Monday, May 6, 8 p.m., sold out
Cat’s Cradle Back Room, Carrboro
“If you’re not paying attention, I’m not mad at you, I just don’t care what you think, because there is incredible fucking music coming out right now.”
This is surprising talk coming from John Vanderslice, the operator of Tiny Telephone Recording. He started the “analog-centric” studio in San Francisco twenty-two years ago, in a bare-bones rehearsal warehouse, going on to amass a huge collection of vintage equipment. He’s produced the likes of Deerhoof, Spoon, and Death Cab for Cutie in addition to writing and recording eleven studio albums of his own strange but accessible indie pop. Hearing Vanderslice disparage “analog people” is like hearing Bernie Sanders coming out against Medicare-for-all.
But Vanderslice says he’s changed his attitude toward modern music production in recent years, thanks, at least in part, to the vitality of rap and other contemporary genres.
“Analog does sound better to me, but it’s like I’ve been radicalized from a political position,” he says. “I just don’t buy it anymore. There’s a literalism and a backward-looking vibe to analog people that I really can’t stand. I want to listen to shit that just came out. I generally don’t respect people who don’t listen to rap music, and I don’t respect people who can’t name three records that came out in the past month.”
That’s not to say Vanderslice has turned his back on his old synthesizers and tape machines. If his latest record, The Cedars, is any indication, analog machines are still very much in the mix. In some cases, he’s using these old units to approximate the sparse, experimental, dark aesthetic of some hip-hop (see “Will Call”) rather than chasing a vintage rock sound; in others, he’s using them to color linear-sounding piano elegies (see “Spectral Dawn”).
It’s remarkable that The Cedars came out at all. As The New Yorker reported, in 2014, Vanderslice quit touring and making solo records after his tour van almost flipped on a highway, which he characterized as a near-death experience. But he was talked out of retirement by his label, and he’s now touring again to support The Cedars, coming to Cat’s Cradle Back Room on May 6, supporting Pedro the Lion. He tells the INDY that his fascination with using the studio as an instrument began when he was introduced to Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and The Who as a teenager.
“I always wanted to own recording studios from the time I was like fifteen years old,” he says. “I knew that studios were the secret sauce on all these records that I loved. I kept seeing all the same names—Eel Pie, Abbey Road—cropping up on these albums, and I knew it was a thread that mattered.”
The room for innovation afforded to a studio musician has always thrilled him, especially as an alternative to the linear songwriting associated with being in a traditional band. (Think of the difference between the mop-top era of The Beatles and the expanded sense of possibility behind Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.)
“I knew that records that were voiced in a more ambitious way—like with orchestral percussion, for example—completely changed the experience of listening to it,” he says. “It really mattered where those records were done, who they were done with, how much time they had, and what their approach was.”
Unlike some audiophiles, however, Vanderslice isn’t stuck in the stone age of rock ‘n’ roll and claims to have no interest in replicating fossils. In fact, he’s bored with most of the indie music being recorded on tape machines, at least compared to modern hip-hop.
“Rap is so fast and connected,” he says. “There’s this viral use of language and ideas. Rappers are listening to singles that came out last week and putting out a single this week in response. It’s completely reactive, in real time. So, when a band writes to me and says they want to sound like Nirvana, I want to write back and say, ‘Are you fucking kidding me, dude?’”
Not only that, but digitally produced music also sounds better than ever to Vanderslice, though he says it will always sound about 10 percent worse to him than a tape recording. He believes computer-based songwriting opens the door to an exciting, nonlinear plane, a new sonic frontier where anything goes—and it’s populated almost entirely by rappers.
“It’s easier to be radical, using these techniques in Ableton and getting away from this very literal sense of, ‘We’re going to play this guitar part here,’” he says. “It feels like rap is getting more experimental. It’s common for me to be blown away by the quality of sounds people are getting when they’re tracking their own stuff.”
These are bold words from someone whose business is based on owning a ton of analog gear and recording in the old ways. The boutique synthesizers, effects pedals, tape machines, and guitar amps at Tiny Telephone are useful and valuable to Vanderslice personally, and he believes some of the textures they produce can’t be beaten. But he’s still entranced by the fact that one person with a laptop can push the envelope so far.
“It’s become a really complicated conversation for me to have,” he says. “I love and respect those machines, but it’s cloudy in a way it wasn’t five years ago. I’m constantly at war with myself to where I’m super cynical even with the things I believe.”