John Vanderslice has been making music since his teenage years, but it was the early ‘90s when one of his bands, MK Ultra, started gaining national attention. In 1997, he founded his own recording studio, Tiny Telephone, in San Francisco. There, he’s recorded the likes of Death Cab For Cutie, Spoon, Okkervil River and Deerhoof.
After recording numerous solo studio albums, Vanderslice met Minna Choi of Magik Magik Orchestra, and his music has never been the same since. On his new album, White Wilderness (out this week on Dead Oceans), Vanderslice’s soft, high-pitched croon is surrounded by a 20-person orchestra, lending the music a transcendent quality that lifts it from the veteran songwriter’s traditional bedroom-esque atmosphere to an entirely different setting. Paste recently caught up with Vanderslice and found out how powerful performing with an orchestra can be, why Choi is his hero, and why soundchecks suck.
Do you get tired of touring?
Vanderslice: I would say that what happens is that there’s definitely a physical cost. Sometimes it feels like you’re doing physical damage to your body after six or seven weeks. But the shows are awesome. I mean, it’s kinda cliché and you hear this a lot, but the time on stage is incredible. If you’re into something—if you’re into playing tennis or stamp collecting like I was as a kid—the thing that got you there is always exciting. It’s just all the stuff that surrounds it that wears you down.
For me, honestly, it was soundcheck. I stopped wanting to tour because of soundcheck. I couldn’t take it. It’s like you’re playing a duplicate show with feedback—not in front of a crowd, and you’re not getting paid.
So if you could eliminate one part of your job, it would be soundcheck?
Vanderslice: If I could do without soundcheck… Well, for instance, last year, I only played about 25 shows all year because I was recording a lot. And I made an agreement with myself that I would only do solo shows all year because of the soundcheck problem. And I had so much fun. It was such an incredible year for shows.
I would be my own tour manager. I wouldn’t tour with anyone. I would fly in, rent a car. It was an incredible experience; it was so different. You’re on stage sometimes for an hour and 15 minutes with just you and your guitar, and it’s pretty awesome.
So you didn’t even have to go through soundcheck.
Vanderslice: Yeah, I just took it out of there. Then it’s just the raw—most vocalists have vocal problems. It’s not really talked about. When you’re touring and doing six or seven weeks in a row, you start to get worn down. Like most people who play sports are physically fucked up. If we were to ask an NBA player who’s 30-years-old, ’”How do you feel about the game?” it’d probably be so tied to up to, “My body is really fucked up,” you know? So what happens with singers is that you start to get incredibly neurotic and worried about the physical damage you’re doing to your voice. Not because you care about when you’re 70, but you care about that night. You want to have the full force and resonance and accuracy of your voice. And it’s really, really rough. When you’re playing a show you’ve been looking forward to for months and you’re not physically capable of really being there and performing, it’ll really mess you up.
How is White Wilderness different from your previous records?
Vanderslice: I kind of entrusted the music and really most of the record in a sense to Magik Magik Orchestra and Minna Choi. I met [Choi] about two years ago. She had just moved to San Francisco, and she sent me an e-mail saying that she wanted to meet. We had mutual friends. I went to a couple shows that Magik put on, and it was like a real revelation to me. She did Jonny Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver. They did a pretty eclectic, really well done classical show. And then I saw them with a couple, essentially bands, backing up bands… It seemed to be what I was looking for, in a sense… It was esoteric for me because when you collaborate with a drummer or a keyboardist, it’s in your universe; you completely understand it. You can look at the keyboard or fretboard and understand what’s happening harmonically there, and it’s inspiring, but you know what it is. But when you start to play with 20 orchestral players, it’s unknowable to you.
The first thing that we did…basically we had this idea that we would make Magik Magik Orchestra be the house orchestra of Tiny Telephone, and try to get bands to hire, you know, all the way from one player to a 25-person ensemble. And it actually worked.
It was hard at first because it was expensive. I mean these are skilled and talented people. I mean, they’re in a window where they’re affordable because in general they just got out of conservatory. But still, bands are still barely able to fund a record, you know? So the more I saw what they did, and the more I saw Minna work and arrange stuff, I basically gave everything over to Minna. I said, “Minna, I’m basically going to write 12 songs, and I’m going to keep them incredibly simple. I’m just going to write them on guitar or keyboard or piano,” and I really didn’t provide any melodic information. And on a lot of the songs, I would give her mixes that were just vocals. And she would write music, taking away just basic chords of the songs. So when we went into rehearsals, I hadn’t really heard any of the music. It was really one of the most exciting times of my life.
You say on your website, “Minna Choi is my hero.”
Vanderslice: She is my hero. Everything I do is with Minna now. The next record I’m gonna do is with Minna, and we’re planning like a big San Francisco show with the orchestra. So yeah, she’s definitely my hero.
Do you plan on taking any of [the orchestra] on tour with you?
Vanderslice: Well, I can’t afford it. It’s really expensive because it’s not only the players, but it’s the transportation of the players and the hotel. Once you start getting into those numbers, it’s not possible because there are already other people on tour. For instance, me and Jason Slota, my drummer, he played all the percussion instruments on White Wilderness. We’re gonna go on tour as a duo, and we’ll probably do a few shows with additional musicians added on, but the only real orchestral show will probably be in San Francisco.
Why did you choose the name White Wilderness?
Vanderslice: Well it’s the title of a Disney documentary… A friend of mine sent it to me, and I’m going to read you the Snopes entry. It’s basically an unreleased Disney film that was—you know how there’s this idea that lemmings commit suicide, like they’ll jump off a cliff? Well, it’s actually not true: these Disney documentary filmmakers forced these lemmings over a cliff. They were making a documentary—let me read you this really quick: “Disney’s White Wilderness was filmed in Alberta, Canada. The entire sequence was faked using a handful of lemmings deceptively photographed to create the illusion of a large herd of migrating creatures.” So they basically faked this idea that they would commit suicide. And it says in fact that “when the competition for food, space or mates becomes too intense, lemmings are much more likely to kill each other than kill themselves.” I think it did come out. It looks like it was a 1958 nature documentary White Wilderness.
But there was something about the title. Of course I love that it was some sort of Disney scam. But I also loved the alliteration, I love that there’s this duality. You have this wilderness, but it’s blanketed; it’s hidden underneath snow. It just kind of hit me.
So at first when I had just started the record, I was going to write a whole album about a couple, like in the song “White Wilderness,” who is lost in the woods because this dangerous snowfall happened during the middle of the hike and their path is obliterated. But it just became too restrictive, so I just kinda bailed on that idea.
So does White Wilderness tie into any of the other songs?
Vanderslice: Well, I would say it doesn’t really exclude that kind of overarching thing, but I didn’t really follow through with it… “White Wilderness” was going to be the first song on the record. The idea was going to be that it was the first song, and that every other song would be like a memory or a revisitation of this person’s life, and then the last song on the record would bring them back to their disappearance.
Part of it was that there was a San Francisco couple. My friend worked at this store called The Apothecary, and it was really close to my old apartment. The people who owned The Apothecary, I want to say they went on a trip with their kids up to Portland—this is another story that’s really interesting to Google—and somehow when they were driving back from Portland, they went through a national park and it was snowing, and one of the park rangers had forgotten to close one of the roads down, and they drove down one of the roads in the park and got stuck. And the husband went to look for help and got lost. And of course he got hypothermia from taking off his clothes, and they found him way later. It was this really intense San Francisco story, because, you know, people knew this family. But what that structure did was that it got me to think that I hadn’t written in clear and straight autobiographical terms about some parts of my life. In some parts, it prodded me to be very straightforward about myself or my history. So even if some songs are exaggerated, they’re definitely autobiographical.
Do you prefer writing about yourself or other people more?
Vanderslice: Oh, other people. I much more prefer just creating narratives out of thin air. It’s limitless. You can write a story about a guy shooting a bluebird that’s haunting him from an apple tree across the way, or you can write a song about a prostitute in Iraq, or you could write a song about a guy who, like, bombs a post office.They’re limitless story ideas.
But when you write about yourself, it’s very circumscribed. First off, there’s not that much that happens to people. We live an internal life mostly, you know?
With the explosion of digital media, what’s the biggest challenge facing artists nowadays?
Vanderslice: Well, to sidestep that question a bit, the biggest challenge for artists is to kind of fulfill their own aesthetic ideal. That’s always incredibly difficult; I see it in the studio every day.
I would say taking that into 2011, the hyper-digital age, I would say the hardest thing is that the audience is overwhelmed with exceptional music. I mean, I am overwhelmed by how many good records come out all the time. I would say it’s incredibly difficult now. All I see are really good bands in the studio that have a really hard time finding an audience.
I think it’s a good thing overall; it has to be. There’s no barrier to entry. People can post whole records to thousands of different, interesting places. And the net effect of all that stuff is absolutely positive. But I see a lot of people making really exceptional stuff, and they’re just fighting for an ever-dwindling piece of the pie.
Do you have any examples?
Vanderslice: Oh God, yeah. There’s tons. I’ll give you a big example and a small example:
Chad VanGaalen just put out like a free B-side release on the web, and it’s absolutely terrific. I listen to it a couple times a day. I mean, he’s not unknown. The guy is a monster. I mean, he’s an absolute genius.
If this were 1971, there wouldn’t be 5,000 people operating at that level. I’m convinced this is the golden age of art. It’s just incredible. Every time I hear people say we’re in an era of volume over quality, it’s just not true. It’s absolutely not true. You might have one Captain Beefheart in 1973. Well, you’ve got like 1,000 of them now. I mean, there are people doing really twisted, interesting, original stuff that are one of the 79 releases of that year.
You’ve managed to keep your name out there pretty well, so do you have any suggestions for people?
Vanderslice: Well, it’s all I do, all I think about—trying to make the best record I can under whatever limitations I’m operating under. I mean, every band is struggling. You can make records at home, but that isn’t the end of the budgetary problem. Just getting out on tour, trying to find any way to get outside of your bedroom is incredibly difficult. So once you do it, you’ve got to sustain a lot of energy. I mean, fuck, man, I’ve probably played 1,000 shows in eight years. Touring is one way to do it.
There’s a lot of people who’re doing lots of interesting stuff. I mean, there was a band the other day in Tiny Telephone called Moonbell. They came in and did some of the weirdest and most interesting kind-of-My-Bloody-Valentine-esque stuff that I’d heard in months. To get to your question, the only thing you can do is be as true as you can to the weird music you hear in your head. That’s the only thing you can do, really.
Do you hear weird music in your head?
Vanderslice: Oh, yeah. I mean, it’s amazing the stuff you hear in your head that you can’t transcribe, that you can’t get out. It’s a lifelong battle. Music is abstract, completely and totally abstract. The thing I’ve learned about recording is that half the impact of music is the recording itself. It’s half of the content, and it’s incredibly difficult to nail that part down. Plus, sometimes when you nail it down, it’s terrible. In other words, when you make a controlled and less anarchic recording, it actually doesn’t work. Sometimes, chaos is the name of the game, but there are other variables.