Romanian Names, Bloody Fists and Dead Oceans: An Interview with John Vanderslice

Chad Syme

Chad Syme

interview by Jim Beckmann

Last week, during KEXP’s broadcast from Berkeley, John Vanderslice offered us a preview of his forthcoming album when he performed two new songs live at Opus Music Ventures studio. Accompanied only by Matthias Bossi on a portable drum kit, John played a stripped down set that was characteristically, and literately, probing, yearning, and moving. Afterwards, John, the nicest guy in perhaps all of indie rockdom, sat down to talk for a bit about the 10th anniversary of his studio, Tiny Telephone, his new album and recent label change to Dead Oceans, and his upcoming tour with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats:

KEXP: Thanks for taking the time, I wanted to ask you about the tenth anniversary of Tiny Telephone. For the show you’re putting on tonight at Great American Music Hall, you’re performing with an orchestra of how many people?

JV: There are 34 People onstage, so a 31 piece orchestra.

How do you even fit that many people onstage?

We had to mark everything out with ropes and then just bring everyone in close. I don’t need a whole lot of room, so we’re all kind of on top of each other. It’s the maximum number of people you can fit on that stage.

Ten years, though, going strong with Tiny Telephone. You’re still working with some of the same artists, like John Darnielle, right? You’ve been producing his albums.

I co-produced Heretic Pride , We Shall All Be Healed, and Sunset Tree, and then we’re going on tour together.

The “Gone Primitive” tour? It says on your website that it’s not about “going unplugged”, but going “raw and bloody.”

Yeah, John wrote that, and it’s beautiful. He could make a lot of money in advertising. No one can lay it out like John can. It’s going to be a great tour; it will just be John and me and our tour manager in a car together, and that’s it. We’ll be keeping expenses down.

There are quite a few stops, I noticed.

There are a lot of cool little theaters and interesting places. We’re doing wordless music in New York, and playing a lot of weird theaters and churches and places I’ve never been to.

Did you book it?

We have the same booking agent and he’s a genius.

I understand that you have a new album coming out.

Yes, it should be out at the end of May.

And the big news is that it’ll be out on a different label, this time on Dead Oceans. So what caused the change?

Well, I put out six records with Barsuk, and they were amazing to me. It feels like Josh [Rosenfeld] and I started together, when it was the beginning of me having a career and becoming friends with Chris Walla and Ben Gibbard, The Long Winters, and Sunset Valley. With all these guys, we were all figuring it out by ourselves. I did six records [with Barsuk]. It just seemed like that was a wonderful point to move on. I was taking a long time off after Emerald City. I didn’t necessarily know if I even wanted to be on a label again. It was the old thing of “it’s not you, it’s me.” I mean, Barsuk was tremendous to me. I have not one regret from that entire era. I mean I have a million regrets (laughs), but not due to Barsuk.

Is there any kind of change in the way you’re approaching music this time?

I thought there would be, but I don’t think there is. I think it’s the same. You have these great ideas about restating what you’re doing, but then you end up falling in with the old crew, and they’re the old crew for a reason. Scott Solter producing and Matthias [Bossi] playing drums on the record, they’re an incredible group of people. I did take a little time off between records, and I think that did help me. I recorded a lot of songs for the new record, and I think I started moving a lot more quickly. It was a little bit more like recording a double album, you know when bands get into recording. You listen to Physical Graffiti and Quadrophenia, or The Kinks, and you hear a band that’s just incredibly comfortable in a studio and working with great people, but they’re working a little more quickly than they’re used to, creating a looser version, because they’re just putting together an enormous amount of work. And I try to do that. I ended up writing and recording a lot more songs than I ever had in a nine month period and I think that made me strip down some of my more baroque tendencies. It was really fun, and it was a great process.

What about the political angle you sometimes take in songs? On past albums, you were definitely influenced by the last eight years, and now there have been some big changes…

Yeah, it definitely feels like a change. Just his pronouncements on the Freedom of Information Act was enough to get me going, “Ok!” It all started going away when Bush was riding at like a 30% approval rating, and all of that anger, that hatred, it became subsumed by the population at large, and it wasn’t quite as annoying, and as exciting, like it used to be. It was outrageous in 2002. And you’re having conversations with people in bands who are asking why we should be in Iraq, and you’re like “OK, I give up.” But then all of that stuff went away, and I really became interested in love. Because I was in love, and I was… I am, in a very intense relationship, I started thinking about my version of writing about relationships, and I started realizing that every album I was listening to was about relationships. I started thinking, “There’s a reason why people are writing about this. This is very rich, and it’s mythic.” And I wanted to write about infidelity. I wanted to write about the idea of a siren, someone who pulls you off course, and the idea that stability is impossible. You have to navigate as best you can and keep as morally centered as you can, but it’s a mess. I started getting really interested in that, and that’s really what the album seems to me to be about. It’s about love, on a certain level.

Does it have a title?

It’s called Romanian Names.

And that was the first song you played for us today?

Yes, it was. It’s about love in the Olympic village circa 1996, or whenever the Olympics happened, I don’t know (laughs).

I hear you’re also recording an album with John Darnielle?

Yes, we’re doing a “comedian’s record,” and and that will be out by the time we go on tour in March.

What does that mean? Will it be spoken word?

Oh! No! sorry. (laughs) That’s the band name [The Comedians]. It would be funny if it were an actual comedian’s record, though it might be kind of disappointing, but John is very funny.

His book was great too.

Yeah, he’s a great writer.

I would assume for that album you would handle songwriting very differently.

It has been different. We’re going to be in the studio next week, so I’m flying over there and we’re going to record together in North Carolina. We have a lot of days, so we’re just going to sit face to face, trade verses, and do weird shit. It’s going to be really fun.

And you’re going to put it out right away?

Yeah, really quickly. JD has been the master planner on this, but it’ll probably be on vinyl. We don’t like CD’s very much, but it’ll be in digital form somehow. Easily accessible.

It’s an appealing model: vinyl with a digital download.

You can’t beat it. And vinyl sales are up. We just got the master back, and here we are, in 2009, and people are getting test pressings, and they’re really excited about it because it really means something now.

Will you play those songs on the tour?

Yes, we will, and then I come back and do a six-week Vanderslice tour. After that, we’ll probably just do festivals and go to Europe. It’ll be a really busy rest of the year and really fun.

Chad Syme

Chad Syme

Be sure to check John’s MySpace page for more information and tour updates, and pick up the new album on May 19. You’re sure to get plenty of John Vanderslice in 2009!

Thanks to Katy McCourt-Basham for the assist!

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