It’s hard to imagine San Francisco without John Vanderslice.
A mainstay of the local independent music scene for decades, Vanderslice surprised many when he decided to move to Los Angeles at the start of the pandemic. By extension, its geographic transition also made the tough call to shut down Tiny Telephone Studios’ long-standing mission location.
While this is a loss for San Francisco, Vanderslice told The Chronicle he’s not taking the shutdown (the Oakland location remains in business) too hard.
âI’m not going to cry (over) an inanimate object like a recording studio,â he said. âIt’s just not important. Humans are important. Our loved ones are important because when you lose them you may never get well again. “
For Vanderslice, the death of his mother almost five years ago began a period in which, he said, “I basically gave up wanting to live.”
âWhen it happened to me, I really didn’t want to be alive for a while,â he continued. “Then David (Berman) committed suicide, and it was actually like a date.”
The death of Berman, the famous singer-songwriter of the band Silver Jews, in 2019 struck Vanderslice especially as the two had shared a fruitful and intimate correspondence dating back 15 years.
But standing on the precipice of what seemed like his darkest moment, he made what he has since called “an anti-suicide pact between John Vanderslice and John Vanderslice”.
With the rent for Tiny Telephone space in San Francisco becoming untenable, Vanderslice took the arrival of the pandemic in March 2020 as a sign to change locations and try an entirely new location. âI think it’s good that your neural pathways are shifting and resetting,â he said, âto start a wildfire in your brain where patterns are broken and things are completely new to you. “
The result is Vanderslice’s latest EP, available via Bandcamp starting Friday, July 16, named after a note Berman once sent him: “Can’t believe civilization is still going here in 2021!” Congratulations to all of us, Love, DCB. Positioned as a love letter to the deceased artist, the music here takes the form of abstract and kaleidoscopic synth compositions.
Given Tiny Telephone’s reputation as a sanctuary for hi-analog recordings, Vanderslice’s current stringing of repeating synth and rhythm loops offers a stark contrast to his earlier work. In part, this sound is the result of the studio in which Vanderslice says he spent much of the past year working indoors.
âI was lucky,â he says. âThe house I had here in LA has a recording studio in the backyard. It was the home of my friend John Congleton.
Known for their work with St. Vincent and Angel Olsen, the Congleton studio provided a highly functional recording space for Vanderslice to engage in a major stylistic change.
âIt allowed me to completely reset the way I made music,â Vanderslice said. âI wasn’t in a large 3,000 square foot space with a grand piano. I was in a two-car garage with a bunch of synths.
Stuck at home during the pandemic, Vanderslice says he began to create repeating patterns of interlocking melodic lines, sometimes literally letting them run around for days on end. The music of these efforts, captured on his new EP, is dark, therapeutic and haunting at the same time.
“(John) has gotten a lot more experimental with his work recently,” noted Elizabeth Weinberg, who has been photographing Vanderslice since 2007 and recently directed the music video for “I get a weird pleasure from just hanging on” to the new EP. âThe days of the simple guitar song are over. He’s getting weird with that, and that’s awesome.
This EP is also, as Vanderslice pointed out, a tribute to a dear mentor and friend who always saw him for who he really was.
âDavid has been very generous to me,â he said. âHe sent me a lot of personal letters. A lot of people like that are narcissists. This means that they will interact with you and be present with you but, regardless, at the end of the day, you are just another mirror to them. It doesn’t mean that they don’t like you and it doesn’t mean that they don’t care about you, but in the end you are just a mirror. I didn’t feel that way with David.