Interview: A Conversation with John Vanderslice

John Vanderslice is an artist that I’ve liked for a long, long time. 2007’s Emerald City provided the soundtrack to my summer that year and I must have listened to the opening track, ‘Kookaburra’, over a hundred times before 2008 came around.  Despite this, I’ve never actually got to see the guy perform live.  The nearest I came was in 2009. I had tickets to see him perform at Manchester’s Night & Day Café only for the gig to be cancelled the day before due to a scheduling conflict. In the years since Vanderslice has gone on to release three more records, leave his label and become a Kickstarting master.

This isn’t all he does however. Since the turn of the 21st century JV has been running his own studio in San Francisco called Tiny Telephone.  At the time of its creation he was working as a waiter, using any money he made to improve the recording space.  Fifteen years on, the space has received an additional room and has recorded the likes of Death Cab for Cutie, St. Vincent, Sleater-Kinney, The Mountain Goats and Spoon. It was at this point that John Vanderslice took to Kickstarter for a second time (having used the service to fund 2013 record Dagger Beach) to build a third, bigger, studio, almost doubling the space that he had available at the moment and helping to keep on top of the requests for its services.

I was intrigued to find out what the future holds for John.  A near crash while on his last tour left him shook up and feeling like his touring days may be done. This, combined with the fact that his production skills are becoming more and more in demand, led to me getting in touch via email to ask some questions.  I began by asking about the Tiny Telephone studios.

Kickstarter has been good to you on the two occasions that you’ve used it. You far exceeded the total you required for Dagger Beach and also for funding your new recording room at Tiny Telephone. Were you aware you had that kind of fan base or were the results that you achieved a bit of a surprise?

I was completely blown away. It changed the entire experience of putting out that record. Watching that counter ring up on the first day is in my top 50 experiences of all time.

What was behind the decision to take to Kickstarter for the new room?

Poverty. We stopped construction on Tiny Telephone Oakland because we had run out of money. There was an entire work crew just waiting for us to get our shit together. I believe we ran out of money 3 times. Sad, but true!! The Kickstarter saved the day, for a month.

Would these things still have been possible had you remained on the Dead Oceans label?

No, but there were many, many things I miss about being on Dead Oceans. Putting out your own record is pretty rough, especially when you’re touring at the same time. That’s the great thing about getting more experience, you really start appreciating relationships you’ve had in a very different way.

Was the decision more around wanting to release Dagger Beach on the 200 gram vinyl, etc. or more for the artistic freedom?

Well, I really wanted to be challenged, it felt like operating without a safety net. Also, I started on my own and it felt amazing to reconnect with the people that bought my albums. I could’ve talked Dead Oceans into the 200g thing, they are pretty flexible.

Do you think they would have been happy with what eventually came to be Dagger Beach?

Yes!! They were pretty on board with what I had done in the past. They distributed the record and did a tremendous job, so I think they got behind it.

Are there any friends of yours booked in to record a new LP in the new C room at Tiny Telephone?

I just booked a band from Berlin called Dear Reader in January, I’m really excited about that. The Dodos are about to hold time in the C room, that will be incredible.

Is there a particular artist that you would love to work with at the studio?

Oh my god, there are billions, I love that new Hop Along record. I would love to do a record with Earl Sweatshirt.

It’s well documented that you have a wide range of equipment at Tiny Telephone. Is there any particular piece of recording equipment that you don’t yet have but wished you did?

I would love to have every tube microphone that AKG, Sony, and Neumann ever made. Those things are prohibitively expensive and they are very delicate. I own a few, but man there are tons of them and when you get used to having them around, that’s it, you’re spoiled forever.

Do you think that there will always be a place for analogue recording within music? Or will digital continue to improve to the point where the difference is no longer noticeable?

Well I think the workflow is so different that some people will always prefer linear recording. At some point analogue will absolutely disappear, it’s not sacred, time moves on, right? Digital is WOEFULLY behind, one day they will figure it out. Avid, the maker of Pro Tools, needs to die, that’s for sure.

Dave Grohl’s documentary ‘Sound City’ and the Foo Fighters miniseries ‘Sonic Highways’ shed a bit more light on the recording process of records and potentially inspired some of the more recent artists to think more about how they recorded their work. In the wake of the two features, did you see any noticeable increase in artists wanting to book your studio?

HAHAHA!! YES! Sound City made everyone Neve crazy, even if they had never laid eyes on one. That doc is a total sales pitch for 80 series Neves. Which is great, the value of those consoles almost doubled since that came out. And the crazy thing: old Neves really are that good.

Is becoming a full time producer something that you have planned for the future?

Yeah, it makes sense, at some point you’ve been to the Flying J Truck Stop in Laramie, Wyoming 15 times and you think: “Alright, I get it, time to hang out with the girlfriend and the cats.” Not touring is as incredible as touring is.

What are your plans for your career from here? Will we be seeing another John Vanderslice record any time soon?

I’m not feeling the need to make record now, there’s so many great records coming out, it feel like all is right in the world and I should only make one if I’m feeling VERY inspired to do it.

Will you be using Kickstarter for this one, if so?

If I do, hell yeah.

I have a couple of questions that I always ask artists too, so if you don’t mind, i’ll include them.  For people that haven’t heard your work before, what three tracks from your huge collection of work would you recommend them?

Kookaburra, Trance Manual, How The West Was Won

Is there a question that you wish you were asked, but never are?

Oh yes!!

What do most bands get wrong in the studio?

Nervousness about individual performances, over-rehearsing, over-demoing. Soloing tracks to hear imperfections. Not trusting others on the session. Believing that their equipment sounds very good (it might, it might not).

What do most bands get right in the studio?

Working quickly, without doubt. Entertaining stupid and loopy ideas. Quick, intuitive decision making. Confidence in creativity. Trying to voice their ideas in a way that sounds fresh and original and hopefully, shocking.