Listen to legendary indie musician John Vanderslice’s triumphant new album, The Cedars

Read an interview with the San Francisco producer and songwriter who’s come out of retirement for his 11th record, a rumination on the impending doom of capitalism.

March 28, 2019
Listen to legendary indie musician John Vanderslice’s triumphant new album, <i>The Cedars</i> Photo: Sarah Cass  

John Vanderslice is a mammoth figure in the indie rock scene, having founded the Tiny Telephone studio in San Francisco 22 years ago while establishing himself as a folk troubadour raised on the hyphy movement and art-pop. He released his first LP, Mass Suicide Occult Figurines, in 2000, and has since become an emblem for the Bay Area art scene that’s slowly being suffocated by everything San Francisco once despised. Vanderslice’s 11th LP, The Cedars — his first following an aborted retirement — is an album with laser-focused percussion and heavy emphasis on rhythm. It’s an album of very small moments blown-up to maximal proportions.

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The record is classic Vanderslice, full of naked vulnerability and stark nods to love and hate, drugs, and death, with hushed guitars and somber melodies. It’s the finest work the San Francisco-based artist has released to date, and the album is in part a reflection on his impending move to Los Angeles, six hours south of the Bay, but culturally a universe apart. The Cedars reflects this change, but also the nostalgia and sadness for a San Francisco lost to tech lords and Uber deliveries of overpriced deli meat. It’s a swan song for a life no longer sustainable, both due to personal decisions and outside forces.

On The Cedars, Vanderslice is reckoning with everything in his orbit, spinning these forces into scathing critiques of the self and the soul. It’s a dark record for a darker time, aching for hope but hedging its bets because the pain rarely ends. But the thesis isn’t hopelessly bleak. What’s made Vanderslice a staggeringly effective dramatist is his ability to tease out the brief moments of sunshine between the downpours. The quiet moments that feel like a gentle nudge on the back, a call to keep pushing. He had decided to call it quits after 10 records, but here he is again, releasing number 11. The only thing harder than persevering is quitting altogether. The Cedars is another step forward, a signal of radical life.

How did this record come about? Was it in fits and starts or did you sit down to write it all at once?

Ugh, it was the most fits and starts I’ve done on any record. Because of my touring schedule, making a record always feels like a scattered effort. You grab three or four days in the studio when you can. This album was tough because I hadn’t written songs in a while. I was really only writing these songs to meet the deadline for the record. I had no real interest in writing music [laughs], which is pretty wild to think about and admit. But I made 10 records and I made a decision that I didn’t want to make albums anymore. I was talked into it by the awesome label I’m on. I agreed to it and hired the people I wanted to work on it with. The label was patiently waiting for me to write, but modern fucking American life is a shit show. For me to even get a day in front of a blank piece of paper is an amazing thing. I began writing in the studio which I realized is the greatest thing ever. It’s the only place you can get separation from life. It took nine months and 54 days to finish the record. It was really non-linear. It was fun and agonizing and creative and awful.

There’s a real sonic identity to this album. Did that take shape while you were writing or once you began the actual recording process?

I stopped believing in anything more than a voice memo on my phone. The only recordings I brought to the producers, Rob Shelton and James Riotto, were voice memos, because I wanted to give them the most rope. They were totally ruthless with throwing away songs. They’d sometimes be like, ‘Man, this sucks. This has to go.’ They’re just killing your family dog. It was just so mean, but totally necessary. Most songwriters have unimpressive batting averages. I loved that they were willing to be so terse with me.

We really struggled with the sonic identity because that’s always the hardest part of a record for me. The record doesn’t really begin until you’re a third or half-way into the process. It provides a path. We threw away a lot of material. We were doing really weird drum triggering. We had drum pads with samples and triggered information that we would record live. It wasn’t really working until Rob introduced me to the Square Wave which essentially allows all the old synthesizers to play nice with the tape machine at any tempo. I would never recommend anyone fucking with this device because it’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen, but it actually freed us up. It was our weird irrational bath salts-addicted boss. It called the shots and was high as fuck but it had its own flow.

You’re leaving San Francisco after living there for many years. Did that decision play into the way this album sounds?

Absolutely. I built a business here. Tiny Telephone is in its 22nd year. That’s the reason I stayed here. I would have kept moving otherwise. My dad used to say that you can’t hit a moving target. It’s very natural for me to keep pushing on. But I stayed here to see a business through. Once you own a business it’s like murder to keep the thing sustained. This city is too rich. It feels very anti-democratic and anti-art. I couldn’t hang anymore. I started working in LA and it felt like that place was so much more my style. What San Francisco wants to be and what it was is a beautiful thing. It was a beautiful, crazy dream. It was the gayest city in America, it was the weirdest city in America, it was the birth of the free speech movement and the Black Panthers. There’s a tremendous progressive dissenting history here, but like, this is where Elizabeth Holmes from Theranos lives. This is where Mark Zuckerberg lives. I don’t know how much of that history is even valid anymore because you can’t pump in billions of dollars into such a small area and not have a warped, fucked place.

How did that nostalgia or sadness work its way into The Cedars?

I’m part of this land commune that’s really close to this area called The Cedars in West Sonoma. Of course leaving my friends here is terrible, but I know I’ll see my friends again. I go up to the land all the time. I go hiking and camping quite often. There was something about leaving Northern California and leaving this grand space that really saved my life — reconnecting with how I grew up, unsupervised and in the wild — that was a huge deal for me. I had an enormous amount of sadness leaving the Bay Area because I lose my connection with the land. L.A. is a beast. I’m gonna be down there busy as fuck all the time and I won’t have the same connection to the land down there. Leaving the studio is a sentimental overlay for the record. It feels like a goodbye blow for the studio. I’m leaving that access, something that I built myself. All of that gear I own, I won’t have access to that anymore. That feels insane to me. But it has to happen. I have to be somewhat hard about it or else I’ll never leave. The record was made while I was making all of these heavy decisions about leaving here.

Wait, you grew up in the wild?

I grew up in the Suwannee River area of Florida and Gainesville with a single mom when that was less common. She was working full-time and my brother and I were left completely to our own devices, which was fantastic. We had access to endless amounts of open space. We could really access open space, which as a seven year old, felt infinite. I could take out a small fishing boat on my own and go swimming in natural springs. I was afforded so much freedom, space, and responsibility. That has stayed with me my whole life.

The record deals with very dark lyrical themes. Are those coming from truth or fiction — or somewhere in between?

I’m a sick person [laughs]. Like most people, my core is a black hole of sadness, desire, and regret. My mom died a few years ago and before that I would have honestly said that I didn’t really have any regrets in my life. I would have said very forcefully that I had made thousands and thousands of errors, but I never had real regrets. When my mom died, these really concrete regrets started locking me into a crazy depression that I could not get out of. Part of the record is about that and part of the record is about ghosts and people disappearing. There’s a feeling of being a loner and feeling pretty isolated all of the time. But there’s also a feeling of a beautiful reunification with this partner. That’s part of this romantic potential that you’ll meet someone that changes your life and will drag you out of this darkness. I stopped believing in that Santa Claus is real sort of thing. There’s a lot of nihilism and regret on the record. I haven’t said this before, but the song “151 Rum” is probably the most autobiographical song I’ve ever written, even though it sounds like it’s from the standpoint of a retired business owner who has alienated his entire family [laughs]. Of course there are narrators and there’s surrealism, but I think it’s a fairly accurate picture of another sad white dude navigating his life.

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How long ago did your mother pass away?

Two years and one month. It really took 19 or 20 months before I didn’t want to kill myself. I felt like I was in the teeming mass of sad people who have lost loved ones. I realized how lucky I was that I never lost a son or a brother. I didn’t lose my mom when I was 10, you know? That knowledge didn’t even help because I realized I wouldn’t have survived if I lost her earlier.

Are you close with your brother?

We’re very close. He’s the only family I have. We grew up just the three of us and that’s why that family unit was so intense and important for me. My mom was my mentor and my best friend. I don’t think people have me wrong, but people think I’m very social and very connected, somewhat buoyant and happy. There is a part of me that’s like that, but there’s another part where I find it really, really hard to connect with people. I want connection. It’s not that I want to be alone, but there’s something blocking me from letting my guard down. I often just feel lonely.

That’s interesting, because you do radiate positivity and optimism. Whenever we talk, you sound very happy. Is that a defense mechanism?

It’s very, very real. When I’m at a show and J.I.D is gonna play, or DaBaby is on his bodyguard’s shoulders, I’m happy. I’m really connected to experiences and I don’t have a problem recognizing how lucky I am to be alive. I don’t have a problem enjoying myself at those beautiful peak moments. I think the comedown from those things can be really hard. I had so much fun at South By Southwest, I’ve never had a bad day on tour. But I would come back and have a two week emotional crash. There’s always a cost for me. It might mask a little bit, because you really shouldn’t wallow in sad feelings. But when I’m left to my own devices I can go to war with myself.

It’s the day-to-day that’s the grind. Why is being alive so exhausting?

We were not born for this. We were born for hunting and gathering and ranging over a large piece of land. We were meant to engage our physical bodies with the world. The second we disengage for that, we’re in peril.

Is that something you yearn to return to once you get older?

Well I’m already old. I feel like I’m almost dead [laughs]. I run all the time. That feels like a simulation of us 20,000 years ago. We’re supposed to run through parks at the very least. Fuck, if you’re connected to that stuff, it’s primal and necessary. But I also love cities! I love complicated, fucked up cities. I love the compressed experience. I can’t give that up. I can live in Tokyo without even thinking about it.

You’re a huge rap fan. What is it about the genre that you love so much right now?

It’s just better than anything else. It’s so clearly the thing. I don’t trust anyone that doesn’t like rap music. I feel sorry for people if they don’t like rap. I’ve had exhausting conversations with people where I’m trying to get them to be more open-minded — especially towards contemporary rap and fringe-y weird shit — and put in the time and effort to realize how important this is on a metaphysical level. It’s really, really important and it’s changed my life 100 times. I cannot imagine living without the lyrical and narrative innovation, the humor, and the radical experimentation that’s an everyday feature of rap music.

Do you like establishing a conceptual framework for your lyrics? Or is it pretty off-the-cuff while writing?

I really do like the former. There are songs on the record that are intentionally underwritten. “Will Call” was written in the studio and I tried to keep that as open and unattached from specific markers. The whole idea of the song is, ‘Can you stay alive? If you’re gonna stay alive you’re gonna have to start disconnecting yourself from the agonies that are right in front of you.’ With something like that, it has to be very generalized. But my favorite lyrical moments on the record were the typical, tortured words that took three months to edit. I had clear ideas going on for those and I had to pound the words into shape.

Some of the lyrical ideas that stuck out to me focused on addiction and being a bad friend. Do you get any cathartic relief from these exercises or are these things that linger past the album’s release date?

Writing songs and stating truthful positions is super cathartic. It helps me to say those things. There’s a line in “151 Rum” where the narrator says, “Kill a marriage / Snuff out your best friend.” I definitely feel like I did that [laughs]. Because I spent 22 years building a business in the arts—which is the lowest profit margin shit sector you could ever plant your flag in—I feel like there was a lot of personal damage in doing that. It was important to say it and maybe quasi-apologize for it. And I have apologized to those people.

But it’s complicated. There are so many moving parts. Yes, it’s very cathartic, because you’re owning it. I have a very complicated relationship with drugs and I talk about drugs on the record a lot because it’s a big problem for me. The line where I say, “It’s a miracle I’m not an addict / But you know me I’m still hard at it,” is something I really struggle with. I struggle with how much of a voice drugs have in my day-to-day being. Sometimes it’s troubling, and sometimes it’s not. There’s stuff on the record that I’m talking about very transparently because I want everyone to know what’s happening with me. It’s like a bleak, dark, beautiful Christmas card.

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Listen to legendary indie musician John Vanderslice’s triumphant new album, The Cedars