Erin Wolf

John Vanderslice is practicing disable-ization

By - Mar 1st, 2008 02:52 pm
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“I don’t even have a suitcase right now – i’ve gotta go out and buy one. The zipper is broken on my old one and it’s still got the tape on it.” John Vanderslice is one week shy of heading off on his European/ United States tour. First stop: Café Mono in Oslo.

“‘Disable-izing’ is the perfect word for right now,” he says of the whirlwind of activity surrounding the creation, production and release of his new album – Emerald City – and his impending tour. The 40-year-old musician is also the owner of San Francisco’s Tiny Telephone, an indie-centric recording studio famous for its excellent but affordable production. The studio equipment is not playing nice today, but Vanderslice still manages to be conversational and good-natured despite his distractions.

Emerald City (named for the Green Zone in Baghdad), his sixth album, combines the efforts of Scott Solter (Mountain Goats, Spoon) on production and band mates Ian Bjornstad, David Douglas and David Broecker. Emerald City is Vanderslice’s second album to address 9/11 and its aftermath; the first, Pixel Revolt, garnered mixed reviews, and while Emerald City follows the same themes, it is grittier, a bit more cut. A sonic “study in distortion,” Emerald City ditches the lush orchestral arrangements of Pixel Revolt and muddies things up.

“I don’t know if we went far enough [on Pixel Revolt … so] we got rid of the strings,” he says. You can’t blame him. Vanderslice’s juxtaposition of big, bright Technicolor sounds with words born of intense, introspective paranoia played out as gorgeous but confusing. Emerald City settles into place so the dust and debris can register.

Don’t expect Vanderslice to brush the orchestra away completely, though. He’s simply relocating it, keeping it just enough within earshot to be influential without dominating the sound. It’s not the only thing that’s changed this time ‘round.

“On Emerald City I wanted to get away from the ballads that were so much a part of Pixel Revolt, and now all I want to do is write frenetic, electric guitar songs. I want to feel disable-ized … there are very few electric guitars on Pixel Revolt and none on Emerald City.” This constant urge for transformation is evident in Vanderslice’s jump from former band mk Ultra into his varied solo career, as well as his avid adoration of other art forms: literature, film and especially photography, his counterpart addiction. Photography has lent a new depth to his songwriting of late, he says. His photographs are rich with perspective, showing Vanderslice’s love for architecture (he calls Milwaukee’s architecture “stunning” based on its “industrial powerhouse” roots) and the people he encounters in the studio and abroad.

Spain holds a particular charm for the artist. “If I’m close to the Mediterranean, I’m happy,” he says. “The people have so much energy; the streets are so alive at night.” It fits with his overall sensibility regarding imagery and how it relates to the music he writes.

“I think about photography, and photography can be all about mood. There’s a certain openness involving the people and figures in a photograph. There’s an open-endedness to it. I want to write more music like that,” he explains. “In the past, I’ve written about identifiable characters that have had a strong story, and I kind of want to step away from that now.”

Indeed, most of Vanderslice’s lyrics are densely populated with a storied cast of characters ranging from Bill Gates to girlfriends, detectives, victims of war crimes and pop stars; his articulately-quavering yet calming voice ever at the nucleus of acoustic guitars, backbeats and electronic noodlings. Emerald City may signal a waning of the definite and identifiable, but its sparseness belies the artist’s breadth. The feeling of ‘disable-ization’ that Vanderslice keeps referring to seems to be a healthy growing point, so I ask the only question that seems appropriate for someone so prone to new directions.

“If you woke up tomorrow with amnesia, and there was no ‘John Vanderslice, the Musician’, whom would you start over being?” I ask.

His answer comes directly and with easy laughter. “Oh, I’d want to be a cinematographer!I’d like to work with the director … not be the director. That’s a very difficult job. But yes, I’d like to be a cinematographer.”

If anyone could pull it off, it would be you, Mr. Vanderslice. VS

John Vanderslice opens for Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks March 20 at The Pabst Theater. Call 414-286-3663 or visit The Pabst Theater online for ticket information.

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