John Vanderslice on Getting Radicalized by Ableton, JPEGMAFIA, and Burning the Political System Down

Interviews
09/10/2020
Jasmine Albertson
photo by Elizabeth Weinberg

For anyone unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of the oft-described “nicest guy in rock,” it should be noted that speaking to John Vanderslice is an absolute joy. Gracious and complimentary, Vanderslice speaks in an energetic, cheerful tone that is passionate and praising, as if you’re two buddies that are just picking up the conversation from when you last spoke. It’s a rare gift for a musician that already possesses so many.

It’s been 20 years since the brilliant singer, songwriter, producer, engineer, and former MK Ultra frontman dropped his debut solo album Mass Suicide Occult Figures which shocked and awed with it most memorable track “Bill Gates Must Die.” Since then, Vanderslice has dropped 12 inventively diverse studio albums ranging from emotionally-charged indie rock to exploratory modular bleep bloops.

His latest release, Eeeeeeep!, is Vanderslice’s biggest departure yet. The 5-track EP sees the former analog purist dip his toes into the world of digital music-making for the very first time. Sounding more akin to experimental electronic acts such as Arca or Son Lux than his usual contemporaries like the Mountain Goats, the EP whirs and sputters with a diverse range of glitchy digital beats and layered effects integrated around more traditional guitar strums. Each song completely disparate from the last, it’s a compelling listen for both longtime Vanderslice fans and those completely unfamiliar.

Created during and solely because of quarantine, which affected his ability to access the equipment necessary to make music in his tried and true fashion, the EP is a representation of the upside of COVID-19: forced ingenuity. Swapping analog for Ableton opened Vanderslice up to a new world of making music that was completely inconsiderable for him until now. At the risk of extreme cliché, it turns out old dogs can learn new tricks.

Below, KEXP spoke to Vanderslice about Eeeeeeep!, the shuttering of his San Francisco recording studio Tiny Telephone, and how rapper JPEGMAFIA influences his work.

 

 


KEXP: I'm really excited to talk to you. You're a big friend of KEXP, especially with Cheryl and Sharlese, so, it's nice to e-meet you!

John Vanderselice: Hell yeah! KEXP has been huge for me my whole career. So I'm, like, so happy.

Hell yeah! So, you just released your new EP, Eeeeeeep!, last week. Obviously, the biggest thing about this EP is that it's your first, in an incredibly deep discography, to not be full analog.

Yes.

Was it solely quarantine that pushed you to try making music digitally, or is this something that you'd been considering trying your hand at?

It's wild because it was really...it was done like 100% digitally because I didn't have access to a tape machine and I was just like, sheltered in place in California. Nothing was happening. No one was hanging out. Nothing was happening. It was like my germ-bubble was with one other person at the time. And I had nothing to do. And I really, really wanted to record and I missed being creative, and I had just had a tour cancelled. I was opening up for Nada Surf in Europe for three weeks. And I was just kind of like, of course, mourning, like everyone, the loss of a normal life.

That's when, remember, the CDC was projecting like 1.2 to 1.7 million fatalities in the U.S? And I was just so filled with anxiety and dread and I just realized...wait, you have this computer in this two-car garage studio. It's very modest. It has almost no gear. So, I thought, "OK, I'm going to get crafty here and I'm going to make a record; I'm going to make a digital record for the first time ever because I really have no other options and I'm going to figure this out." And I kind of used the benchmarks of the really good electronica stuff that I love. And I listen to a lot of electronica so, in many ways, it made sense for me to pivot. It made it seem like a "duh!" moment. But, I just went forward.

Did it come about really quickly or did you spend some time tinkering with it?

It took me a month to actually start making recordings on the computer that were somewhat decent. I mean, it took me a long time. So, I actually ended up throwing away maybe five or six songs. And then, I just kept working and working and I slowly got better. And yeah, it was kind of exciting in a way that I just hadn't felt that learning curve for a bit. You know, I've been kind of within the system of Tiny Telephone for so long that I just... that feeling was new to me.

Absolutely. Obviously, touring isn't happening right now. But, have you thought about how you'll present these songs in a live setting, or if you even will?

Oh, yeah. I do all the time, because I do like two Instagram shows a week. So I've played three of the songs on Instagram Live just with like an acoustic guitar and they're just like the most stripped-down, kind of dumbed-down versions of the songs. And, I honestly don't think I'll be able to really play these songs live in the way that they're presented on the EP because they're so abstract.

Right, absolutely. Do you think this will be like a new norm of how you make music, or do you feel like this is just a one-off quarantine thing and you'll be back to analog on your future music?

I think it's the new norm because I got radicalized by using Ableton. I'm making a record now in Oakland with James Riotto and Rob Shelton. And, we're really doing the same kind of approach where we're doing hybrid analog/digital recording, but we're trying to end up digital and we're trying to, like, implode the songs as much as possible.

In this mini-documentary on Tiny Telephone from 2017, you talk a lot about the reasons for enforcing tape recording at the studio. There are a lot of great quotes from it, but one I thought was interesting was you said, "What bands are terrified of is that they're literal performance isn't good enough and they see the computer as a powerful editing tool that can alleviate their anxieties." Does this still ring true to you?

Yeah, it definitely does. And, I think that all of this stuff can be used for, like, awful means. I do think that you can embrace linear recording and be in random access mode. You know, I think that you can do both, but you have to be... I think it helps if you have this kind of over-arching idea that first and second takes are best; that imperfections are your only hope of, like, actual flavor in music. And you want to be a weirdo.

Think about your friends, think about the people that you love that just literally blurt out whatever's on their mind versus someone who is incredibly self-conscious and kind of like reserved and absent, you know. And I do think that that editing and kind of thinking as the...you know, I always called the editing on ProTools as this kind of like shame spiral. Like most bands, I mean, like 99% of bands, they're not after making the songs more abstract. They're after cleaning up what they see as their own deficiencies as a performer.

And, I am still really opposed to that but in the... Listen, the computer does, it pushes you towards that because everything is accessible. You know, everything is easy to edit, so you have to be wary of that. But, I like the computer because you can just cut and paste entire sections and you can reverse two minutes of a song and then, you know, run it through some weird, unknowable filter and create something that's totally new.

 

Right. It's gotta be way easier, right?

It is definitely so much easier. Like tape, you have to earn...whatever alterations you do to the song, you have to earn it. And you're cutting into physical media, you know. You're taking a razor blade to a magnetic strip of tape and you're making like real...you're wounding the tape, you know. And so, you're very aware of what kind of edits you do. And on a computer, you just don't even remember what you've done, actually. You know what I mean?

Yeah. It sounds like a lot! Which I would imagine is why a lot of people don't do analog anymore. Just a lot of work.

Yeah. And I get the reasons why people don't want to be on tape. It feels like, potentially, more conservative and kind of rigid. But we just found... because I had disciplined myself to only make records on tape--but I'm a weirdo--we learned all of these cheat codes to get around that. And that stuff, I do think I carry that into digital recording a little bit. But, I am very inspired by being on a computer, honestly.

Yeah. The freedom! You can do whatever you want!

Yes! Yes!

You're a well-known hip hop head. Were there any rappers or producers you were looking to for inspiration for jumping into this digital world?

Oh yeah. JPEGMAFIA was probably the biggest person because there's like – and you can kind of sense – there's like this... He has an ability to like orally shock you in a way that no one else does, you know, like reusing recorded snippets of dialog, for instance. Or, just these kind of tonal shifts that feel very...very like unnecessary but then eventually, completely necessary. He's risky in a way, as a producer, that most people are not risky. And there's like an easy irrational, but everything kind of makes sense when you drill down. That was, to me, incredibly important stuff to just like... I mean, I would just listen to those records on my earpods when I was hiking, and it became really... And also, all of the new singles that he's been putting out are really good.

 

Oh my God, so good.

Yeah, he's on like his own trip. I mean, I just have an endless respect for what he does, honestly.

Absolutely. I love how weird hip hop is getting.

Yeah, it's really weird!

Have you heard of a 645AR?

No. But I'm all in, so tell me.

Oh my goodness! He is the most bizarre rapper I've ever heard in my life. He raps in this squeaky voice that sounds like a chipmunk. And, it's the most outlandish thing in the world. I can't decide if it's the dumbest thing I've heard or the most genius. I thought it was completely just a pitch shift. And maybe he does a little bit of that. But, Genius did one of those behind the lyrics videos with him and he goes in-between hs normal deep voice to rapping in the highest squeeky voice. And, it's hilarious and ridiculous and I don't know what to think about it.

 

Okay. I love it. I just followed him.

Yeah. You should definitely look into it. He did a song with FKA Twigs recently that's so wild.

Okay, cool. Just found it. All right. I'll listen to it. That sounds great. Yeah, I need recommendations. I actually feel like I've been pretty bad with discovering new music recently. I usually try to listen to stuff that comes out and I just don't feel like I've been doing that at all.

Really! That's so interesting cause you're known for being like a really avid music listener.

I know. I would usually do like two, three hours a week, but it's weird because – even though this Covid shit continues – I feel like I'm kind of busier than I've ever been in some ways.

Interesting, doing what?

I think a lot of it was shutting down the Tiny Telephone studios. That was really intense and overwhelming and kind of took up a lot of oxygen.

That had to be heartbreaking.

It was, but then it was like really fun. Once I got through it, it reminded me of when my parents got divorced, when I was like six. It was like a really, really horrible and then it was really fun because I really was like, "Oh, my dad isn't around anymore. This is kind of cool."

I mean, I imagine it's a lot of stress to run a studio.

Oh, God, yes. And that place was losing money. So, once it was kind of offline, it's like my life is easier. I mean, I'm still kind of in the throes of selling and moving a lot of gear. So, that's where a lot of my energy's going now, and paying off debts and stuff. But, I'm good with that stuff.

You started a new studio in L.A, right? Grandma's Couch?

Yes. Yes.

Is that all analog as well?

It's all digital, actually. And, that's the place that I made the EP. It's just like basically a two car garage. The house that I'm in used to be John Congleton's house, who's a producer.

Okay cool, yeah.

Yes, so you've heard his name.

Yeah, he produced the new Bully record!

Yes! Which is a really good record, a really good record.

Oh, it's so good.

Yeah. And he probably mixed that Bully record in this studio because he mixed, like, St. Vincent. He mixed Sleater-Kinney. He's mixed so many records – Angel Olsen – because, it was his personal mix studio for five years. So, I took over his lease and kind of like, you know, took over the studio. And, it's amazing because the landlord of the house built it, but he really improved it. And he made it a really interesting, cool place to work. And so, I just took it over. And that's Grandma's Couch, his old studio.

Oh, that's awesome. Do you have any advice for someone who is thinking about opening their own studio? Obviously probably not right at this moment in time but...

[laughs] Yeah, I would say just keep your overhead low. Because, the more a recording studio resembles a business, a real business, and functioning under the rules of capitalism, the more unhappy you will be. Because, it's just simply not a business, or it shouldn't be a business, you know. But, I ran the studios just out of necessity as a business for 20 years. I think it was a lot easier in the beginning, I just didn't think that the margins have kind of like clamped down now where it's like... If you can be like super-cheap and lean, you can make it. But, anything that resembles real overhead will crush you.

I mean, it's wild because Tiny Telephone was booked all the time, the entire time. So, how could this happen?!

[laughs] Yeah! I know! Well, it comes down to rent, like we were paying seven thousand dollars a month in San Francisco at the end because we were competing with the tech companies, you know, and VCs and startups and shit. And we were way under market at seven thousand dollars. We're being kind of subsidized in some ways by our landlord and we still couldn't make it. So, I just think that with the arts, you need a patron. You need like subsidies, you need help. Like, there's a reason why that system's been in place for a thousand years. There needs to be some kind of patronage because it's like you don't want to mix in a profit incentive with, like, health care and prisons and the arts. It's just not going to work. And it will create distortions and like externalities that are really difficult to deal with.

And, of course, what the U.S. has done with privatizing prisons and juvenile detention halls, all that stuff, it's like completely insane. And health care. But, also, it's like every other Western, European democracy heavily subsidizes the arts. I mean, it's just like in France or Norway or in just literally any country in Europe, there are heavy subsidies for the arts, including recording studios. Because, I often visit recording studios when I'm in Europe and it's common that they actually have a grant from the state to function. I'm just like, "OK, this makes sense," you know.

Absolutely! Health care is incredibly important right now, but also the arts need to be funded, absolutely!

Yeah. We should be living in a utopia. I mean, Americans, like on paper, live in the richest country in the history of capitalism. And we've created a miserable, dangerous place to live. And that's not good.

 

It's absolutely wild. You have a history of being political with your music. Are there any political messages from Eeeeeeeep that I maybe missed?

It's pretty a-political because the reign of Donald Trump has just murdered any... I mean, I think when Super Tuesday happened, I was recording, and I think that's the moment that I just like curled into like a psychic fetal position for the rest of my life. Do you know what I mean? It's just like, "The DNC, the fix is in. Fuck this shit, I'm out. I can't care anymore." You know what I mean?

"I give up!" I get it.

I totally gave up. I was just like, "Fuck this shit. Burn it all down."

No, I absolutely feel that. Like, it just showed that there's no right way to do this political shit. It's all just bad.

Yeah, and I'm done with the theater and the hologram of, like, democracy. I'm just, I'm done with it.

I feel it! On a lighter note, what's your current hair color?

It is peach with red tips.

Ooohhh, I love it. How many colors have you gone through during quarantine?

Like, four or five [laughs] Sometimes, there's nothing to do. You're stoned and it's 10:00 p.m. and I need to dye my hair.

I know. I miss that part of having bleached hair so much, but the damage to my hair was too much, I had to stop.

Oh, I know, it murders your hair.

Oh yeah. So, you're almost thirty years into making music and you were gonna quit a few years ago, after your tenth record, but you didn't. What keeps you going and creatively inspired to keep making music?

Well, you know what's interesting is that I once thought when people wouldn't retire from doing something, I was like, "Man, that's kind of embarrassing. Like, they literally have no other options." And then, like, when I retired from making records, I was like, "Oh, I literally have no other options." [laughs]

[laughs] Right, like what are you going to do at that point?!

Yeah, I have nothing else to do. And also, it makes me happy; like being creative and being challenged. Writing a song is fucking hard! I mean, we need to be operating on the edge of our abilities. We need to be operating at the edge of what's possible for us if we're practicing a craft. And, I find it endlessly frustrating and kind of creatively fulfilling to record music; like, it's never gotten easy or less complicated.

Absolutely. So, we all know 2020 is the worst. But what's the best thing that's happened to you this year?

That's a great... I would say that I feel a connection to making music right now that I haven't felt in a long time. And I feel very kind of like creatively sparked up. Like, I just wake up and I'm happy to be here. I love living in L.A, and I feel that it's possible for me to write and record music everyday. And that's a really... that can kind of like obscure all kinds of sadness. You know what I mean? Like, that's enough for me to keep going.

Hell yeah. That's beautiful. Got to focus on the silver linings.

Hell, yeah.

 

 

You've done a number of KEXP in-studios and interviews, so, I apologize if you've been asked this question before. But, since KEXP is the station where the music matters, why does music matter to you?

Oh, I mean, music was like my lifeboat. You know, I was so fucked up, you know what I mean? I was such a messed up kid. I don't think I would have navigated my way through life without hitting something. You know what I mean? Like, whether it's extreme psychological shit or just like fucking up, you know, legally or morally or psychologically.

It kept me so much healthier and so much more positive, and also, my interest was in building things and creating something; like, finishing a record, finishing tasks and going on tour. And I mean, I probably would have been like an oxy addict or...you know what I mean? I wouldn't have been like a bank robber, but I probably would have been just like a low-level sad opiate addict. I don't know! But, in many ways, it kept me healthy and honest. You know?


Eeeeeeep! is out now via Tiny Telephone. Below, watch John Vanderslice's KEXP in-studio performance from 2019.

 

 

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