Hoax, Lies and Audiotape

John Vanderslice is an excellent musician and songwriter. He's also a pretty good prankster.

"I started getting freaks from around the country contacting me," he says. "And all around the world." Most of these e-mails were "Fuck Bill Gate$"-toned letters of support. Others were steeped in conspiracy theories, offering sincere explanations for, among other things, the actual unclassified satellite relays that Vanderslice took off the Web and made available through his site. (For instance, in response to an unidentified female voice reciting things like "three . . . seven . . . Romeo . . . alpha . . . etc.," one expert suggested, "They're probably alphabet letter military codes" rather than "the local neighborhood spy.")

Several deluded romantics also attempted to include themselves in Vanderslice's fleeting moment in the spotlight. "Maybe u can put me and my cousin's name in the song . . . That'll be cool! . . . We are hackers and love to destroy Windows systems," wrote a pair of virus-jugglers who go by the cybernyms of Circuit Breaker and Antimicro. A 14-year-old named Emily from Clearwater, Florida, took Vanderslice to task before indulging in a bit of self-promotion: "Bill Gates is a great man," she wrote. "What have you ever done?? I don't know why you think you can say the things you do, you should be soooo ashamed. If you meet him, tell him about me. I like to ride horses and . . ."

The constant attention turned Vanderslice into something of a mainlining publicity junkie -- one who needed to dream up new lies to cover the old ones.

"I'd not seen myself in quotes very much at that time [mid-hoax, late December of 1999]," he admits. "Now it's kind of old hat. But before -- it's like a drug! It's absolutely addicting -- to see not only your own words, but your own fantasy."

At the end of a three-week binge, reporter Jeff Stark of the SF Weekly (New Times' sister paper in the Bay Area) finally exposed Vanderslice -- a relative act of mercy, by all accounts.

"It was so exhausting," Vanderslice says. "It's like that story about those Vermont kids who killed the two professors, and when the cops asked one of them when he was born, he said, 'May 40th.' He was so scattered. He was basically insane, you know, from running from the cops. I felt like I was on the lam. I had made up so many lies. I couldn't really handle it any longer."

Yet rather than face extradition to Gates Manor (or worse), Vanderslice enjoyed a brief taste of notoriety while earning himself a reputation as a culture-jamming prankster -- and a resourceful one at that.

"At the time, I didn't have a label," he says, "and in a way, I was like a male animal of the species trying to get a courtesan. I needed to do something that would get me a little visibility."

Mission accomplished. In the end, 19 separate media outlets had run articles and mentions about the hoax, including Entertainment Weekly, The Stranger, The Rocket, Pitch Weekly, the New York Post and several Web 'zines. Spin and Wired both killed scheduled stories in production (a lengthy one on Wired's part that involved three separate interviews) after editors at both magazines learned that everything was a big joke. Acknowledging that the jig was finally up, Vanderslice even posted "settlement decrees" on his Web site; according to these pronouncements, Microsoft (who never contacted him even once despite all his baiting) had demanded he change the song's title to "Bill Gates Could Die."

Best of all, Seattle's Barsuk Records -- one of the current jewels in the indie crown -- saw fit to sign Vanderslice to a multi-record deal when the charade was over. "They're [Barsuk] begging me not to even talk about it anymore," Vanderslice says. "They don't want me to be known as just some hoaxster."

Judging from the talent displayed during non-Gates-threatening tunes, Barsuk can relax if they think that their new acquisition's media antics might overshadow his music. With sly humor and sincerity, Vanderslice proves himself an exceptionally talented songwriter. Using simple piano melodies, distorted guitars and ambient backgrounds, he crafts intricate and memorable tunes that often cut to the bone with brutal irony or charm the pants off a bad relationship. He filters a Beat writer's knack for automatic inspiration through an analog aesthetic and -- naturally enough -- cranks 'em out.

"I work very fast, and it's done in a way that I'm getting close to my first impressions musically," Vanderslice says. "There's an incredible amount of inspired thought that goes nowhere because it's not captured. It's so easy to overwork and to overthink."

Instead of relying on a bank of 10,000 samples, Vanderslice sticks to a palette of primary colors: the holy trinity of melody, production and, above all, lyrics. "That's what you hang your hat on," he says. "If you're not singing about anything or have a story to tell, what's the point? I don't need hardcore poetic invention. I just want to hear a story. That's why I listen to a lot of rap."

As much as he marvels at the linguistic gymnastics of artists such as Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Talib Kweli, Vanderslice leans even harder toward the weird, homemade sound of Elephant 6-style recordings when structuring his own creations. An admittedly "monstrous Neutral Milk Hotel fan," he cites the band as a major influence. (Vanderslice got the title for his solo debut, Mass Suicide Occult Figurines, from Jeff Mangum and company's 1998 The Aeroplane Over the Sea.)

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