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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

John Vanderslice Starts from Scratch

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Every day, for 10 years, John Vanderslice has eaten the same breakfast: granola with rice milk. He drinks a cup of tea when he wakes up, and a second at 4 p.m. He is a creature of habit. There is only one time he forces himself outside of his comfort zone: when he plays music.

"I'm a very routine person," he says. "For me, I need to get out of that. I like to keep myself on edge."

Great albums don't come from a system, and excitement doesn't come from a routine. Good music, as it turns out, is far less convenient than granola.

For most musicians, if not for most people, progress is best described in terms of refinement. Take one good thing, make it better, occasionally add window dressing. Vanderslice makes a concerted effort to change everything every time, making each album a study in something entirely different than the last. He has seen the entirety of the pop-produced indie singer/songwriter spectrum. He's recorded albums of fuzzy acoustic guitars and of heavily produced synthesizers. His last album (Emerald City) was built around brilliant lyricism and political anger, his new album (Romanian Names) has a song born from a meaningless acronym he thought sounded cool. Vanderslice has played music that sounds like a pageant, and followed it up with music that sounds like a conversation.

All of the change is very deliberate. But it's less about variety, and more about spurring creativity.
The latest incarnation of John Vanderslice is the most organic, totally eschewing the hip-hop levels of production on albums past. Romanian Names was recorded in a rudimentary studio he built in his basement, interesting not only in its effect-an album made intimate by its thinness-but also because Vanderslice owns the esteemed Tiny Telephone studio used by the likes of Okkervil River and Death Cab for Cutie.

"There's that opportunity for discovery whenever you do something new," he says, "And there's more at stake."

Vanderslice won't even let his recorded songs stay stagnant. With his touring band he will entirely reconfigure songs from his albums-"covers" he calls them -thought up under new stylistic guidelines for each tour.

"Sometimes it comes out better. Sometimes we can't figure out how to play it," he says. "But we have the original version recorded forever."

All of this makes it very easy to forget how much Vanderslice hates to change his routines. While he has used the makeup of his touring band as a palette to redesign his songs, enlisting everything from single drummers to four-piece ensembles to a one-off show with a full orchestra, it devastates him to see his temporary crew break up at the end of the tour. He will talk your ear off about how much he misses each one.

"I have to remind myself that I've played solo before," he says.

The tour ends, and Vanderslice wants his granola.

John Vanderslice shares a Thursday, June 4, bill with The Tallest Man on Earth at the Turner Hall Ballroom at 8 p.m.