In the internet era — when musicians can instantly inspire or connect with contemporaries across continents and oceans — identifying a particular scene, aesthetic, or sound within a limited geographic area has turned into a fruitless cause. Williamsburg, 2003, ain’t coming back.
That’s particularly true of San Francisco, a transient city for all types, but especially for cash-strapped musicians. The last decade has seen a revolving door of band arrivals and departures, making it impossible to keep track of who’s actually “local.” But if anyone could be considered an institution in San Francisco — however aspirational or totemistic that title sounds — it would be John Vanderslice.
Vanderslice has always been a reliable presence at record release parties or benefit shows, amiably chatting up anyone who crossed his path or who bought him a drink. He’s played contributing roles on a slew of local records and mentored numerous young artists. Most importantly, he helmed the controls of Tiny Telephone, a recording studio in the Mission District that acted as the beating heart of the city’s creative community.
Nationally lauded groups like Sleater-Kinney, Spoon, the Mountain Goats and Death Cab for Cutie have recorded albums at Tiny Telephone. The studio has also acted as a sanctuary for countless up-and-coming bands who’ve taken advantage of the facility’s historically affordable prices.
However, earlier this year, as part of the ongoing Greek tragedy that is 2020, Vanderslice announced that Tiny Telephone would be closing down, and that he would be moving to Los Angeles. Instead of railing against the sky-high prices that eventually drove him out of town, or launching into a screed about San Francisco’s long standing lack of financial support for artists, Vanderslice is looking back on his time in the city as a blessing.
“It was very sad to dismantle that studio, but in another way, it felt very great,” Vanderslice says. “I could look back with so much gratitude that we had survived 22 years in San Francisco. Obviously, it’s bittersweet, but in the end, I just feel incredibly lucky to be a part of this thing.”
While San Francisco mourns the loss of one of its own, Vanderslice is adjusting nicely to his new confines in sunny Los Angeles (“I’m a Florida kid originally, so it’s normal for me to walk around with my shirt and shoes off.”) He has a studio right in his backyard, and he’s taken advantage of that — along with all the unexpected free time brought on by the pandemic — to record a new five-song EP, titled in onomatopoeic fashion, Eeeeeeeep. (Vanderslice described the pronunciation of the title as the “sound you make in your brain to yourself, once you realize that the shelter-in-place and the coronavirus are actually here for a while. Like, oh shit.”)
As expected for someone who has owned a studio for 22 years, the EP is adventurous and innovative, with plenty of tracking and overdubs, strange sonic manipulations and rich synth infusions. Vanderslice has always favored contrasting elements in his songwriting — haunting guitars sitting atop layers of fuzzy electronica — but on this five-song set, he fully embraces the digital world of the studio.
“I had this real unique opportunity to just fucking go for it,” Vanderslice says. “The studio is not some commercial rented lease, it’s just part of my house, so I didn’t have any of that pressure of monetizing shit. I could just go back there and mess around for like 20 minutes or four hours, without having the guilt to like, hire session players. I was like sampling all these keyboards and just generally doing some pretty weird shit.”
The songs on Eeeeeeeep (that’s eight e’s for anyone counting) have a languid, liquidy feel. They are warm and languorous, slow-moving, and torpid, reflecting the ennui of quarantine and the humidity of a late Los Angeles afternoon. In a span of just five songs, Vanderslice runs through a gamut of styles, from experimental intelligent dance music (“Song for Leopold”), to Massive Attack-inspired trip-hop (“Team Stammer Savior Machine”) to fuzz folk tunes a la Neutral Milk Hotel (“Lure Mice Condemn Erase”—a single he is debuting today.)
It’s a deeply experiential record at a time when people need to escape the realities of the today to fall headlong into a different world inhabited only by music.
“I think it’s pretty rad to have these kind of headphones records right now,” said Vanderslice. “We have a lot of private time right now, and albums that transport you can give you a kind of peace.”
For the most part, the songs’ blanketed atmospheres evoke a soothing, warm feel, although the album closer “Song for Jaime,” is a lamenting number, where Vanderslice sings about “living in the Black Lodge,” a reference to the evil incarnate place in Twin Peaks.
Those elements of comfort and alienation are an apt reflection of Vanderslice’s emotional headspace at the moment. While he says he’s excited to have easy access to a new studio and he enjoys the warm weather L.A. has to offer, he also desperately misses the connection of real, face-to-face conversations and communal gatherings.
“It’s been a crazy roller coaster ride,” he says. “I’ve had these deeply intense, transformative healing moments, but at the same time, it’s been a mental health shit show. My whole life is playing music, and I’m a very social person in general. So, I’ve definitely had these moments of feeling lonely and isolated. It’s just a reminder of how important the music community is to me.”
In recent years, there has been a mass exodus of artists leaving San Francisco for the cheaper, more expansive confines of Los Angeles, so Vanderslice has a nice community of ex-pats to congregate with in Southern California. Still, he says he misses plenty of things in San Francisco, including Golden Gate Park, the proximity of Point Reyes, and, most importantly, the pals he left behind.
He won’t be a complete stranger to the Bay Area, however. Miraculously, the Tiny Telephone outpost in Oakland still survives, and Vanderslice says he’ll be checking in on that studio about once a month. The rest of the time he’ll leave it in the hands of the trusted engineers and technicians who are manning the facility in his absence.
In the interim, Vanderslice continues to prep the release of his EP, which will be rolled out on August 21, while looking back fondly on the times spent at Tiny Telephone.
When asked about some of his most memorable moments in the studio, Vanderslice didn’t immediately cite genre-defining albums like Death Cab For Cutie’s Transatlanticism, or other indie rock masterpieces. Instead, he focused on an uplifting, inspirational encounter with an anonymous elderly man.
“We had this one guy come in who was like 92 years old,” Vanderslice recalls. “And he told me, ‘I’ve only got a couple of years left, so I want to record my entire output on your grand piano.’ I was like, ‘fuck yeah! That’s what we are here for.’”
Old or young, established or emerging, John Vanderslice was always there to support San Francisco musicians. We are not going to see another one like him anytime soon.