Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound Engineering by Patrick Stolley
Sometimes these are essays, dear readers, and sometimes they follow a more telling, natural progression from the start to the finish of them. They last upwards of 800 words and do things such as gravitate to the keynotes or some of the most intriguing portions of a record's body or a band/musician's thesis or being. They make valiant attempts toward understanding, toward working through some of the grand themes and proclivities that bubble to the surface or just seem to when you get intimate with their art and their unique language.
This is an essay about John Vanderslice, a man that it seems all of us know somewhat, a man that we've all spent a day or two or an evening with. The six degrees of Kevin Bacon is a transferrable, time-wasting parlor game that could apply just as aptly to the man of the Tiny Telephone, only the rules would need to be changed to four degrees of separation should you allow his colorful and cinematic characters and the shared qualities that they exhibit to factor into the memory serving. He is an undefined personality that has kept this ability to wear the skins of so many others and to remain an enigmatic chameleon, someone that isn't about to be sorted out through rational crossword puzzling exercises or theories. He is long division and mystery, sometimes a lager and sometimes a fire, sometimes gasoline blown onto the latter.
He's long been thrown into the admired circle of good guys of rock and roll - and he certainly is that - but Vanderslice doesn't think an overabundance of nice thoughts when he's combing a hand through his hair, lounging in his easy chair, picking up a pen or stirring his drink. He doesn't have demons inside (everyone who knows him, along with the man himself, would laugh at the stupid suggestion and cry defamation), but there are oils and dark, dark stuff circulating and making noises in there that are hard for him to ignore or stifle to completely. There are downers dissolving into his bloodstream as this types, but they get worked and kneeded and questioned. There is no sadness or despair in Vanderslice that doesn't get the third degree and then get churned out, back into the cruel natural air with a dizzy daze and some new perspective.
He turns these thoughts of his - of wild, apocalyptic desolation and tragedy; the second-to-last-man-left-standing conundrum - into the gangster styled after Alphonse Capone, after Bugs Bunny takes advantage of him and gets the guy wearing dresses and such through a convincing, influential mind warp. Here we can again quote lines from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," a film that teaches more deeply philosophical and lasting life lessons than all of the K-through-12 years, to apply in our reasoning. There is very little to be excited about in Charlie Bucket's world, though there is a will to see through the dreariness and escape the squalor. In one of the opening scenes, when the confectionaire is sliding along his walls and spooning candies out to the greedy mitts of children at his counter, he sings about the candy man behind the locked walls, "The candy man can cause he mixes it with love and makes the world taste good.../Who can take a rainbow/Wrap it in a sigh/Soak it in the sun and make a strawberry lemon pie.../Willy Wonka makes everything he bakes satisfying and delicious/Talk about your childhood wishes/You can even eat the dishes/Who can take tomorrow dip it in a dream/Separate all the sorrow and collect up all the cream." Wonka, found to be disillusioned with the world at-large, had warmth in his heart, though he given up on nearly everyone else. He was an optimist, though a practicing pessimist most of the hours of the day. Vanderslice is an optimist who moonlights his pessimism in his songs, giving them such startling beauty marks that they cannot be seen as carriers of venom or negativity. He's not transformed into a hapless worrier, just a realist, a man with an acute consciousness, who sees the ugliness and man does he hope it goes away.
On Emerald City, on Cellar Door, on Pixel Revolt and so on, there's not enough time. The bombs always go off. People aren't given too many escape hatches or any easy buttons. They suffer through the weighty issues of unforeseen and unavoidable infringements on their restfulness and comfort. They don't get rainbows wrapped in sighs or tomorrow's dipped in dreams. The sorrows aren't collected up by the street sweepers and carted off to an out-of-sight graveyard. The sorrows and so many of the aftermaths - the feathers floating slowly and silently, deadly down to the ground after going through the fan's oscillating blades, the murderous air after a gun blast or a building getting flown into - are resounding in their permanency. As the ashes fall and cover your clothes with dust and soot, Vanderslice is scratching away mental notes that pin his hand to his forehead in empathy and his very real teary eyes to what it all could mean. How did this all come to be? The optimist in him believes in the calming of the seas and the good times returning and the pessimist chuckles with disdain. Vanderslice holds conference with both. He agrees.
*Are you going to be glued to the screen for the Super Bowl?*
John Vanderslice: I love the Super Bowl and sports in general with my entire heart, I don't have a team, or even care who wins, but I love the zen activity of two teams moving a ball (or rolate spheroid) up and down a field.
*How are you with cold weather? A baby or a tough guy?*
JV: I am like Glenn Gould: scarves, hats and gloves when it's 50 degrees! I am ALWAYS cold.
*How did you make so many apocalyptic scenes feel so peaceful and beautiful on "Emerald City"?*
JV: Well, that's the musical sophistication of my compatriots: Scott
Solter (production, David Douglas (drums), Ian Bjornstad (keyboards) and David Broecker (bass). I think that Ian's piano playing adds so much strangeness and harmonic beauty.
*I often think this line from Rushmore when I think about you and your contagiously good cheer and friendliness. When Bill Murray asks Jason Schwartzman, "What's your secret, Max?" What's your secret for getting through these days? I wonder this, because the characters that you invoke in your songs so feel that dreariness man...*
JV: If I wasn't an optimist I would've slit my wrists when I was 25, for sure.
*What's one of the major things you'd first like to do when you over for your European tour next month?*
JV: Well we start the tour with a day off in Oslo, a city i haven't had much time in. i'd love to go to the Norsk Folkemuseum and Vikingskipshuset.
*From John Vanderslice:*
One of the cool things about the Daytrotter sessions is all the interesting house equipment that's provided. We decided to jump right in and use different keyboards and effects, recasting the songs as fast as we could. The songs sounded fresh and new to me. I remember feeling a little nervous, that twitchy feeling I get when tape is rolling (I never get that feeling when the engineer hits a space bar!). We played and played and then went next downstairs and had pasta with Sean at the neighborhood pizzeria.
John Vanderslice: Vocals, Guitar
Ian Bjornstad: Wurlitzer, Moog
David Douglas: Drums, Moog
Daniel Hart: Violin, Bass