Nothing bolsters an artist's popularity like a smidgen of controversy. In 2000, John Vanderslice released a moody rock number called "Bill Gates Must Die" on his debut solo album, Mass Suicide Occult Figurines. Rather than letting this faux death threat fade into obscurity, however, Vanderslice orchestrated a hoax that included an angered Microsoft threatening legal action over the song. (In the end, the joke was on Vanderslice: Manufacturers were wary about publishing the album's Windows-inspired artwork after the charade.)
More than 10 years later, though, singer and storyteller John Vanderslice's influence in the indie-rock landscape is vast. His recording studio, Tiny Telephone, nestled in the Mission District of San Francisco, is home to landmark albums by Death Cab for Cutie, the Mountain Goats, Okkervil River, Deerhoof and Spoon.
Earlier this year, Vanderslice released his eighth studio album, White Wilderness, written and recorded with Minna Choi and her Magik*Magik Orchestra. Rich layers of string arrangements adorn Vanderslice's signature lyrics — always narrative and often suggestively charged with morality and politics. Vanderslice took time away from his nationwide tour to chat with The Pitch about his new album, his dreams of living like Henry David Thoreau, and life on the road without cats.
The Pitch: What's different about your newest album, White Wilderness?
John Vanderslice: Every time you make a record, you try to make something radically different, but you fall into your old patterns over and over again. I decided to really empower Minna Choi and her orchestra, the Magik*Magik Orchestra, who worked with me on the album. I gave her a tremendous amount of power in designing the overall concept and orchestrating the sound from top to bottom. It's the most radical shift I think I've had in my career.
We recorded it at Fantasy Studios at the Zaentz Media Center in Berkeley. It's a historically important building — Sonny Rollins has recorded there, Miles, Brubeck. Lots of orchestral recordings also happen there. It's very spacious, so you get large, live sound.
The cover of Romanian Names was a photograph of yours, right?
Yeah. Actually, all of the photos in that album were mine. The cover was a shot from a cul-de-sac in a tiny town in the Pyrenees in France. We were visiting my wife's family and just spent days driving around, looking at castles and old buildings. It was amazing. It took me about a year to pay it off, though. It's very expensive to be in Europe when you're not touring.
Isn't San Francisco an expensive place to live?
San Francisco is crushingly expensive. We're just surviving. If you can survive in San Francisco, your quality of life is sky-high. There's so much to do: farmers markets, coastal access. Sometimes I fantasize about moving somewhere else, but I'm stuck there with two studios, my friends are there — and I employ all my friends. I'm totally happy, though. I'm just a dreamer. I want to live out in the woods.
Where would you go to live in the woods?
West Sonoma County. It's completely remote and off the grid, but you're still in California, you know? I'd probably just grow food and hang out with my wife. Part of it would be having a space where you can stop the flow of information.
Who has been your favorite group to work with at Tiny Telephone?
That's tough; there are so many. But I can tell you that the most exciting bands are the ones that are just starting out. We just gave away a week of studio time at Minitel — under Tiny Telephone — to a high school band called Dirty Ears. They were so jazzed. You see this raw enthusiasm, and it's intoxicating.
You write on your blog quite often about missing your cats on the road.
I'm a very emotionally attached person, so it could be a ferret or something, and I'd go crazy for them, too. I really love my cats. I sleep with them every night, and they're really affectionate. They're just hanging out in the house all day without us, and that seems miserable. I feel guilty. I'm a really domestic person. I'm just happy hanging at home.
Tell me about your audience-participation project.
I've done this before, on one tour, and it was the most fun in the world. For instance: Someone just e-mailed me about doing beatboxing in Brooklyn, so I'll definitely say yes to that. Someone else asked to play the theremin onstage in Tucson. People sing along, and it's really open. It's just sweet. You kind of really connect with people. I don't like the barrier between performer and audience. It's very phony, especially now in the Internet era. It's bullshit. I don't like when bands try to reinforce that barrier instead of break it down.
Have you been to Kansas City before?
I played in Lawrence, and we slept in Kansas City at my friend's mother's house. I thought it was beautiful. I've always wanted to play in Kansas City. There are so many great places to play in the Midwest; it's impossible to hit them all, every time. But yes, I'm looking forward to Kansas City. I mean, the RecordBar? That place is legendary.