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John Vanderslice on White Wilderness, photography and how he receives criticism

In the middle to later half of the 1990s, John Vanderslice (due tonight at the hi-dive with Damien Jurado) was a member of the respected Bay Area alternative rock band, MK Ultra. When the band split in 1999, Vanderslice took the delicate intensity and experimental edge he had brought to that outfit to a critically-acclaimed solo career. For over a decade, Vanderslice has run Tiny Telephone, a studio that has recorded a veritable who's who of recent indie rock, providing up-and-coming bands with affordable rates on quality recordings.

Across eight albums, including the recently released White Wilderness, Vanderslice has created a body of work that is remarkable not just for the songwriter's constant willingness to change up his sounds and compositional approaches, but for lyrics that -- sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully, sometimes humorously -- strike out to understand the human heart and how we make sense of the world. All with intelligence and with words that clearly come from a person who appreciates how those words can have a literary quality in a pop song context.

If you read any of his numerous interviews, it quickly becomes obvious you're dealing with a guy who has clearly thought things through but has tempered his thinking with compassion and humility. We recently spoke with the cordial and incredibly gracious Vanderslice about aspects of his songwriting, his photography and his take on handling criticism.

Westword: In an interview you did for Splendid, you mentioned William Blake and the structure of his poems and how his use of language is so modern. What is it about that era of Romantic poets, or specific poets, strikes a chord with you?

John Vanderslice: What I think is always astounding to me is that someone can write something or paint something that's five- six- seven-hundred years old that is completely understandable to us. I feel like we're almost a different species, I think even more so after the Internet.

What's amazing is that vocal choral music, like late fifteenth century or early sixteenth century vocal music, is so harmonically modern-sounding that I can't make sense that it was written five hundred years ago. I can't grasp that. It's kind of reassuring that there's this common thread throughout humanity that's kind of immune to technology or wars or anything else. I find it kind of heartening.

You're well-known in certain circles as not just a great songwriter but as an engineer par excellence. What did you have in mind to do with Tiny Telephone when you started it up, and what would you like to do with your studio that you have not yet?

The reason why I opened the studio is that my first band, MK Ultra, we were in such a typical predicament: We were a band that had rehearsed a lot and had done some rehearsal recordings on borrowed gear and had scraped together whatever resources to eke out a demo. We were looking to record in a studio with an engineer and have an experience that was comparable to the experience we had imagined you had to have to make the kinds of records that we were listening to -- we were listening to Pixies records, or XTC records or Gang of Four records. We wanted to be in rooms that looked like those photographs that we saw. We wanted that experience, and I had also grown up listening to classic English rock on vinyl.

Whether I could intellectualize it or not, I could tell the difference between a shitty local studio with bad microphones and what I was hearing on these Kinks records or these Who records. What I didn't know at the time was that I'd be chasing that sound and that feeling for twenty years. At the time, I just thought, "Well the first thing is we need to get into a studio." The problem with that equation...

This was 1996, and in San Francisco, when we toured studios, there were just two distinct categories. One was terrible, grimy rehearsal rooms with cigarettes on the floor and old carpeting and, like, broken duct-tape mike stands and SM57s. The other category was studios in top buildings with hard wood floors and uptight studio owners. There was nothing in the middle at all, and to me, that made no sense because bands can't afford to go to those hard wood floor places and being in those terrible rehearsal room places was so depressing that we couldn't do it.

So I opened a studio to fill that universe in the middle of the market. That's what I initially tried to do with the studio. The thing we haven't done yet, which is incredibly difficult, is to emulate those phenomenal English studios of the '60s and '70s that produced all those records that I like. Part of that is that I don't have ten million dollars.

You're a proponent of analog recording and have talked about that at length in various interviews. How has your approach to recording and the technology you use changed in the last several years, or has it?

I made this promise to myself that I would make a record on Logic and make my first digital record, and I just couldn't do it. I think part of the reason is that I had to source out a new ProTools system for a new studio. We just built a new B room for Tiny Telephone. I got so frustrated looking into that digital world again trying to find out what would work.

It's probably how people feel when they're in the freezer section of Costco trying to sort out food for their dinner party. It just feels very unwholesome, you know. I kind of backed off on that, but I should fulfill that promise to myself because I know that it can be done. I know that it's better than I think it is. It can be done in a way that's interesting, that's forward-looking and that's sonically above the line for me. I haven't quite gotten there.

I would say that the one thing I have explored is live recording. White Wilderness was done as a live, orchestral, almost like a live soundtrack recording with everyone in one room, just doing very few takes. That's the best way to do a record by far, as far as anxiety goes, and time. It's so much more fun.

How did you get involved with Magik*Magik Orchestra, and in what ways, if any, was it involved in the songwriting process for White Wilderness?

The initial contact was Minna Choi, the director and arranger, writing me an e-mail about two years ago, where she proposed the totally bold and awesome idea that her modular orchestra wanted to be the house orchestra of Tiny Telephone. It was just the boldest, coolest idea I'd heard in a while, so I aggressively went toward that idea and pulling them into the studio as much as possible. They now rent an office in the studio, and they do a lot of sessions there. It's a pretty incredible connection, I think, for all of us.

As far as the content side of it, I did almost zero writing on the new record. I did very minimal demos and simple song structures and rudimentary recordings and gave them to Minna. Then me, Jason Slota and Max Stoffregen kind of workshopped the songs for a month or two and came up with a great barebones trio feel for the song.

And Minna did everything else. She did all the heavy lifting with the strings, woodwinds and with the horns and was really given full control over the songs. To hear how great she is, listen to "Convict Lake," and listen to the interplay between the woodwinds and the horns and strings, and it's magnificent. So our next record will be with Minna and Magik for sure.

John Vanderslice and Minna Choi
John Vanderslice and Minna Choi
Autumn De Wilde

You're also a respected photographer. Why did you get a Leica M6 instead of another type of camera, and do you use any other cameras in your photographic work?

That's a great question. You know, no one has even come close to asking that question. I think it's so interesting because I think about it all the time. I had a Pentax J1000 for about ten years and I must have taken five or ten thousand photos on it. There's a lot that I miss about the J1000. I think it has a little bit more style than the M6, and I think that the errors -- the light flares and the anomalies of the lenses -- is more my thing than the Leica, in a way. I definitely think that the black and white vibe of the Pentax is superior to the Leica, just for me. The Leica is so hi-fi and durable and so compact, I love the way it feels in my hands.

The reason I got the Leica is because of the photographer Lee Friedlander. I just read and saw in photos that he'd used the M6 for a long time. I was making records with his son Eric. I never met Lee, but I got Eric to get Lee to help me get a used Leica. So he arranged for a used Leica to be held for me at a record store he goes to all the time. It was in perfect condition and the price was right.

That's how I got into the Leica. It was really through wanting to emulate a great photographer. That's just the story of the world. It matters, but it kind of doesn't matter. I probably would have been happy to stay on a Pentax, and I still miss it, but I really love the durability and the footprint of the Leica and I kind of can't stop touring with it.

Do you have a preference for black and white or color?

I like shooting black and white pretty fast. If I can get a hold of it, 3200, and shoot it outside so it doesn't get really grainy, I really like 1600 speed color. I think that black and white is probably more interesting, in a way, because it doesn't give you as much so the composition, and the content of the photo means more in some way and color can kind of be easy -- it can just be beautiful. What's great for me is mixing both. It's almost like distortion versus harmony or dissonance and consonance. When I put together those slide shows, it's really important that I have both black and white and color.

What do you do to take great shots in a low light situation?

That's where the stability of the Leica is really helpful. You can easily shoot a fifteenth of a second without stopping and breathing. The other thing is shooting with fast film has been such a tremendous help. I buy a lot of expired film on eBay, and I've just had great luck with 3200 speed film and 800 -- I almost never shoot with 400 speed film. You can be clownish sometimes if it just breaks into these huge grain drops. It's awesome, man. I would rather have too much light any day of the week -- I'm sure you would agree -- and also the time of the year. It's amazing, the difference between shooting in winter and summer, regardless of how high up you are on the planet, if you can be allowed to speak in such vague terms, it's a huge difference.

Emerald City is one of the most explicitly political records of recent years. You said about that album that you were so affected by what was going on around you, that you had to write your way out of it to help make sense of things. Were there any overarching themes and concerns that informed the writing of White Wilderness?

Absolutely. White Wilderness was really, in some ways, about surviving and pushing through a pretty intense and awful period of depression. "White Wilderness," the song, was really the first song I wrote in that cycle. It felt like freezing to death on a mountain where the path was getting erased by snowfall. It's like all of that stuff, when you pass through it: It seems distant and harmless.

It's like when you have the flu and you come out of it. You can remember how fucked you were, but it doesn't stay. Thank god we're that resilient. "Sea Salt" was actually the last song that I wrote in that period. It was really about when you have a strong, almost incinerating period of depression; it can be like the forest burning down, and you're starting over. In some ways that can be tremendous because you can get rid of all this old growth and old thinking and you can sprout again.

I really felt that my ego had been completely dissolved. I'm not an egotistical person, but I am very rooted in the world and I am incredibly ambitious, and, unfortunately, everything I do is measured by numbers: numbers of records that I sell, how many days I book in the studio, numbers of merch every night. You can be driven insane by these things. So I really had, in some ways, come out of that free. When I sing that every night I am very, very close to the feeling I had when I wrote that song. That I really felt that I was free and that I could go anywhere, metaphysically, from that point.

A lot of the songs on the record are reminiscences about my life. A lot of it was listening to Nas a lot. Nas is incredibly sentimental and really thinks about his life all the time and his childhood. Almost every song on that record is strictly autobiographical. "Overcoat" is super specific. I don't think I've been that specific and somewhat literal before. I guess I was freed up, in some ways, to write about actual, real stuff. Which is difficult for people to write about. "Convict Lake," is one hundred percent autobiographical. I did end up in a hospital from taking LSD at a very high altitude. I don't even really talk about that with my friends, and I found this incredible joy in looking back on my life and writing about it.

You've talked about how you check out the information on the internet like most of us these days and that you read some blogs. How do you deal with both positive and negative feedback on your work?

I would say that, like anything, overload of information takes care of itself. This is my eighth record, and I've put out like four EPs and two remix records, and I was in a band that put out three records before that. At some point when you get to your thousandth record review, you kind of tune out. And that's good and bad. It's not necessarily good because sometimes people you respect and really like write something about your record that, if you were nineteen, you'd be walking tall for a month.

It barely fires neurons in your brain because they've all been fired. You've been there. On the other side, you are totally immune to what people like and don't like about your music. I think that's really important because it is very important for me to stay one-hundred percent true to what I'm interested in writing about and not be, let's say, influenced one way or the other, because that's all you have is that internal compass. Without it, you're completely lost.

I really don't mind it if someone says, "I really don't like this record, I like this record, I strongly dislike this record, and I think this record is okay." It does not, in any way, matter to me. I think that artists have to end up in that spot or they will go fucking batshit crazy. My ego is not dependent on that. I'm much more volatile about whether or not my wife likes me or whether my cats want to sleep with me or whether my mom likes me. I mean, that's reality. All you can do is be true to yourself as an artist and that's the end of that. There's no way around it.

John Vanderslice w/Damien Jurado, 6:30p.m. doors 7p.m. show, Wednesday, April 27, Hi-Dive, $15, 720-570-4500, 16+


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