“That Unquenchable Desire for Art”: An Interview with John Vanderslice

Caitlin Boersma talks to San Francisco-based musician John Vanderslice about domestication, the music biz, Twitter, and being one of the first mp3 bloggers.

As a musician who has consistently produced great records through the aught decade, John Vanderslice understands music in the Information Age. He’s built a loyal fan base by promoting himself on blogs and touring constantly. I had a chance to talk to Vanderslice about Twitter, the music industry, and his latest album, Romanian Names, due for release on May 19. He’ll begin another North America tour next week. Check to see if he’s stopping in your town.

Mr. Vanderslice, photographed by Peter Ellenby; courtesy of Dead Oceans.

Mr. Vanderslice, photographed by Peter Ellenby; courtesy of Dead Oceans.

The Bygone Bureau: So are you finally on a break from touring?

John Vanderslice: I am, but there’s always that thing where you can’t stop moving around because you’re used to moving around. Like I can’t stop doing errands. I try not to do all the errands at once because I know two hours will pass — I’m kind of stuck in front of my computer right now which I deeply resent because I’m just doing web stuff and I just have too much restless energy just from being on tour.

When does that usually subside?

The unfortunate thing is that it subsides right before you go on tour. I’m leaving for tour in less than a month, and probably in two weeks, I’ll be like super ultra domestic and will not want to leave the house. But I’m kind of spinning the cycle to the negative. On and off tour is generally really good. It’s really healthy for me. I have a very restless side and I’m, like, super domestic. I mean, I have a lot plants that I tend to when I’m home so it’s not like I’m just resenting being here.

I’ve listened to Romanian Names, and overall it seems to have a very different sound than Emerald City. Just more upbeat. There are a lot of songs about love and relationships. Is that what was on your mind when you were writing this album?

Well, when I was home I was here with my wife for nine months, and that’s what my life was — domestic politics. I live in a neighborhood where I’m really good friends with my neighbors and they’re kind of doing their thing. They’re married and they have kids and, I began to think about this world and reading a lot of John Cheever.

I live basically in the suburbs of San Francisco. I’m up on a hill and far away from the lowlands, which is a really different part of the city, and the concerns up here are totally different. And I was really surrounded by it for nine months. Sometimes it seems like a minefield, like being with one other person, and other times it seems like the most natural and heavenly place you can be. I’m sure you would agree.

It seems like you had a little bit of a difficult transition into it, or it just seems like you thought it was weird at first living the suburban life.

Oh, absolutely. It’s really weird because I lived for a long time in the Mission and Noe Valley and I walked everywhere and best friends of mine lived on my street. It was a much more community-based life. You know, it’s expensive to live down there, so we kind of moved far away. I have a home studio in my basement, and you kind of have to move away if you’re going to be in San Francisco and have any kind of space to do anything at all. You either have to put iron gates up on every single opening to your house because you’re going to be ransacked one day. Like, you’re going to be in a terrible neighborhood or you have to move out.

I guess I felt very lonely on a certain level. I can really be very isolated from people if I don’t see people. I’ll just stay on my own. My life changed.

Was it a way different process for you to record in your basement opposed to being around a lot more people?

It was really different. The one thing that happens is that you can work faster and sketch out things and throw things away because you’re safe. You’re in a free zone. There’s a freedom to recording on your own and writing and arranging completely outside of a band and a studio environment. You really do have pure freedom.

I would say it was very different. You feel very free to throw away stuff. I threw away a lot of songs that I don’t think I would have thrown away in the past. I would have felt more pressure to help them, like, grow up semi-normal. Freedom — I think that’s why people revert back to home recording when they can.

Well, that sounds like a really positive experience. Were there any downsides that you found?

Yeah, like my wife went back to France for a while, and I was alone in the house for probably six weeks. Yeah, you can make yourself crazy being alone for six weeks. I don’t really like to go out very much. I’m probably just like anyone who gets off tour — you just don’t want to go to see shows. It’s like punching the clock. And that’s where my friends are. That’s what my friends do, and that’s my social interaction. And, I don’t know, I guess I got a little kooky at home. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it’s not a pleasant thing to go through for six weeks.

You had the first mp3 blog, right?

I had one a long time ago. Probably wasn’t the first one because things move so fast on the internet. Man, you’re the first person who’s brought that up in a long time. I loved that blog. I had stuff on there that was super rare. There wasn’t BitTorrent and as much peer-to-peer trading going on then, so it was really important to have stuff on a hard drive. Yeah, I really miss that thing. There was a lot of super interesting — there was some early Spoon on there and some rare Spoon. There was some live Jeremy Enigk and some rare Of Montreal.

Do you still have all those files?

I do, but the through-put cost — it was at a time when it was much more expensive to have server space and there was so much traffic on the blog that it was really expensive. Also at that time it was way more contentious. Mp3s were still gray area. And even though I was friends with the bands, that’s why I had the material, the labels were still very proprietary. Even if they actually didn’t release the music in question, I would still get letters or emails from the labels. I wouldn’t say they were livid, but they were definitely really worried about what was happening with music. So it started getting a little tiring.

It seems like labels have actually stopped trying to end file sharing because there’s really nothing they can do about it. There’s the argument that file sharing is what ruined the music business and that’s why artists are suffering. Do you think there’s any validity to that argument or should labels just go with the flow?

Well, I mean I think that there’s a metaphor with drugs that’s really interesting. I don’t do drugs, but the idea that if I stood up at a conference about drug use and said, “I really think drugs are a bad thing and we have to stop people from doing drugs,” it wouldn’t be a very productive statement, right?

First off, it’s biologically necessary. If you look back over the past 20,000 years, it doesn’t matter — if you’re in jail you make pruno, if you live in Arkansas you cook methamphetamine, if you live in the Great Plains in the 1700s you eat peyote. It is a constant.

I think that the hunger, that unquenchable desire for art is such a beautiful and sacred thing that when it comes to peer-to-peer stuff, people are going to do what the technology allows them to do. And without embedding a Social Security number in every single packet of information that crosses the internet — you better embrace it. If you don’t embrace it, you’re anti-life because it’s part of life. So, I have a nuanced view of it, and I have a very simplistic view of it. And that’s my simplistic view.

Well, it looks like you’ve embraced it pretty well. Didn’t “Fetal Horses” premiere on Stereogum?

Yes, it did.

So, have you found that mp3 blogs have been helpful with promoting yourself?

Oh yeah, blogs are great. Blogs are like an extension of word-of-mouth. And let’s call them motivated people. They’re highly motivated and extremely passionate about what they’re talking about. If I had a blog I’d have a gardening blog or a blog about films because that’s what I’m obsessed with. God bless people who care about music, man, I think that’s what really makes the world go round.

One important thing about peer-to-peer stuff, and this is what makes me insane about people estimating how much money is lost from file sharing, you know Hollywood floats numbers out there that are like hundreds of millions of dollars that they lose because of BitTorrented stuff. The thing about digital media is that it’s infinite.

Let’s say someone downloads the Wolverine movie that the dude from Fox News got fired for. If someone downloads that, it doesn’t cost the studio any money. It’s a digital copy. It’s infinite. It’s not a fixed resource, in other words. And you have to really be very certain that that person would have bought a full-priced ticket. There are a lot of people who share a lot of stuff that they wouldn’t pay for. I guess that’s what I’m saying.

So, do you think old media such as radio and magazines is completely worthless? Is there no point to trying to get singles on college or commercial radio or get your ad in a magazine opposed to putting it on Pitchfork?

Well, I think that potentially anything has real profound value. Like The New York Review of Books or The Believer. Just because something is printed doesn’t mean it’s worthless, but I would say that when it comes to media that even has even a whiff of cartel or oligopoly stuff like commercial radio, I mean, that stuff makes me livid. I can’t stand all these stations, I cannot stand Clear Channel, and I cannot stand the consolidation of media.

It’s the Telecom Act of ’96, and it was the beginning of the end of all this stuff. I think that if media is open — like print media is wide open other than the cost of printing and transporting, that’s the only barrier to entry. But with something like the FM radio bandwidth, where it’s fixed and it’s regulated by the government, I think that’s totally in trouble.

You think it’ll just go downhill then or that it’ll stay in its place with no help to musicians?

I think it’ll whither, but it won’t die — unless they grab that bandwidth from stations. Wouldn’t it be beautiful if they took all that FM stuff and really allowed micro-broadcasting? I mean, we own the airwaves. It would just be amazing if that stuff was basically handed over to non-profits. I mean, internet radio is fantastic. And I don’t know if satellite radio will hold on or not but that’s also super interesting. This should be a shared resource really.

You know what’s amazing? The Public Radio Tuner app on the iPhone, which I use more than anything else. You can listen to KEXP, FMU, you can listen to amazing college stations and small stations around the country, and any NPR affiliate at any time on your iPhone. I listen to that stuff on tour all day long. It’s incredible.

I actually just started following you on Twitter. How do you like this microblogging thing? Do you think it’s just a trend that people will forget about in six months or is this going to last?

It’s so amazing that, even if they forget about it in six months, it’s fine. It’s just a thrilling time, and I think in some ways it’s more profound because it is microblogging and people can be incredibly casual and blasé and there doesn’t have to be a grand point in what people say in 140 characters. I think tour diaries and blogging are fantastic, and some of that stuff is more suited to certain people.

I found that with my attention span, what I’m inspired to do is use Twitter. It’s situational. If I think about writing a blog on my website, it has to do with a release like, “Hey, the Mountain Goats/JV split is out now. We’ll have it at these shows.” It’s more huckster stuff. It’s like, otherwise who really cares about what movie I just saw, you know?

But on Twitter, it’s completely voluntary. If you sign up to follow me, you know you’re in for some pretty trite shit. Which is fantastic! There’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes that’s more interesting. I follow a lot of people, and I laugh everyday reading people’s shit on Twitter. I think it’s great.

You stopped doing print ads for albums a while ago. Did Emerald City sell really well without doing print ads or did you notice a difference?

No, it did really well, and we didn’t really notice a difference. I think the reason is that there are so many outlets and places to concentrate. We really concentrated on blogs on Emerald City, and if we would have gone the print ad route, I think we would have paid less attention to the blogs. I think that you just have to choose where to go. There are people that heavily concentrate on college radio. You kind of have to go in a certain direction — it’s not just money, but energy and time.

I’m not sure what we’re going to do for this record because it’s our first record on Dead Oceans, and we’re going to respect how they want to do it. We just want to plug into the system over there and not, like, demand that we don’t run any print ads. If that’s something they really feel is effective, that’s fine. We did a whole blog tour last record, where we recorded every song live and gave it to each blog that we really like and pay attention to, and that really helped us, I think.

Promoting yourself on blogs and online seems so obvious, but not that many people are doing it.

And it’s very immediate. You read about a band on a blog, and there’s a video link and an audio link and you can pretty much be immersed in what that band is doing in ten seconds.

Do you think it goes too fast sometimes, though?

Oh, everything goes too fast. The way I see it, I’m super zen about it. I’m going to keep touring and making records. I don’t care if I come into someone’s view and then leave their view. I mean, I think that’s great. Certainly a lot of things come into my view and then leave so I think that’s the way the world and media is moving — it’s extremely fast now.

So you’re lucky to be able to put out three or four or five records and get a stable fan base. It’s not as easy now as it probably was ten years ago when I started making music. I think it’s extremely difficult to string along year after year because of that. There’s just an unbelievable volume. But in some ways, if we look at why, I think it’s kind of exciting. I mean, there’s an incredible amount of really good music coming out all the time and it’s not because people aren’t paying attention, it’s because there’s stuff to supplant you. And I think that’s beautiful. I mean, we’re all going to get old and die, and there’s going to be people to take our place. And the world isn’t really going to miss us that much. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s a healthy thing.

How have you been successful in keeping your fan base?

I think one thing I’ve tried to do for a while is bring out good bands, and that’s difficult because I’m often playing with a lot of people who are in a lot of different bands. We’re taking out a quintet for the next tour; in Europe, we’ll probably take a quartet or a quintet, and it can be really expensive. You’re not really sharing costs; you have to hire people ahead of time. So, I think that paying attention to the live show and trying to change. I’ve done shows with a thirty piece orchestra and cellist Erik Friedlander and with all kinds of different configurations. I did two tours as a duo. I just did a tour playing solo.

I think that changing up all those things all the time helps a little bit because it’s not as stable, it’s not as staid. The thing is, the reason why you’re there is to make records. So hopefully, if I can keep making good records, I won’t lose anybody.

John Vanderslice’s most recent album Romanian Names is out May 19 on Dead Oceans. Check out his official website for mp3s and tour dates, and of course, you can follow him on Twitter.

“Fetal Horses”
“Too Much Time”

Caitlin Boersma is studying political science and English, but spends most of her time analyzing pop culture. Her premise for a new reality TV show, Killing Andy Milonakis, has yet to be picked up by VH1. She is notorious for spending a week’s wages on a ticket to see Morrissey live.