John Vanderslice on liberalism and recording to tape
Some artists seem to cultivate character from their surroundings, while others develop as a reaction to that upbringing. John Vanderslice falls easily within the latter category. Coming to the Crepe Place on Friday, Dec. 11, Vanderslice brings his low-key songwriting quirkiness to a town well known for its own idiosyncratic nature, as well as its liberal politics.
Nowadays, Vanderslice serves much the same role in San Francisco’s indie music scene as Dave Eggers does in its literary one—both nurture their creative circles while also contributing to them. However, growing up it probably would have been difficult to guess that Vanderslice would end up as a bleeding heart singer-songwriter operating out of the Bay Area.
Spending his formative years in Florida and Georgia, Vanderslice moved to Maryland when he was 11 and was subject to some of the stereotypical East Coast propriety. “That’s part of how people are tempered, they grow up in a sane and very small environment where people know who you are,” Vanderslice says. “And some of that is very healthy and very good, and some people move out to the West Coast.” He even followed through with a more traditional lifestyle, graduating from the University of Maryland as an economics major.
“My dad intensely pressured me to study business,” the singer remembers, “and by the time I was comfortable enough to rebel against him I was already far enough along in my studies that it seemed that economics was the most interesting [bachelor of science degree] I could have gotten at the time, especially from a political point of view.”
One thing is immediately clear in talking with Vanderslice: the man is incredibly passionate and personally involved with his politics. His releases in 2005 and 2007—entitled Pixel Revolt and Emerald City (a reference to Baghdad’s Green Zone), respectively—each burst with political themes. “Those two records were like a safety release valve for this unbelievable amount of anger I was feeling,” Vanderslice explains. Songs like “The Parade” and “Kookaburra,” which he describes as “very surreal fragmented dystopian narratives,” developed out of trying to come to terms with the world post 9/11.
It’s not difficult to make the jump that Vanderslice’s liberal tendencies developed as a rebellion against the pressure of youth to fit in to a certain box. But in a time where many artists—independent ones, especially—are struggling to make a buck, perhaps it was that upbringing and business instinct that enabled him to achieve a comfortable status in Bay Area music.
In the ’90s, Vanderslice began the arduous task of developing a rehearsal space in San Francisco’s Mission District into a recording studio. Today it’s known as Tiny Telephone, an analog setup which has hosted indie rock luminaries such as Death Cab for Cutie and Spoon, and is a frequent haunt of producer Scott Solter. Vanderslice explains that Tiny Telephone is “based around tape machines. We have Pro Tools, but we really encourage bands to not record on a computer. I think it’s a real interesting challenge, and sonically it’s pretty profound to be hitting tape.”
Earlier this year Vanderslice released his seventh album as a solo artist, Romanian Names, his first record in years not overtly politically motivated, and very much a harkening back to the stripped down work in early albums such as Life and Death of an American Fourtracker.
“Romanian Names is my bedroom album,” he explains. “It’s much more about my personal life and navigating my own identity through the demands of relationships,” Vanderslice says, just moments before having to cut away from the interview for five minutes after receiving a call from his wife on the other line.
John Vanderslice plays at 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11, at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $10. For more information, call 429-6994.