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Indie singer-songwriter John Vanderslice talks life, death and hip-hop

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John Vanderslice hits the Bunkhouse on April 19.
Photo: Sarah Cass / Courtesy

John Vanderslice’s new album, The Cedars, marks a seismic shift in the indie singer-songwriter’s normally guitar-based aesthetic. Synthesizers and drum machines replace string instruments and standard melodies—a change sparked by Vanderslice’s love of rap music. And the themes are almost uncomfortably dark, informed by drug use and the abrupt loss of his mother—something he says sent him into a spiraling depression for the better part of two years.

But Vanderslice prevailed. Now 51, he has been cranking out albums since 1999, plus recording and producing plenty of others at his San Francisco recording studio, Tiny Telephone. The Weekly caught up with him one week before his tour launch for a candid conversation about life, death and hip-hop. Vanderslice plays the Bunkhouse Saloon on Friday, April 19.

What are you looking forward to most about hitting the road? Every tour changes you, and I feel like I’m a better person after every tour. I haven’t necessarily learned anything or processed anything, but I think the experience and the communal vibe of tour is really reparative to sick, isolated, creative people who stay at home with their cats writing songs (laughs). It just fixes you. I come back from tour and I feel like I’ve been in therapy for 10 years.

You’re moving from San Francisco to LA. What will happen to your recording studio when you leave? The studios, they’re going to be completely fine. I’ve kind of gone in and out of town for so long that I think the studios are used to having me gone. I’ve kind of learned to do what I need to do from tour or traveling, so I don’t think it matters whether I’m here as much. I am going to be producing three or four records this year, so I’ll probably be back here twice a month. There’s six full-time engineers and a studio manager.

You were going to quit recording your own music and then were encouraged to make another album. Why did you decide to make The Cedars? My mom died, and I just went super ballistic crazy, like totally off the rails. I just couldn’t find my way back. It was like a year and a half of feeling really, really unhealthy thoughts, and the only way that I found my way back is that I was kind of forced into [the] deadline of me agreeing to do a record.

There was no joy when I agreed to do the record; it literally was just like I felt pressured into it. It’s like Sleepless in Seattle when your friends are like, You need to date someone else,” and you’re like, “I have no interest in that.” Once I started getting paranoid about what the record was going to be and whether it was going to actually fly, I started writing more … and something started freeing up in my brain. When I came out of it, not only did I want to be alive, I wanted to take drugs and f*ck and I wanted to be alive times a thousand. I had never been so hotwired. I had never been so connected to life, and it totally completely changed everything.

The instrumentation on The Cedars is a lot different from your past work. How did that come about? I’ve grown to really hate guitars, and I’ve grown to really feel that the kind of very square indie-rock default setup of drums and bass and two guitars and one singer is really toxic for creativity. I am pretty into rap—the weirdest key change I’ve ever heard is in a Big K.R.I.T. song called “Energy”—over Can or Captain Beefheart.

I just hear stuff that turns me on more in rap music. I think it’s that it’s so portable and modular and fast, it doesn’t rely on cables and personnel and amplifiers and things that just drag creativity down. I tried to learn as much as I could without being a joke, without being a thief and with it being honest to my own creative expression. So that’s really why it sounds different.

John Vanderslice with Meernaa. April 19, 9 p.m., $12-$14. Bunkhouse Saloon, 702-982-1764.

Tags: Music, Bunkhouse
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Leslie Ventura is a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly and Industry Weekly. She’s picked the brains of rock stars ...

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