John Vanderslice is a nice guy. Nearly every feature on the San Francisco–based singer, songwriter, and producer describes how affable he is, so it must be true. Chatting with him on a lazy Sunday afternoon will be a breeze, right? Not so much. While Vanderslice may enjoy a reputation for sweetness, nobody ever mentions how impenetrable the 40-year-old former MK Ultra singer is.
On the phone from "somewhere between Iowa and Indiana", Vanderslice has some pretty absurd explanations for his latest album, Emerald City. At least five of nine songs mention aspects of 9/11, and still Vanderslice insists the record is about his Parisian girlfriend's efforts to legally immigrate to the United States.
"I suppose I was trying to create a real sort of postapocalyptic Neverland," Vanderslice says, carefully avoiding the term 9/11. "And I wanted to evoke an Orwellian landscape. But this to me is a very personal album, about my life in a very general way. It's a political album, because how could you not have a political album these days, but it's more about my life, and what we went through."
It's tempting to call bullshit on this defence. The strummy opening song, "Kookaburra", contains lines like "vaporized dust raining" and "the Chrysler Building has disappeared"; the reverb-drenched "The Parade" speaks of "steel dust in a vialfrom Tower Two"; and "The Tower", a fuzzy, poppy number, has him singing "A burning tower/Hit by lightning/And people are jumping out". Add to that the fact that Vanderslice's last record, the critically acclaimed Pixel Revolt, was similarly 9/11–obsessed, and it seems apparent that the singer is either telling fibs or milking maximum emotional impact from his girlfriend's immigration woes by recasting them in the language of that horrific event. So which is it?
"Listen, I was talking to a guy from the Chicago Reader the other day," says Vanderslice, clearly growing bored with the line of questioning. "And he was wondering why I didn't make this album more political, and more about 9/11. He felt it was too subtle. So there's different ways to look at it."
Eventually, Vanderslice sounds so convincing, talking about his poor Parisian girlfriend's battle with American bureaucracy, that you realize he's either fooled himself or he's never going to cop to writing another 9/11 album. Either way, it's just easier to talk about the sound of Emerald City rather than the lyrical content.
Using an innovative technique involving old-fashioned tube microphones made the acoustic guitars on Emerald City sound impossibly fuzzy, and at first play listeners might worry that their speakers have blown. In fact, Vanderslice–a go-to producer for indie rock bands such as the Mountain Goats and Spoon–admits to deliberately creating a guitar sound that makes the album feel tense, even upsetting, to long-time fans. Like a true audio geek, he goes on to describe his techniques for achieving acoustic fuzz, getting so lost that he almost loses track of his line on Emerald City's lyrical content.
"The next album's going to sound way different," he says excitedly. "It's going to be really pink and bright and melodic. In a way, Emerald City was the exact opposite of Pixel Revolt, but I want my next record to be a whole new thing. Like, totally different from the two war records."
Is this a war record, then? "There's a whole room full of people looking at me, waiting for me to get off the phone and play," he says, revealing that "somewhere in between Iowa and Indiana" is actually the studios of music Web site Daytrotter.com in Rock Island, Illinois. With that he's off, slipping away before he can be pinned down. A nice guy, promoting an album about his girlfriend.
John Vanderslice plays the Red Room on Monday (October 15).