By: Nat Lyon
If you’ve never heard the music of John Vanderslice- this is the best I can do:
John Vanderslice is sort of like the unpretentious American version of Brian Eno, but he has much better hair and much louder amps. Listen to this album connect the dots.
The re-issue of Vanderslice’s debut solo work, Mass Suicide Occult Figurines, provides a portrait of an artist as a work in progress, circa the year 2000- a person striking out on his own, going off the trail, and off the map. This album is a retrospective of sorts, yet nearly every song is presciently current.
John Vanderslice’s artistic career is a case study of how an evolving skill set as performer, engineer, and producer have complemented, and fed, one another like an endless feedback loop. As a musician and studio owner he’s had time to conduct sonic experiments, make plenty of mistakes, challenge traditional techniques, and push his own abilities. For Vanderslice the studio is a musical instrument. He calls the result “sloppy hi-fi,” but It is hardly sloppy and it is extremely hi-fi.
Despite the many odds stacked against independent musicians, 2015 has been both a celebration, and in a sense, a validation of Vanderslice’s work: 15 years as a solo artist (with a catalogue of 10 full-length albums) and 17 years as the owner/principal of Tiny Telephone studio in San Francisco. To mark these significant career chapters, this year Vanderslice reissued his first solo album and began construction of a second studio location, scheduled to open in Oakland, California later this year. The fact that his Kickstarter campaign raised $115,000 for the studio project speaks volumes of the dedication and appreciation of his supporters, and the amount of respect Vanderslice has gained from peers and clients over a very long haul.
Tiny Telephone, has become a destination studio, best known for its low key vibe, a staff with extreme creative and technical skills, a no star attitude, and an affordable rate structure. And it’s packed with vintage gear. He’s obsessed with gear. The list of musicians that have trekked to Tiny Telephone include The Mountain Goats, Death Cab for Cutie, The Dodos, Magnetic Fields, Bob Mould, Kronos Quartet, Sleater-Kinney, Magik*Magik Orchestra, Sun Kil Moon, tUne-yArDs, Deerhoof, Mike Watt, and Avi Buffalo (to name just a few to highlight the diversity of artists). It seems that anyone that doesn’t want to make just another (pick your genre) album wants to go to Tiny Telephone.
The increasing volume of work coming into the studio has had one major downside- it seriously cut into Vanderslice’s own musical career. For 15 years he toured on a near-continuous basis, hitting festivals and venues on almost every continent. While he was on the road, work continued back at his boutique analogue studio, where magnetic tape is the preferred option to digital media. Over the past few years the growth of the existing studio, and his transition to producer, have taken Vanderslice off the road, which might have been a bit of a relief- he could go home in the evenings, sit in his hot tub time machine, and have something approximating a normal life. Vanderslice probably thought this move would simplify things, when in fact he was only starting a new chapter, one that would definitely be more complicated than his earlier life as a singer/songwriter.
This is serious business.
In May, Vanderslice marked his “first” 15 years as a solo artist by remastering and reissuing his first LP, Mass Suicide Occult Figurines an album that brings the listener back to when he worked in obscurity, when the studio was dingier, the microphones were mostly borrowed, and the space was much quieter. Mass Suicide Occult Figurines is packed with great songwriting, blazing performances, complex and off-kilter arrangements, distorted drum kits, and innovative engineering. If you have followed the work of John Vanderslice, you will find traces of DNA for most of his later work on this album.
The Mass Suicide Occult Figurines (MSOF from here on out) re-issue is ONLY available on 200-gram vinyl, and includes a digital download via The Native Sound label. When The Native Sound’s founder, Julio Anta, realized that MSOF was the only John Vanderslice album that had not been released on vinyl he pitched the idea: “JV was into it, so we reached out to Barsuk (who released the original version), and the rest is history.”
Because MSOF had never been released on vinyl before- remastering was somewhat of a necessity. Bob Weston, principal at Chicago Mastering Service, bass player for Shellac, and a much sought after producer/engineer, re-mastered the album. The difference between the original and reissue is stunning, to say the least. If you’ve never “got” the concept of remastering, listen to both versions. It makes a difference if done properly. A huge difference.
Why you must hear Mass Suicide Occult Figurines. Even if you heard it 15 years ago.
Solo experimentation has existed since the beginning of recording and John Vanderslice’s path began in the post-punk San Francisco scene in the 90’s, with the band Mk Ultra. When the band ended in 1999- Vanderslice went to work on a new solo project. MSOF was recorded over 16 days and completed Vanderslice’s transition to full-time solo artist and studio owner (both of which are frightening prospects on their own). John Croslin (producer for Spoon, Mates of State, and many others) engineered and mixed the album, which Vanderslice credits as his very short and very steep education in the art and science of recording:
“That’s when I learned everything,” he said.
MSOF is a genre-bender/breaker. This is an experimental album that includes West Coast thrash with former Mk Ultra bandmates Dan Carr (bass), Matt Torrey (drums), and John Tyner (guitar) playing key roles, and some very non-rock, minimalist and innovative arrangements. MSOF moved the artist, and the DIY/singer/songwriter music culture, to new ground. Less rock and more literary, distorted yet painterly, fearless and vulnerable, noise and melody- contradictory techniques and attitudes packed into 11 songs and 35-minutes of music. Across the album Vanderslice shifts effortlessly and quickly between fast and quirky, slow and reflective, and at times rages in both his lyrics and music. Classical themes on cello paired with fuzzed guitars. Electric pianos and distorted drum kits. In your face vocals and subtly manipulated harmonies. Part Bowie, part Eno, but constructed on a foundation of punk ethics.
The album opener, Confusion Boats, is an example of Vanderslice’s ability to twist arrangements in very non-rock ways. A super-distorted drum kit and an overdriven electric piano provide the introduction before, very subtly, settling into a groove with an organ and piano carrying the melody. And the lyrics are surprisingly poignant. The beginning of the song has an almost hardcore vibe, but the rest of Confusion Boats is just intense. The background vocals bounce around in your headphones, reverse guitars swell at different points, and the distorted drums no longer seem out of place. This arrangement and sequence creates its own landscape- seemingly incompatible sounds are stitched together in an artful way. A series of techniques that Vanderslice has only continued to refine over time.
Literally turning on a dime, the follow-up track, Speed Lab, drops a bomb that goes off like a drug lab explosion. Speed Lab, a song which predates the TV drama Breaking Bad by eight years, features many of the archetypical characters. Stereo guitars rip and the remastered version sounds as if Vanderslice is screaming into your ear- a tweaker that really needs to tell you something VERY IMPORTANT. Speed Lab is very much a rocker in the classic sense, yet every instrument is slightly tweaked beyond the normally expected parameters. The guitar fuzz is as thick as a shag carpet, and the lyrics and vocals burn like the chemicals used to make speed. Speed Lab pushes the boundaries of the rock genre for Year 2K, as well as today.
The lyrical and musical rage continue in Bill Gates Must Die- a grinding rant against the technology that would eventually make us “more productive,” but more annoyed than anything else. The song is not a Luddite response to the looming ubiquity of technology. It’s west-coast inspired hardcore. Thrashing guitars and a pounding drum kit, combined with threatening lyrics and delivery provide a contrast with the more experimental tracks on the album. But Bill Gates, as well as the other real rockers on MSOF, provide a chart back to Vanderslice’s roots, and show that even in Y2K he was pushing the envelope of tired rock conventions.
There are slower, darker, more quiet, songs like Ambition and Josie Anderson, examples of Vanderslice’s use of minimalist arrangements that are recorded and treated in sonically impactful ways- very much like his most recent release, Dagger Beach (2013). This approach was moving into him into very different territory, he was pushing himself, and he knew it:
“Ambition was very difficult because the structure and dynamics of the song were very new to me.”
The song begins with a simple picked guitar line and a muted bell carries the beat- and it’s vaguely classical in structure. When the chorus starts- the small arrangement quickly builds with electric guitar leads, punchy drum rolls, and power chords. Every verse and chorus adds another layer to the tapestry. If you want to more forward you need to have ambition. Vanderslice is a meticulous arranger as well as musician- and in this case, Ambition says it all. It’s almost as if the song was intended as a reminder note for his future self.
Straight on the heels of Ambition, Josie Anderson begins with a sparse piano and guitar line that sound very much like a variation of the opening guitar line in the previous song, before shifting into a somewhat psychedelic ballad. Electronics, and layers of backing vocals overtake the piano. Josie Anderson provides a brilliant tutorial on the craft of arrangement and recording. Take a simple melody and bend it. Break it. Fuck it up. The lyrics are simple, the music is stripped down, but each instrument adds an emotive texture, with the guitar, piano, and synth playing overlapping melodies. On the surface this seems like a simple tune, but one that’s constructed using an extensive palette and unique approaches- the studio as an instrument. These techniques show up on later albums like Pixel Revolt and Emerald City. By tweaking the tone and spatial placements of the instruments and vocals with equal care on both Ambition and Josie Anderson, Vanderslice creates a series of movements that would would evolve to become his sonic signature over time.
Big Band Stars gets the big band sound treatment- which is appropriate for a song that’s the tale of young men doing stupid things, in this case climbing a radio transmission tower. But the narrator turns teen-age misadventure into a Melville-esque landscape where the radio tower becomes the mast of a whaling ship, and he’s looking out over the town below, looking for his white whale. Vanderslice has the rare talent of being able to transpose modern landscapes into more primitive, and quite literary, constructs. The expanse of the ocean is a theme that recurs on other John Vanderslice albums (and this is the second one just on this album). The repeating and ragged electric guitar progression in the left channel, combined with the lead in the right channel, and a solid rhythm section move the song at 100 miles an hour- the urgency and impatience of youth at play. Once again the vocals are up front- you can’t ignore them, you can’t turn away- they enhance the urgency of the song.
Gruesome Details returns the listener to a slower, quieter, but no less fucked up space. Accompanied by a piano, the doubled vocals summarize- quite plainly how everyone has dark chapters and how they choose to deal with them. Some prefer not to mention them- hoping they’ll go away, while others take different approaches- they either talk about them incessantly, or they try and bury them:
“…I was improving my position, acting as my own physician, really getting better all the time…”
Beside the simple progression of piano chords, there is what sounds like a flanger effect idling in one channel- like a slumbering piece of machinery. These audio mis-pairings work. Take two seemingly incompatible sounds and lay a vocal track over them. When a slightly off key string section builds and dominates the final movement- it adds further tension just as the song slowly dissolves. Gruesome details moves Vanderslice several steps away from his rockist roots and provides another example of techniques he would further develop on each subsequent release.
MSOF is marked by innovative techniques in arrangement and recording that would take on lives of their own on future recordings. Speed Lab, Bill Gates Must Die, Big Band Stars, and What Did You Do Today? might today might sound like artifacts of the time and location where they were recorded. The rockers on this album sound like a logical continuation of the trails first mapped by Husker Du and The Minutemen. The power/pop/punk songs on MSOF almost seem at odds with the more experimental nature of the rest- one sign of an artist in a transitional state.
“I feel like when you finish a record, that’s it. It’s a sealed time capsule.”
What Did You Do Today? positions Vanderslice as the listener, the observer, the caring conversationalist. It’s another rocker, but one that questions the chit-chat that fills our lives. The dial gets kicked up- and the line, “I watched a caterpillar, crawl on my desk,” is the killer slacker response to the question, “What did you do today?” It’s delivered with an exuberance, as fast as an anxiety attack, and in earnest- a song that celebrates the mundane, the little things. As an obsessive/compulsive recordist, Vanderslice knows that the little things REALLY COUNT. What Did You Do Today? could be the anthem for the small things that really count, the thousand insignificant things that are so easily forgotten. It’s the shortest song on the album (just under 2-minutes), but it’s fully formed, goes full bore, and charts an alternate course for pop.
Vanderslice has never been content to stay in one musical place and comfortably tread water. MSOF is full of musical contradictions, a factor that makes the re-issue so interesting. Foothills of My Mind returns to another sparse arrangement with treated guitar lines, a deliberately distorted drum kit, a simple piano progression, and Vanderslice’s distinctive vocals. Foothills provides another example of his unique musical sensibility. There are pieces of Foothills that sound connected to Angela and Dear Sarah Shu from Pixel Revolt. There’s a tiredness in Vanderslice’s voice. Happy, but drained, and resigned. Foothills of My Mind might sound like one of the most lo-fi songs on the album- but in many ways it’s the richest and telegraphs where the artist is heading, and what he was capable of. The doubled pianos and spiraling gloom of strings at the end of Foothills segue perfectly into the album closer, and title song, Mass Suicide Occult Figurines.
The album’s title track is very much a prelude to Vanderslice’s later work. Mass Suicide Occult Figurines borders on something like a chamber punk requiem. The main theme is played along with, but not against, treated ambient sounds and manipulated tapes. MSOF is a beautiful closer to this very diverse (and very short) album. The song provides a resolution, but it’s also a coded message being sent to the future, reflected in his later works like Hard Times from Romanian Names, and 20K from White Wilderness. This song is miles away from anything else on the album.
If you’ve already heard the original release of Mass Suicide Occult Figurines– you will instantly recognize that Bob Weston’s remastering adds more impact. “Weston used a better signal chain, it just sounds more hi-fi, better top end and the low end is more controlled,” as Vanderslice explained it. It is this attention to all of the technical details that best characterize John Vanderslice’s catalogue. Part punk, part ambient, part electronica, sort of rock, barely folk, but the bottom line is- it’s always a well designed trip.
When Julio Anta, founder of The Native Sound label pitched the idea to re-issue the album, Bob Weston signed on to re-master it, and Joe Williams created new album art- MSOF very much became a “new” album again (and sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday). Given his changing role from performer to producer, and the growing success of the Tiny Telephone studio(s), I don’t know exactly when we might hear the next John Vanderslice album. For now- the Mass Suicide Occult Figurines re-issue fills the gap quite nicely, because at the end of the day, it really is about the million little things that might seem insignificant- until you hit the record button.
Stream the remastered version of Mass Suicide Occult Figurines at:
For more information and purchase via The Native Sound: