John Vanderslice plays Opolis (113 N. Crawford) in Norman Sunday night with Stillwater’s Sherree Chamberlain. Doors open early at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door. Visit Opolis.org for more information.
Sometimes a cowboy is just a man in a cowboy suit…..
But sometimes a damn good songwriter is a damn good songwriter….
John Vanderslice is a calculating musical mind–but not the kind of mind we’d normally expect from such a set of ornate, meticulously crafted songs. A cagey sort like Wolf Parade’s Spencer Krug or Kevin Barnes of Of Montreal come to mind. But, with Vanderslice, it’s more of a free-flowing, discursive head at work, one that’s open. Because, perhaps, the world is wide open.
He rigorously balances a tough mind with consistent politeness–a talent that is arguably a miracle. You call him an hour late and with 15 minutes to chat, and he’s just as game to race down the alleys of all art with you. At album number 7, he’s as hungry-curious as he’s been for over a decade–writing and recording his own story records, as well as producing other bands: Spoon, Death Cab for Cutie, Okkervil River, Mountain Goats…a Carol King live record (!).
Driving with his band somewhere outside of Tennessee before fielding a call, Vanderslice listens to a Thom Yorke B-side.
“It’s just him singing with this drum, and it’s extraordinarily powerful,” Vanderslice says.
Even today, after a career of making signature drums a staple, he freshly marvels at how that is simply all that is needed on the track streaming through his car. Vanderslice has always been a drum guy. You can hear his idiosyncratic percussive ideas in Spoon’s Gimme Fiction, early Death Cab, and they are the jaunty, driving force of his own gems: Time Travel is Lonely, Cellar Door, Emerald City, Pixel Revolt.
I put in his new and very pretty record, White Wilderness, and sure enough I hear, first, the drums of “Alemany Gap.” They sound like the smart, hyper kid you can’t ignore.
“They take up so much space,” he says. “So much other stuff is spice, like salt and pepper. If you add a keyboard it may come in for four measures of a song . The most important thing is the drums have the most emotional and sonic impact. We spend a lot of time on both of those things.”
Pale Horse, Pass By
If anyone has heard the pace of Vanderslice’s talk, or noticed the prolific nature of his output, they might not guess that he gets blocked. But he does.
Before recording one of his hallmark records, Cellar Door, Vanderslice was stuck. He was expected to pull a quick turn around from Life and Death of An American Four Tracker and Cellar Door. One night he watched the Paul Newman film Hud, and ideas started pouring out of him. He didn’t know what it was.
Hud is the 1963 film based on the novel Horseman, Pass By, written by the young Rice graduate Larry McMurtry. Its protagonist Lonnie is virtually parentless. As a result, things like grass and the black maid and the way the vast sky grows dark at night are depicted with the utmost care. Lonnie lives with a reckless cousin (Hud) who screws all the unfulfilled wives in town, drinks too much and comes home late in his red velvet boots. The house is nominally run by a worn out uncle. It’s a failing dry ranch outside of Wichita Falls. At the end of the story it’s implied that Lonnie will have to leave, if he’s to make anything of himself. When Vanderslice watched the spare film, ideas of “family as a prison” stuck firmly in his mind. He took the idea and refracted it into a number of stories. In the universe of Cellar Door, then, a guy named Abilene is driving rental cars across America on the pharmaceutical rep’s dollar. Elsewhere, a young son watches both parents slip and fall, and he then sees the new nature of his family tree.
“Angela/ your husband Donnie is pure fear…so I stay clear….my family tree is me/ my family tree is me/ O my family tree is me/ oh my family tree is me … and now I’m set free….”
The stories in the songs of Cellar Door are not set in the American West. The “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” and the cowboy in “Promising Actress,” they are as organic as the plastic harnessing the DVDs in the collection. Vanderslice hales from vegan San Fran. Instead of completely absent parents and a grizzled cowhand uncle, a mother is a pill fiend, leaving the son a more kindred spirit of Afghany flowers growing in a field somewhere. The same high lonesome of the original horseman story is all over Vanderslice’s record anyway, in between the drum skits, the perfectly spaced production, hanging in the spots between well placed keyboard and sparkly xylophone drops–and especially on “Lunar Landscapes”–where “saddling up” is taken to mean taking too much medicine. McMurtry’s nihilism in Hud’s drink is this age’s in the pill. The album is a reel of rich, deeply cut characters. The mood is remarkably as melancholy as the story that found Vanderslice at a time when he needed it.
“For me it’s film for sure,” Vanderslice says. “One-hundred percent. Watching a good film is like really important for me. You can get so many ideas. There’s something in the narrative of film, the visual component of film, I don’t know it just sparks something in me that that inspires a song … Well, I mean, once I was writing Cellar Door and it was a fast turnaround after ‘Four Tracker’ [Life and Death of an American Four Tracker]. I watched this Paul Newman film called Hud. It unlocked something in me and gave me a (spark) … The family-as-prison idea, there was a lot of songs on that record that had that same theme.”
‘Like an old Oak Tree’
With White Wilderness, Vanderslice is starting to notice more. The videos on the Dead Oceans Web site show a man who can conduct an orchestra. Rather than a tight, hermetic studio, and with help, he is leading a breathing chamber. Yet the album sounds just as delicate as his other creations.
“I would say that we really tried to make space for all the string arrangements, for all the intricacies of what Minna (the band director) was doing,” Vanderslice says. “We tried to provide dynamic range for that stuff to be there.” A well volumed string rocker like “Sea Salt” is balanced by the seeming 4-tracker “After it Ends.” Instrumentals lilt and swell, and John’s stories pack in just as many details.
There is a new detail though. The stories are finally touching on the personal. “Convict Lake” is a blow by blow account of the time he took a second round of acid out of impatience and had to be transported from the well hidden camping enclaves of the Sierras to a hospital.
“I really shied away for a long time writing about my own experiences,” Vanderslice said. “I just don’t. It’s not that they are not important, I just prefer these fantastic stories, the extraordinary, the fabricated …Your own life is mundane to you. I’ve kind of gotten more respectful of small experiences.”
One of those moments that’s starting to recur more is the recognition that his fan base is seriously loyal. He’s noticing people he’s seen before, but this time he’s making memory space for them. The extra bit of care is something that comes to a touring musician when he’s getting a little older. And sentimental, Vanderslice says.
“Sometimes I’ll notice someone that’s been coming for 6 years, and for the first time ever I’ll say, ‘what’s your name?’ Then it occurs to me that they’ve been patiently waiting for me to make a connection.
“That’s how everyone is. We have to wake up to what’s extraordinary around us, like an oak tree or something. You are oblivious to everything, and then it just happens. We had some guy that came to a bunch of shows and he had a bunch of photos of different shows. I realized we had connected a lot, and I was not part of it at all. It’s probably like when you have a child and you then have this enormous guilt that you’re taking a relationship for granted …I’m not saying that is guy has 1 millionth of an emotional connection that a father has for a son, but it’s easy to take for granted relationships.
“You are completely humbled that anyone cares about what you are doing.”