John Vanderslice is way into hip-hop. To know that fact will give listeners a little insight into the roots of the dramatic experimentation and sonic abstraction on Vanderslice’s most recent record, The Cedars, released earlier this year. The singer-songwriter and producer/engineer is famous in the world of indie-rock for helping to make some much-loved records by artists such as Spoon, Death Cab for Cutie, the Mountain Goats and many others. Vanderslice, who will be playing a living-room concert in Winston-Salem this week, is known for his work at Tiny Telephone, the studio he started in San Francisco in 1997 and has been running since then. But a lot of upheaval in his life has altered the contours of his routines recently. Among the changes, Vanderslice moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles not long ago, partially uprooting himself from the scene that he was a part of and helped to nurture for years. I spoke to Vanderslice by phone last week from his home in Southern California, after he’d returned from a run, which is something he’s fairly passionate and even obsessive about.
Just to be clear, The Cedars isn’t a hip-hop record. Vanderslice doesn’t rap, and the beats, if you’d call them that, are pretty far from being insistent. The record, his eleventh, opens with “Utah and the Sky Over Utah,” a song that doesn’t really adhere to easy-to-pin-down song form in terms of repeating choruses, bridges, etc. The song begins with a melody that tumbles downward before inching its way back up, with an out-of-nowhere guitar chord rumbling through the mix, before everything stops abruptly. Jarring contrasts, extreme dynamic shifts, textures that go from scratched and blurred to up-close and delicate, sounds that shiver and stutter — those are some of Vanderslice’s modes.
It’s not dub, because it’s not fixated on a groove. It’s not ambient music, because Vanderslice sings and gets very abrasive at times. But there’s something in common with both of those genres. Vanderslice pairs sound in ways that make the component parts murky and unstable. Fans of artists like Chad VanGaalen and the Dirty Projectors will appreciate what Vanderslice has done. A spare offbeat piano pattern gets set against ticking percussion, with warped keyboards and spectral echoes swelling up unexpectedly. And in a nod to hip-hop records, Vanderslice uses instrumental interludes as a kind of sonic palate-cleanser.
“It’s a faint nod,” he said. “It’s a respectful hat top. It’s not overt.”
Vanderslice said that he and his collaborators — Rob Shelton and James Riotto, who share writing, production and engineering credits with Vanderslice on the record — spent a lot of time on those little wordless snippets, thinking of them as a way of providing what he calls “emotional distance” between the songs.
Lyric-centric songs can sometimes overwhelm the music, Vanderslice said.
“There’s so much voice information, and you have to find a way out of that,” he added.
Avoiding the pitfalls of musical cliche led Vanderslice to other aesthetic choices on the album, too.
“The new record is so deconstructed,” he said.
If a song might lend itself to having a hooky chorus that you could anticipate popping up at a particular time, Vanderslice and his collaborators would sometimes hammer it back into a more unpredictable contour.
“You want the structure to be weird,” Vanderslice said. “When you have a telegraphed section coming up, it’s terrible.”
This is a man who’s helped make hundreds and hundreds of records. He’s sat and thought about the appeal of music and how a good song works on our heads.
The aesthetic decisions relate to supply-and-demand, tension-and-release or chaos-and-order. A catchy snippet of a song becomes less meaningful if a listener can hear it coming from a mile away, or if it gets driven into the ground by relentless repetition, but most listeners need some hint of structure in order to navigate the musical landscape. Choosing to withhold some of those big satisfying simple pleasures is another way of making people want to hear a song again. It’s a classic tenet of show business: leave them wanting more. If a listener expects the payoff of hearing the hook-like chorus again but doesn’t get it, that can make a song that much more infectious.
But Vanderslice’s songs didn’t start out deconstructed. He builds them up from a scrap of a melody or a lyrical line recorded on a voice memo, then he tinkers with an acoustic guitar, adding accompaniment, riffs and chords. He said he writes songs “in a really banal way” and then encourages his collaborators to be brutal in the editorial process, killing his darlings, chucking overboard anything that isn’t completely interesting.
Then they would “completely rebuild” the songs, using tape loops, analog synths, sequencers and other studio techniques.
The songs get assembled that way for the recording. Now, when Vanderslice takes the show on the road for his solo performances, the songs get reverse-engineered back into their germinal state, to where he can perform them with just a guitar as he sings.
“I really believe in playing solo, and I believe in being super stripped-down,” he said.
In either setting, it’s fairly clear that the songs emerged from a period of turmoil and hardship. Vanderslice’s mother passed away about two years ago, and he wrote many of the songs while grieving over that loss.
“She was my first fan, she was my most stable and supportive friend,” Vanderslice said. “The good thing is that we’re supposed to outlive our parents.” As we talked, he seemed to find some way of putting the shock of grief in perspective. “It’s also really banal, billions of people have gone through this.” And yet, as he pointed out, that understanding didn’t make it any easier to tackle mourning. Adding to that, Vanderslice was facing the prospect of leaving his long-time home in San Francisco behind for new terrain. It all added up to what he calls a mental health crisis. Vanderslice had essentially decided to stop writing songs after his 2013 album Dagger Beach. But making his own music ended up being something that sustained him.
“The thing that really mattered afterward was the feeling of accomplishment,” Vanderslice said.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See John Vanderslice on Thursday, Sept. 19, at 8 p.m. in Winston-Salem, in the 27101 zip code, at a Living Room Show presented through Undertow Shows. Tickets are $20. Visit the website for more information.