“I Operate Much Better When There’s a Lot to Lose”: An Interview with John Vanderslice

John Vanderslice
Dagger Beach
Tiny Telephones

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.

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.