Going deeper with Tiny Telephone's John Vanderslice
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."
"It is done" were that last words of Jesus Christ, and when Vanderslice is up in arms, hunched over his cup of tea, the ardent analog guru preaching the tube gospel, they're murmured with similar prophetic urgency. But that's just the molecular lockdown on the surface of the drop. Underneath: movement. His records — especially as they move away from being "guitar records" — are all about that tapestry. The song, lyrics, chorus, melody, and bridge — these are the structural elements that build the house. But you have to peek in the windows to see what's really going on: the art on the walls, that tapestry he's talking about and how intricately it's woven. "Exodus Damage" on his most recent album, last year's Pixel Revolt, has got mellotron "synthesizing" (sans computer), a choir, pipe organ, strings, and a flute. Instrumentally, the album's all over the place — it's like a warehouse with cello, Hammond B3, Wurlitzer, glockenspiel, vibraphone, steel drums, trumpet, moog, tape loops, and a "space station," among other things. There's a lot going on, on different levels, and you've got to do more than peek through the windows to really get Pixel Revolt; you've got to come inside and sit down.
Vanderslice constructs his music in that honest, brick-by-brick way of the analog stickler, but it's not as if he just mics it up, tapes it down, and it's ready to go. He manipulates his songs using techniques that might be more readily associated with the digital side of things. He builds them, then deconstructs them and builds something else. I'm reminded of Bob Geldof in The Wall, where he smashes everything in the hotel room and builds something that, at first glance, is obtuse and impenetrable but is clearly imbued with deeper meaning for having been recontextualized. Vanderslice takes digital techniques and analog-izes them. He uses Tiny Telephone like a punch card machine, a steam-driven computer.
"I like using the analog instruments of the studio, meaning compressors and mic pres and effects as instruments," he explains. "When you start combining all these things — the keyboard into some mic pre you found in a pawn shop into some weird compressor into delay — you get some unknowable results. Chasing down that kind of shit is fascinating for me."
"I'd harbored hope that the intelligence that once inhabited novels or films would ingest rock," Lou Reed once said. "I was, perhaps, wrong." Like most Lou Reed quotes or songs or looks, he's both right and wrong. Most rock has ceased to even aspire to the literary. Traditional rock lyrics are the domain of the first-person diarist.
Vanderslice's songs, however, are sonic novellas, small, encapsulated narratives whose meaning sometimes bleeds into the silence between tracks to form the greater novel of the album. Not surprisingly for an artist with so much happening musically on that other level, stories of the covert permeate JV's records. Mass Suicide Occult Figurines (2000) takes us behind the scenes of a drug operation on "Speed Lab." Life and Death of an American Fourtracker (2002) follows the semi-institutionalized ruination of its lead character's life and love. Of late, 2004's Cellar Door features the shaky ruminations of a special ops type, musing on shady dealings from Columbia to Guant?