John Vanderslice on Seeking Discomfort, Tripping on Acid, and Making Pure Art
John Vanderslice and Magik*Magik's Minna Choi
It's a rare artist who, upon realizing all great art is
danger, seeks first to test the idea upon their own nerves.
This Friday night at the Herbst Theater, S.F. indie rock
powerhouse John Vanderslice will play his acclaimed new album White Wilderness in its entirety,
accompanied by the wunderkinder of the Magik*Magik Orchestra. The inspiration for
this evening of indie-pop orchestral collaboration lay in this artist's
stuntman-like love of precarious situations. While we await curtain time on
Friday night, let's pass a pleasant few hundred words with this prodigious local talent.
What was the inspiration for the orchestral arrangements on White Wilderness?
My goal is put myself in a completely new and unstable situation for each record. Emerald City was kind of a live rock record. Romanian Names was where I decided to do really heavy overdubs, using the studio as an instrument, and it took nine months to record. In White Wilderness, I wanted to enter into territory that I didn't feel comfortable in. I think there is something magic about being put in a creative situation where you're fighting for your life. The biggest, most intimidating idea I could think of was to make a record in essentially three days where everything was recorded in one room, live, with 25 other musicians, all of whom had been playing their instruments since they were two or three years old. For me, it was like brave new world stuff.
Where did you record this?
At Fantasy Recording in Berkeley, a famous, very
historically important studio. We
recorded there for two days and went to Tiny Telephone and immediately did
vocals, and then mixed the record. So the whole record was done very fast.
"Convict Lake" sounds like an alien visitation as scored by Randy Newman.
That song is a true story about me going on a camping trip with my friends. We took some blotter acid that I got from a real, old-school Deadhead, so it was pretty fresh, pretty strong acid. So we went camping, in a place called Convict Lake, actually, a completely abandoned camping site in the Eastern Sierras. We took acid, then we got impatient, then we took more acid. When I re-upped, I immediately began feeling the first hit and I got very, very far out. I got as far out on drugs as I had ever been. It was the 12th or 13th time I had taken acid, but I had never had the feeling before, fourteen hours on, that I was never going to come down. It was very harrowing. I was convinced that I'd flipped the schizophrenic switch in my brain, and that was it.
You'd tripped the Syd Barrett button.
Oh yes, absolutely, I hit the Syd Barrett button. It was intense. Took me a while before I could write about it.
Please expound on the lyric, "This town is a deceptively cold place."
Well, it is. San Francisco is always cold, no matter what. The weather patterns are brutal. I grew up on the East Coast, I grew up in Florida, I grew up in Maryland, I've lived in London, I spent a lot of time in the upper Midwest. You know how inhospitable weather can be, but there's something about the weather pattern on the western side of this city that can be very difficult to be with. So I wanted to write a love letter to the city, but a bittersweet love letter. This is a special place, but you know what, we all could have ended up anywhere. I followed someone that I was in love with who moved here, and that's why I live here. I just happen to have made an intense attachment to the people that I know here, and to the geography of the city.
Tell us about the finale, "20K."
It's basically a very surreal, fantastic, almost imagist song about [someone] who we can guess is a child understanding that there is something beneath the surface world that is horrifying and profound, and it's his first feeling that there is something hidden, terrifically, horrifically missing from the above-ground world. I wanted it to be as surreal as possible and not pin it anywhere. All of the arrangement is Minna Choi of Magik*Magik Orchestra -- she's an absolute genius.
As owner of Tiny Telephone, you've seen a lot of changes. What changes have you seen in the San Francisco music scene since the beginning?
I would say that nine out of 10 of the changes have been positive. Bands now almost never look to anyone else to be a filter or an arbiter or presenter of their art. They come in the studio, they make a record, and they put it out. And that is such an amazing change. When we started, we had nothing but bands that were shopping themselves to labels. We would beg them not to do that and try to tell them how silly that was. They just had this idea in their head that they had to be on Dreamworks or Sub Pop for their art to be worth anything. But now we don't see anyone waiting. They are committed to what their vision is. They just make their art, and they let stuff fall into place or not.
The other difference is that bands are now much less deluded about how much money they're not going to make. Ten years ago there would be the idea of this accounting - oh well we will print this many, and we'll make it back here -- we'll do this and that -- and it's just all bullshit. They are going to be losing tons of money. Make pure art. Have that be the reason you do this. We see this more and more.