John Vanderslice - Biography

By Scott Feemster


John Vanderslice is a singer, songwriter, musician, and engineer who has cultivated a devoted following among fans of American independent music with his albums that combine sharp lyrical content with a warm, analog-based sound. That sound comes from the studio he founded in San Francisco in 1997, Tiny Telephone, which has played host to numerous other bands, some of which Vanderslice has produced or played with, including Okkervil River, Spoon, Death Cab For Cutie, Beulah, and The Mountain Goats.


            John Vanderslice was born on May 22nd, 1967, in Gainesville, Florida, and lived in both Florida and Georgia as a boy before moving to Potomac, Maryland when he was 11. Vanderslice was a fan of music from an early age, and grounded himself in the classic rock of such bands as Led Zeppelin and Creedence Clearwater Revival before moving on to other such favorites as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and David Bowie as he matured. Vanderslice was forced to take piano lessons when he was a kid, and moved from piano to guitar when he was in eighth grade. He formed several rock bands during his teenage years, and cut his teeth on trying to write songs for them. Eventually, Vanderslice moved to the San Francisco Bay area, and met up with bassist/vocalist Dan Carr, drummer/vocalist Matt Torrey, and guitarist/vocalist John Tyner, and formed the band Mk Ultra in 1994. The groups brand of brainy rock music gained the group a sizable local following, and the group released three independently released albums during the course of the 1990's, Mk Ultra (1994), Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1996), and The Dream Is Over (1999), before splitting up in 1999 after Tyner decided to leave the band. The group was successful enough where they were asked to open two different tours for Sunny Day Real Estate, and it was through these connections that Vanderslice began to meet many of the musicians that would come to record at Tiny Telephone, the studio he started in the Mission District of San Francisco in 1997. The studio built a reputation for having an all-analog set up, which gave recordings recorded there a warm, natural sound, and Vanderslice was lucky enough to have a team of in-house engineers who knew their way around the equipment.


            After the break-up of Mk Ultra, Vanderslice started work on his solo debut, 2000's Mass Suicide Occult Figurines (Barsuk). When the album was released, Vanderslice claimed that one of the songs on the album, “Bill Gates Must Die”, caused him to be sued and harassed by representatives from Microsoft, and this gained he, and the album, a fair amount of media attention. (Vanderslice later admitted the whole plot was a hoax.) Those who bought the album heard the offending track, but also heard an album of well-crafted rock with a nearly literary lyrical bent. The influence of one of Vanderslice's heroes, former Beach Boy Brian Wilson, was especially evident on some of the album's meticulously crafted vocal harmonies and sparing and tasteful use of strings. From there, Vanderslice toured in support of his album, and kept up a busy pace of recording and releasing albums the next few years, while also helping to produce the 2005 Spoon album Gimme Fiction (Merge) and two Mountain Goats albums, We Shall All Be Healed (4AD)(2004), and Heretic Pride (4AD)(2008). (Vanderslice has also played on the Mountain Goats albums and has toured with them, as well.) After Mass Suicide Occult Figurines, Vanderslice's next album was 2001's Time Travel Is Lonely (Barsuk), a concept album about his fictional brother Jesse going mad while living in Antarctica. The album continued in the vein of meticulously crafted indie-rock as had his debut, and received generally strong reviews from critics and fans. Next was the 2002 album The Life And Death Of An American Fourtracker (Barsuk), another loose concept album about a boy that spends too much of his time at home producing home recordings on his four-track recorder. (One wonders if the tale isn't somewhat autobiographical). The album marked an expansion into Vanderslice using more varied and unusual sounds, as well as dipping his toe into what might be called 'chamber pop'. For his 2004 album Cellar Door (Barsuk), Vanderslice took on the voice of a whole host of fictional characters, and further refined his brand of indie-rock bliss; pairing over-amped drums up with jangling guitars, buzzing, ancient-sounding keyboards up against tinkling bells, and the tasteful use of strings, (usually courtesy of noted jazz cellist Eric Friedlander), throughout songs that sound as if they were begging to be sung along to. The same can be said for his next album, 2005's Pixel Revolt (Barsuk), another impossibly tuneful collection of sketches about characters from cops to Indians set against instrumentation that never feels forced or overly self-conscious. Vanderslice, and his frequent collaborator engineer/multi-instrumentalist Scott Solter, are adept at finding separate soundworlds for each track to live in, bringing each character portrayed within to life. Emerald City (Barsuk), released in 2007, and his sixth album in just seven years, took a slightly different bent, in that the album was named after the nickname American troops have given the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, and the lyrical preoccupation was much more politically based. Vanderslice best explained the motivation behind the album himself, when he said “I was so beaten down after the 2000 election and after 9/11 and then the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. I was so depleted as a person after all that stuff happened, that I had to write my way out of it. I really had to write political songs because for me it is a way of making sense and processing what is going on.” The album was another collection of Vanderslice's beautiful and carefully constructed pop symphonies, though he tended towards less studio trickery and more reliance on acoustic instruments so as not to distract from the message of the lyrics. In the latter part of 2008, Vanderslice announced via his website that he was working on a new album, and in early 2009, announced that he was leaving longtime label Barsuk and signing on with the Dead Oceans label, a label associated with the Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar labels. He is spending the better part of early 2009 on tour with the Mountain Goats.

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