Make It Beautiful and Trash It

An Interview with John Vanderslice

by Justin Cober-Lake


PopMatters Music Special Sections Editor

I had a mental picture of John Vanderslice as a techie, so I’m not surprised when he starts giving me advice on how to pick a better recorder than the one I was using for our phone interview. You can’t skimp on equipment unless you want trouble. “Look into field recorders and get out of the consumer land,” he says. “I’ve had a world of hurt with gear. All that stuff is totally disposable.” If you’re going to work like Vanderslice works, you’re going to need equipment you can count on.

Listening to Pixel Revolt, Vanderslice’s fifth and most recent solo album, you can tell the good equipment pays off. This disc contains his prettiest production yet, with lovely melodies and open sound juxtaposed against Vanderslice’s unusual, frequently dark lyrics. He creates character studies and brief, surprising narratives on each song, and the sounds he produces complete the world these people inhabit, either guiding us through it or keeping us away from the secrets at the core of the stories. Vanderslice has managed to mesh his skills as producer, performer and songwriter to allow each to enhance the others.

I won’t be in a studio anytime soon, but I’m just as comfortable taking Vanderslice’s advice on journalist gear. He’s done more interviews than I have, writing for places such as Tape Op and DIW. I ask him if he’d rather be on my end of the interview, and he says with a laugh that he wouldn’t. “I hate interviewing because most people are not super-verbal. I think in general most musicians are actually not verbal, and that’s part of why they’re into music, you know? It’s as though they’re slightly autistic or something. They can’t perceive that they need to talk for the whole interview process to work.”

Since he knows the trouble I’d be in if he clams up, I feel relieved. Vanderslice seems an approachable guy. When I met him a few months ago, he was DJing a set at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, but he made time to talk to me, introduce a friend, change discs and talk to fans all without losing his smile.

But Vanderslice isn’t especially interested in talking about himself or his music: “The problem with being interviewed is that I really don’t care about myself, because I am myself, you know what I mean? After a point, talking about what I do in the same context over and over again is like water torture. You’d have to be an extreme egomaniac to want to talk about yourself all the time. And I am probably a little bit of an egomaniac, but I’m not in the upper reaches.” He pauses, then points out, “When I stop this interview, I go to rehearsal and sing songs about myself for six hours. How much do you need?”

So we discuss his photography instead. For a while now, he’s taken a camera with him everywhere, making visual documents of his tours on his website, which offers lyrics, MP3s and a tour diary as well. “I’d much rather talk about photography,” he says. “My mom gave me a Pentax K-1000 maybe six years ago, and I started taking photos on the last couple MK Ultra tours. Our schedule was not very intense on those tours because we booked our own tours. Some of the shows would fall apart, and then you’d be in Manhattan for an extra two days and you’d have your camera. On those tours it became a way to fill in the gaps, to glue in the down time, to stay creative and interested in where you were and what you were doing. And it also helps to document stuff, because it is so highly compressed, what you do on tour. Maybe you go from Chicago to Chapel Hill, North Carolina—I’ve done that stretch in nine days, and that’s a lot of visual input that you don’t keep track of, that you certainly can’t store in any way in your brain.

“When I started touring on my own, I’d bring my camera along, and it became more and more important to see the photos when I got home. Well, first off it would change how I felt about the tour—it seemed like it was more productive because I was doing two things. Playing music is great, but it’s totally ephemeral. It’s just absolutely gone the second the show’s over. It’s hard to quantify what happened, and photography is maybe the exact opposite. You take these photos, and then you don’t even know what you have until two weeks after you get back from tour. So it’s this little time-capsule thing. Then the more I got into it, the more I wanted to go on tour just to take photos. Then I was definitely as excited about being able to take photos as I was to play shows.

“You have a lot of time after sound check and when you first get into town where you generally want to be alone, because you’ve been with people so much and performing is so extroverted. So I just started taking my camera and I’d find myself walking in St. Louis down in these abandoned factory lands, or in Detroit or in Chicago. All of a sudden I’d just hit the lake and I’d be like, ‘Holy shit!’’ It can be a great mode of discovery, and since you don’t have anyone to share it with most of the time, you might as well just take a photo.”

Gradually the conversation works its way back to music. Vanderslice explains the correlations between photography and recording. “I just started thinking about photography in the same way that I think of recording. There’s this sweet spot when you hit tape on an audio recording—the tape wants to see a certain level that makes sense for the format. You can get tape distortion by hitting tape too hard, like on your four-track, and all these byproducts can happen and there’s this area where right before things go haywire things sound really incredible. Film is the same way.”

Vanderslice is known for his obsessiveness in the studio, and his work with bands such as Spoon and the Mountain Goats shows a level of perfectionism. His last album, Cellar Door, has as perfect a sound as any album recorded in recent memory. Vanderslice’s records aren’t pristine, but everything is just where it should be, and not always in a textbook way. He explains, “It’s good to have a combination of real actual knowledge from real people who have come before you and the ability to figure it out on your own.”

These thoughts led to his formulation of “sloppy hi-fi”, which describes the method he usually uses to get his sound. “It’s really hard to talk about hi-fi or lo-fi. What people mean by hi-fi is that it sounds clean. What I would call hi-fi is something that has this dynamic range of recorded information that’s just extreme. The picture’s not necessarily accurate but it’s incredibly detailed. There’s a lot of coloration in hi-fi recordings.

“You listen to 1950s RCA Living Stereo Recordings or Rudy Van Gelder’s Coltrane recordings: In many ways these are very, very hi-fi recordings probably made with U47 microphones and 48s and 49s, and you know a shitload of money was thrown into this room. So it’s weird. What people equate with hi-fi is a careful, nattering L.A. nip-and-tuck kind of approach, like late-period Steely Dan would be everyone’s clichéd idea of a painfully hi-fi record. But there’s a lot of records I would call hi-fi. A lot of Clash records, for instance—you wouldn’t necessarily catch that they’re in a four-million-dollar studio, but they are, and it really does sound that way.”

So it’s important to have an idea of what goes into making a quality recording. You need good gear, and you need to set yourself up so you can capture the sounds on the sweet spot. Recording on these terms is a mix of art, science and capital. Only the right equipment can give you the exact full-bodied sound you want. So what do you do with that sound? Why, destroy it, of course. Pointing to Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief and Amnesiac as good examples, Vanderslice explains why that initial hi-fi recording is necessary: “The signal chain is so good that the photo you take of the sonic information is so wide and so detailed, you can destroy it in a way you can’t if it’s already destroyed. It’s easier to destroy it, because there’s something there to destroy. The problem with some hi-fi is that people lose their capacity for violence, so it sounds careful. It might not be distortion, it might not be screaming—but there’s a lot of violence in Aphex Twin and Brian Eno records.”

But Vanderslice also acknowledges that the destructive approach shouldn’t begin after the recording has finished, but should be part of the process. “The thing with sloppy hi-fi—like the records that I grew up admiring, the Kinks’ Village Green or the Beatles’ White Album and a shitload of jazz records or Bringing It All Back Home by Bob Dylan—those records were all made in studios that had custom-made consoles and tape decks and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of microphones, a capital investment that only a record label or a millionaire could have made in 1972. But those records were also done relatively quickly. What I love is that they used this incredible equipment very very quickly, so this kind of sloppiness and errancy and dissonance somewhere crept in the recording because they were not careful about what they were doing. That for me is sloppy hi-fi. It’s putting up a $7,000 microphone and then doing the first take. That for me is the best of both worlds.” He suggests a analogy with Hollywood. “My theory about the 1940s and 1950s Hollywood is that they were making movies so quickly that great movies were kind of made by accident sometimes. Directors like Preston Sturges were left alone for eight or nine years and allowed to crank out five or six or seven great movies in a row without too much oversight. Great art is made with auteurs or pretty unique people being left alone.” (Vanderslice, by the way, is passionate about film: “Movies are definitely my favorite thing in the whole world. Without a doubt, they have increased my quality of life to stratospheric levels. I probably watch four movies a week minimum.”)

What of the fixation so many indie artists have with lo-fi? Vanderslice says, “The holy grail in lo-fi is often how to produce distortion, how to get low levels of distortion that are complicated and beautiful, distortions to balance out the beauty of western harmonic music. Distortion to my mind equals sex and violence, and if you don’t have sex and violence in rock ‘n’ roll then you’re totally done for. It might be the kind that’s on an Eno-Fripp record, but it’s still there—there has to be a dangerous quality to it somewhere. It may be supersubtle but it has to be there. Many lo-fi artists love what happens when you saturate a four-track or when you destroy one of those Tascam mic-trees; they distort in a beautiful way. Twenty-four-track studios are not equipped to provide you with distortion; nothing there causes that anarchy. The big struggle in Tiny Telephone, my studio, was to find ways to misuse our equipment to get some of that destructo quality.”

Vanderslice’s careful consideration of how to record has led to a sound that’s particularly his. It’s hard to describe without referring back to his themes, but you can hear it on Cellar Door or Time Travel Is Lonely. He gets rich tonal colors but never opens them up to cleanliness, adding levels of distortion appropriate to any given song yet maintaining that trademark precision and separation throughout the album. Pixel Revolt marks a shift away from that sound. This disc sounds more organic but also more polished. Vanderslice agrees, “On many levels I started shifting toward melody lines and lyrics and away from controlling every bleep and blip on the song. I definitely gave Scott Solter, my musical partner, a lot more power, and he won me over with saying, ‘Hey, let’s do it this way.” My hero’s David Bowie, [an artist of shifting sounds and personas] and I said, ‘Hey, let’s go with it.” Vanderslice knew almost immediately that they were creating a completely different sound from their previous work, but he wanted to push on with it: “If we can do anything to move some way—laterally, forward, behind us—let’s do it. We also decided to not seek out distortion the same way we did on Cellar Door. Also we decided on making just a much more vocal heavy record, and that really changed what we were doing.”

After a particularly long and involved process, Vanderslice needed a change. He explains, “As a reaction I went in and re-learned the entire album on an acoustic guitar, and we recorded Pixel Revolt live on acoustic top to bottom.” He plans to have sell this recording at his fall live shows and expects Barsuk to sell some through its website as well, just as Cellar Door was followed by a remix album titled MGM Endings last year. “I love remixes if Scott does them,” Vanderslice says, “but in general I have never allowed other people to do them. Part of the reason is we spend a lot of energy making this 24-track analog master, and people say, ‘Hey I want to remix that song—can you email me the masters?’ “

But Vanderslice is far from a purist or a musical miser. He says, “I’m totally open-source. I really don’t care what people do—people can remix my stuff, I just don’t want to do it. I am not a proprietary person; I don’t have any urge whatsoever to control what i do.” He adds about his photography, “Once I scan the photo and put it on my site, I’m done with it. That’s my pact with the world—just to make stuff.”

A visit to Vanderslice’s website confirms that attitude. He has probably a higher percentage of his work available as free MP3s than any signed artist. “I would put everything up there—I’m as close to open source as they come. I have a contract with a corporation, so there are limitations on what I can do. Barsuk is so generous to me; they’ll allow me to do stuff like MGM Endings.” Of course, if you share, you expect the same back. “I go to someone’s site, and I see they have a 100 MP3s and I love them forever. But then I go to bands’ sites, and they have one song up and it’s in Real Audio and I’m thinking, What’s your home address because I’m going to stab you in the lungs. Just come out for your mail because I’m going to shank you.”

It’s not as if Vanderslice hasn’t thought about the commercial side of this issue. “The more people know about you, the more records you’re going to sell. The more you tour, the better record that you make, the more records that you’re going to sell. I don’t think that there’s any correlation between illegal downloading or legal downloading and anything else. Music: it’s just like drugs, you know? Just because you lower the price of crack to $3.50 a hit doesn’t mean you’ll make less crack. You might just make more crackheads.”

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