John Vanderslice goes straight for the guy with the bouzouki. He's taking me on a tour of his recording studio, analog haven Tiny Telephone, located in an industrial space at the base of Potrero Hill, directly across from a giant, rusted rocket engine belonging to Survival Research Laboratories.
He's about to pick the melon-shaped instrument up from its stand out of sheer exuberance, but he checks himself and asks its owner, "Do you mind?" It has four sets of strings, paired in octaves like a 12-string guitar, and some fancy inlay work. He gives it a tentative strum, trying to suss out the tuning, before gingerly replacing it. "Anything but an electric guitar excites me."
It's a strange statement coming from a guitar player. But Vanderslice isn't simply a guitar player — he's a complex commodity. He looks calm enough in his tattered, holey sweater and wide-wale corduroys. But it's like the surface tension on a water droplet. It can only briefly hold back an inexorable motion, and the seeming stillness on the outside belies the seething, wild Brownian motion beneath.
Tapestry of the unknown
Google "'John Vanderslice' + 'analog'" and you'll get around 100,000 hits. This shouldn't be shocking. For one, there are five "official" solo albums on Barsuk, as well as three with his previous band, mk Ultra; for another, there's his studio, boasting a 30-channel Neve mixing board that once belonged to the BBC, and dozens of vintage amps, preamps, and effects, some of them fairly wacky, like the huge anodized metal "plate in a box" reverb. One can comfortably call him an analog purist. He even calls himself that. Sometimes.
Like most purists, there's a persnicketiness to his passion. I'm reminded of the older guys at the BMX track who refuse to ride aluminum bikes: "Steel is real," they're always saying. For Vanderslice too, steel is real — as are the glass tubes and the magnetic tape that runs from reel to reel to capture it all. When it comes to his own records, he has "these militant rules about what we can and can't do as far as using effects. If we want an effect on an instrument, we have to record it that way. My thing is, if you want it to be some way, make it that way and commit to it. Don't be half-assed. If you want it to sound fucked-up or modulated or distorted or delayed, let's go for it. Record it that way, print it on tape, and then it's part of the tapestry. It's done."