Hoax, Lies and Audio
For a media whore like John Vanderslice, fifteen stinkin' minutes probably aren't enough.
"I think a lot of bands are afraid of publicity," says the 33-year-old indie rocker from Bethesda, Maryland, who presently resides in San Francisco. "[They're] afraid that they're prostrating themselves. Like they're not supposed to be looking for press. Like it's not a pure thing to do. I think that's ridiculous! Seeing your own private fiction in print is a pretty powerful thing."
It's also pretty unnerving -- especially when such flights of fancy involve "death threats" aimed at the planet's wealthiest resident, Bill Gates, in addition to an entire web of conspiratorial deceit. To put matters into context, Vanderslice issued his own solo debut, Mass Suicide Occult Figurines, last year to respectable smatterings of critical praise. One song in particular stood out: "Bill Gates Must Die," a scorching little number with a title as innocuous as "Surrender Dorothy" in soot-colored exhaust across the Oz skyline.
On one hand, the tune is nothing more than a lonely narrative told from the perspective of a hopeless Internet-porn addict with a twisted taste for kids. "Teeny tiny little teens/Keep pouring out of my machine/I just typed a word/I just pressed return," Vanderslice laments with mounting hostility before reaching the punchline. "Someone made this easy/Someone made this inevitable/So, for bringing me here/Bill Gates must die!"
Subtle as a hand grenade, the joyless ditty nonetheless burst with marketing potential. Taking a suggestion from promoter and friend Josh Bloom, Vanderslice mailed an advance copy of the disc to Microsoft in November of 1999 in the hopes of receiving an angry letter or a threatening phone call -- anything to generate some kind of buzz. No one bit. He then drafted his own bogus letter on Microsoft stationery (from one K. Judith Yearling, the fictional vice president of corporate communications) and faxed it to several papers in the Bay Area. "Recently a copy of your CD, which features the song 'Bill Gates Must Die,' was brought to our attention," the letter reads. "I have since forwarded this to our legal department, which will in turn be sending you a cease and desist letter by certified mail. We receive many death threats for Mr. Gates, but I must say this song deeply offended me, and I will personally make sure all remaining copies of this record are destroyed."
Using the phony missive to launch his promotional efforts for Mass Suicide -- an otherwise fairly soft-spoken, piano-based album of skill and wit -- Vanderslice expanded the hoax nationally. He mailed out packages, complete with a disc designed to look like a software installation CD, with artwork spoofing Microsoft's Windows logo -- something the letter addressed as a serious trademark infringement. Vanderslice also included a fictitious first-person account of the strange things he'd begun to notice in the letter's wake: tapped phone lines, a sabotaged home server, and mysterious late-night calls from the 425 area code in Redmond, Washington -- home of Microsoft, among others.
"The Guardian and the SF Weekly and the Chronicle all picked it up locally. But CD All Star ran it nationally," Vanderslice says. "And Internet news is fast. They picked that thing up in like an hour. Someone [from All Star News] called me at home and said, 'How are you feeling about having Microsoft down your throat? Tell me about all these noises you've been hearing on the phone.'"
Vanderslice responded with some half-assed hogwash about eerie radar signals that go blip in the night.
"I was just riffin'," he says. "Makin' stuff up. And they were printing it! And I thought, my God, these guys are not even coming from a position of cynicism. I felt bad. People are so nice. They're gonna take your word and they're gonna back you. And here you are, just pulling the wool over their eyes. But I did it anyway."
Privately bursting with astonishment and outright glee, Vanderslice managed to keep a straight face, even when deluged by curious newshounds for more than three weeks. Something Orwellian was afoot, he insisted.
"It's spooky: The thought of an unknown indie rocker writing a song about Bill Gates, and then all of a sudden, he's got some multinational corporation stalking him," Vanderslice says. "It was a creepy story. It had legs. And it resonated with a lot of people."
Scores of Web loggers were chiming in on bulletin-board sites like Evhead and Bifurcated Rivets to bare their souls about the injustice of it all. When the national cable station ZDTV broadcast Vanderslice's Web address during a five-minute news segment in mid-December 1999, he says he was besieged by hundreds of e-mails a day and countless hits. "I'm trying to keep a lid on my paranoia," he told the curious well-wishers via his Web site. "Though all of the stories people have sent me regarding their own struggles isn't helping! For the good news: My server is more stable, we still haven't seen another letter from Microsoft, and I have no pro bono lawyer."
While Johnnie Cochran golfed, Vanderslice held court over an ever-widening cyber-fable of ridiculous proportions, laughing up his sleeve as he drew the attention of friend and foe alike.
"I started getting freaks from around the country contacting me," he says. "And all around the world." Most of these e-mails were "Fuck Bill Gate$"-toned letters of support. Others were steeped in conspiracy theories, offering sincere explanations for, among other things, the actual unclassified satellite relays that Vanderslice took off the Web and made available through his site. (For instance, in reponse to an unidentified female voice reciting things like "three... seven...romeo...alpha...etc.," one expert suggested, "They're probably alphabet letter military codes" rather than "the local neighborhood spy.")
Several deluded romantics also attempted to include themselves in Vanderslice's fleeting moment in the spotlight. "Maybe u can put me and my cousin's name in the song...That'll be cool!...We are hackers and love to destroy Windows systems," wrote a pair of virus-jugglers who go by the cybernyms of Circuit Breaker and Antimicro. A fourteen-year-old named Emily from Clearwater, Florida, took Vanderslice to task before indulging in a bit of self-promotion: "Bill Gates is a great man," she wrote. "What have you ever done?? I don't know why you think you can say the things you do, you should be soooo ashamed. If you meet him, tell him about me. I like to ride horses and..."
The constant attention turned Vanderslice into something of a mainlining publicity junkie -- one who needed to dream up new lies to cover the old ones. "I'd not seen myself in quotes very much at that time [mid-hoax, late December of 1999]," he admits. "Now it's kind of old hat. But before -- it's like a drug! It's absolutely addicting -- to see not only your own words, but your own fantasy."
At the end of a three-week binge, reporter Jeff Stark of the SF Weekly (Westword's sister paper in the Bay Area) finally exposed Vanderslice -- a relative act of mercy, by all accounts. "It was so exhausting," Vanderslice says. "It's like that story about those Vermont kids who killed the two professors, and when the cops asked one of them when he was born, he said, 'May 40th.' He was so scattered. He was basically insane, you know, from running from the cops. I felt like I was on the lam. I had made up so many lies. I couldn't really handle it any longer."
Yet rather than face extradition to Gates Manor (or worse), Vanderslice enjoyed a brief taste of notoriety while earning himself a reputation as a culture-jamming prankster -- and a resourceful one at that. "At the time, I didn't have a label," he says, "and in a way, I was like a male animal of the species trying to get a courtesan. I needed to do something that would get me a little visibility."
Mission accomplished. In the end, nineteen separate media outlets had run articles and mentions about the hoax, including Entertainment Weekly, The Stranger, The Rocket, Pitch Weekly, the New York Post and several Web zines. Spin and the Boulder-based Wired both killed scheduled stories in production (a lengthy one on Wired's part that involved three separate interviews) after editors at both magazines learned that everything was a big joke. Acknowledging that the jig was finally up, Vanderslice even posted "settlement decrees" on his Web site; according to these pronouncements, Microsoft (who never contacted him even once despite all his baiting) had demanded he change the song's title to "Bill Gates Could Die."
Best of all, Seattle's Barsuk Records -- one of the current jewels in the indie crown -- saw fit to sign Vanderslice to a multi-record deal when the charade was over. "They're [Barsuk] begging me not to even talk about it anymore," Vanderslice says. "They don't want me to be known as just some hoaxster."
Judging from the talent displayed during non-Gates-threatening tunes, Barsuk can relax if they think that their new acquisition's media antics might overshadow his music. With sly humor and sincerity, Vanderslice proves himself an exceptionally talented songwriter. Using simple piano melodies, distorted guitars and ambient backgrounds, he crafts intricate and memorable tunes that often cut to the bone with brutal irony ("Speed Lab") or charm the pants off a bad relationship ("Gruesome Details"). He filters a Beat writer's knack for automatic inspiration through an analog aesthetic and -- naturally enough -- cranks 'em out.
"I work very fast, and it's done in a way that I'm getting close to my first impressions musically," Vanderslice says. "There's an incredible amount of inspired thought that goes nowhere because it's not captured. It's so easy to overwork and to overthink."
Instead of relying on a bank of ten thousand samples, Vanderslice sticks to a palette of primary colors: the holy trinity of melody, production and, above all, lyrics. "That's what you hang your hat on," he says. "If you're not singing about anything or have a story to tell, what's the point? I don't need hardcore poetic invention. I just want to hear a story. That's why I listen to a lot of rap."
As much as he marvels at the linguistic gymnastics of artists such as Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Talib Kweli, Vanderslice leans even harder toward the weird, homemade sound of Elephant 6-style recordings when structuring his own creations. An admittedly "monstrous Neutral Milk Hotel fan," he cites the band as a major influence. (Vanderslice got the title for Mass Suicide Occult Figurines from Jeff Mangum and company's 1998 The Aeroplane Over the Sea.) "[Neutral Milk Hotel] really changed the way I thought about music, especially about the possibility of making a concept record that wasn't overtly intellectual or arty," Vanderslice says. "I really like a lot of Elephant 6 stuff." That affinity is hardly surprising considering that Aeroplane's producer, Robert Schneider, started the collective (and, in case you haven't heard, fronts Denver's happy hub of Apple-cheeked minstrels).
Saccharine and sunshine aside, Vanderslice cut his fangs in the stinging pop quartet MK Ultra, which -- suffice it to say -- rocked circles 'round Raffi, the Apples and other fixtures in the current psychedelic-emo scene. Influenced by the Kinks, Gang of Four and heavy doses of XTC, MK Ultra saw several different Vanderslice-led lineups and issued three notable albums between 1994 and 1999: OK Computer, The Dream Is Over, and Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, all on the San Francisco-based Artichoke imprint. Falsely marketed as the score to the unrealized directorial debut of Ernest Borgnine's son, Tommy, Soundtrack also earned notoriety -- albeit much less than the Gates-baiting disc -- when several national journalists fell for the ruse; a fledgling prankster even then, Vanderslice claimed that the mixing board used for the album was purchased by a bathrobed and mumbling Brian Wilson.
Combining bright guitars, buoyant rhythms, brainy lyrics and shameless melodrama, each MK release is chock-full of poetic intrigue. Deploying truth-seeking metaphors galore, MK Ultra (dubbed after the CIA's notorious mind-controlling substance) addressed a slew of human frailties: true crime, lost love, hopeful monsters and why the songwriter's girlfriend has gams like clappers in a bell, for starters. At the time of its second release, the band held an on-air contest at Berkeley's college radio station, KALX, to find the proper name for the album. A member of the Bay Area collective Negativland (America's original "culture jammers," who wrote the gospel on media pranks with their 1998 classic, Helter Stupid) called in and suggested a clever spin on a Russian classic: Notes From the Ultraground. But as much as Vanderslice liked the idea, his fellow comrades voted it down. "That's one reason I'm not in a band anymore," he says. "It's easier being solo."
With just his shadow for company, Vanderslice stalked the missing link between MK Ultra and a more personalized approach to self-expression on Mass Suicide. A new recording, Time Travel Is Lonely, expands upon his earlier nautical themes with something he calls (gulp) a "concept album involving melting ice caps and polar madness." Up to its fluttering eyelids in frozen displacement, "the shifting perspective is the story," Vanderslice says -- one that shifts from song to song, from Shackleton to Lee Harvey Oswald, from Tiananmen Square to McLean, Virginia. The overarching structure involves a fella named Jesse (based on the songwriter's brother, Ray) in a geological relay station in Antarctica who's monitoring code from the spy satellite Echelon; after going bonkers and abandoning his post, Jesse finds himself within earshot of a sunken Russian submarine (the Kursk), whose trapped crew members include -- you guessed it -- the 'slice.
Twelve madly scribbled letters in the liner notes correspond to each song, and everything is held together by seamless and curious interludes -- that old parlor trick that rap music taught us. The album utilizes in-house engineer John Croslin (Pavement, Spoon, Guided by Voices) and recalls dilemmas on par with Major Tom's acoustic pleas to ground control. Dandified, seasick harpsichords flounder in the tossing foam with the occasional flair-up of symphonic reverie. Set for release in mid-May, Time Travel is far more coherent than Mass Suicide and finds the songwriter's talents in full bloom. The current tour -- featuring guitarist Logan Hedin, Chapman stick player (!) Alex Nahas and drummer Gavin Foster -- aims to bring this theatrical vision to life. And while the album finds Vanderslice sometimes flirting with pretension and self-indulgence, he believes the payoff of a successful narrative is worth it. "My new one is the shit," he says. "It's exactly what I had in my head and in my heart. It's the closest I've gotten in my whole life."
Besides helming his own projects, Vanderslice and Tiny Telephone -- his 1,700-square-foot romper room of analog-centric recording equipment nestled in San Francisco's Mission District -- can boast a list of indie clientele that includes Beulah, Creeper Lagoon, Richard Buckner and ex-Pavement player Scott Kannberg. In addition, he runs an MP3 hub that features new, rare and unreleased music free of charge from national bands (Bright Eyes, Jeremy Enigk, Of Montreal, Spoon) as well as relative unknowns (Granfaloon Bus and Kid Dakota). An enormous open-source supporter, Vanderslice has also released Time Travel (again, free) through the Internet.
"I get a minimum every month of between 5,000 and 7,000 MP3s downloaded from my site," Vanderslice says. "I know it sounds counterintuitive, but I think it sells more records because we give away the whole records. The bizarre truth is that the more people hear of different bands and of music that they like, you'll have a small percentage that go out and buy it. Besides, I'm not any poorer, because I'm streaming digital copies off my server. It doesn't deplete anything from me. I think it's a huge, huge promotional tool."
On top of all that, because Vanderslice owns a recording studio (with ten to fifteen bands passing through in any given month), he's familiar with the bank accounts of a lot of musicians. "They write me checks, and I know which ones bounce," he says. "And some of the poorest musicians are the ones signed to major labels or who are big on indie labels, because they're more reliant on their label to get them money. They don't get that much to begin with."
If the Do-It-Yourself credo has taught musicians anything, it's that the freedom of a church mouse often beats the slavery of a lionized superstar -- especially when it comes to the quality or personality of a recording project.
"You can do whatever you do and follow through on it and find a cult audience," Vanderslice says. "It might be a small cult audience. You might only sell 2,000 copies of your record, but that's fine. Make the kind of record that you want to make. Because if you dilute it and compromise it, you won't have anything in the end."
One thing seems certain: No matter how good or bad an indie creation actually is, there won't be a living soul who hears it without a little juice, a little word of mouth, a little precious ink shed in hype's name. Publicity is one mean fix, partner, whether it inspires Dennis Rodman to don a wedding gown or makes a tough guy like John Ramsey eager to tell the world how an intruder locked him in the bathroom. For Vanderslice, though, any more media whoppers will have to take a back seat -- especially now that Bill Gates has been spanked and finally sent to bed.
"The thing with those hoaxes is that they get tired really fast," Vanderslice says. "I'm done. Now I'm just trying to make interesting records."
Read about tourmates Death Cab for Cutie
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