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John Vanderslice

Interview von: Matthias Rauch mit John Vanderslice, am: 12.02.2006 ]

Nach mittlerweile doch einigen Jahren in den kulturindustriellen Mühlen ist es immer wieder erfrischend, mit jemandem zu sprechen, der tatsächlich grandiose Musik macht und dazu noch ein dermaßen sympathischer und interessanter Gesprächspartner ist, dem man das Gesagte auch problemlos abnimmt. Ähnlich direkt und natürlich kommen auch die Songs auf seinem neuen Album „Pixel Revolt“ daher, das eindrucksvoll unter Beweis stellt, dass die Kombination aus Pop mit einem unübersehbarem Indie-Charme und klassischem Singer/Songwriter-Gestus noch lange nicht ausgereizt ist. Wir sprachen mit John über Analogfetische, Bill Gates und den perfekten Popsong.


Musicscan: Tell me a little bit about the tour. How has it been so far, the audience's response and so on?

John Vanderslice: I'm kind of a pessimist, so the audience's response has been a lot better than I thought. Because we don't have any profile in Europe at all. We just had our first record come out a couple of days ago in France and it's our first tour here, so I just thought we'd be starting from scratch. And in a way we are starting from scratch but it's a little bit better than that. The shows have been good. UK was really good. I was worried about the UK because they are known in the States for being a fairly picky and kind of burned out audience. I mean there is a lot of home-grown music and there is a lot of bands from the States that come through.

Musicscan: Did you make out any difference as far as the audience's response is concerned between the States and Europe?

John Vanderslice: Yeah, because we just finished a tour in the States and we were headlining the tour, so the people that were there were there to see us. So you get used to that. And then coming here - opening for a band is a very peculiar thing. It can be a good fit and it can be a bad fit. It can really rub a band's crowd the wrong way or you can get on their side. Matthew has been introducing us every night and Nada Surf has been really involved in playing with us during the set and that has helped us tremendously.

Musicscan: What makes the perfect song for you? Does it even exist?

John Vanderslice: The perfect song is where you outstrip what you think your potential is. And I think that there have been songs that I put on record that I don't think I'll ever get back to. I mean that I'll never make a recording that's that coherent or convincing to me. There's a song that we open with tonight called "Keep the Dream Alive," and the recorded version of that song has an energy that I haven't found easy to duplicate on recordings. Sometimes there is something that clicks when you're recording a song and you know that it is almost a random or lucky break and you won't ever find it again. There have been many songs like that. Definitely.

Musicscan: You're known to be totally into analog recording? What's the reason you like that? Is that only because of the sound or are you in some way skeptical or critical of technology and how it might influence music?

John Vanderslice: That's a good question because it's becoming more and more important to the records I make. In the beginning it was just the sonics. I just knew that it sounded better to me, but later on we began to get so mired into the possibilities of using the recording studio as an instrument and the possibilities of restarting and reinventing ourselves with every song. We tried to never duplicate any drum sounds or any overall production approaches. That we didn't have more choices on the computer became very important to us. That we were stuck on a linear format helped us eliminate some choices and some avenues and alleyways and cul de sacs that we would get lost on. So I think that I'm always looking for limitations and I'm always looking for ways out of limitations.

Musicscan: Do you think the form of music or how music is perceived might change because of technology, that songs will be made for ring tones, for instance?

John Vanderslice: With all that stuff it is a zero sum game. You win some and you lose some. You get stuff like The Books, like Radiohead, you get deconstructive, progressive music that is fully using the possibilities of the technology. And you also maybe lose sometimes. MP3s, well they are compressed files, they don't really sound particularly good. Sometimes convenience is the death of everything, but I think it's just a zero sum game. Overall I like the digital revolution. I like that there is so much music on the web, on news servers and on people's websites. And I love how fast it is to transfer music now. I think the musician is helped by it.

Musicscan: Tell me a little bit about the new album. Did you approach it any differently than your previous albums?

John Vanderslice: Yeah. We set out right away to make a record that was more patient, more open, more harmonically pleasing, more ballady, less aggressive and distorted. There was a lot of distortion on “Cellar Door”. Also, Scott Solter, my engineer wanted me to change my vocal approach. He wanted me to not shout as much, not be as forceful vocally and to withdraw from the microphone, use a more hi-fi mic and also do a lot more falsetto vocals. I think that the falsetto overall had the most impact on the way that the record sounds because almost every song has falsetto on it. It is a sweeter sounding record. The lyrics may be the darkest, though, of any album that I've ever done, so the lyrics are maybe balanced by a more melodic sensibility.

Musicscan: Would you say you are a perfectionist in the studio?

John Vanderslice: Oh yeah. I mean on a certain level I am. On another level I'm very sloppy. There are a lot of recordings that I like and a lot of times that I'm working where the engineers that I'm working with think that I'm really sloppy, that I'm not concerned about technique. And sometimes I'm really not concerned about technique, but I'm concerned with the energy of a first take, with the energy of the performance at the moment. So I would say I'm a confused perfectionist.

Musicscan: Do you know when you have reached the point where you have to stop or do you need another person to help and say "It's fine. Let's keep it like this"?

John Vanderslice: I'm good with finding that point because I usually have so much time in the recording process where I record and I can take things home and listen to them at home and I'm never panicked. So I'm never making decisions based on anything other than my own aesthetic needs. But Scott Solter, my engineer, is very important in helping me stay focused on what we need to do and record and on when a song is done. But there is a lazy component to my working process where I just want to stop at one point.

Musicscan: How does your song-writing process work? Do you always write the songs on your own? I hear you work with John from The Mountain Goats a lot.

John Vanderslice: Yeah. He's very important to me because what I do is that I'll sit at home with an acoustic guitar and I'll write a song. Very simple chords. The main thing for me is to work out the melody line and the lyrics. And then I email the lyrics to John and then he edits them. And sometimes the edits are very harsh and they are really invasive and prescriptive and great. I mean they're like an overhaul. Other times he just changes one word or he doesn't change anything and everything in between. So he's really my editor and I'm basically workshopping music with him.

Musicscan: And you absolutely trust him, too?

John Vanderslice: Yes, a hundred percent. Totally.

Musicscan: You have been involved with music for quite along time now. Has there ever been a point where you doubted doing music?

John Vanderslice: Oh yeah.

Musicscan: What made you continue?

John Vanderslice: It's a skills set thing. I think that what happens to a lot of musicians is that they have devoted so much time and energy and they are so far down the road. Once you know a craft, you are wedded to that craft. It is very hard to jettison all that knowledge that you have learned and all that preparatory work you have done. There is a song on "Pixel Revolt" called "Dear Sarah Shu", and that song was basically written because I was really close to bailing on music and writing and taking photos and doing other things. I couldn't bear the thought of making an album again. It's a torturous experience. And so I wrote a letter to an invented successor, saying: Listen, good luck with this job. I've written down all I know about this job, but in the end you're on your own.

Musicscan: Can you live off the music right now?

John Vanderslice: Yeah. I own a recording studio that is very busy. That helps, but we're now getting to the point where we're living off music. And that's unbelievable. That's really hard to chew.

Musicscan: Did you ever have certain goals in your musical career, certain milestones that you wanted to achieve?

John Vanderslice: Yeah, I definitely did have goals. I wanted to sell ten thousand records in the States. I told my girlfriend: All I want to do is sell ten thousand records. There are so many records coming out in the States all the time that it's hard to chew. And then the day we crossed ten thousand, it was just the most unsatisfying thing that has ever happened. It was just like: Oh God, now I got a long way to another milestone. I have to double sales, because no one cares if you sell fifteen thousand. The real milestone I have and I'm kind of still working on is being able to tour all the time and being able to bring a full band with support and having the kind of tours that I want to have. In the States we're there, but here I feel like I'm just starting on a huge endeavor that will take me four to five years to the point where I can bring my band over. That would be the most special thing for me. It's like a payback to those guys because touring in the States is not the same as touring in Europe. It's posher, sweeter, and it's just a lot nicer here on a lot of different levels. I love touring the States. I'm at peace with it, but I'm starting to get into a different system over here and these guys (Nada Surf) are showing me the way. They're showing me the light. (laughs)

Musicscan: Do you think there are still new sounds to be created or is music nowadays more about postmodern collage, pastiche and a recombination of sounds?

John Vanderslice: I think it's always new. There is always the possibility that something is striking and original and useful and profound. I don't think that there is ever a point where it is all chewed up. It's like words. The novel will always be interesting. Poems will always be interesting. Mediums die. Maybe they only die because of technological considerations. Silent film is not really a big burgeoning area and other things take over. You have things receding like jazz or classical music or dance and then you have things blowing up, like comic books or graphic novels. You have a completely different experimental music scene now than there was in America in the fifties or in Europe in the teens. It's always changing and the thing is that art is a way for insane people to try to find some kind of balance, so there is always going to be an endless amount of creativity and crazy people trying to find their balance.

Musicscan: So do you believe that newness is not only created in just a recombination or recontextualization, but that actual new songs are going to come up?

John Vanderslice: I do. We were listening to a Timbaland song the other night that was on a Missy Elliott record and it sounded like it was an idea generated four seconds ago. It sounded so profound and new to me. And this was a song from like six years ago. You do have to look in different places. Maybe you don't look at country music if you are a guy who wants to have progressive music ideas pushed down your throat. Hip hop is where a lot of stuff is happening now. In the States is huge. And there is unbelievably good stuff coming out.

Musicscan: One aspect I wanted to talk about with you: You have one song on your first record which is called "Bill Gates Must Die". Was that just a smart marketing and promotion move?

John Vanderslice: Yeah, part of it was. It really started out as a song about child pornography. It started as a song where an insane narrator is basically resenting Bill Gates because he blames Bill Gates for the flood of pornography that is coming into his house. In the song he says: "I just typed a word. I just pressed return and for bringing me here Bill Gates must die." In many ways I'm baiting people to really listen to the lyrics and to pay attention to what I'm saying. Yeah, I do personally hate Bill Gates and I hate PCs with a passion, but I wouldn't write a song so directly pointed at someone. I'm a little more angular than that or obtuse. So for me what was interesting was the idea that someone would blame… You know when Gary Gilmore or Son of Sam (serial killer David Berkowitz – the ed.), was caught murdering dozens of people, he basically said that it was pornography that made him do it. I found that the most disingenuous thing I'd ever heard. So I wrote the song, but then it was later on when the record came out that we realized that we could use that baiting and oversimplified song title to really get reaction and we sent out a big press release. I was wholeheartedly into the idea. It wasn't some idea that was thrust onto me. I loved the idea that Microsoft was trying to sue me because I wrote a song about Bill Gates.

Musicscan: Do you think you incorporate a political aspect in your music pretty much all the time? How important is the political aspect to your music?

John Vanderslice: It is really important. I would say most of the time for me there is some element of politics or imperial power or bloodshed or war or covert action. In my own personal life I'm very interested in politics. I'm a newspaper junkie. I love the idea that there is a shadow government. Well, every government has a shadow intelligence segment that really runs a good deal of the show, but in the US it's very powerful. You have an intelligence community that has a black budget. They have a budget that is undetermined and amorphous and can really bleed the country dry as much as it wants. Think of what kind of power a group of agencies is going to have. That stuff to me is fascinating.

Musicscan: What influence does the political climate in the US right now have on art and music in particular?

John Vanderslice: I'm surprised that more people don't notice the geopolitical dallying about that we're doing. There are a lot of hip hop guys that rap about nine eleven, that rap about shit that most indie rock people don't. And I understand why. If you're too topical, there is a possibility of being dated or stale. I worry about being topical all the time and I worry about the novelty of talking directly about Guantanamo Bay or whatever it is, but I just find that there are interesting stories from theses places. For me, I just try to put it in a narrator's perspective, so it is not necessarily a directive from me, but it could be a story about people that are trying to figure something out. Maybe they're morally ambiguous, maybe they're some version of me or that I have sympathies with.

Musicscan: Do you also think it influences the music not only the lyrics but also the sound aesthetics?

John Vanderslice: I think so. In "Plymouth Rock", the second song on Pixel Revolt, there is a distorted kick snare groove in that song and to me that sounded like the beginnings of violence. It evoked to me violence and it evoked to me the grinding approach of a battle because that's what that song is about. It is setting up the musical equivalent of someone entering into battle for the first time. This distorted, hypnotic, eloping groove.

Musicscan: As popular music and popular culture in general is disseminated all over the world and thus medialized to a great extent, do you think that pop is automatically global or does it still reflect regional and local cultural and social specificities?

John Vanderslice: I think that it does reflect that, but I think it is global. After playing shows in Japan, the US and Europe I find that there is a very unified thing that happens with music as far as the responses, the comments, the discussions are concerned. There is a similarity between people. I mean I have never played in Thailand, but I feel that there is such a unified kind of perception of music.

Musicscan: But isn’t it always necessarily also located in the regional and the specific because otherwise it would net get noticed and would not receive the recognition and support by the local people.

John Vanderslice: Definitely, but I think with the Internet this becomes increasingly eroded, that there is a specific regional kind of necessity of music and maybe a regional angle, flavor or approach because of the internet. There are a lot of bands that don’t even tour that people know about just through the internet. So I believe the internet is increasingly eroding that feeling.

  John Vanderslice
  Barsuk Records
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