Duncan Scott Davidson interviewed Tiny Telephone honcho and Barsuk artist John Vanderslice for a piece in the May 3 issue of the Guardian. Here's more from his interview with the SF singer-songwriter, who performs tonight, May 12, at the Independent.
Bright lights, big city, and Mr. Vanderslice.
On running Tiny Telephone, during an interview at the studio sometime in January
John Vanderslice: Basically, I keep my rates under market, so [the engineers] are always busy. I kind of use that leverage with them to have them be undermarket, too. So we’re affordable enough for a band. Every band has access to computers now, so you have to be. My whole goal was just to be sold out all the time. My business model was to, without question, have a waitlist every month. You have a client base where, if someone drops a day, it doesn’t matter. We just send out one e-mail to another band that’s on the list, you know what I mean? We’d just rather be generating 30 days of income at a much lower price.
When I started the studio, the reason I did it is that, another studio that we loved that we were working at, Dancing Dog in Oakland, closed. So we toured all the other studios, and they all had these sliding rates. It’s all bullshit. The typical studio business model is retarded. You know what it reminds me of, is the airline kind of model of wildly sliding rates based on the desperation of the client, you know?
[Vanderslice talks about JT Leroy at length before realizing he’s strayed off topic.]
JV: I don’t care if we talk about the studio at all. I mean, this has been central to my life for maybe the past eight and a half years and it’s starting to be an organism. It’s like a child, and all the sudden this kid is like a 12, 13 years old and I can now leave the house and not get a babysitter.
BG: Are you afraid you might come back and find the flowerpot broken, Brady Bunch style?
JV: Or I might come back and the kid’s huffing paint or something? There are things that happen when I’m not paying attention in the studio, but the crew down here…
BG: Do bands get loaded up in here? I mean, not like…in a bad, non-professional, non-rock ‘n’ roll way…
JV: I would say the insight I have into working bands is fascinating. I would say that the more successful the band is, both creatively and financially, the more they’re like an office. There’s laptops, wireless. There’s like organic Columbia Gorge lemonade, and there’s no alcohol. The more it’s like a weekend-warrior project, the more it’s a band that’s frustrated or trying to generate energy like they’re having a career, the more there’s cocaine and pot and alcohol.
BG: Yeah! We’re fuckin’ it up!
JV: “We’re gettin’ it goin’!” Sometimes it’ll be 4 p.m., and they’ll be kind of a little bit out of control. And what you want to say is, “You’re, like, at a construction site right now. You should be really mindful.”
BG: Well, they’re fucking paying $400 a day.
JV: They’re paying $600 dollars a day. Plus the tape.
BG: And if they want to fuck it off, more power to ‘em.
JV: The thing is you want to remind them, “Dude, you’re going to be in here for 12, 14 hours.” Tons of bands come in here and make a record in three or four days. Some bands are so efficient in the studio, it’s like a marvel. I’m not nearly as efficient. I don’t necessarily have to be as efficient, but it is expensive for me to book time in here. Like everybody else, when I book time in here, because it’s sold out all the time, it costs me $400 a day. I pay engineers what they charge. I pay rates to engineers.
What studios try to do is they try to be booked between 10 and 15 days a month, and they try to charge a fucking shitload of money. And what they do is that they have a lot of open days that are those days…because people call all the time, “Hey, are you open tomorrow? Are you open next week?” They’re always the worst clients. The least prepared, they always have a problem. They always have a story. Like, they tried to save money in some other studio, and they went there and it was fucked up.
The kind of clients I like -- we’ll get a band that calls us up, like when we did Transatlanticism here, Death Cab called us like seven months before the dates and they’re like, “We want May 1 to June 20.” Those days never moved. It was like, booked. The deposit was in. Then seven months later, they show up, make a record, and leave. And not one day was ever shifted. The bands that are like that, those are the bands you want to have in your studio.
And there’s tons of bands that are not really… they’re making music for themselves or to put on their Myspace page, but they’re just as deliberate and they’re just as farsighted. That’s how this studio runs smoothly. I’ve cleared out a lot of the time for those bands.
BG: Any band that you thought was just totally not getting it and selling millions. Not the fact that they were selling, but that they were lame. Would you not record them?
JV: No. I think that we’re like a hospital. We’re like a responsible hospital with good gear that can only meet the patient in the middle somewhere. Like if you come in here and you’re a meth addict and you’ve been working the street for 15 years, we can only help you up to a point. But if you’re a healthy person and you need a heart operation, well, we have great equipment, right? We have good doctors. They’re not going to cut you open and leave shit in your body. We have sterile equipment. I tell engineers this metaphor and they’re like, “Dude, whatever. You’re overthinking.” But I really do think there’s something here. You know, we can’t save anyone’s life, all we can do is kind of not make mistakes. And also not provide gear that’s either dangerous or is out of date or is poorly maintained, poorly calibrated…
BG: You’re like a halfway house.
JV: Yeah. I’m a halfway house. Or a restaurant. Or a dry cleaners. The things that excite me are when we get things out of genre. When someone comes in and they say, “I’m going to make a 40-minute concept record that’s based on a sea shanty that’s about being on a whaling ship.”
BG: With their bouzouki.
JV: Yeah, with their bouzouki. And they get on ladders, and they have pails of water—I’m not kidding you, they do -- and they do a concept album. And there’s no electric guitars, there’s all these weird instruments, it’s very obtuse, and it’s interesting. It’s anti-genre. It’s anti-rock ‘n’ roll. That’s fascinating to me.
Guitars or no guitars?
BG: When you saw the dude’s bouzouki, you said, “Anything but an electric guitar excites me.” You have old guitar amps…
JV: I love guitars.
BG: And you play guitar…
JV: I love guitars.
BG: Was guitar your first instrument?
JV: I love guitar. It’s just that, the thing is, it’s like, when you’re building a house, a guitar is like a hammer. It’s very useful. But if you’re putting in windows, there are other things that need to be there to balance out. There’s some sonic space that is not available when electric guitars are everywhere.
BG: In your own records, the last three, you seem to be going away from guitars.
JV: Yeah, going away from guitars, but the interesting thing is, the other day, I was thinking, “You know what? The next record, I need to make a guitar record.” Maybe it is because I’m collecting all these amps. And I do love guitar, but I think that for me, it’s more likely that I will deconstruct music when I see people stepping back from rock ‘n’ roll, you know, strictures, if guitars are not part of the equation. And they’re forced to build up melodic elements with keyboards, with rhythmic instruments, with strings, horns -- things that are outside of the realm. I was listening to Otis Redding on the way over here. There’s some guitar in that. There’s a lot of other things going on in that. There are background voices used as harmonic, you know, shifting agents -- things that pull you from key to key, that bring you into the bridge, that provide counterpoint to the vocal melody and the horns.
[JV starts to talk about the tug between digital and analog technology.]
On one side I do think that the Internet is the best thing that’s ever happened. Also, I live on the internet. Like, I’m surfing all the time. This studio was put together by the information I learned on the Internet. Most of my communication is through e-mail. The Web site is a very important part of my creative output. You know there’s like a thousand photos on the site? There’s tons of music that’s never been pressed that’s on the site. Tour diaries. That’s very important to me.
But, on the other side, the craft of making albums: I’m a purist. I’m an old, hard core recording purist. And the standards, and the quality of recording have been in a freefall since… Listen, the good and bad thing about consumer audio is that everyone can afford it and everyone can own it. I think that’s great. I think that’s actually better than the downside. The downside is that the quality of everything goes downhill. I don’t gripe about other people’s recording because I think that, if you’re going to complain, the proof is in the pudding: What the fuck are you doing? Sometimes people come up to me and they’re like, “I like this album, but I don’t like this album.” I don’t say anything, but I want to say, like, “Dude, I don’t care either way. Make your own record.” It doesn’t matter to me whether you like my record or you don’t like my record, and it’s OK either way. But the thing is, you need to make your own shit regardless of whether you like something or don’t like it.
BG: There’s the analog/digital tension, but it seems like you do stuff with analog that’s sort of like a sampling, a deconstruction, like you take a digital technique and analog-ize it.
JV: Absolutely. Well, I have been heavily influenced in the way that certain people make records. The Books. Four Tet. Radiohead is probably the most influential band for me of the past five or six years. I mean, I’m totally obsessed with Radiohead. Everything that they’ve done, really from OK Computer to Hail to the Thief. I think Hail to the Thief is one of my favorite records of all time. It kind of actually flew under the radar, but from an idea point of view: You can hear the process of six smart people in a room thinking about music. It’s fascinating on that level.
All things being equal, A and B, analog sounds so much better to me than digital. And it’s not that I’m just some Luddite in the studio. We have Pro Tools HD in here every other day. We have installed a Pro Tools rig, we have Radar, we have Sonic Solutions, we have every high end converter in here all the time. To me it sounds awful. Still. And I advise people all the time, like, “Listen, we’ll make more money off you if you record digitally. That’s all there is to it. You’ll take longer -- even though you think it’s faster. You’ll edit everything, you’ll obsess.
I don’t care about the editing. It’s not the “cheating” thing that bugs me. Scott and I will be recording and flying back tapes on the reel -- Scott Solter’s my engineer -- and like, we’ll think, “God, if we could only just do this on a hard drive.” We don’t like to do things by hand -- it’s just that they sound so much better. It’s like a hand-fashioned piece of furniture versus something that comes out of a machine. We can’t get the detail, the nuance, the taper, the finish right unless we do it by hand.
BG: And the whole digital thing just seems like a cultural, reactionary…you know, “it’s newer, it’s faster, it’s easier.” And I think artists seem to overestimate that. It’s like when microwave ovens came out, and everyone’s like, “You can cook a Thanksgiving dinner in it!” And a year later they were like, “You can heat coffee in it.”
JV: Yeah. Unlike the hospital metaphor, which is like a cart that has one wheel on it, the microwave metaphor’s perfect. It’d be better if I just didn’t tell bands anything. Use whatever format you want. But what I always tell bands is, “Listen. A good analog tape deck, properly calibrated, is like a fucking Viking stove, or a wood oven at Chez Panisse, where they put in the pizzas and the crostini or whatever, and your Pro Tools system—and believe me, I’m telling you this because I own the system. I paid a lot of money for it. People when they buy gear, their ears turn off. Because they don’t want the truth, you know what I mean? It’s like a fucking microwave! That’s all there is to it. It’s faster…
BG: A big, fancy microwave.
JV: Yeah, it’s a really fancy microwave with 50,000 adjustments. “Bread Crustener,” you know what I mean? It’s worthless.
[JV focuses on conspiracy theories and politics.]
JV: The stuff that interests me is Iran-Contra, Total Information Awareness. I’m much more into ground level, you know, stuff that’s happening right now. What did we do in Columbia? You know, what are we doing with the FARC? You know, why are we there?
I’m fascinated by politics. I’m interested in the most mundane things. Like, for instance, we found Saddam Hussein in a foxhole. One of the Marines on that team comes out a couple months later and says, “Listen, we fuckin’ found him in a house. We put him in that thing, covered it, got the film crews there…” That’s where I’m interested in. I’m interested in Guantanamo.
In other words, I’m interested in mainstream stuff. It’s not Area 51.
Later, John Vanderslice meets for another interview at Martha and Bros. on 24th Street.
BG: Do you realize that whatever you say is going to be completely overruled by Enya, or whatever is going on there.
JV: Should we check to make sure it’s not too loud? I can have them turn it down.
D: You’ve got that kind of pull?
JV: Oh yeah. I used to live down the street. I’ve been here, like, 9,000 times.
[JV asks them to turn it down, saying, “I really appreciate it. That’s great. Thank you.” Then he talks about coffee and tea.]
JV: Well, for me, I’m a tea guy. I actually drink coffee every two weeks. For me, the cleanest way to get caffeine is through really thick black tea.
BG: I get stomach aches from that.
JV: I know, you have to get used to it. It’s like hash or pot. It’s just different. You how you’re like, “Well, pot is kind of superior,” you know?
BG: Are you a big pothead?
JV: No. I don’t do any drugs. I barely drink. I mean, I like the idea of doing drugs. I have no moral quandary with drugs whatsoever. It’s impossible… because of singing…
[Coffee grinding noise.]
BG: Can you tell them not to grind any coffee?
JV: Yeah, totally. I’ll just unplug…no, I’ll trip the breaker. Singers get neurotic for a reason. I used to look at other singers and think, “Wow,” you know? Like, you’d read an interview with someone, and they would have these rituals. They’d have like steam machines or all these bizarre contraptions I thought totally unnecessary. But the thing is, the more shows you play, the more volatile your livelihood is. You’re tied to your health and your body. You know, anything that messes with my mojo. Alcohol. Never drink alcohol on tour. Never.
BG: You don’t drink it to “take the edge off” or whatever?
JV: I wish I could. But alcohol for me, it does something to my vocal chords that -- I lose a little bit of control. I lose some resonance in my voice. So I never drink alcohol on tour. And then, there are times when you’re at the Mercury in New York and they give you 25 drink tickets and they’re like, “You can have whatever you want.” They’ve got all these single malts. I’m totally into single malt scotch. If they’ve got some weird shit I’ve never heard about, I want to drink it. So yeah, it’s a bummer, definitely.
BG: Do you do it after the set?
JV: I never drink after. It affects my voice the next day. Alcohol dries out your vocal chords. Like, if you put rubbing alcohol on your hand, you’ll immediately feel what it does to your skin.
BG: It dehydrates you.
JV: It dehydrates you, but because you’re passing it over your vocal chords, you’re a little bit more susceptible. Also cigarette smoke. It’s a problem.
Spy vs. spy
BG: What about this domestic spying bit? That sounds like a Vanderslice song.
JV: Yeah, that’s a hard one. I haven’t really felt the need to write about Total Information Awareness, yet.
BG: What’s Total Information Awareness? Is that the NSA’s acronym or something?
JV: That was the program that John Poindexter, from Iran Contra, was in charge of. It was like, basically, “we’re going to data-mine everything.” Of course, all the civil-libertarians on both sides of the fence go crazy when that stuff’s happening. Did you see the paper today? Grover Norquist, the anti-tax guy, basically the guy who spearheaded the repeal of Proposition 13 in California -- the anti-tax California guy -- is coming out now saying that he’s totally opposed to data mining. This is a hardcore, right wing constituency that Bush has tapped for a long time, and this guy is now coming after him.
BG: Well, now it’s without a warrant.
JV: Yeah. And that presses all their buttons, you know? That, hardcore, right wing, civil libertarian branch, which is fine with me. It’s great.
BG: OK, here it is. This is kind of random. “I’d harbored hope that the intelligence that once inhabited novels or films would ingest rock. I was, perhaps, wrong.” That’s Lou Reed. You seem to have a novelistic…
JV: There’s a lot of great lyricists working in music. I mean, you could look at the new Destroyer record. You could look at The Sunset Tree. You could look the new Silver Jews record. I mean, there are a lot of very literate, very verbally adept and complex albums coming out. I’ve spent a lot of time with those records. I think they’re rich, and interesting, and well-written enough to stand up on their own from a language point of view.
And you get into hip-hop -- all the verbal inventions, most of it is in hip-hop. It’s not necessarily in indie rock.
There’s a lot of people operating on different levels. You could say, there’s a lot of arty stuff, purely political -- Immortal Technique. He’s the farthest thing from a gangsta that you could get. Or MF Doom. Murs. There’s a lot of these guys that are super arty. Any Def Jux things or Anticon stuff, all that stuff is far away from “thug life.”
BG: Do you listen to a lot of hip-hop?
JV: Yeah. Like tons. The other thing is, you can even see people like 50 Cent or the Game on a different level. I think that when you understand that there’s a coded humor that’s going on in hip-hop. Like when 50 Cent says, “We drive around town with guns the size of Lil’ Bow Wow,” now, is that a threat, or is that a joke? I’m sorry, I laugh when I hear that. There’s so much humor in 50 Cent. C’mon, he lives in a $20 million dollar mansion in Connecticut. There’s a comedy side of the stuff.
And then there’s other mainstream people like Nas. Incredible lyricist, very complicated. He’s like a sentimentalist. I wouldn’t even say he’s a thug. He’s just always writing about memory. He’s so sentimental.
[I hip JV to Andre Nickatina.]
BG: The latest album [Pixel Revolt] is more straightforward. Before, you’ve done cut and paste stuff. It’s more linear. I mean, if you’re talking about hip-hop, there’s sampling. What do you think about that?
JV: Well, it’s hard for me. At some moments I would agree with you that the record is more linear. I mean, you’re saying that the new album is more linear, maybe orchesterally more simple, and more placid, more patient. But we’re doing remixes right now -- Scott Solter is remixing the records. And we’re going in and listening to individual tracks.
It doesn’t seem that way to me, for better or for worse. It seems like there’s a lot of textures and a lot of very understated stuff that’s more complicated than on other records. There’s a brute force element that’s missing from that record on purpose. A couple weeks ago, before we started doing the remixes, I would’ve agreed with you, but now when I go back and I hear all these individual tracks, and I hear the textures that are underneath the vocals and some of the main harmonic instruments, to me there’s a lot of cross-rhythms. There’s a lot of harmonic shifts. There’s a lot of dissonance. It’s maybe more varied. It’s more of a relief. Like, Cellar Door has a lot of distortion, has a lot of compression, it’s all forward. Those impulses I have to over-orchestrate, and to, you know, over overdub, have been buried, but they’re still there.
BG: Why the remixes? You did a remix of Cellar Door.
JV: Yeah, called MGM Endings. One reason is that I put it out myself. I can sell them and make money off of them.
BG: You would love Nickatina. Basically, his big underground album that you can’t find is Cocaine Raps Vol. I. There’s this big thing about comparing selling tapes out of the trunk to selling coke.
[Talk turns to Tom Waits, recording at Prairie Sun, and then vocal chord damage and those who have used it in their music.]
BG: Being drawn to that Radiohead thing: You don’t use effects on your voice. Your sound guy doesn’t flip a lot of…
JV: And on records, I have these militant rules about what we can and can’t do as far as using effects. My rule for a long time has been, if we want an effect on an instrument, we have to record it that way. It’s all analog, we don’t use digital recording whatsoever.
[Death Cab for Cutie’s Grammy nomination is discussed and JV mentions that he was part of the committee that chose nominees for Best Engineered Album.]
JV: I was part of a group of people that met in the Bay Area. There were four of us that met at the Plant, and we voted on, for the National Committee, who we thought should be moved into the five spots, right? Then you can vote, as a Grammy member, you can vote on the next round. So basically we were like, pre-voting for the pool of five albums.
It’s interesting, because you have a lot of good albums that are in the pool. The pool is pretty huge. I mean that year there was some very good classical stuff, some really good jazz stuff, Elvis Costello…
BG: That’s apples and oranges.
JV: It’s retarded. What is this, a race? I did it because, when I got invited, I was kind of like, “Wow.” I was honored to be even -- to even sit in a room with engineers that I really liked and get to talk about albums was fantastic for me. But, after the process, I thought, this is polluted.
BG: The engineering standards, or what you’re going for, your aesthetics, are totally different.
JV: And people in the room are pretty savvy. They have mixed feelings about the process. So they weren’t all gung ho, pro-Grammy, but I think that they felt that if they weren’t involved, then there would be decisions made… They wanted to be part of the decisions made to push good-sounding records up to the next level.
Tweaking in the studio
BG: Okay, so you’re interested in fucking around with your voice, as long as it fits into the rules of doing it live.
JV: I like using the analog instruments of the studio, meaning analog compressors and mic pre’s and effects as instruments. The great thing for me is, 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 almost unknowable reaction between these pieces of gear that were made in different decades, for different reasons, for different specs, for the BBC or for an airline company. And chasing down that kind of shit is fascinating for me. That’s part of the reason why I got into the craft of recording.
BG: Back to the studio—you’re annoying people, plugging in all these different things…
JV: It goes beyond that. To me, there is no sacredness to me of someone’s performance. People come in and spend a day recording something and then we erase it immediately. With them right there, like, “none of this is working, we’re going to erase it and move on.” I do it to myself all the time. I erase my own performances all the time. It’s not a feel-good session. You have to have a flamethrower mentality when you’re making records.
BG: So with Spoon and Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle…
JV: Well, those are different. You have to be more conservative working with other bands. It’s not appropriate. John’s singing a song about avoiding family trauma by playing his stereo loud and listening to dance music. It’s a beautiful narrative; it’s a wonderful song. It’s not necessary that you play a vibraphone through an old Federal military tape rack.
BG: The Spoon album’s sort of a deconstructed album.
JV: I would say that they’re more appropriate…
BG: Everyone’s recorded at Tiny Telephone, but you’ve only recorded a couple of people yourself. Like for instance, Steve Albini, another analog master, sought after everywhere. Everyone goes to him to get the “Albini sound” -- they want it recorded like that, in that studio, sounding like that. And then, half the time, people come away with, “Well, he’s a dogmatic asshole. That’s not how we wanted it to sound.” But they did want it to sound like that.
JV: Well, the engineer in the equation is Scott Solter. He’s the guy I always work with. I mean, Albini’s a recordist. Albini is not there to become editorially involved with production decisions or with performance decisions. He is there simply as a recordist. In many ways, he’s an old school engineer. And once you understand that philosophy, you shouldn’t have any beefs with it, or you’re in the wrong place. You should understand that he’s going to set up microphones that he likes and understands, in a room that he likes and understands, and use gear that he thinks accurately describes what’s happening from a sonic perspective, and that’s it. That’s his end of the bargain.
BG: Well, there’s always the “the drums are too loud; the vocals are too low.” I love his records…
JV: I think he’s a total genius. I think you could listen to Rallying the Dominoes, the Danielson Family record, and well, you couldn’t necessarily say anything about the balance of that record compared to like, Jesus Lizard. It’s a totally different recording. He may perceive that, you know, the drums are loud in the Jesus Lizard, so they should be placed loudly in the mix. Because that’s what’s happening to them when you play in a room, you know?
But the thing is, Scott and I work tag team. Tiny Telephone is very separate from us working as a team in production and engineering, because the only people that I’ve ever worked with has been Spoon, and I was relatively a small part of that new Spoon record. Like basically, I recorded with them for eight days. They probably spent 60 days on that record. So I would imagine that they had a lot of other decision makers, you know, Mike McCarthy. Jim Eno, the drummer, is a great engineer in his own right. The Darnielle stuff is different because I feel that I understand where he’s coming from and where he wants to go in the studio and I can translate his narratives into a different setting from him sitting in front of his Sony boombox, you know, six inches away.
BG: Going back to the whole thing about rock as literature. I think Cellar Door sort of plays itself out like that, even though they’re not necessarily the same characters. It’s very novelistic. Most rock bands are very first person. Do you get a lot of misunderstanding on that?
JV: Oh, yeah. Someone asked me about my two sons the other day. I mean, yes, people either infer that I’m almost unglued psychologically or they infer that I’ve had a family history and a romantic history that’s really dangerous and fucked up.
BG: John Darnielle has a lot of that stuff, right? But he still does a lot of fictional stuff.
JV: He does a lot of fictional stuff. I think he does more fictional stuff that people realize. He lives in a nice house. He has a wonderful wife. Now, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have demons the size of Detroit in his brain.
BG: I think he does. “I dreamt of a house / Haunted by all you tweakers with your hands out.” I love that line.
JV: Dude, I played with the Mountain Goats. I did a West Coast and an East Coast tour, and I sang that song with John every night. That’s probably one of my top three songs of all time.
BG: With your stuff, though, how much of it is…? I might be totally wrong on this, but you can tell with a song like “Speed Lab.”
JV: But “Speed Lab” is a metaphor for starting a band or starting a studio, and having those things implode. So “Speed Lab” is, while it’s not about a speed lab, a meth lab…
First off, I have a great sympathy toward a lot of different people. I have sympathy for people who work in methamphetamine labs. I’m sure there’s a lot of people who work in meth labs, they might have been backed into it, it might be a family business. Who knows? And, to me, you know…[sings] “Recording Studio, brr nanna nanna…” You know what I mean? Speed lab…let’s put a finer point on it. What’s interesting about writing about stuff is that you sharpen the blade, that you exaggerate, that you explode personal experience. And become so super egocentric that every slight becomes this great, damning. Listen, if you really write down Morrissey’s gripes on a piece of paper. OK: “Lonely, sad…”
JV: Yeah, “horny.” Maybe, yeah—“would die in a car wreck.” That’s not the beauty of writing. Like “Up Above the Sea” on Cellar Door. That song, I mean, do I really have a bluebird that haunts me? But is it about depression? Maybe. Is it about Saddam Hussein? Maybe.
BG: Do you think that you’re constantly looking to metaphor-ize your own experience?
JV: Yeah, definitely. Because, part of it is that it’s an allegory. I feel saner. I feel more human and I feel more normal and more cope with stuff if I write music. So evidently, this is very important that I translate something that’s going on up here onto the page. But my own aesthetics dictate that narrative is interesting or it’s egregious.
BG: Some people are naturally diarists. Andre Gide, Jim Carroll…that’s what they’re known for. Do you think that there’s something in you that’s naturally, in music writing? That’s a fictionalist?
JV: Yeah. Absolutely. I would’ve been comfortable if I’d had the skills to be a novelist. And I would’ve been comfortable if I’d had the connections and the wherewithal to do it all again, to be in movies. What I’d really like to do is make movies. I mean, I would never do it. I think people who switch crafts, I mean -- good luck. It would take me 20 years to figure out cameras. I would like to be a cinematographer.
BG: Do you ever write?
JV: I stopped. I did a couple of interviews for DIW, I interviewed Grandaddy, I did a Radiohead Hail to the Thief review, I did an article about Pro Tools, and that was it. I was like, “Man, it takes so much. Writing is hard.” It took me forever to edit myself, to finish a piece. I’m very wary of anything that takes me away from writing music. It really is hard enough. Touring is, like, you put walls up.
BG: Do you do a lot of in-stores and stuff like that?
JV: I came up with this idea that on the day Pixel Revolt came out, that I was going to play a bunch of free shows around the country. And that it was all going to be non-transactional, all ages. Doesn’t matter where it was. Acoustic guitar and voice, that’s all it was going to be. And it could be anywhere. So I played in, like, a bake sale. I played tons of record stores. I played an art gallery. A house party. I played a backyard. I played tons of on-airs. Between the shows, I probably played 35 times that month. And they were all open free shows.
I was able to rent a car, drive from place to place, and just show up with a guitar and play. We would have contests. Like I played at Amoeba in LA, and I invited everyone at the show to bowling that night. We had enough people for seven lanes of bowling. So then we have this contest: Whatever lane had the highest score would get into my next show for free.
Anything that’s like, getting out of a dark club with a bunch of graffiti. That’s fine, but when you do that every fucking night. It’s like, anything to get you away from that is great.