Saving Humanity: An Interview with John Vanderslice

John Vanderslice
Emerald City

John Vanderslice’s new album, Emerald City, is not an homage to The Wizard of Oz. The title actually refers to Baghdad, Iraq — specifically the fortified area known as the Green Zone. When Vanderslice started writing Emerald City he intended to focus on the ongoing conflict there and the inevitable consequences of the US occupation. “I’ve been pretty heavily into politics for a long time,” he explains. “This is a pretty crucial and transitional time for this country; it’s hard not to write about it.”

But he doesn’t actually write about it; not really anyway. Like most Vanderslice projects, his songs take on cinematic characteristics — telling distinct and detailed stories about loss and separation.”When I finished the record it seemed like I barely have really talked about what’s happening,” Vanderslice explains. “It’s so difficult to wrap your head around. I feel like I’m barely writing about it.”

What he does write about are are a series of disparate vignettes: realistic anecdotes of how ordinary people are affected by colossal decisions and insurmountable obstacles. This anecdotal approach may have evolved out of Vanderslice’s own mini-battle with government bureaucracy — the still unsettled effort to get his Parisian girlfriend a US visa, an exhausting debacle that consumed him throughout the process of making this record. “Everything now has been shifted through Homeland Security so it’s a lot more intense. For a while we were in a really bad spot. It definitely bled into the record as a whole.”

His views on the war in Iraq come to light on the song “Minaret”, where an American soldier subtly describes the pillaging of an Iraqi town. There is no partisan political message. The soldier actually seems quite indifferent as he “crossed on the ridge and cut their women down”. As if he is simply performing his duties, the soldier admittedly remarks, how he can “see both sides”. Asked if Vanderslice shares his jilted protagonist’s feelings he say, “Yeah, I mean, there’s two different sides to the conflict and they’re both completely insane.” So instead of being a protest album, Emerald City could merely be a reality check, an impartial look at the current state of things.

Vanderslice himself, however, is decidedly more skeptical of the whole affair. “I am in general very anti-government. I assume that these guys are operating in their own self-interest. I don’t think what we did in Afghanistan was reactive on any level. Looking back at all that stuff it seems that we had a lot of those plans in place from a long time ago. Even the Patriot Act, in many ways, the overarching structure of that thing was written a long time ago. These are a lot of Iran Contra regulars. These are guys that want to operate in the extra-constitutional shadow government. They really don’t have any patience whatsoever for democracy and for the normal channels of funding and legislation having to do with foreign policy.”

On Vanderslice last album, 2005’s Pixel Revolt, he began to explore these questions, specifically on the song “Exodus Damage”. During the song, the narrator counts the minutes as the planes crash into the towers on 9/11 and curiously remarks that “an hour went by without a fighter in the sky”.

“If you just read the NORAD transcripts from that morning,” Vanderslice explains, “without any spin whatsoever, your brain is gonna explode, because you’re going to have so many uncomfortable questions.” He doesn’t necessarily care where those questions lead, as long as you ask them.

In addition to being politically astute, Vanderslice is also a former economics major, and is very involved in the business aspects of his music. This includes promotional expenses, as he tends to stay away from the traditional routes. “We did have kind of a rule that any print media had to be approved by me if there were going to be any ads.”

His views on the more traditional outlets has caused some consternation among the media elites. Referring to an interview with the blog Dcist, Vanderslice remarks, “A lot of bloggers emailed me about an interview I did. Print media and some people were a little bit upset. It’s not that I don’t enjoy print media,” he explains. “We all read glossy magazines. My only issue with print media is that it’s very expensive to promote indie music.”

And music, like any other business, needs cash flow to exist. Vanderslice understands this well. His background makes him one of the most business-savvy indie rockers. “I need my musicians to get paid. I want these guys to make enough money so they don’t leave me; they’re incredible musicians. I need the people I work with to make money and for the whole operation to work as a business.”

So as far as promotional material goes, Vanderslice tends to stick with what he knows. “All I can do as far as promoting my own record is use the media that I use. I’m an online person. I read blogs every day. That’s how I find what’s happening music-wise. Someone can see a band on Friday night and then Saturday morning, at 1 am, they’re posting about the band with photographs and links to music. There’s like a four-month lead time to magazines. I mean we can see where that’s heading.”

Vanderslice tries to remain modest about all his business expertise. “I realize that it may make me sound like I’m just interested in the mechanics of releasing a record. It’s not like I’m not obsessed with the budget of my album.”

And I seriously doubt there is time to obsess. In addition to being indie rock’s all-around nice guy, Vanderslice also owns and operates the recording studio Tiny Telephone — designated as the “Best Studio to Record Your Indie Masterpiece” by the SF Bay Guardian. The studio has hosted dozens of strong bands including the Mountain Goats, Mates of State, and Wooden Wand.

With record sales plummeting I asked John if he thought the Internet could save indie rock. “I think the Internet can save humanity. Sometimes I believe it’s the only hope we have. I think that pure democracy and information is the goal. You can’t get any better than people writing about what they love without pressure of deadlines and financial overhead which is backbreaking.”