John Vanderslice (born in Gainesville, Florida) is an American musician, songwriter, record producer, and recording engineer. He is the owner and founder of Tiny Telephone, a San Francisco Mission District analog recording studio.
In 10 full-length albums, and 5 remix records and EPs, Vanderslice's songwriting is characterized by deeply personal and political lyrics and the use of experimental analog recording techniques. His declared musical influences are diverse, ranging from Neutral Milk Hotel and Radiohead to Public Enemy and Henry Cowell. He has collaborated with renowned musicians such as The Mountain Goats, St. Vincent, and Spoon.
Vanderslice grew up in rural North Florida, before his family moved to Maryland when he was 11. In 1989, he graduated with a degree in economics from University of Maryland, where he also studied art history. Vanderslice moved to San Francisco in 1990. While supporting himself as a waiter, Vanderslice took classes at University of California, Berkeley, with the intention of becoming an English teacher. Vanderslice then spent five years as a member of the experimental band MK Ultra, with whom he released three albums in the 1990s. The last of these, The Dream Is Over, received a 9.2 from Pitchfork Media.
During this period, he also founded Tiny Telephone, a 3000 sq. ft., two-room recording studio in the Mission District of San Francisco. Established in 1997, the studio was initially used as a rehearsal space before being developed as a full-time, all-analog recording studio. Bands who have recorded in the studio include Death Cab for Cutie, Okkervil River, Deerhoof, The Mountain Goats, The Magnetic Fields, Third Eye Blind, and Spoon.
In 2000, Vanderslice released his first solo album, Mass Suicide Occult Figurines, and briefly gained some national media attention for the single "Bill Gates Must Die" after concocting a hoax in which Microsoft supposedly threatened legal action over the song; Vanderslice then however had trouble manufacturing the CD because the artwork resembled that of a Windows installation disc, and at least one manufacturer was wary of legal action. During the controversy, he was interviewed by Spin, Wired, and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Time Travel is Lonely and Life and Death of an American Fourtracker followed in 2001 and 2002 respectively, followed by 2004's Cellar Door.
Many songs on the 2005 album Pixel Revolt referenced the September 11, 2001 attacks and the Iraq War and were more overtly political in their lyrical content. The album earned an 8.3 rating on Pitchfork Media and was cited for its "meticulous arrangements" with "everything in its right place", and declared an "excellent album". The album's ending resolves the narrator's struggles with acute depression ("Dead Slate Pacific"), suicidal thoughts ("The Golden Gate") with a love song to psychotropic drugs ("CRC 7173, Affectionately").
The title of his 2007 album, Emerald City, references the nickname of the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad and The Wizard of Oz. "I was so beaten down after the 2000 election and after 9/11 and then the invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan," said Vanderslice. "I was so depleted as a person after all that stuff happened, that I had to write my way out of it." Emerald City achieved a score of 82/100 on Metacritic. Entertainment Weekly called the album "a gleaming gem" that doesn't disappoint. Billboard's review of the record called Vanderslice an "always perceptive lyricist." Calling Vanderslice a "master story-teller", Matt Fink of Paste said that Emerald City was "vividly imagined yet subtle in tone, with conflicted character sketches unfolding around somber synth melodies, creaky electronic effects, and fuzzy acoustic guitar strums."
In 2009, with "Romanian Names", Vanderslice broke away from overtly political lyrical content characteristic of previous albums and turned his focus to personal reflections on romance and a modern person's relationship to the natural landscape. Maintaining his commitment to fully analog production, Vanderslice recorded guitar and piano tracks for this album in his analog basement studio of his San Francisco home. He completed further instrumentation and production at his own Tiny Telephone recording studio with producer Scott Solter. The album art features Vanderslice's own photography.
In 2010, Vanderslice released a free EP called Green Grow The Rushes.
A full album, White Wilderness, was released on January 25th, 2011 on Dead Oceans. Here, Vanderslice forewent his usual meticulous process of manipulating and heavily over-dubbing tracks in the recording studio, in favor a pared-down production style. He recorded the album live with Minna Choi and the 19-member Magik*Magik Orchestra, the house orchestra of Tiny Telephone, in three days at Berkeley's historically-renowned Fantasy Studios. Vanderslice wrote acoustic versions of each song, while Choi wrote all orchestral arrangements. The collaboration resulted in a looser sound that maintained the structural complexity and pop sensibility of Vanderslice's previous song writing. Lyrically, Vanderslice reflects on his trajectory as a musician and performer, and draws inspiration from the California landscape. "The Piano Lesson" recounts early memories of learning to play the piano as a child, while "After It Ends" imagines a performer destroying and escaping his venue at the end of a show. The romping "Convict Lake" is an autobiographical account of an overdose on LSD during a camping trip at this Sierra Nevada, California lake. It was produced and recorded by John Congleton.
In January of 2012, Vanderslice left his record contract with Dead Oceans. Vanderslice created a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to start his own label. He reached his $18,500 goal within hours of starting the campaign. The project funded on March 21st, 2013, after 1224 backers donated over $79,000. It is currently one of Kickstarter's top 60 most funded projects in Music.
In his 9th album, Dagger Beach, Vanderslice pushed experimentation with analog production techniques to the forefront of his song writing. For some songs, including "Harlequin Press" and "Damage Control", Vanderslice tried to avoid familiar song structures by writing over improvised drum parts played by longtime collaborator Jason Slota. Vanderslice revisits the theme of navigating the California landscape as a metaphor for personal relationships. "Raw Wood" reflects on solo camping in Wildcat camp of Point Reyes National Park, while "North Coast Rep" describes a disintegrating friendship by way of a found photograph of the Sonoma, California landscape.
In conjunction with Dagger Beach, Vanderslice released his own full cover version of David Bowie's Diamond Dogs. The idea for the cover album came in August of 2012, when Vanderslice performed Diamond Dogs in full at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco, followed by a screening of Michel Gondry's cult classic, The Science of Sleep. After intensive rehearsing for a single show with a limited audience, Vanderslice decided to channel his creative efforts with the Bowie's original material into an entire cover version of the album. It was released in limited edition vinyl in June of 2013. Using the original album as backbone to experiment and improvise in the recording studio with collaborators, Vanderslice altered lyrics, song structures, chord progressions, and titles of many of the songs.
With full control of the production and distribution of his self-released albums and a commitment to quality control, Vanderslice had both Dagger Beach and Diamond Dogs pressed in 200-gram vinyl by audiophile Quality Record Pressings plant. In response to widespread music file sharing and effort to control sound quality of distributed files, Vanderslice has made high-quality music files of many self-released songs freely available online.
Recording technique and collaborations
Vanderslice is a proponent of using analog instruments and recording equipment to produce a richer, more raw sound which he has sometimes called "sloppy hi-fi". He has collaborated closely with Scott Solter in the production of his recent albums.
Vanderslice was a contributing producer on the Spoon album, Gimme Fiction, and also produced The Mountain Goats albums Heretic Pride, The Sunset Tree, and We Shall All Be Healed. In March and April 2009, John Vanderslice toured alongside The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle in the "Gone Primitive Tour". These shows featured Vanderslice and Darnielle each playing acoustic sets and then performing material together.
Vanderslice's latest collaboration with American songwriter, musician, and singer Samantha Crain; whose third full length recording Kid Face produced by Vanderslice, was released February 2013.
Vanderslice has often chosen bands to tour with him who have gone on to widespread recognition and critical respect, including Sufjan Stevens, Okkervil River, The Tallest Man On Earth and St. Vincent.
Influences and interests
He is influenced by film and is a fan of David Lynch, whose work is referenced in his song "Promising Actress". Vanderslice is a prolific amateur photographer, doing publicity photo shots for Thao Nguyen, The Mountain Goats, Will Sheff of Okkervil River, and Mirah. He has also had his work used in album artwork by Matt Nathanson, Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes, Mobius Band, and Vanderslice's own 2009 release, Romanian Names.