It's a more than a little perplexing trying to figure out when John Vanderslice found the time to write and record a song like "I'll Never Live Up To You." Between running Tiny Telephone recording studio (which the San Francisco Bay Guardian declared the "Best Place to Record Your Analog Indie Rock Masterpiece"), producing albums for bands like Spoon and The Mountain Goats and working on opening up a whole new co-op recording studio, Vanderslice still manages to teach a introductory songwriting class for 8 to 11-year olds at Dave Eggers' hip, literary non-profit, 826 Valencia - leaving a seemingly small window available to write and record new material, especially the sonically rich and lyrically complex batch of songs on his newest EP, Green Grow the Rushes.
Unless you were paying attention, you might have missed that the venerable, San Francisco indie-rock veteran put out a record earlier this year. Instead of trotting out the usual pre-release dog and pony show, he dropped the EP for free online. While Vanderslice is planning on issuing the album on vinyl in the coming months, giving it out for free has him really jazzed.
"In a weird way, when you put out a free EP, it's kind of more exciting than doing a normal record," he says. "It was the most euphoric thing to happen to me this whole year. It's like a rocket - you post it up and within three days you have like 50,000 downloads, it's insane."
Even though Vanderslice has released songs for free in the past, they've always been remixes or songs that were clearly b-sides - tracks that had no business being on a record people were expected to shell out their hard-earned dollars for. Of the the 25 songs that were initially recorded for his 2009 album, Romanian Names, a mere 12 made the final cut. However, he only deemed two of the rest unfit for public consumption, leaving nearly a dozen quality songs floating out in the ether, looking for a home. Vanderslice selected his favorite handful of those songs and that became Green Grown the Rushes.
The novel distribution stream wasn't the only first for Vanderslice on this record. He approached the Romanian Names/Green Grow the Rushes sessions from a completely different angle from every album he had done before. These songs are all modeled on the Berlin-era records that David Bowie made with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti - specifically in regard to gear. For someone who is admittedly as big of a gear nerd as Vanderslice, building an album around specific technology isn't all that surprising. Like those classic 70's albums, the songs on Green Grow the Rushes go heavy on Eventide harmonizers, Lexicon 224 reverb, treated drums, Moog and Sequential Circuits synths and treated keyboards.
That said, Vanderslice - who has doubtlessly seen countless bands come though his studio attempting to do the Bowie-in-Berlin thing - knows first-hand that simply altering the sonic palette wouldn't get him all the way there. To do that, he had to tear up his very method of composition from the bottom up and more or less start from scratch.
"A lot of those records are driven by droning keyboards, not guitar lines," he says. Since it's difficult to use one instrument to write a song intended for a different one, he decided, for the first time since he began making music, to ditch his six-string and compose on an vintage Moog synth in his basement. Vanderslice, who had only occasionally touched a keyboard since he took lessons as a teenager in Florida, felt like he was effectively teaching himself the instrument as he was writing songs.
Side note: if more people had vintage Moogs in their basements, the world would be a much better place.
Anyway, what's striking here is that it reveals a great deal about Vanderslice's whole artistic approach. When it comes right down to it, there are two fundamental mindsets when it comes to making music: 1. Approach it like an artist or, 2. Approach it like an engineer. The former views the musician essentially as a conduit for whatever songs flow from their brains and takes, as their primary goal, reproducing those songs as faithfully as possible. The latter ideology, which counts Vanderslice among its adherents, sees each song as problem to solve within certain set of constraints, either externally or self-imposed, that the artist has to work around.
While both are valid and have produced a litany of great tracks, the latter is really interesting because it's derived from the assumption that true creativity comes from limitations rather than from totally freedom. By forcing himself to compose inside the framework of an instrument he plays with only marginal competence, Vanderslice is taking compositional risks that would have never occurred to him behind the safety of a Stratocaster.
Vanderslice's desire to produce great art though the imposition of limitations isn't manifested solely in his own material - it's also the central philosophy behind his famously all-analog studio. As opposed to digital recording, recording to tape requires a musician to treat what they're doing more like a warts-and-all live performance.
"People don't listen to music for absolute perfection, they want life. If you're playing stuff like you're doing it live, that's a document of a performance. It's beautiful and often difficult for bands to understand how powerful that really is. The other option is looking at a computer screen and being terrified seeing stuff not perfectly line up. It's an insecurity to police performances and I see it every day in studio. We're giving bands free tape [at Tiny Telephone] now to keep them off the computer because if they do, it's over. They'll be really connected with stuff that doesn't matter. I wish there was more rough stuff with bands, but that's just what I love. My goal is to make rougher music."
It's a testament to how how effortlessly slick Vanderslice and his band are that a song like "I'll Never Live Up To You" is their idea of a "rough." Replete with those aforementioned droning keyboards, the song is built a stop-and-start rhythm section groove that manages to have a lot of sharp angles to it without being especially jerky. While there are some subtle funk guitar stabs and a horn section placed so low in the mix as to be barely audible, the majority sonic headroom is taken up the synths and the vocals. Even though it sounds like one solitary synth part, Vanderslice actually tracked between 16 and 20 different takes of the same monophonic Moog all doing essentially the same part but each with a different EQ setting.
He took a similar approach with the vocals and tracked a bunch of lead and backing vocal lines with different settings (direct to tape, with delay, with delay and reverb, with a weird EQ curve, etc). Once he recorded the vocals, he started playing with them by changing the speed of the tape.
"Generally, I'll slow it down a quarter step, a half step, or a three-quarter step and then pitch it up. I've never heard anything on ProTools sound like that. I've tried to get bands to do this and no one ever does. I mean, Of Montreal has gotten a lot of mileage out of detuning tape decks but it's so magical," he says. "I used very aggressive EQ settings when I was stacking vocals. Sometimes I'll record a vocal that has nothing but bass on it; it'll sound terrible and have no tone and be really compressed. But then you add it to one that's though an unencoded Dolby 3.0 1A track and it's sounds great."
This type of thinking extends to meaning of the song itself. Vanderslice grew up in North Florida and saw the prevalence of a certain type of archetypal Southern father - drunk, remote, isolated from the family - and found the reverence which a child can hold for this type of dad intriguing. The singular image of a son looking at his dead father, splayed out on an embalming table, still feeling unworthy of meeting the dad's blank, distant stare is the one around which the song coalesced. This, according to Vanderslice, is the way he always writes songs. If he doesn't have idea of what he wants to write a song about (if he doesn't have a problem to solve), neither words nor melodies ever come.
"I think there's something I found exciting about the idea that you have these true tyrants that, throughout time, have had their rough edges, their true tyranny, shined and softened," he says. "I started to think about that famous, airbrushed, soft-focused portrait of Mao that was everywhere in China. It's beautiful and this is a guy who killed 40 million people. There's a trick in our brains, an incredibly important survival tool, that if we he a tragedy we downplay and preclude the circumstances of whatever happened in the past."
By tying the feelings of the kid at the foot of the embalming table to those overly-sentimentalized pictures of Chairman Mao, Vanderslice took something incredibly specific and made it universal. By invoking geo-politics, the song gains an intellectual edge to its decidedly emotional imagery. By starting every song from a place of real emotion and then working outwards from there, Vanderslice is able to make the artist-as-engineer model never seem like a soulless technical exercise. It's taking the same process that's served him well as a record producer, taking the vision of the band and translating it onto magnetic tape, and applying it to his own output.
Problem solved.Tags: John Vanderslice