When he was growing up, John Vanderslice wanted to be an English teacher. He pictured himself encouraging students to learn about the writers he loved while growing up- such as his heroes, Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow and Anthony Burgess – and helping them delve into the fascinating world of literature as he had done. But things didn’t turn out quite how he expected. Literature may have found him, but so did music, and music’s grasp proved the tighter of the two- so now he’s a full time musician, and teaches himself about the joys of the English language.
He now lives in San Francisco with his French wife Isabelle, and John’s musical career is a long and successful one – as well as releasing eight solo albums since 2000, he owns and runs a studio, Tiny Telephone, which records mainly on analogue equipment. Bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Beulah, and Spoon have recorded there and when we speak he’s in the midst of recording an album with a member of Saddle Creek’s Two Gallants. So what got him started down this road? Well, it could only be a picture of David Bowie’s crotch.
‘There were two records that I got when I was in 7th grade – they were both by David Bowie, one was Low and the other one was Ziggy Stardust,’ he reminisces. ‘I remember my friends and I looking at the back of the Ziggy Stardust album, and he’s in a phone booth and he looks to be just incredibly well endowed, he had these really tight jeans on, you know. It seemed like the most dangerous and most otherworldly creature in this phone booth.’ He laughs at the memory: ‘I just remember thinking, -OK, this guy [is] outside of the culture, he does not adhere to any of the rules that I give a fuck about’, and that was the first time that I ever felt that I wanted to be someone else.’ That yearning feeling of wanting to be someone else, of wanting to step outside the humdrum routine of everyday life and stick a middle finger up at suburbia led to John picking up an instrument and trying to jam his way out.
‘I guess I was maybe 12, you know when you first start picking up an instrument and you first start singing and you first start four-tracking and doing demos and rudimentary recording, it’s so euphoric,’ he muses. ‘The initial discovery of an instrument and of multi tracking and the sound of your voice on tape, and the idea of doing a simple harmony in a song and figuring out what a bridge or a chorus means, these things will carry you through your severe and crippling lack of talent.’ He laughs softly at this, his very succinct description of the joy that the early discovery of music-making brings. Like any artistic pursuits, your first stabs at writing, painting or playing guitar may be rudimentary at best, unpolished and meaningless to anyone but you – but it’s your work, and your heart bursts when you realise that you have created it.
John describes this as being ‘like a gestation period’, saying: ‘It takes years for anyone to learn how to sing and especially how to learn how to edit your own stuff – that really takes the longest.’ It is, he says, ‘really the initial rush of discovery that carries someone to the point that they can figure out how to write songs’. He says he found his own voice after his band MK Ultra broke up and he went solo. ‘I was writing completely for my own amusement and I think that’s how it has to be, at least for me,’ he says of that time. At first, he didn’t want to write about himself, or his life – and he still continues to find inspiration from outside of his own life. ‘I didn’t think that my own life was really that interesting compared to my own internal dialogue,’ he says, adding that one of the first songs he wrote ‘was about a guy who places a bomb in his local post office’. He was fascinated by the duality of the life of American modernist poet Wallace Stevens, who by day was the vice-president of an insurance company. ‘That appealed to me, because I knew I was never going to be…I was not like Allan Ginsberg, or I wasn’t Burroughs,’ says John earnestly, describing himself instead as a suburban guy who’s interested in gardening. Because of this, he says he is ‘all about the inner life.’
John’s quest to explore the notion of the inner life has led him to investigate a multitude of scenarios in his songs. Take his latest album, the fantastic Romanian Names, (released on Dead Oceans and which, notably, was the first of his solo albums recorded at home) for example. -Fetal Horses’ references the fact that in the womb, horses actually start galloping during their gestation period. He takes this metaphor and then applies it to romantic relationships, and ‘what’s really happening when people are in a room for five years together’, the ‘infantile, and let’s say hidden things, that are parts of that relationship’, and the ‘desire to run’. Using a narrator who is ‘obviously completely fucked up in his relationships’, John lets this man put ‘the blame on the kind of ticking time bomb inside of mammals, which is you have to run, you are a hunter, you have to range the plain to survive’.
Following on from this extraordinary idea, another song, -Forest Knolls’, looks at suburban developments that have encroached on the countryside, and their subsequent ‘strange relationship to nature’. After noticing -deer-proof’ plants for sale at his local gardening centre, John became fascinated, not so much with the problem with the deer, ‘but the problem with the human in that’. ‘He’s really stuck and we’ve kind of figured out what the suburbs are for and what they mean – and I grew up in the suburbs – but there’s an extra layer outside which I think is very questionable and damaging in general because you just have a bunch of jerks commuting with SUVs and whatnot; but I love the idea of the narrator really feeling horrendous guilt for being tethered in between the two worlds’.
As with any good songwriter, it’s not always obvious what or who it is that John Vanderslice is writing about – and this is something that he thinks is valuable. ‘Sometimes being confused by a song is its own power,’ he says. Take the acronym D.I.A.L.O, from the song of the same name. He received hundreds of emails asking him about the meaning of the letters, and eventually had to admit the truth – that all he knew was ‘the initials hung over [the narrator’s] predicament’, but only the narrator knows what they stand for. This really is no surprise for a writer who loves other writers, and ‘being immersed in the arc of a story’; it’s as though he is able to author a work of -micro-literature’ with each of his own songs.
There’s a calmness about the Florida native, even though he’s a talker; it’s clear he is a deep thinker. And there’s patience, too – State’s first interview with him disappears from the recorder, so he offers to reschedule at a time that suits. He may be adept at writing fictional pieces but he’s open and honest about his own life, and how he has the same neuroses and worries as many of us. Take flying, for example, of which he was extremely afraid for around three or four years, even suffering the indignity of thinking that his last moments aboard a particularly frightening flight to Japan were to be spent watching a Sandra Bullock movie. (In the end, his desire to tour had to overcome his fear.)
He’s also open about how he loves the simplicity of working with analogue recording devices and using film to take photos, but without shunning digital means. ‘There’s something I think that I must really need with the linear aspect of analogue,’ he says, adding that what interests him about film is the simple fact that you don’t see the image straight after you shoot it. ‘I think that is absolutely necessary for me,’ he says.
He cannot see the image, but he can imagine it, and it is this fertile imagination that is perhaps his greatest gift. He may not have become the high-school English teacher that his young self believed he would be, but through his songs he is bringing his own form of literature to his listeners. His writing can interest, confuse and inspire them at every turn, and so perhaps in this way, John Vanderslice really has become a teacher after all.
Doolittle Presents John Vanderslice, Whelan’s, Friday 6th November. Tickets €13.00 plus booking fee from WAV Box-Office (Lo-Call 1890 200 078), City Discs, www.tickets.ie, Ticketmaster outlets nationwide.