mxdwn sat down with experimental artist John Vanderslice to talk about his new EP John, i can’t believe civilization is still going on here in 2021! Congratulations to all of us, Love, DCB, which dropped on July 16th, 2021. Vanderslice discusses the depressing themes and background of the record, his shift in musical styles to a more electronic-inspired sound and his own mental health journey. He also explains how the EP serves as both a tribute to David Berman, a fellow musician and close friend who committed suicide and an anti-suicide pact from Vanderslice to himself. The album was also released alongside a collection of rarities from his past work in the Tiny Telephone Studio. Vanderslice breaks down all of the exciting, depressing and psychedelic events that occurred in his life since lockdown, and more specifically during the creation of this heartbreaking and one-of-a-kind EP.
mxdwn: I really appreciate you talking with me about the new EP. If you’re willing to talk about it, I was hoping you could talk a little bit about what really inspired you to create this EP as a tribute to David Berman, someone who you clearly cared a lot about?
John Vanderslice: During the early part of the lockdown, and the shelter-in-place in LA, it was the center of COVID for a couple of months in the world it was so bad here. And I don’t know, I just felt incredibly suicidal and depressed and just fucked up you know? Whatever mental health gains I had made over the past couple of years, I was just not doing well. And David killed himself, and I’ve had two other friends kill themselves and, you know, suicide is a fucking real thing man. So I don’t know, in my head I was like ‘I’ve got to do something to stay alive,’ and I think that’s why I called it an anti-suicide pact. I just think if you have a project or plan or something that puts you in touch with why you’re on this planet, you’re okay. And if you don’t have that, you’re in big trouble, and so making the EP was like a love letter to him but also definitely was a plan to keep me out of psychological trouble.
mxdwn: I was also wondering if you could talk about the specific musical process that you went through while creating this collection of tracks and how does it compare to previous projects?
JV: I think what was really unique for this one is that I wasn’t working in a studio. I own a studio in Oakland called Tiny Telephone, and I often go up there to record. Because of the pandemic, I was really just stuck in my house. I have a very small two-car garage Studio connected to my house, and it was kind of great in a way because I was forced to learn how to work alone, only to work digitally and only work with the equipment I had in that studio. So there were no collaborators, and I think it was really good for me on a lot of levels. I think that it got me really comfortable with this new studio set-up cause I had just really moved to LA, so it was very different for me. I was listening to a lot more electronic music, and also it was all synthesizers in that studio, so I was kind of just mostly working with synths and kind of doing everything on a computer really for the first time in my life. So, it was a very, very different workflow, and it was very inspiring to me, honestly.
mxdwn: So one of the stand-out tracks on the record for me is “I get a strange kind of pleasure from just hanging on.” I particularly love the way it juxtaposes its upbeat instrumental with depressing yet uplifting lyrics? I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that track specifically?
JV: That was the last song that I wrote for the record. In many ways, it was the easiest song; it was almost like a paint-by-numbers watercolor. It’s a very simple chord progression. It’s only three chords, and it doesn’t change; nothing ever changes in the song. It was like a drumbeat that was already programmed in this drum machine that I had bought from this producer in LA, so it’s his or someone programmed it into it, and it was honestly kind of amazing how good it sounds. I was just kind of scanning the presets, and it was in there, and I was like, ‘fuck, this is hooky as hell.’ I wrote something very simple; it took me a couple of weeks to finish the song, and, you know, some of the songs are really complicated and heavy, with a three-to-four months recording process just because they’re so edited. And with some of the electronic stuff, there’s no roadmap, so you don’t really know how to proceed, but that song it’s so simple and the lyrics. I think those lyrics are very funny honestly, the idea is that it’s funny that you have to limit the amount of pleasure and hope you have in your life because if you even get a taste of it, you’re going to go crazy. This is what was happening to me, like when we would move tiers here, in LA, we would go up to Orange Tier where there are fewer restrictions for mask-wearing or whatever. I would get happy, and then we would just immediately lose it again and go back to the Red Tier. Or, I would go on a date with someone, it is really hard to date; I was really fucking lonely, you know. And I’d go on a date with someone, and it was so infrequent because everyone’s so paranoid about doing shit. My emotions were yo-yoed so much more than usual. It’s really the craziest version of myself that I was witnessing.
mxdwn: So the title of the EP comes from a rediscovered postcard that you received from David. At what point did you rediscover the postcard? Did you know immediately that that was going to be the name of the record, or did that come later?
JV: I think I knew immediately, honestly. He died like two years ago, and I got more and more sad the more I thought about it. And there was something about the pandemic that it actually started really bothering me more and more, and that’s when I was kind of digging through old stuff and looking at stuff he had sent and emails. It just made me so sad; I was just like fuck man, this guy fought so hard to make art, he made such towering and singular important art, and then you just die. And it’s like, what’s the fucking point; I just had some really basic regret about the pointless aspects of being alive. I was like, this is literally for nothing you know, there is no fucking point to any of this shit. So I had to work through that, and everyone has to work through that.
mxdwn: You mentioned this earlier, but along with the new EP, you’ve also released a collection of lost songs from the Tiny Telephone studio. How does it feel to finally release all this music to the public after having been planning and waiting for a while, I’m sure?
JV: It feels super amazing to me. I’m so pumped; it was such a fun release day. That’s lived for, just putting on music; that’s all I wanted to do. It was just an amazing day for me. That’s why I’m here. I’m here to make music. I’m an entertainer; I just want to entertain people. I’m old-school. I’m like a basic bitch; I just want to stand up on stage and make people laugh and play a bunch of shows. That’s why I’m here.
mxdwn: So in the past, you’ve been known for your songwriting and lyricism, yet on this new EP, you seem to be leaning much more into the electronic field of music. Can you talk about some of the reasons behind this musical shift in your style and how it came to fruition?
JV: I think it was just taking different drugs; I started taking more MDMA. It’s pretty typical for a lot of people. I started probably smoking weed less and then taking MDMA more, and it kind of changes you. My friends and I bought a pretty big package off the dark web, and we just got into it. We were doing it every three months religiously for a while. We would have these big parties, and we would DJ the parties, my friend Taber is a killer DJ. We just got more and more down the rabbit hole with electronic music. And then, the more we would do MDMA, we would tweak the doses, we would do like 100mg, and then wait like 90 minutes and do 100mg more, and we would have these four-hour dance parties, and it’s going to change the way you feel about music. Unless you’re a dunce, and there’s no hope for you. I just wanted to hear glitchy synthesizers all the time.
mxdwn: Is this electronic-inspired style of music something that you can see yourself pursuing in future projects, or are you interested in possibly looking at other genres to explore?
JV: Oh, I think it’s kind of like it’s in my DNA now, man. I really want to kind of get more fucked up. I want to make more music that’s really something more abstract and fucked up. I just finished two new songs that are definitely way out from the stuff that I just put out. All this stuff is just based on boredom. You know, I might get bored of that and then just do something different. It all feels really fun for me.
mxdwn: That’s awesome to hear. Throughout the record, you can hear themes of enduring, perseverance, struggle and others in both the instrumentals and the lyrics. Would you say that these are key themes that you wanted the record to address?
JV: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think this sense of losing someone and the deep regret that you have for not connecting with people more. The regret that happens when someone fucking dies is crazy. The same thing happened when my mom died, it was just relentless. I had like two years where I was just in a constant state of regret and guilt. Maybe because my brain is broken, I don’t know, or maybe everyone goes through it, I’m not really sure.
mxdwn: You have also had your own battles with depression in the past, and you’ve described this record as an anti-suicide pact with yourself. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about why it was so important for you to make a sort of physical manifestation of your commitment while simultaneously paying tribute to a friend?
JV: When you make something, you’re doing work; we’re not supposed to be sitting around on unemployment waiting for a pandemic to end. We were hunting and gathering; we were fucking smashing skulls and doing some crazy shit for, you know, hundreds of thousands of years before we ended up here in this shithole place, where we’re basically making ourselves extinct. We’re not supposed to just be passive, we’re supposed to make things, and I think the cool thing about making a record, or making anything, making a quilt, having a garden, it’s a long game. It takes a long time to make a record, an EP, a song; it doesn’t matter. It takes problem-solving. You’re at the edge of what you’re capable of doing. I think if you’re going to be a good songwriter, it’s going to be extremely difficult and unpleasant for you to make songs. That’s why I go running. You know, I’m about to go running, and it’s like ninety degrees; I’m about to go running on a trail without trees because I want to be brutalized. I love the idea that I’m doing something that’s really awful feeling, but the release of it is so beautiful, and it’s good for my body.
mxdwn: That’s a really great answer. For my last question, what are some of the most important things that you would want your fans to take away from this record, perhaps those with their own mental health struggles, considering what this record has done and means to you?
JV: I think that you have to be very vigilant about your mental health. I think it’s honestly going to be the biggest job of your life; to just keep track of it and to kind of bolster your mental health. Because things go to shit really fast, and like with the pandemic, if you couple it with other personal tragedies, however small or big, you can end up in real trouble. And I don’t want to be unhappy; I’ve been unhappy. I’m a positive, very simple person. I don’t believe that unhappiness makes better art; I know it makes worse art. I know the best art I ever made in my life was when I was in a relationship, and I was in love; I was really stable. So I don’t believe any of the bullshit. I think that we’re here to be happy, and I want to be happy. So, I just think that we should all take it very seriously, where we’re at and where we’re heading with our mental health and what we want out of life.