John Vanderslice and The Magik*Magik Orchestra – “Sea Salt”

John Vanderslice and The Magik*Magik Orchestra – “The Piano Lesson”

Tonight, June 17th, we hope you’ll join us at Herbst Theatre (8pm, $20) for a special one-time-only performance of White Wilderness by John Vanderslice and The Magik*Magik Orchestra. The show will be preceded by a pre-performance talk between John and Minna Choi of Magik*Magik, and will be followed by a “Musical Petting Zoo,” where attendees can check out some of the orchestra’s classical instruments.

In the final piece of our ongoing conversation with Minna (previous parts here and here), she discusses working with Vanderslice on the album, and revisiting the material for tonight’s show.

The Bay Bridged: How did John Vanderslice approach you about working on White Wilderness?

Minna Choi: One of the first things I did after forming Magik was contact John about having Magik be the in-house orchestra at Tiny Telephone. That partnership eventually brought about our first joint show in 2009 at the Great American Music Hall, to celebrate Tiny’s 10th Anniversary. Soon after that show, JV approached me saying that he had so much fun with the live show that he wanted to do it again on his next record. It was a true honor to be pulled into the project and Magik and I are both really lucky to have scored such a great project for our first collaborative record.

How involved were you in the creation of the album? Did JV bring you completed songs, or did the songs change over the course of your collaboration?

JV sent me a combination of home demos of just him playing a guitar and singing, and some rehearsal recordings of him playing the songs with Jason Slota (drummer) and Max Stoffregen (piano). JV told me to take full creative control over the arrangements for the songs and write anything and everything I heard in my head that complimented his songs. Some songs were completely turned inside out and became almost unrecognizable from the original demos, but others are very recognizable and have a simple layer of strings added, or a few winds and background vocals. It all depends on

[what] will sound good on a certain melody or tempo.

The album was recorded live, right? How did that affect or influence the recording process?

We recorded the whole album in two days at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. The whole orchestra recorded at once, and we recorded to tape–which means there is no editing, and if one person messes up, everyone has to do it again until it’s right. That combined with the pressure of a two-day time frame, and the fact that is was my first record as musical director, created a pretty intense environment. Everyone was on hyper-focus, it definitely was not a relaxed environment. The amazing thing though is that most of the record sounds pretty grounded and almost lazy and slow. I think that is a testament to JV’s songs and to the professionalism of the musicians. They can pull any mood out of their pocket, in any environment.

What are your favorite songs from White Wilderness? Why?

My favorite song is “White Wilderness” because its mood is so instant and direct. As soon as it starts and JV’s vocals come in with the vibes and piano, I just instantly see snow, dead trees, and a black sky. It sets up the scene within the first few seconds, and then it just stays there. The song sounds very content to lull in space for four minutes without getting too fussy. I like that.

Did you learn anything from the White Wilderness experience that you will take to future collaborations with rock musicians?

I learned that its okay to stop nitpicking orchestral performances. I stopped nitpicking rock vocals a long time ago, but it wasn’t until WW that I had the courage to retrain my ear to very generously OK mistakes and blips in an orchestral setting as well. That was really hard to do.

How are you approaching the upcoming live show performing White Wilderness? Could you talk a little bit about what the orchestra is going to look like at Herbst Theatre?

One major difference between the record and the live show this Friday is that I’m working with a six-piece women’s choir right now and teaching them all my background vocals from the record. They are going to add a whole new dimension to the sound and that is really exciting. The orchestra we are using for the show is also significantly bigger than the one we used for the record. 34 players as opposed to 19, so that will take the songs to a new level as well! Actually, only half the show is going to be White Wilderness. We’re also going to play a bunch of songs from JV’s catalog, including “Trance Manual,” “Promising Actress,” “Fiend in a Cloud,” and many others as well. All with the big orch, it will be a very special night.

For those interested in behind the scenes, DIY type stuff, JV and I are going to do a pre-show talk about the collaborative process and after the show there will be a meet-and-greet with John and the orchestra. We’re also going to bring our Musical Petting Zoo in case anyone is feeling so inclined to try out an orchestral instrument for themselves! If you’ve ever wondered what playing a trombone is like, you can find out on Friday!