing in the world. When people write you, it’s just peer-to-peer. You get actually real conversations. I’m very good friends with people who were fans of mine in 2001. Joe Williams—the guy who’s doing all my artwork now—he started out as a fan of my music. That’s really important, developing these relationships into something more organic and more meaningful.

OK, last question. Out of curiosity, what are your plans in L.A. this weekend?

I’m actually buying some audio equipment for the studio. Also, I’m going to eat some killer Korean food while I’m here.

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