[This is Part 2: the Interview. See also Part 1: the Garden Tour.]
After the tour around the garden, John and I went inside and chatted while he changed his strings. It veered much more toward conversation than interview throughout the hour. It’s strange interviewing someone you know on a personal basis. Here’s some of what we talked about.
Adrian Bischoff: How was the tour with [the Mountain Goats’ John] Darnielle?
John Vanderslice: It was probably the best tour I ever went on in terms of ease and fun.
AB: Did you guys just go around in a van?
JV: It was just me and him and [Mountain Goats tour manager] Brandon [Eggleston] in a minivan. It was as easy as it gets. It was perversely simple.
AB: So [keyboardist Ian Bjornstad’s] the only one in your band from the last record, right?
JV: Yeah. We have a new drummer, Matthias. And we’re going to lose Matthias immediately after we do one tour with him, so we’ve already rehearsed with the next drummer.
AB: Wow. Who’s the next drummer?
JV: Jason Slota, who’s incredible. Man, I hate to say it, but one thing that’s cool–it’s like when your favorite band breaks up, there are so many other bands. That’s the cool thing. There are so many musicians. It’s a bountiful world. The Bay Area is a very good place for musicians. There are just shitloads of people here. There are a lot of drummers. There’s a lot of stuff happening here. It’s kind of awesome.
AB: So where’d you find these guys?
JV: It’s weird. I found a lot of them through Matthias. Do you know Matthias? You met him, right?
AB: I think I met him.
JV: Yeah, the new drummer I’m playing with, he’s awesome. He’s a total badass.
AB: I met the guitarist, right? What’s his name? Sil–
JV: Silvain is awesome. He’s really, really good.
AB: And then you have a fifth, right?
JV: Yeah, there is Jamie Riotto, the bass player. He did some of the arrangements. I met him because he works with the Magik*Magik Orchestra. A lot of these people are really connected to the Magik. They’re on a different level than me as far as how they play. They’re all really good musicians.
AB: So why did you switch labels?
JV: Well I was on Barsuk since–well they were my first label.
AB: Did you just self-release the mk ultra stuff or…?
JV: Yeah, I self released it. I self released in a time when it wasn’t cool.
AB: It seems like everyone’s self releasing now.
JV: Now it’s sort of a badge of honor. Then you were just another loser. You know what I mean? And I was just another loser, unfortunately.
JV: So, yeah, Barsuk was my first label and we just had such an intense and fruitful run with them that it just feels like we did our work together. It felt like at some point it was going to be a challenge for me to be on a different label. You do…kind of want to please the label that’s going to listen to the roughs, the first things that you do. In the beginning you’re downright nervous and paranoid. And after a while they know you and you know them.
They know exactly what you’re going to do. In some ways I think it can allow–and this is just me, my own weakness–but it allowed me to be a little bit complacent, comfortable. I really wanted to not know my place in the world anymore. I wanted to feel challenged.
Barsuk is awesome. They are unconditional love. I love [Barsuk president] Josh [Rosenfeld]. I talk to him all the time. I’ll see him next week, actually. But it felt dangerous to move to a different label. It felt risky and it felt like it possibly could be a mistake. I guess I needed that in a way.
AB: They’ve got a lot of stuff going on. Did you do Romanian Names before you had Dead Oceans on board or after?
JV: Oh, before. It was risky. I told Josh that I really wanted to be on my own because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. He was–man, he’s awesome. There’s a lot of ways that could have been not fun for both of us.
Ask me a hard or surprising question.
AB: Hmm. With the way the music industry is going, do you see yourself on any label in ten years?
JV: Yeah, you know, it’s weird. Maybe I’m just sentimental but I like that you can dial a phone number and ask someone a question and they can be involved. I think that probably a management company will probably fill those shoes for a lot of bands in the future because it’s happening right now.
Once you don’t have to deal with physical distribution, you–. Secretly Canadian has a warehouse. We were just in Bloomington and they have a huge warehouse. That might exist for limited edition vinyl photobooks, whatever people make that is physical product that is meaningful and collectible. But you won’t need a warehouse at that point.
Why not have a management company sign a deal with iTunes and emusic and blah blah blah? But there’s something about a team of people that’s [great]. There’s a familial–you do feel connected with bands on a label. I felt this way on Barsuk. What they do pushes you on, it inspires you. I like all those trappings, but…
But if a band came up to me at Tiny Telephone and said, should we be on a label, I would have no idea how to answer that. I would honestly probably say no. It depends what you’re trading to not be on a label, but I couldn’t be happier on a label.
AB: Is now a hard time to be a musician? Or is it not a lot different?
JV: I don’t think it’s different. I think there’s very small changes that have happened. Maybe the aggregate show attendance is down a little bit, but I don’t know if you can feel that, really. But if you do your thing there are so many other variables. You could put out a record that people love. Or you could put out a record that people–that your fans don’t connect with. And you have those dips. You could be playing Austin on a Monday night up against nine other great shows. You almost can’t tell. You can’t parse out what happened.
I think it’s a really good time to be a musician. I’m really stunned when I hear musicians who don’t think great music is happening. It’s almost like these are gravy days, you know? You can make music now and, without even going on tour, have people care about what you do. It’s amazing. It’s more modest, but that’s competition. There’s crazy amounts of competition, but that’s the nature of the beast, man.
AB: Indie’s become really mainstream. I sort of worry about–I mean, ska became mainstream for a bit and then died out. Is indie going to be the next ska? That’s a funny thought, but–
JV: I think what’s interesting about what’s happening now is that–well, ska had a flag. Ska had their forefathers, their bands, they had their upbeats, right? Well, indie is such a massive umbrella that we could be talking about Or, the Whale or Maus Haus or Deerhoof or the Dodos or…um. I’m just thinking of San Francisco bands.
AB: Do you know Two Sheds by the way?
JV: No, but Christian from the Bay Bridged says he likes them. Are they good?
AB: They’re awesome. Anyway…
JV: These bands have nothing in common. And that’s fantastic.
AB: And they’re all ‘indie’ so I get your…
JV: The cool thing about ska is that those band have to adhere–not all of them, but some of them have to adhere to this highly structured [sound]. There’s this signifying ska element. It’s inescapable. Ska’s great. This is not a qualitative argument against ska. Ska’s fantastic, but style is…prison. You know what I mean? It’s freeing at a certain level because you can be a deviant inside a style. You can rebel against a style, but ultimately it’s better to have no flag whatsoever.
JV: Wow! Good for the Dodos. They need to make money.
AB: That’s exactly what my reaction was. It’s good for them, but it’s so strange, you know.
JV: I know. Miller Chill, which is probably the worst piss you’ll ever have.
AB: Are we going to see any Vanderslice in Budweiser commercials?
JV: We’ve done some stuff and we’ve not done some stuff. I’m going to be very careful about how you hear my music in the future. I don’t care at all. It doesn’t bug me when a band does that, but we all have our own things. There are certain things we’ll do and certain thing we won’t do. It’s not a purity issue either. I’m a complicated capitalist like everyone else.
If you’d like to read my two previous Vanderslice interviews, the one from 2007 is here, while the one from 2005 is here. Mp3s of his KZSU/ ipickmynose session are still available. You can read some of the other interviews I’ve done here.