Posted September 23, 2013 by Cooper Point Journal in Arts & Entertainment

Interview with an American Fourtracker

By Cassandra Johnson-Villalobos

Independent artist and producer John Vanderslice is having an exceptional year.

Throughout the first part of 2013, Vanderslice left his record label, self-released two albums, embarked on a “living room” tour, and began building a new recording studio in Oakland, Calif. Now the Bay Area-based musician is preparing for his last club venue tour until 2015; the Dagger Beach Tour includes shows in Seattle on Oct. 18 and Portland on Oct. 19.

Vanderslice founded Tiny Telephone Studios in 1997 in San Francisco’s Mission District. Since then, the analog recording hub produced recordings for Death Cab for Cutie, the Thermals, Mates of State, Sun Kil Moon, Spoon, the Magnetic Fields and many other artists. “It’s been sixteen years, so the number of bands add up – which is kind of amazing – that there’s this accrual of amazing people who’ve been in and out of here,” said Vanderslice.

Vanderslice left Dead Oceans, his label of the past five years, and Vanderslice launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to self-produce two new albums. Fan support allowed Vanderslice to release “Dagger Beach”, an album of completely original material alongside a start-to-finish cover of David Bowie’s 1974 record “Diamond Dogs.”

On his previous label, Seattle-based Barsuk Records, many of Vanderslice’s songs set fictional or personal narratives over political themes.  “There’s always been that political thread to Bay Area music,” said Vanderslice. David Bowie once said “Diamond Dogs,” partly inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, was the most political album of his career. “Dagger Beach” is perhaps Vanderslice’s most personal album thus far.

Analog recording uses audio technology that records directly to tape. Digital recording currently dominates the industry. At studios like Tiny Telephone, craft of committing sound to magnetic tape survives well into the digital age.

Discussing his use of analog recording methods, Vanderslice said, “I am not a purist in any form, actually, at all. In the past ten years, I’ve probably spent more time listening to hip hop than anything else. It’s not like I need Gillian Welch and David Rollings sitting around one microphone to get me off.”

Pausing to laugh, he continued, “I do think that if I’m going to provide a service and charge [artists] $500 a day, it better be the best thing that I know that’s out there.” He said,“I think it’s an ethical agreement with the people who record at the studio. And Protools ain’t it, man.”

CJ: How did you decide to build a new studio location?

JV: We have two rooms [Tiny Telephone Rooms A and B] in San Francisco. They’ve just been starting to pay off their loans and they’re really busy. We started turning down a bunch of bands we liked that wanted to record here and we just didn’t have time.

I started getting the itch again to be stressed out in “studio world.” I kind of like the anxiety of starting a studio. I like the build-out. I like the creative process. And Oakland is where the art is.

CJ: Did you have to deal with David Bowie directly to license rights to “Diamond Dogs?”

JV: No, but that would have been the greatest thing ever. It’s funny how many people ask me “Did David Bowie hear the Diamond Dogs cover?” And I try to tell them, “David Bowie is like a pretty famous recluse. And I am one of a 100,000 people who’ve covered David Bowie.” I mean, I think it’s a very interesting take on the album. But that’s just ‘cause I did it and of course I think it’s interesting.

CJ: How do you decide to record anybody or work with them? What percentage is business and what percentage is familiarity or aesthetics?

JV: As far as bands that I produce, I would say it has to be 100 percent a band that I really, really like. But [for] bands that record in the studio, my algorithm that I use to screen out people and to let people record there really has nothing to do with the content or style of music.

I’ve changed my mind on so many bands and I’ve evolved so much aesthetically, even in the last couple of years, that I don’t think it’s really a reliable [thing]. What you like and what you don’t like is not stable.

As far as bands that record in the studio—if I think the band has a healthy relationship to creativity, then I feel like they should record there. In whatever capacity that is–whether they’re a micro-band or whether they’re a bigger band. I like it when bands are doing it for the right reasons and they’re just creative for creativity’s sake.

Like yesterday John Dietrich, the guitar player for Deerhoof, was in here with his other band called Powerdove. He was playing a show the night before. He was recording a record in one day. And then the next day he was driving to Portland and playing a show in Portland. It’s really inspiring to be around that guy, and he’s a fantastic guitar player.

So when you have people like that in the studio, it inspires everyone that’s around that person. Even the engineer is taken to a different space.  So, I definitely screen out people who don’t have a realistic or healthy vision of what it means to make music.

CJ: When did you start working with analog recording?

JV: The first experiences that I had were on tape decks. I really lucked into buying an Ampex 1100 tape deck right when I first started recording. So my benchmark was always these great old tape machines.

And I got used to the sound of them. I got used to the workflow.

I’ve probably had six Protools systems. I’ve just really never not been intensely disappointed working on a digital work station. So, I just kept working on analog and I really prefer the workflow, and I also just think it sounds better.

CJ: A lot of your older albums mention appearances by members of Death Cab for Cutie in their liner notes. How did you meet those guys? Anything to do with both you and Death Cab being on Barsuk for a while?

JV: That was probably the biggest turning point of my life. I was in a very obscure, very unloved band called MK Ultra. We kind of beat our heads against the wall for five years. Of course it was a great experience to go through that. Everyone has to do that. Everyone has to be in a band that doesn’t click. I think it’s very healthy for them.

But one of our last shows was playing with Pinwheel, which was Ben Gibbard’s band playing with Jason McGerr , the Death Cab drummer, in Bellingham. Ben liked the band, and Jason loved the band. We became friends.

And the next time I came through Seattle with MK Ultra they brought Josh Rosenfeld, who is one of the founders of Barsuk, to the show. Then that band broke up and I went solo. And then I restarted the conversation with Josh.

I got into Barsuk 100 percent because of Death Cab. There was no doubt about it that they got me in front of Josh and kept the conversation going. They also took me to Europe early on and got me started touring over there. They’ve stayed in touch with me. They’ve recorded a bunch of albums at the studio. Chris [Walla] loaned us his console. That’s how we have a really nice console in the B Room [of Tiny Telephone]. That relationship has been incredibly important.

Without a big band helping a smaller band out, it’s impossible. You can’t get traction. It’s very, very important that they felt strongly enough about us to help us. I certainly try to return the favor with bands all the time.

CJ: Do you ever get MK Ultra requests at shows?

JV: I do, which is really amazing. Because seriously, that band couldn’t have bought fans. We could have had 100 dollar bills hanging off our equipment. And [now] people ask me about MK Ultra. And also, people upgrade the value of MK Ultra so often that I just have to correct them [laughs]. And let them know, first off, that the band wasn’t that great…Those guys were great. It was me that wasn’t that great.

I played a show on Saturday. It was one of the Kickstarter shows in Austin. And on Saturday – so three days ago – someone requested an MK Ultra song. So, it actually happens (at) half the shows I play: someone asks for MK Ultra songs.

Those songs were oddly complicated. They’re really hard for me to play on acoustic guitar. The musicians were so good and the writing was so thoughtful. The rhythm section was really tough.

But I do have to remind people: it’s a sentimental thing. Like, there’s people who miss Mussolini being in power. It’s a trick of the brain more than anything.