A Conversation With John Vanderslice

White Wilderness (Dead Oceans) is the latest album from the San Francisco-based John Vanderslice, and he’s joined on it by the classically trained Magik*Magik Orchestra. MMO artistic director Minna Choi arranged and conducted the Vanderslice-written music on the LP, which was recorded in a whirlwind three-day session by producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Walkmen, Bill Callahan). Vanderslice himself is no stranger to production, running the Tiny Telephone recording studio for 14 years and having produced records by the likes of Spoon and the Mountain Goats. Now he can add MAGNET guest editor to his resume, as that’s what he’ll be doing at all week. We recently caught up with him via email.

MAGNET: How did you hook up with the Magik*Magik Orchestra for the new album? You guys did a show together a couple years ago, right?
Vanderslice: We’ve been working together for two years. My goal is to do everything with her from now on—that’s what happens when you first work with her. Post-Minna life seems pointless. We did a show at the Great American Music Hall in 2009. We’ll do another orchestra show for White Wilderness in the summer. They are expensive to do, but man, they are super-inspiring.

How did collaborating with them change your process for making a record?
It was very difficult to give up control. But the second I heard Minna’s arrangements in rehearsal, I realized it was the coup of the century.

What was it like having someone else arrange your material?
Oh my god, the greatest thing in the world. I’ve spent half my life sweating overdubs and arrangements. Minna is a flat-out genius, otherwise it would’ve been a terrible experience.

Would you like to make another record with them?
Oh yeah! It’s already scheduled. This one will be choir heavy!

You recorded the album live in three days. I got the impression that with your other records, you kind of labored over every sound on them. Was it difficult to make a album so fast?
It was a leap of faith, but I am now completely sold on making records quickly, I think some recklessness can really serve music, especially when the musicians are on the level of Magik*Magik Orchestra.

But at the same time, even though the recording went fast, it seems like the arrangements are more complex and there’s a lot more going on. Was that a difficult balance to strike?
Well, Minna is so good with charting and conducting. I’ve never seen anything like it. The process changed my life. The amazing thing is note how complicated Minna’s brass and woodwind writing is in “Convict Lake” and to hear how effortless it sounds when you step back from the production a bit.

You worked with John Congleton for the record, though I seem to recall that Scott Solter has been your producer of choice for most records. Why the change?
John and I had been talking for five or six years about working together. Scott is amazing; he taught me—and a lot of other bands—a lot about art and sound, really everything. But it’s a real challenge to work with different people. It’s a testament to Scott’s skills that we made so many records together. John is on board to do the next one as well, with Ian and Jay Pellicci. It’s kind of an all-star engineering team.

You have produced other people’s albums. How come you don’t produce your own?
It’s wonderful to delegate authority to someone you really respect. Once you’re in the heat of recording, you really lose all perspective. It’s amazing to think back to some of the things I was fighting for in the control room. Sometime the songwriter is the least useful voice in the room.

Based on the trailer you did for the new album, there was obviously someone videotaping the recording session. Does having a camera in there change the vibe of the recording process?
With anyone other than Your Truly, I would say yes. But Nate and Co. are super skilled at ninja filming.

I know you are writing about a lot of movies in your guest-editing stint this upcoming week. You are obviously a big fan. Would you be interested in doing any music work for film?
Yes!! Music for film would incredible. Especially for documentaries.

You are almost at the 20-year mark as a recording artist. Who do you consider to be your peers at this point? Do you have any pet peeves about younger bands?
I feel completely connected to anyone who’s trying to navigate art and commerce, even outside of music. I am surrounded every day by artists, musicians and engineers at Tiny Telephone who are incredibly charming and admirable people. The only pet peeve I have about younger bands is their utter lack of appreciation for Shriekback.

Mk Ultra started the year after MAGNET did, so you have witnessed all the same changes we have in the music biz thanks to all the emerging technology. Do you ever long for the old days? Or do you wish today’s technology would have been available to you back in, say, 1994?
I really don’t long for the old days. Music (in the aggregate) is much better, and there’s a more coherent art community. The internet is the single greatest invention ever, and I’m glad to be making records during this golden age.

Do you still think Bill Gates must die? What other famous people do you want dead?
Actually, I really like Bill Gates now. He’s given billions away to charity; it’s tough to knock that. I don’t want that many people to die actually, but here’s a few who should be physically incapacitated and quite possibly water-boarded: Alberto Gonazles, Eric Holder, Dick Cheney, Joe Leiberman, Bush (41 and 43), John Yoo, Koch Brothers, Antonin Scalia, Robert Gates, Donald Rumsfeld, Scooter Libby, Paul Wolfowitz. (You get the idea)

—Eric T. Miller

“Sea Salt” (download):

“The Piano Lesson” (download):