Radiant with Terror: an Interview with John Vanderslice
I was going to write a mini-bio to precede the John Vanderslice interview below, but I can't really tell you anything that way that you couldn't read somewhere else.I can tell you that I did once ride the subway with him. I sat a few seats away with a friend while John talked to two kids on an otherwise empty Manhattan train. He asked them how they liked CMJ so far, what bands they had seen, how their stay in New York was going. He never mentioned that he was a musician himself. Never mentioned that he was also attending CMJ. Never mentioned that he had his own showcase in the halls of Lincoln Center. He was simply talking to some kids from somewhere that was not New York City about how their week was going.
I have the feeling that if I had written John 100 questions, I might have gotten 100 responses (or maybe 97 - one question I asked about his appraisal of the Rick Ross scandal went unanswered). John Vanderslice is one of those people who seem to fill every second of every day re-recording entire albums in a chicken coop or taking a photo of a trebuchet or concocting a video blog tour or running a recording studio or opening for Death Cab for Cutie, in between eating a bagel or reading the paper or talking to his mom on the telephone. It's like he takes all these stories and experiences we're all exposed to everyday and scraps them into beautiful little snowglobes.
Below are my questions and John's answers, traded over email. All punctuation and text credited to John are his own.
-Dave, host of WYEP Afterhours: Monday
WYEP: First of all, I have to say - I love the black coat you are wearing on the cover of Emerald City. Where did you get it?
JV: it's from my ex-girlfriend's store minnie wilde (http://minniewilde.com/). she was on the shoot helping out with clothes. it's a girl's jacket, maybe a few sizes too small for me. i really love that jacket.
WYEP: And at whose feet are you sitting in that picture?
JV: autumn dewilde, the photographer, saw my neighbor sitting in her open garage listening to dr laura. she told me to pull the car over and, in her calm and savvy way, talked the woman into sitting with me for some shots. i was sure they were throw aways, but like everything you do with autumn, they came out fantastic. i haven't seen her since.
WYEP: Do you feel like you have to know someone pretty well to include their perspective in your songs, or is sketching in the details yourself more important?
JV: the better i know someone the harder it is to write about them. for me there has to be a distance, or an absence.
WYEP: Do you feel a responsibility to tell the stories of people (American soldiers, civilians in war) who might not have their own forum to speak?
JV: i don't feel a responsibility, i'm mostly interested in telling interesting stories. sometimes that means writing about justin timberlake.
WYEP: Do you worry about authenticity when you write from other peoples' perspectives?
JV: oh yeah, i worry about that!
WYEP: It's almost expected for hip hop artists to have some kind of cross promotional car/drink/clothing line endorsement deal. Have you ever turned down a commercial offer on your music?
JV: no, but i haven't been offered tons of stuff. placements don't really worry me, if it got invasive and stupid, like banners hanging from stage, i'm sure it would be a turn-off.
WYEP: How do you decide what to charge money for? You've given a lot away over the years - MP3 remixes, video blog tours, streaming albums.
JV: we always try to have some free material released every cycle. for next year, there should be a free digital EP. we charge when we have to, so people stay paid. otherwise, music feels to me like it should be free.
WYEP: Would you ever score a TV show? If yes, what would be your dream opportunity in that realm?
JV: oh yes, for sure. i'm a tv junkie. 30 rock, house, mad men, the office, the list goes on.
WYEP: I think you and your current band would kill as the house band for a quiz show or detective series. Speaking of which - how permanent is your touring band? Ever fantasize about being back in a full band and sharing all the responsibilities and creative processes with other people?
JV: well i wish they were more permanent but they play in a lot of other bands. i'll be lucky to keep them together next year. yes i would love to be a sideman in a huge band. getting a per diem and direct deposit. hell yeah.
WYEP: Your current setup allows you some maneuverability to do things like the blog tour. Is the old touring model - spending two months driving around in a van crammed with gear - dying in the same way that the giant record label promotional approach is dying?
JV: well, i am very attached to that old touring model, but price pressures and competition (the unbelievable number of bands out on tour at any given moment) may change how profitable it is. i've heard numerous bands talk about skipping smaller markets and doing more fly-ins to make money. i think bands are going to figure out all kinds of new ways to make a living doing this.
WYEP: How has the last batch of recordings turned out? Is there an album with a central idea taking shape?
JV: well, things are starting to make more sense. we're at song #16, i'll write and record 24 before the end of the year. btw, that's really hard for me, i usually do about 12-15 a year. i set the number very hard to see if i can jar loose something in my brain and break some of the patterns i'm in.
WYEP: You've been very personally affected by the policies of the current administration [ed. note - there was a time when John's Parisian girlfriend's visa application was put through the ringer by Homeland Security]. Was there ever a silver lining creatively in that experience? Do bad times make for good art?
JV: i wouldn't say there's been any silver lining for me, i think i'd much rather be challenged to find material than having all these awful things happen.
WYEP: Guns, hockey, oil money, teen pregnancy...this stuff seems totally in your wheelhouse - can we look forward to a Sarah Palin-inspired song from you in the near future?
JV: she's too calculating to get a song from me. there's nothing tragic about her...yet!