The real world 

John Vanderslice leaves fiction and enters reality

Interviewing musicians isn't always as simple as sitting across from one of your idols, or alternatively someone you despise, and having the sort of social interplay you would expect from an old friend. Frequently, you are pitted against an introvert whose best means of communication is through song. And, more often than not, your conversational partner isn't going to sing his answers back to you.

That problem is circumvented when you talk to San Francisco-based singer/songwriter John Vanderslice. He is quick to offer insightful and long-winded responses to any question you ask, even if it is something as tedious as describing his back-catalog or as frivolous as his excitement over being one of the millions who own a Toyota Corolla. The self-described loner enjoys human interaction, but he isn't talkative because of a burning need to entertain: It's because he's been on the other side of the tape recorder before.

"Sometimes I would interview bands and it was just like tumbleweeds were rolling down the phone lines," he says.

Vanderslice has made a few attempts at moonlighting as a music journalist for both DIW and Tape Op magazines. But the super-prolific songwriter, who churns out about an album a year, found reporting difficult.

"It's too hard to write," says Vanderslice. "It's hard for me to edit myself and it's hard for me to check my grammar and stuff, so I had to give it up because it takes too long. That's harder than writing songs."

For Vanderslice, maybe.

As a teenager, Vanderslice wrote two albums worth of material every year on his four-track tape recorder. He would distribute his output to his family and a few friends. And yet he finds it difficult to make a list of facts and arrange them in working order. The basis for that dilemma may be in his predilection for fiction over reality.

A movie buff who watches three to four films a week, Vanderslice veered away from literal versions of his life for the first three of his four solo albums. The trio includes two concept albums: One about a fictional brother that goes insane while running a satellite-relay station in Antarctica, titled Time Travel is Lonely. The other, Life and Death of an American Fourtracker, is about an early teenage four-tracking fiend who kills himself after being rejected by his girlfriend. Vanderslice's debut Mass Suicide Occult Figurines, a non-concept album, carried the song "Bill Gates Must Die," about an elaborate hoax in which Vanderslice accuses Microsoft of watching him.

With his fourth effort, Cellar Door, he finally gets real and deals with himself: He worries about the limits of family life when he thinks his girlfriend is pregnant. He coaxes his brother out of depression. He even extols the virtues of two of his favorite recent movies, Requiem for a Dream and Mulholland Drive.

Sonically, Vanderslice's latest has all the analog studio trickery that he has become known for. He sings in an injured croon -- with his mouth actually open like Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum and the Decemberists' Colin Meloy. He and engineer Scott Solter, working within their signature "sloppy hifi" sound, add numerous layers of keyboards, guitars and vocals; trumpets are usually not far out of earshot; even "reverse tambourine" is used, whatever that is. There was conscious thought put into adding solid bass grooves and getting idiosyncratic drum sounds that range from banging on pots and pans to rapping on a cellar door while trapped inside.

Vanderslice accomplished all this with a cast of helpers from bands like Beulah, Sun Kil Moon and Death Cab for Cutie, and he recorded it all over the course of 400 hours in his Tiny Telephone studio. The studio, which he opened in the fall of 1997, is an all-analog storage space for his recording equipment fetish.

Vanderslice's love for recording comes first and foremost in his life and he guards his creativity with fierce jealousy. It was the importance he places on songwriting and recording that ultimately stymied his freelance writing career.

"There's only so much creative energy that you have in any given month or year, and [journalism] seems to compete with the same kind of brain space that I needed to write songs," says Vanderslice. "I knew that if I kept doing interviews and reviews and stuff like that, that it was going to compromise my songwriting. It's really tough for me to whip together 400 to 500 words about something that I really love, too."

Well, John, here's 700 words on you and your music.


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