When John Vanderslice reaches the end of the jetway and crosses onto his plane, that's it. Today is Sept. 7, and Vanderslice--songwriter, musician, producer and studio owner--won't return home to San Francisco until Dec. 10. In two weeks, he'll get a break, but he and his band will be busy preparing for two subsequent months of touring, including a four-week trek in Europe.
He'll separate himself for four months from his home and from his studio, Tiny Telephone, a haven for recording on analogue tape used by bands from Portastatic to Death Cab for Cutie. "This is tough for me because I worry about the studio, and I have a lot of personal commitments and obligations," Vanderslice says, standing alone in the jetway. "People forget about you when you're gone so long."
"Oh, I hate airports," he whispers, as if even that obvious sentiment would be frowned on in post-9/11 America. "There's this Homeland Security office at this airport with all of these tools looking for god knows what. It's disgusting."
That anxiety comes through in his songs, too, full of characters chronically afraid of staying put, arriving or departing. Several songs on Pixel Revolt, his latest album, unfold with characters whose lives are interrupted by 9/11. A war-zone journalist finds comfort in a foreign prostitute ("Dressed like that/ You are the flag of a dangerous nation"), and a man stranded in a collapsing tower hopes to make it out to Sarah Shu ("Screaming: 'Protection, I can make it, I can make it!'"). Other characters, each uncomfortable with life, lose love or bunnies and use it as a way to hope for new beginnings.
Vanderslice writes with a delicate, massive weight, crushing and rebuilding the spirit in turns of phrase and consuming tragedies: "I love you, too/ I'm only lonely through and through."
Traditionally, Vanderslice has been known more as a producer than a songwriter, a typecast that doesn't fit for Pixel Revolt. His subtle, detailed production (he says he recorded at least 800 hours of material for this 45-minute record) takes a backseat to his characters and rich illusions.
Hitherto, that description has been reserved for one of Vanderslice's best friends and chief collaborators on Pixel Revolt, The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, who moved to Durham last year.
"The first solo show I ever played in 2000 was opening for The Mountain Goats, and I was terrified to be on stage again. But I couldn't turn it down because it was The Noise Pop Festival, and I had been getting hopeful about music again," explains Vanderslice, whose band of seven years, MK Ultra, broke up earlier that year against his will.
Vanderslice watched Darnielle interact with Rob Crow, another California musician who was playing the festival with his band Thingy. Vanderslice liked Darnielle's wit, insight and musical knowledge. He passed Darnielle a solo demo, but he remembers feeling as if Darnielle was just being polite when he said he liked it.
"I sent him Time Travel Is Lonely, and he left me a voicemail saying that he hoped we could connect on some level," Vanderslice remembers. "It's one of the best breaks I've ever had."
Vanderslice, especially now, isn't exaggerating when he calls striking up a friendship with Darnielle a sea change. In May, The New Yorker called Darnielle one of the world's two best living lyricists, and Vanderslice refers to Darnielle--the prolific songwriter who's been releasing records as The Mountain Goats since 1993--as one of his three all-time favorite lyricists.
When Vanderslice began working on Pixel Revolt, he sent Darnielle lyrics and asked him to critique them. Vanderslice has used an editor for every record, and Darnielle agreed to oversee the new one.
"I'm very comfortable to have an editor, and your stuff only gets better. That editor can actually change the way you write. But it did make me a bit nervous ... he's a savant," says Vanderlsice. "I knew John was going to be super critical about what I was saying and how I could say it better. Sometimes they were simple, sometimes he would help write a verse."
When Vanderslice talks about Darnielle's writing, he gushes one minute and unleases a mad cackle the next. He knows every word of every Mountain Goats song ever released.
"'Your Belgian Things,' for me, is important because I played on that song, so I got to stand there on tour every night playing a guitar part and listening to the lyrics and the story and what's not being said about the narrative," he says. "There's a certain kind of baiting that John does in his lyrics that you don't get in indie rock songs."
But Darnielle is a bit more moderate in explaining his approach to Vanderslice's work: " What I do is edit: Look for rhymes I don't like, images that don't work for me, misplaced syllable stresses. Most of what I do is technical. "
Vanderslice's impact on Darnielle's work is apparent, too. Until 2002's Tallahassee, Darnielle recorded hundreds of songs on a Panasonic boom box. But he upped the ante with that record, and then--with 2004's We Shall All Be Healed--Vanderslice was on board as an engineer. The Sunset Tree, released this year on 4AD, finds Vanderslice producing The Mountain Goats and sharing cellist Erik Friedlander and Scott Solter.
"John's got that rare gift of really being able to lock into a song and make it part of himself when he's working on it," Darnielle reasons.
Well, brilliance does deserve company.
John Vanderslice plays the Cat's Cradle on Tuesday, Oct. 18 with Portastatic. The Mountain Goats are currently on tour with The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers and Bellafea.