John Vanderslice: Art is always better undercooked

John Vanderslice, Tiny Telephone, music studio

John Vanderslice at Tiny Telephone in Oakland. Lorenz Angelo/STAFF.

SAN FRANCISCO — Studio maverick John Vanderslice sits in front of me stroking his cat across the cheek. We are sitting on the sofa at his Tiny Telephone Studios in San Francisco when I hear a baby crying from a room next door. “It’s OK, they have a monitor,” he assures me. Salome the grey Abyssinian purrs and gently nudges her head further into him whenever he pauses, carried away by his own thoughts.

The San Francisco facility is one of two that Vanderslice owns, where art gets “cooked.” Engineers walk quietly but quickly through the hushed space. Ever so often music escapes the soundproof doors, and it’s glorious. A beautifully woody guitar melody wafts through the air. “That’s Kevin Dickerson. He’s great, isn’t he?” Vanderslice enthuses. Everything at Tiny Telephone, both the original San Francisco location and the new Oakland studio, is recorded in analogue. The music made here retains that heart. Vanderslice tells me how, just before I arrived, there were 15 people in the kitchen joking and discussing music. Most days there’s also dogs, cats and babies around.

It was almost two decades ago that Vanderslice launched his own studio after realizing it was the only way to achieve specific sounds he dreamt up. Since then, Tiny Telephone studio walls have absorbed recordings from indie favorites such as Death Cab for Cutie, Sleater-Kinney, St. Vincent, Spoon and Ra Ra Riot.

Earlier this year Vanderslice officially opened the doors of Tiny Telephone Oakland. It could appear as pure folly, given the trend to self-record on laptops at home. Surprisingly, Tiny Telephone Oakland bucks the trend. Its schedule is fully booked until next March. After coming to a complete standstill two years into the building process and being saved by a Kickstarter campaign, it is heartening for music lovers and music makers that this second analogue studio is already financially viable.

Living proof that art is best served undercooked, Vanderslice is also a prolific artist, having released 11 studio albums in 20 years, some to critical acclaim. He doesn’t wait for inspiration to strike; he makes his art then he puts it out into the world. It may be undercooked but it’s never careless.

As producer extraordinaire, he can tinker with reeds and make broken keyboards pitch-perfect again. He knows exactly how much reverb tail a room should have right to the last nanosecond. His knowledge of music production is encyclopedic but he still retains a childlike wonderment that is completely addictive when you’re in his orbit.

Having worked with some of the most successful indie musicians, Vanderslice has also had a hand in introducing hundreds of young new artists to the music creation process. Constantly in flux, Vanderslice finds a moment to sit still and chats about the art of making music and the staying power of analogue.

RIFF: How do you run two studios at the same time while also maintaining the musician lifestyle? You must want to make like an amoeba and split yourself.

John Vanderslice: My fantasy is not to make myself more efficient by splitting myself in two. It’s to actually take time off work, to go on a holiday. But with the debt schedule I’m on, I have to be here. My goal is to try and take a trip at the end of next year … to New Zealand or Vietnam, maybe Northern Italy. Or go to Vienna and do a tour of museums. I haven’t taken a real holiday in a long time and that’s not good, ’cause you actually start to get a little crabby and question why you’re doing this.

It feels that in opening the Oakland location, you did the opposite to what you needed to do.

I know. And what happens when you take the other way is you kind of double-down, ’cause you’re debt load increases. And you have a newborn. Oakland is like a newborn. It needs a lot of attention, still.

How is Tiny Telephone Oakland doing?

It’s really busy. Tune-Yards are in there right now. It’s under-market rates, and it needs to be, but it’s booked ’til next year.

That’s impressive. Are Tune-Yards producing themselves?

They have a house engineer-producer. We are unusual in that way; we don’t allow outsiders. Part of the reason is quality control and we’re analogue, so in general, we are more knowledgeable when it comes to the equipment. Sometimes with male producers there can be a lot of bluster, do you know what I mean? And I also want to be able to employ people full-time. If I allow outsiders in, they won’t have work.

So analogue is here to stay?

Yes, because somehow it keeps getting stronger and we keep getting younger bands. Those that are over 35 don’t seem to care at all. Those in their early twenties, that’s all they care about. I think it’s the overwhelming amount of choice out there. It’s almost the [same] problem [as] with the Cloud, or Netflix, or Spotify—what am I going to watch? There’s no curation. We get bands in here that have been working on the same record for two years and they say, “Help me.” We say, “Lets do it in 10 days!” The workflow is more directed. Of course, they fetishize recording in analogue, but there’s less choice. It’s not just random access and there are real limitations. The length of a tape reel is 16 minutes, 40 seconds and that’s important. It’s not infinity. You do a vocal take and you’re like, “Is this good or not?” I don’t think if we had computers anyone would care about these rooms. Also, they have someone like me that’s like a crabby dude. (Laughs). I bring a healthy dose of cynicism but I am also a crafts person.

Do you think it’s also appealing because there’s a generation that grew up being told they can do anything and everything they do is good?

Sometimes I feel we deliver more bad news per hour than anyone else. A studio exists to ego-check people in the best way possible. Making a record is a meritocracy. But I am not interested in precise performances or accuracy of notes selection. For me it’s just as important to get that art out; I am after vibe, attitude and that “something else.” And life. I’ll take that over anything else. That’s why I tend to love sloppiness over perfection. I prefer early takes over labored ones. I believe that art and music work best when you are operating in the unconscious realm—when artists are not in a hall of mirrors, over-analyzing what they’re doing.

How did you feel when the Kickstarter funding for the Oakland studio went through the roof? It seems to me that that’s the best thing about this community of people who love music.

Absolutely. Without that money, I don’t know what we would have done. For almost a month, things were at a standstill. But when the Kickstarter money started coming in and you meet your goal, you get greedy. (Laughs). You wished you had asked [for] more. We had open invoices on everything so we went ahead and paid for three months of construction. We spent it all in three days. It was also a signifier to the people working in the studio here that this is important. People want these spaces to exist.

What’s your motivation for doing this? Is it ever about nurturing a scene? When you get up, what gets you excited about your day?

I started producing my own records and running my own studio [because] I realized very early-on that in order to make the exact kind of records that I wanted to make … I had to have my own studio. I also love the communal aspect and energy of creative people in a space making art. Did the narrative get away from me? Yes! I got super-ambitious and built a studio when you’re not suppose to. Now I am just fending off debts. Often, when I get up, it’s not a joyful celebration. It’s a math equation. It’s not tragic, either. There are people with more pressing problems. I love these spaces but for the next year, it’s debt management for me.

It seems to me that there might be two types of artists who come to your studios: those who need to be creative and feed their soul, and careerists. Do you advise them accordingly?

I give advice like they’re all careerists. From my experience, what bands commonly do wrong is they wait. They deliberate about being creative. Look at David Bowie’s record production in the ’70s: he was touring arenas, giving interviews every other day, making more than one full-length a year, doing side-projects, producing records and [he] was still able to do brilliant works of art. Not deliberating, panicking or taking a hiatus. Bands these days are taking three, four, five years between records. Bands I like, for example, Modest Mouse. What are they doing making a record like they’re Coldplay? To me, art is always better undercooked. We see bands that record in here and they’re too panicked to be on tape, they need to take it home. And they come back in a year and a half. And never once in the 20 years I’ve been doing this did they make their record cooler. It’s often shittier. You think about that. If they were taking a break and going for a hike in the Andes, that’s different. But no, they were freaking out in their basements. It wasn’t joyful. They weren’t doing fist pumps but were hunched over their computers and super bummed out. And that has only radicalized me against recording with computers.

So what would be your advice to bands?

I believe in deadlines. Making and enforcing unnatural deadlines. And operating quickly and relying on the unconscious. Or that pre-conscious way of art-making, that’s how we’ve been making art for forever.

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