The Wit and Wonder of John Vanderslice

And I speculate, that if it’s the millionth, Vanderslice makes it feel entirely possible that of all the people at the other ends of all the phones in the world, you were his first choice as the person he wanted to chew up some words with.


A conversation with John Vanderslice, whether it’s the first or the millionth one, is right up there with a dejá vu moment. If you’re talking to him for the first time, it’s as if you’d been college roommates not so long ago. And I speculate, that if it’s the millionth, Vanderslice makes it feel entirely possible that of all the people at the other ends of all the phones in the world, you were his first choice as the person he wanted to chew up some words with.

Before you’ve gotten 20 minutes into an interview and you’ve got him explaining why he mentions a man in a cowboy suit in one of the 12 stunning songs off of his new album Cellar Door, he’s saying things like, “The cowboy reference is an ode to the [David] Lynch film Mulholland Drive. I think you might like that movie. You might not like it, but it’s something to check out, man.”

He’s already wagered a postulation on your distinct taste in cinema based exclusively on your questions about his days as a waiter at the Berkeley, California restaurant Chez Panisse and whether John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats is a big-time Chicago Cubs fan or not. He’s got you all figured out using his Vander-Sense. He’s analyzed the nuances in the pitch of your voice and run a mess of mental lab tests deducting, within minutes of knowing you, that Mulholland Drive just might be something you’d take a liking to.

How he does it might be the same way that we try to assume things about him using only his music as evidence. But Vanderslice will not be so easily sussed out. Using his own lyrics to describe him would plant embellishments in everything you took for truth. Sweet little references that a fact checker would red-mark for removal are the backbones of what make the San Franciscan songwriter and unseasonably nice guy such a venerable enigma.

With a remote control in his hand, his fingers gravitate to whatever soft, rubber buttons will take him to the Turner Classic Movies channel. It’s a passion for movies that has made him a harder man to say, with any certainty, is who he sings he is. He could have a cousin in Columbia hunting down rebels in coca fields and he could know a former stripper named Angela. But he probably doesn’t. It doesn’t change anything for me. I still believe him. You believe him. We all believe him.

A better sense of him comes from a further description of the above movie that inspired “Promising Actress,” a thumping song that would have been a soundtrack watermark, distinct and exact.

“It’s a big movie. It’s a really interesting, weird statement,” he said. “It’s a pretty realized movie on a lot of levels and there’s a lot of cowboy imagery in that movie that harkens back to ’30s and ’40s Hollywood. In a way, that’s a love letter to Hollywood. One of the reasons I wanted to write a song about the movie was because I feel the same way. The more I get obsessed with ’40s and ’50s movies, the more that that filters through how I see the world.”

He sees the world as a Technicolor movie with himself as the writer, director, and set builder. Each role comes in turn. He’s the one who wheels out the freshly painted span of a bathwater-warm ocean needed for the backdrop of “Wild Strawberries,” with himself cast as the lead, swimming in a “dying Filipino light.” He hammers the final nails into place right before the curtain rises on the dooming horse of the apocalypse in the stirring call to arms of the opening track “Pale Horse.” It all seems so real.

And depending on what’s real to you, it could all be considered that way. Once a voracious reader, Vanderslice has ceased his bind-cracking and takes all of his subject matter from what’s already inside. This, along with his movie hunger, is what assists him in developing his own brand of reality—one that’s alarmingly soothing regardless of the matters involved.

“I used to read a lot of novels and then about five years ago I stopped doing it and I don’t know why. I literally stopped. I was probably in the middle of a Don DeLillo book. I put it down and I just stopped reading novels. Really, it baffles me whenever I look back on it. Sometimes I feel really guilty about it and other times I think it was the best thing I ever did,” Vanderslice said. “I spent so much time reading and I thought, ‘I’m not going to input any more information into my brain.’ I’m only going to write songs. I’m just going to concentrate on what I’m doing. At some point, it’s just like doing anything. I just felt like I’d read enough books for a lifetime.

“And so now, I’m like ADD Central. I read Harper’s magazine. I read the San Francisco Chronicle. I’ll read The New York Times. I’ll read any local rag on tour. I don’t care. It could be the Des Moines Register. It could be the Baltimore Sun. I don’t care what the newspaper is; I’ll read it. I just really stopped needing that 300 to 400 page narrative going through my brain. And maybe movies took over because I didn’t really watch that many movies until five or six years ago and now I try to watch four or five movies a week. That, for me, is when I can kind of shut my brain off.”

It’s an easy thing to mistake the kind of person Vanderslice is, if you’re not careful. You’d think he was sad, maybe. You’d think he was lonely, as a writer for Esquire magazine recently did. You’d be wrong. He’s just a remarkable storyteller who happens to like the not-immediately-uplifting stories.

“I think anytime someone writes about my records, it’s all good,” he said. “I don’t expect a lot from the world on a lot of levels and when you get something like that, I think it’s pretty great. With that said, I don’t really feel very lonely, but I’m a total loner. I’m a loner who hangs out with people all the time.”

And they’re people just like you. Or at least that’s what he makes you believe. All that matters is what he can make you believe and, right now, you believe you know John Vanderslice. He probably likes it that way.

Cellar Door, Vanderslice’s fourth LP, is released January 20 on Barsuk Records.

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