John Vanderslice wants me to know he’s not a Luddite. We’re sitting on a blue couch of vague vintage in a cluster of brightly painted rooms in a warehouse in San Francisco’s Mission District, and he’s expounding on the awesomeness of computers.
“Computers are f------ fantastic,” says Vanderslice. “Everything is better now. Everything. The only thing in my world that isn’t better is recording technology.”
We’re at Tiny Telephone, the recording studio that Vanderslice, a musician and producer, started in 1997. Looking around, I can see how he might feel a need to defend his love of contemporary machines. It’s feeling pretty vintage in here.
An end table displays old machinery parts and a miniature rotary telephone. Next to that stands a beautiful pump organ that looks straight out of my great-grandmother’s drawing room. Old photographs hang in neat frame clusters, mingling with gig and vintage-propaganda posters. (A grumpy but solicitous cat named Marvin keeps trying to sit on my digital voice recorder.)
On the record
Tiny Telephone is devoted exclusively to the art of analog recording. With two rooms and a third opening off-site in Oakland next year (featuring a Neve 8068; “Arguably the greatest console ever made,” says Vanderslice), the studio has been booked solid for years, weekends and holidays included.
The studio’s client list includes neighborhood high-school bands as well as such indie-rock stalwarts as Death Cab for Cutie, the Magnetic Fields, and the Mountain Goats. Bands are drawn here by the equipment, engineers, and democratic rates, but the main selling point is Vanderslice. His particular brand of enthusiasm, perfectionism, and experience is a magnet for musicians seeking an authentic analog experience. (That, plus lots of cute cat photos.)
When Vanderslice — whom everyone just calls JV — talks, he uses a lot of similes. A well-produced guitar part is like an organic strawberry. Making a record is like making a sculpture. (“It’s the negative space thing.”) Too many recording studios are like dry-cleaning businesses: “You bring your clothes in and they’re like, ‘OK, we’ll have ’em ready on Wednesday!’” he says. “There’s no editorial pushback at all.”
In June, Vanderslice self-released two new albums: an original LP, Dagger Beach, and a limited edition cover album of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs. The albums were recorded on tape, but Vanderslice funded them the new-fashioned way: on Kickstarter. He raised almost $80,000 after asking for $18,500.
Add to the mix a sold-out tour of living-room shows last month, an active Tumblr, and a food and music festival that Tiny Telephone is cosponsoring with music Web site The Bay Bridged on July 13, and it’s clear Vanderslice is an artist who isn’t stuck romanticizing bygone eras.
At 46 years old, and 10 studio albums into his career (plus assorted rarities and remixes), he’s still in a constant state of discovery, moving freely between old and new technologies as best fits his art. And here in his studio, the computers may be f------ fantastic, but they’re not allowed to be used as recording devices.
While Vanderslice and I talk, live sound surrounds us. In an adjoining room, a musician fingerpicks a simple melody on an acoustic guitar. James Riotto, one of four full-time engineers employed at Tiny Telephone, tinkers around trying to get the new air conditioning units to work. (As with most machines, unplugging them and then plugging them back in seems to do the trick.)
The warehouse door is open to a San Francisco spring day; it’s sunny, and the sound of unseen birds chirping fills the room. Beneath the sparrows’ wall of sound are two dull roars: the wheels-on-concrete Doppler of the adjacent skate park and, quieter in the mix but much more steady, the ambient noise of the Highway 101 on-ramp, which Tiny Telephone is practically situated beneath.
The on-ramp is one of the main traffic portals for what San Franciscans generically call “Google” buses: private, chartered fleets operated by Facebook, Electronic Arts, Yahoo!, Apple, and, yes, Google that shuttle employees from San Francisco south to Silicon Valley.
The buses are ubiquitous in the city, especially in the Mission District, where I also live. To a pedestrian, it can sometimes feels like the oversized vehicles are semi-sentient: these are the new Transformers, transporting their soldiers to the front lines of the battle for our future, our economy, and, perhaps, our souls.
The week I toured Tiny Telephone, the Google I/O convention was in town. The neighborhood was swarmed with twenty-somethings in clean hooded sweatshirts eating expensive food and drinking a bit too much, many of them wearing Google Glass. This is San Francisco, now: the once and current boomtown that loves new technology.
Despite the boom, the city’s prevailing aesthetic still has a decidedly lo-fi sheen, perhaps originating from our famous Victorian houses and our streetcars. San Franciscans may love new tech, but we love things that look old. The morning I go to meet Vanderslice, I walk through the Mission from my apartment to Tiny Telephone along Valencia Street, past upscale boutiques selling vintage eyeglass frames, antique typewriters, and refinished tree stumps.
Outside a café architected to look like a warehouse, I pass a cluster of young men dressed like they’re straight off the cover of the Band’s 1969 self-titled second album, bushy beards and all. One of them awkwardly plucks a ukulele. Another wears a messenger bag made out of bicycle tube rubber and an old vinyl record.
I appreciate the style on display, but I wonder if the real aesthetic power of all these almost-obsolete objects has been lost somewhere in the transition from functional object to fashion statement. I think about the way recorded music has transitioned from being contained within tangible objects — tape, vinyl, even CDs — to existing only in ones and zeros and clouds. My epic iTunes library notwithstanding, sometimes I miss having something to hold.
Perhaps this, too, is part of the appeal of a place like Tiny Telephone: every object in the studio has a use. Vanderslice treats analog technology as a tool, not a trend. He embraces the ineffable grace of tangible culture — at home, he listens to vinyl and shoots on a film camera — but he’s also realistic about the evolving role of the object in music.
He believes one of the reasons his Kickstarter was so successful is that he offered 200-gram, limited edition vinyl pressings of his albums as rewards. “There’s a benefit to scarcity,” he says. “I wouldn’t have generated anything [on Kickstarter] if it were just digital downloads of a record.”
Vanderslice has little patience for nostalgia when it comes from people who fetishize analog recording for what he sees as the wrong reasons. “It’s almost like they want Robert Johnson to be playing on a porch into a wire recorder.” Not only would the fidelity suck, he says, but it’s not exactly a contemporary approach to making music.
Musicians and recording geeks love to argue about which is the better process for recording and mixing music: digital, in which sound is converted into ones and zeros and stored in computers, or analog, in which sound waves are converted into electric signals and stored on magnetic tape (or engraved as physical markings on vinyl).
Gearheads will happily recite track quantities in multiples of four and intone various other letter/number combinations like they’re mantras. Vanderslice can do this with the best of them, but when asked why he prefers the analog process, he keeps it simple: analog just sounds better.
“Digital audio is treading water,” he says. “To be blunt, it’s a joke. It’s not good enough. Yet.” Until digital can surpass it, the analog process is still remarkably good at recording and processing music in a way that replicates how humans actually hear music.
Jazz musician Patrick Wolff, who has recorded several albums at Tiny Telephone, believes the accuracy of digital recording is a false superlative. “A digital recording has more information — and the information is more accurate — than an analog recording,” says Wolff, “but musicians can hear the difference.” He compares the analog process to cooking. “Do you want to mass-produce a perfectly seasoned, perfectly proportioned meal, or do you want something that someone cooked for you?”
Vanderslice puts it in a more intimate way. “You know when you’re attracted to someone?” he asks. “It’s because they’re interesting, they’re confident, they’re filled with weird flaws. It’s not that they’re perfect.”
This, says Vanderslice, is the real reason why analog is better than digital: the entire methodology of the analog process pushes artists in ways that help them fully embrace their potential as performers, imperfections and all. With ProTools, bands are funneled into what Vanderslice calls an “editing black hole,” accessing and rearranging tiny aspects of their performance at random.
By comparison, laying tracks live to tape is a linear process. “When the engineer says ‘rolling,’ bands know there is literally tape rolling. There’s a red light on; they can see it through the window. They know their performance will not be randomly accessed,” he says. “And you get more nervous. You actually get more inspired. People just simply play better. It’s a kind of euphoria.”
A few days after our interview, Vanderslice performed at a loft show hosted by literary journal Radio Silence. The audience of about 75 people sat on the floor. Daniel Handler, author of the bestselling Lemony Snicket books, read a short story and then picked up his accordion to join Vanderslice and Rogue Wave drummer Patrick Spurgeon for an acoustic set.
According to Radio Silence editor Dan Stone, in order to understand Vanderslice’s oeuvre — his studio, albums, tech, all of it — it’s essential to see him perform live in a small setting. “That sort of honesty and integrity you see in his performances, you see in all his work,” says Stone.
The new record, Dagger Beach, is both expansive and intimate; Handler describes Vanderslice’s songs as “glimmers of perfection, tucked in at night.” Gear geek that he is, Vanderslice tends to partner experimental analog noises and unusual rhythms with rock song structures. But in performance, stripped of his studio tools, the more intimate aspects of his songwriting take the foreground.
As he plays, he sings out, gazing down the barrel of the mic stand into the collective eyes of the crowd; at emotional moments, he scrunches up his face. He stomps his foot or raps on his guitar to punctuate rhythm sections that aren’t there. At the party, he strummed a Gibson J45 with a capo; a couple of pedals were visible behind him, but nothing sounded un-acoustic to the audience’s ear.
As he segues into his encore, the microphone whines with feedback. Vanderslice looks visibly pained. He apologizes to the audience and jokes about it, but goes on to add that, in fact, feedback is kind of a wistful thing. “The level you had before was working,” he says. “But then you have to adjust it. And you’ve lost that level forever.”
This casual observation — the act of acknowledging the perfection of a moment but being willing to leave it behind if it holds you back— reminds me of something Vanderslice said at Tiny Telephone while I was waxing nostalgic about musical objects.
The choice to use analog or digital formats, processes, and creative experiences isn’t cut-and-dried, now versus then. At this particular moment in time, at this level, Vanderslice says, “The best we can say is that it’s really, really good to have access to both.”
Manjula Martin lives in San Francisco. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in The Virginia Quarterly Review online, Maura Magazine, Modern Farmer, SF Weekly, The Rumpus, and Post Road. She runs the blog Who Pays Writers?