Random Rules: John Vanderslice

Random Rules: John Vanderslice

The shuffler: John Vanderslice, producer and frequent collaborator with bands like The Mountain Goats and Spoon and owner of Tiny Telephone Studios. Vanderslice is also a prolific solo performer whose sixth album, Emerald City, was released July 24.

The A.V. Club: Considering you're known for working with analog gear, it's sort of funny that you even have an iPod. Do you ever find that listening to music on an MP3 player compromises the experience?

John Vanderslice: Oh, not at all! Actually, my issue with the iPod is just the amplifier. I think it's really shitty. I encode stuff at 192 or 256 [kbps] and I think it's great. I don't think that that's the problem. I just think the quality of the amplifier in the iPod is really shitty, and that's where you see the most degradation [in the sound]. I don't have any problem with MP3s. You know what's funny about this, though, is I've actually never "shuffled" in my life. I had to go and look for it in the menu.

Richard Strauss, "Ein Heldenleben (Opus 40)"

JV: I have an orchestral CD of Richard Strauss' work, and a lot of his operas. I'm a huge opera, symphonic guy—a huge classical music fan. I love early Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, and Bruckner, where things are starting to fall apart and get tonally fucked up—harmonically challenging, let's say. My big obsession would definitely be Bruckner and Mahler.

Fiona Apple, "Please Please Please"

JV: This is from the rough version of Extraordinary Machine. I have the regular album, but I'm a huge Jon Brion fan, so when I found out he was working on that record, I went and found all the roughs on the Internet. The roughs to me—the Jon Brion version—is so much stronger than the final album that came out. It's kind of heartbreaking, because people got hooked on those early versions. They're much more dangerous and weird and unstable. And on the official release, even the ones they kept with Brion feel really sterilized. He didn't even end up mixing it, so the later versions are antiseptic compared to the roughs. In some versions, they completely re-tracked the vocals and all the music, and it's like a shadow of the original album. It's a real shame. I have the official release on my computer, but since I only have a 4GB iPod I have to really select what I put on here, so I only put on the roughs, because that's all I ever listen to.

Gustav Mahler, "Symphony No. 9 (First Movement)"

I was hoping we'd be more varied, but oh well. [Laughs.] This is basically an hour-and-a-half symphony—some people say it's like from birth to death, some kind of analogue in the writing that corresponds to the first moments of birth on. The first part almost sounds like you're in a rowboat. The opening 16 measures of this piece, it literally feels like you're in the womb getting ready to be born. You can follow that idea all the way to the end, because it's like 35 minutes of a repeating motif that is just unbelievably complicated but also seemingly sedate and kind of resigned. Just the architecture of this symphony is enough to spend five years on it. I'm sure many people have.

The Mountain Goats, "Tianchi Lake"

JV: This is from the demos for the new Mountain Goats record, which is going to be insanely, incredibly good. We're listening to everything now—me, Scott [Solter], and John [Darnielle]. Jon Wurster's gonna play on it, Erik Friedlander. We're all spending a lot of time listening to these demos right now, in pre-production mode. We're going to be in California working on it at the end of August.

AVC: Is that a usual part of your process, walking around with the demos for a while before you record?

JV: Definitely. If I'm getting into something, absolutely. I'm meeting John [Darnielle] tomorrow, so I wanted to listen to this record a good 15 times in a row to get up to speed.

Clipse, "Dirty Money"

JV: We have a dance party after every show, and we start it out with stuff from Nas' "Hip-Hop Is Dead" and then we go into Clipse. I don't think we actually play this song in our dance party, but we play "Hello New World" and the first song from Hell Hath No Fury. I'm definitely a big hip-hop guy too. For me, it's either hip-hop or classical when I'm driving. For night driving or morning driving—you can probably guess which is which. I just like that this Clipse album is completely obsessed with the mechanics of, like, selling crack. [Laughs.] I absolutely love its single-mindedness. And the production is sick on this thing. The Neptunes, man. It's insane, it sounds so good. It's one of my favorite records from the past year.

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Wilco, "Impossible Germany"

Have you heard the new Wilco record? It's very, very interesting. It almost sounds like AM radio, '70s classic-rock. There's, like, guitar solos. It's very flat-sounding in a way. It's extremely neutral, instrumentation wise. Nothing's pushed in the low end. It sounds like a record that was mastered in 1974 or something. A Ghost Is Born, I think, will stand up as one of their greatest recordings. It's a tremendous album. I'm really interested in Wilco for their approach to recording and tracking and putting together records. A Ghost Is Born was done at Sear Sound, which is the first studio that I would go to if I had money to make a record.

AVC: As a producer, when you're listening to music, can you appreciate the song as a whole, or are you too distracted by the mechanics behind it?

JV: Some music I don't think about or analyze in any way that has to do with the recording. It really depends on what it is or where it's coming from. Then there's some music I listen to, honestly, just because I like the sound of the recording. There may be so many limitations in the singing or lyric-writing—things that, for me personally, I find to be flaws—but I'll get so much enjoyment out of it because of the sound of the recording. Then there are tons of records that I think absolutely sound horrible that I listen to every day. I would mention a couple, but I know the people that worked on them. [Laughs.] I don't think a great recording can make or break a record. It's just one factor. There are many great-sounding records that in some ways don't fulfill a lot of things that I need, but I can get a lot of inspiration just listening to the tones. It makes me think about the process of recording. I find the craft of recording to be an amazingly interesting hobby. It's like cooking it's so difficult. Anyone can record, and there's so many variables in recording that there's almost an element of voodoo in it. Sometimes I'm not even sure what is a good recording. That's what I find interesting about this Wilco record, is that I don't know if it's a great recording or not. I don't know if they even fulfilled what they wanted to fulfill, but it sounds very different than any other record, and that to me is extremely interesting.

The Streets, "Empty Cans"

A Grand Don't Come For Free is a totally amazing rap concept record. I'm a huge, huge fan of The Streets. The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living—which a lot of Streets fans weren't really into—I think is an absolute masterpiece. And the first Streets record is great. In some ways, I think this guy is kind of underrated.

AVC: Um, really?

JV: Well, with my friends, man, I couldn't sell this guy to them. The only person I know that goes ape-shit over this guy is [John] Darnielle. With my crew, it's not something I could put on in the van ever, or put on a mix-tape at the end of a show. My friends in general just never got it. They never opened up to it. I don't know why. Certainly if you Google "The Streets," no one could ever argue that he'd been ignored. [Laughs.] But also critically, after that first record, there were a lot of people that dropped off the bus.

David Bowie, "Blackout"

JV: Heroes is another really interesting record. It's one of the Berlin albums. I think Low and Heroes both came out in 1977. You know, I was doing an interview earlier today and someone said, "Wow, you're really productive. You made this record and already finished another record." And I didn't say it, but I thought to myself, "Productive? Man, I'm nothing compared to these guys in the '70s." Shit, if you look at Bowie's output from '70 to '79, there are multiple years where he put out two records—like, Pin Ups and Diamond Dogs in the same year. That's productive. And to make something that's so conceptually intense and realized as LowLow is probably in my top 10 records of all time. It's kind of retarded to even think in those terms, but for me it's one of the most important records ever. I got that record when I was in seventh-grade, and I didn't even understand it, you know? But I listened to it all the time.

AVC: Do you think it's even possible with the way the music industry works now for an artist to release two albums a year?

JV: Man, that's a great question. I don't know. Anything's possible—look at Sufjan Stevens. He's on his own label, and he's selling a tremendous amount of albums with nothing but grace and style. It can be done. There are a lot of people now running their own labels and they're actually well-run businesses. And of course, they have all the autonomy in the world. What I think is difficult now, and what's really different today, is that the revenue stream for a lot of bands is touring. That just slows down your record cycle. That's what happened to me. It slowed my shit down. I was putting out records every year for many years, and now it's like every year-and-a-half to two years. And it's all because of touring.

The Standard, "The Quiet Bar"

JV: This is from August. My friend Jeff Saltzman in Portland just recorded this album. If Saltzman lived in San Francisco, I would have pulled him into my world a long time ago, because I think he's a really incredible engineer. I've known him for a long time, and I used to play shows with him when he was in Sunset Valley in Portland. He gave me this record and said, "Hey, here's my friend's band." It's such an original-sounding album. It's so strange. The really compelling records, for me, are the ones where I don't understand the process of how they made it. Many times I'll hear a record and I can see the guys in the room, and I can feel and hear the decisions they're making. It doesn't necessarily change my enjoyment of the record, but it's like I understand how it's constructed. Then there are records where I can't even find the starting point of the thread of where they're starting these songs. That's very interesting to me, like if you're in a restaurant eating some food and you're like, "I can't even give you a basic list of what this food is composed of." [Laughs.] This album is one of those albums. I don't know how they made it.

Calexico, "Dub Latina"

Feast Of Wire is a really, really interesting record. There's a song on there called "Woven Birds," and I remember hearing that at a friend's house or in their car—and you know, I've known Calexico, and I know that that record was recorded at Wavelab, and a lot of my friends work there, but I'd never really…You know how sometimes stuff is too close to you, and you don't even get into it because you know it? But the first time I heard that song, I was just like, "This is incredible." That's an interesting album because it sounds like an environment. And I'm not saying it sounds like Tucson. It sounds like someone's aural world, very self-contained and true to itself all the way to the end. The instrumentals actually make total sense on the album. I just think it's a really interesting record.

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