John Vanderslice Interview
Once again set to unveil a new collection of slaved over songs entitled, Pixel Revolt (Barsuk), John Vanderslice spoke to Better Propaganda contributing writer (and mp3 blogger at *Sixeyes), Alan Williamson. Vanderslice shares his thoughts on the new record, inspiration, and his collaboration with Scott Solter; a collaboration that seems to bring out the best in both.
Better Propaganda: First off, could you give me an idea of what Pixel Revolt is all about? Is it a concept album, are the songs related in some way?
John Vanderslice: Well, it was just a normal record. You know write a lot of songs, bring in a lot of my friends to play on it and go to work. But somewhere in the middle of the process I started writing less and less in my usual far-flung narratives and more autobiographical. So there are a few songs on the record that are unadorned statements of truth. A 'first ever' for me. Which ones, I'll never say.
Cellar Door (his last album) seemed to be about family as tyranny. The themes of this record could be summed up as:
Yes, war is dangerous, but our emotional life, especially love, is more so.
The strongest convictions can be overturned in a second if real life offers up contradicting evidence.
There are rational reasons for being an anti-government nut.
Love and desire continue, even if you try to shield yourself from the outside world.
No one can save you, but believing that someone can save you may save you.
BP: It's been well documented by countless magazines, websites, and zines, that you are a cinema connoisseur, an out and out film freak. So, with an eye to that fact, have any films made their way into the new batch of songs you have slaved over this time out? In the same way that Mulholland Drive and Requiem for a Dream inspired tracks on Cellar Door.
JV: Well, movies certainly have influenced me on the new record, but I tried harder to hide it! There is one song that was directly inspired by a film... I wrote "Continuation" right after seeing Lars Von Trier's Element of Crime. It's his first feature, and it concerns a detective trying to piece together an unsolved series of murders. A hunted serial killer dies in a car crash, and his specific ways of killing are only known to the detectives on the case. So when more bodies turn up with those telltale signs of the deceased serial killer, the only suspects are other detectives who know the clues. It's a brilliant film, very stark and beautifully shot. Most of the other songs on the record are much more autobiographical.
BP: Your new song, "Peacocks in the Video Rain" (originally titled "High and Low"), maybe I am way, WAY, off here, but is it related to Michael Jackson? The lines... "...silly pop singer, an off the wall ringer..." and "...mapping out your moves...", put me in mind of Jackson.
JV: The song is not about Michael Jackson. But you're close! It's about someone who is influenced by him. It's a song about un-ironically loving a pop star.
BP: So are you a fan of Michael Jackson's from way back? Just what inspired "Peacocks"?
JV: Oh yes, I love Off the Wall and Thriller. Amazing records.
Well, sometimes I start with an idea, an aphorism that I try to make into a song. This song started as: What happens to love, the need to give and receive it when there is no real place to put it? As our narrator is unable to have a normal, healthy relationship, it gets projected on to a pop singer. But it's meaningful love, nonetheless... At least to him.
BP: Another new track titled, "New Zealand Pines", seems personal, is it?
JV: Yes, that song is about my ex-girlfriend, Terri Olson. TMO on all my records, starting with Mass Suicide Occult Figurines (Vanderslice's solo debut). She has everything to do with my music. She runs a clothing company in SF and is a creative genius.
BP: Oh, so I'm guessing that you two spent some time there... is travelling a passion of yours? ...And what is a TMO?
JV: That song takes place in Golden Gate Park, at the Strybing Arboretum, where they have micro-climates laid out on a walking tour. So it's about walking in the park as a substitute for real travel, real emotional engagement.
TMO is an abbreviation for Terri Marie Olson, that's her full name. She was always listed that way on my records.
BP: Oh... I thought it was something like 'transcendental meditation official'.
Earlier we touched on movies as a creative source for you, now how about other types of media... art, books, photography, have any of these been inspiring to you on the new album -- or for that matter, past songs?
JV: Well, Terri was a technical term I was very familiar with!!
I was VERY into painting for a long time: Max Ernst, Max Beckmann, and Paul Klee. I am going to NY in May to see the Ernst exhibit there. At one point I wanted to be an art history teacher. That's all I wanted. I still think I would've been very happy doing that. I have to say there was something about the distortion that Paul Klee added to his watercolors and prints that changed the way I thought about music. Maybe that there was a kind of dissonance that I needed to be present and it could exist on a different surface than the narrative content. This may sound loopy, but it certainly changed me.
BP: Then do you, or have you, used distortion as the basis for any of your songs?
JV: "Pale Horse", the first song on Cellar Door, was a study in distortion. Scott and I wanted to see how much we could stack up and still have a coherent song. The problem: it's really hard to get high-quality distortion, you really have to think about it. It's an extreme type of overload, a violent clipping of an amp capability, so you have to do it with equipment that provides beautiful and forgiving forms of it. Distortion in music can subvert and complicate existing instruments, and a little of it can go a long way to providing the necessary dissonance.
BP: Did you ever see, or use, lyrics as a form of distortion? By editing, or whittling away at your words you could cause a distortion, or blurring, in the mind of the listener?
JV: Oh yes, the way I like to create distortion in lyrics is to have an unreliable narrator. Like the guy who blames Bill Gates for his addiction to internet pornography in "Bill Gates Must Die" or the homicidal bird-watcher in "Up Above the Sea". Then the listener is forced to make decisions about the singer and the facts as given by that person. Are they true? What is the real motivation of this person? I love stuff like that. John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats) by the way, is the master of that approach.
BP: The selection of instruments on Pixel Revolt's songs, was that a group decision? And some of the instruments listed in the credits: ebowed landscape guitar, sky saw guitar, and space station... I've never heard of these, what are they?
JV: I try to name things more colorfully than most liner notes. I want to give an idea that a lot of these sounds are designed and we're going for a specific thing, sonically, with them.
The ebowed landscape guitar was played by Scott, it's a brilliant thing he figured out... If you use an ebow on acoustic (instead of electric) guitar, you get these fantastic string noises and resonances along with a pure tone of an unstruck guitar note. Scott then played a dozen or so of these different notes and submixed them together (hence the landscape part).
Sky saw guitar refers to a credit that (Robert) Fripp got on a Brian Eno record (Another Green World). We were shooting for that sound...not easy... and also giving it props.
Space station is an insanely great (and rare) pedal. It produces those weird backwards guitar sounds and also the kind of waterfall-of-synthesized noises after the choruses.
BP: I was listening to a track off of MGM Endings, "Bomb in Reverse", and noticed a striking similarity between segments of it and the PR track, "Trance Manual". How did that come about... were you aware of it?
JV: Oh yeah, there is so much repetition with what Scott and I do. Often we obsess over one thing for a few weeks and move on, sometimes it goes on for years. Both of those songs have a lot of sonic landscaping: "Bomb in Reverse" using a lot of tape loops and "Trance Manual" using a lot of ebowed guitars and moogs. But the one thing they really have in common is church bells: these hand held church bells you have to wear white gloves to use. Each bell is a tone, Scott would lay them all on a table and play melodies by choosing the right note in sequence. The bells on "Trance Manual" have been put through a delay that gives them a shimmering regeneration that I think sounds pretty great. Again, its all Scott's doing. Thank God I have him.
BP: That's really interesting, the fact that the two of you recycle bits and pieces, are there any other examples of this on Pixel Revolt? Or, for that matter, other albums?
JV: Yeah, Scott and I recycle as much as we can remember to. We would actually be a lot more repetitive if we ever took notes during tracking. We like working within prescribed boundaries, but usually Scott never repeats mic combinations or signal chains; there is a certain amount of anarchy to our sessions. A lot of musicians are very surprised when they hear the final result because the method is loose and disorganized.
BP: While checking out your website, www.johnvanderslice.com, I noticed that your final track list and sequencing for Pixel Revolt had changed more than a touch. How much time do you spend on this part of making a record? Do you fret over the order of songs, or is it more an exercise or perhaps a debate with your longtime engineer, Scott Solter, or maybe even friends? Does everyone want to put his or her two cents worth in?
JV: Yes, everybody in my crew has a say. I try to be as democratic as possible... while retaining the autocrat's final cut... So once everyone's involved, things change very fast. They are all articulate people with refined aesthetic views, so thing's can get tricky. David Berman (The Silver Jews) provided some titles to me that were too good to pass up (Letter to the East Coast, Exodus Damage, Peacocks in the Video Rain).
And yes, Scott has more input than anyone else. I will usually listen to his ideas unless I really disagree with him. Which is not often. Ordering this record was harder for me because it's so much longer (55 minutes) than any one I've done before.
BP: "Pixel Revolt", the title track, appeared to have disappeared or been re-named, along with another song vanishing completely. How hard is it to make these decisions, to lose, or to cut away, a piece of music you'd written and must have been happy enough with to spend time and money to get on tape during the sessions?
JV: Once we settled on Pixel Revolt as the record title, I had to rename the song "Letter to the East Coast," it puts too much weight on a song to be a title track.
We did cut a song... "The Kingdom"... from the record. Barsuk wanted to hold a song for Japan/Europe. And they made a good case to me that the record worked better without it. That was not easy to do. Everything about making a record is hard. If a band makes a record, that's really a kind of achievement there, really. Especially if it sounds good. When I think of bands without a budget making great sounding, interesting records at home, like Minus Story, or Midlake, I am filled with intense joy and feel honored to be in the same business as they are.
I can't even imagine how films like Punch-Drunk Love or Confessions of a Dangerous Mind are made.
BP: I love Minus Story, a great band.... And a couple of very good films you mentioned there; I've seen them both. With your documented love of film and photography, I'm wondering if you are tempted to sit in a director's chair, to draw up storyboards for video treatments of your songs or the songs of others?
JV: Well, I got close to having a video made of "White Plains" that was going to be on 32mm film. But god it was so expensive! We had it storyboarded and I think it would've been pretty great. But you have to have serious cash to get into even processing film like that. I think there'll be a video for Pixel Revolt, but it won't be on film.
I would love to be involved with film or video, but I have this feeling that I should...and can... only concentrate on one thing at a time. It is SO difficult to put together a record in the way you hear it in your head. I'm always afraid I'll lose focus if I do anything other than record. That's one of the reasons why I don't produce very often.
BP: You know, for me a John Vanderslice song is very cinematic, very visual, the lyrics a story which could often stand on their own, away from the music. A good example would be an old favorite of mine from Mass Suicide Occult Figurines, "Big Band Stars". Do you operate from a very visual perspective when writing or would that be something peculiar to only certain songs? I mean, I just get the feeling you wrote "Big Band Stars" from more of a visual sense than an internal, intellectualized one.
JV: Yes that's true about "Big Band Stars". That's actually a true story, my friends and I would climb these radio towers near my home in Potomac, Md. it was fantastically dangerous. We would go to the absolute top, and the pole would be swaying by three or four feet, back and forth, in the wind, 100 yards up.
Movies are the most important thing to me. I think it's key that's it's not my field, it helps me enjoy them more. I see at least 5-7 movies a week... Usually on cable or DVD... Mostly on Turner Classic Movies, IFC, and Sundance.
So maybe one of the things you hear in the lyrics is a singer who wants nothing more than to be a filmmaker?
BP: From articles and stories I have read in the past, your previous answers, and how you rely on others opinions and talents, I am starting to get a feel for how collaborative the making of a John Vanderslice record is... not unlike the making of a film. I have never thought of it that way before, do you feel this analogy is honest?
JV: Yeah, it is very collaborative. It's all about Solter and Darnielle on Pixel Revolt. Every breath and note on PR had something to do with Scott. He was there for almost all the tracking and played tons of instruments, way more than I did. He also has a lot to do with what musicians we bring in.
All of the lyrics were work-shopped by John Darnielle. For that I was tremendously lucky. He made me a better writer and gave me tons of revisions, sometimes even adding lines and verses. He is my favorite lyric writer. I thought it would be a lot more difficult. It's hard to take direction! But he knows how to add and subtract without killing the thing.
BP: In an interview you did for 'Independent Musician', you said, regarding improvisation and spontaneity on stage, that you much prefer to have everything mapped out and planned down to the nth degree until it becomes rote, kind of like automatic writing, I quote...
"The funniest thing is that that auto-pilot that you do go on is the most blissful feeling in the world. When everything becomes unconscious, you find little holes, a little wiggle-room for variation. There's nothing more enjoyable then when you are up there singing and playing and find moments where, I swear to God, there's no physical effort whatsoever to play the song. And it's like you're standing there listening to a stereo. You're removed from the process and you are on autopilot, but you're so blissful and I cannot tell you. I mean, I go on tour for that feeling..."
Now, I'm wondering what you love about the recording process--you are renowned for taking your time and not rushing your records gestation period--is there an area of the process that also gives you an indescribable feeling... What feeling do you go into the studio hoping to regain or to finally discover?
JV: Well, the thing that brings me into the studio is actually the feeling I get the next morning listening to rough tracks on my stereo at home. In the studio, there's not much perspective, Scott and I work very quickly and often in the dark. We don't know the value of a lot of what we do until later. If it doesn't work, we erase it... one of my favorite things in the world, it feels as creative as recording.
I guess one thing I look for is a sonic landscape that is new and supports the lyrical content of the song, like the haunting ebowed acoustic guitars that Scott did in "Plymouth Rock".
BP: Each time I hear "Dear Sarah Shu", I am struck by the line, "...regards from the other side of the teeth", is that your line or a 'Darnielle'? Also, in "Trance Manual", the chorus, "Come to me now/you are warming weather/ come to me now/ the kind that comes with sandbags along the river...". I love the mixed imagery of love, desire, spring, and a swollen river. Again, is this yours or Darnielle's?
JV: The "regards" line is mine. The first half of the "Trance Manual" chorus is JD's, the second half is mine. By the way, "Trance Manual" was initially set in San Francisco. JD pushed me to exoticize the song and add another emotional dimension to it... the Iraqi prostitute as a "flag of a dangerous nation".
BP: Why two drummers on the tracks "Plymouth Rock", "Exodus Damage", and "Peacocks..."? What were you and/or Scott trying to bring to the music by employing two drummers? And incidentally, is there any significance that the only tracks employing two drummers are one right after the other on the record?
JV: Wow, I hadn't thought of the fact that the songs are grouped like that. You are perceptive, my son. Scott and I found that in adding a second drum set... usually at the very end... we could have a percussion track that responds to the song as developed. We usually put the drummers at an extreme disadvantage when playing the initial tracks: sometimes there's only a scratch vocal, a single guitar, or nothing at all. There is a very nice propulsive thing that happens when two drum sets are motoring along. It's something that Spoon used a lot on their earlier records.
BP: I see that you contributed to Spoon's new disc, Gimme Fiction, along with your stalwart engineer, Scott Solter. Was this a planned contribution or did the pair of you just stumble into the sessions one day? Did Britt Daniel or Jim Eno explain what they wanted or did you get free rein to help shape the song, "Was It You"?
JV: We had talked about it with them for a few months before coming to Austin (Texas). It was pretty open book; those guys work in a very similar way to how Scott and I do. We all sit around, brainstorm, record tons of stuff quickly without self-editing, and figure it out in mix down. I am really close to Jim (Spoon drummer, Jim Eno), his studio and mine have grown up together and in many ways, we've driven each other to buy more gear. He has a very beautiful, restored Neve console.
BP: In an earlier question about inspiration for this new album, you said...
"... movies certainly have influenced me on the new record, but I tried harder to hide it!"
Why would you make an effort to hide it? Did it bother you that the influences on Cellar Door were, at times, obvious, which may have made the others appear autobiographical? Are you trying to maintain an air of mystery? To try and create more of a 'hazy veil' between the fictional songs and the more personal ones?
JV: Well, I felt that the device of writing "love letters to movies" had served me well and I needed to move on. I try very hard to change key parts of my writing process. Both Time Travel is Lonely and Life and Death of an American Fourtracker were loose concept records with overarching story lines. I needed to rediscover the pop song as discrete statement. God, I hope this doesn't sound pretentious. I think about these nuts and bolts ideas so little. But as time passes, the reason I'm writing songs shifts. There are many autobiographical songs on the new record, but I will always exaggerate and amplify the truth, like every other self-absorbed songwriter!
BP: In the liner notes you state that... "The lyrics of Pixel Revolt have been edited, expanded and otherwise improved upon by John Darnielle." Was this a one on one collaboration, or did you leave the lyrics with him and he worked alone?
JV: I would send him a lyric and he would call or email me back changes, ideas, comments. Some emails were short and sweet: "this works well, strengthen the opening verse, change this word...etc." others were involved 3 or 4 revisions and line and verse ideas. What's scary about John is how good his cast off and throw away lyrics are, he has notebooks full of TOTALLY brilliant stuff at his house. He is my favorite writer.
BP: When it comes to writing, do you always approach it as work or more of a release of energy? And also, were the songs for Pixel Revolt conceived in the same manner as songs written for previous albums?
JV: Well, at it's best it's a release of energy. But like everything, you are only inspired for a small amount of time compared with how LONG it takes to complete a record. There were dozens of days spent at my desk with a blank notebook and no ideas, staring out at the summery San Francisco skyline. Sometimes waiting for inspiration is a kind of torture, I understand completely why there's so much drug use and deviant behavior in this line of work!!
Some of the worst songs I've written were produced in a fever pitch of heated inspiration. Some of the better ones were written in a calm and workman-like state.
These songs (on Pixel Revolt) were written on the same guitar, same desk, same uni-ball pen, same laser printer paper, same view as all my solo records.
BP: August 23rd is Pixel Revolt's due date, which is still some time away, what will you be up to during that time and what does the future hold for you beyond that date?
JV: Well, this is a strange time, the months after the record is turned in and before it's released. It's a kind of limbo. I try to keep recording and writing, if I can. Scott Solter and I recorded a live to 2-track LP in May. It's acoustic versions of all the songs on pixel revolt. We did it in the Tom Waits room at Prairie Sun (Prairie Sun Recording, where Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, recorded the entire Grammy winning Bone Machine album). Then it will be a solo promo tour (summer) and a full US tour (Oct 1-Nov 7.)
BP: That's very interesting, that you already re-recorded the Pixel Revolt songs again, albeit in a different way... just why did you?... were you reluctant to leave these songs? Did you think you could find something new by approaching them in a different way?
JV: I did the live to 2-track recording because it will help me get good at playing these songs alone, which I'll be doing a lot in the fall. I was blown away by the Magnolia Electric Company bonus disc, from the first album, that featured acoustic "kitchen recordings", the songs can live an entirely different life if done alone. I wouldn't say I'm reluctant to leave the songs, usually I am so happy to be done with stuff and move forward. I'll probably start tracking a new record in July.