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"[Neutral Milk Hotel] really changed the way I thought about music, especially about the possibility of making a concept record that wasn't overtly intellectual or arty," Vanderslice says. "I really like a lot of Elephant 6 stuff." That affinity is hardly surprising considering that Aeroplane's producer Robert Schneider, started the collective and leads Denver-based popsters The Apples in Stereo.
Saccharine and sunshine aside, Vanderslice cut his fangs in the stinging pop quartet MK Ultra, which -- suffice it to say -- rocked circles 'round Raffi, the Apples and other fixtures in the current psychedelic-emo scene. Influenced by the Kinks, Gang of Four and heavy doses of XTC, MK Ultra saw several different Vanderslice-led lineups and issued three notable albums between 1994 and 1999: OK Computer, The Dream Is Over, and Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, all on the San Francisco-based Artichoke imprint. Falsely marketed as the score to the unrealized directorial debut of Ernest Borgnine's son, Tommy, Soundtrack also earned notoriety -- albeit much less than the Gates-baiting disc -- when several national journalists fell for the ruse; a fledgling prankster even then, Vanderslice claimed that the mixing board used for the album was purchased by a bathrobed and mumbling Brian Wilson.
Combining bright guitars, buoyant rhythms, brainy lyrics and shameless melodrama, each MK release is chock-full of poetic intrigue. Deploying truth-seeking metaphors galore, MK Ultra (dubbed after the CIA's notorious mind-controlling substance) addressed a slew of human frailties: true crime, lost love, hopeful monsters and why the songwriter's girlfriend has gams like clappers in a bell, for starters. At the time of its second release, the band held an on-air contest at Berkeley's college radio station, KALX, to find the proper name for the album. A member of the Bay Area collective Negativland (America's original "culture jammers," who wrote the gospel on media pranks with their 1998 classic, Helter Stupid) called in and suggested a clever spin on a Russian classic: Notes From the Ultraground. But as much as Vanderslice liked the idea, his fellow comrades voted it down. "That's one reason I'm not in a band anymore," he says. "It's easier being solo."
With just his shadow for company, Vanderslice stalked the missing link between MK Ultra and a more personalized approach to self-expression on Mass Suicide. His latest alb, Time Travel Is Lonely, expands upon his earlier nautical themes with something he calls (gulp) a "concept album involving melting ice caps and polar madness." Up to its fluttering eyelids in frozen displacement, "the shifting perspective is the story," Vanderslice says -- one that shifts from song to song, from Shackleton to Lee Harvey Oswald, from Tiananmen Square to McLean, Virginia. The overarching structure involves a fella named Jesse (based on the songwriter's brother, Ray) in a geological relay station in Antarctica who's monitoring code from the spy satellite Echelon; after going bonkers and abandoning his post, Jesse finds himself within earshot of a sunken Russian submarine (the Kursk), whose trapped crew members include -- you guessed it -- the 'slice.
Twelve madly scribbled letters in the liner notes correspond to each song, and everything is held together by seamless and curious interludes -- that old parlor trick that rap music taught us. The album utilizes in-house engineer John Croslin (Pavement, Spoon, Guided by Voices) and recalls dilemmas on a par with Major Tom's acoustic pleas to ground control. Dandified, seasick harpsichords flounder in the tossing foam with the occasional flair-up of symphonic reverie. Released in June, Time Travel is far more coherent than Mass Suicide and finds the songwriter's talents in full bloom. And while the album finds Vanderslice sometimes flirting with pretension and self-indulgence, he believes the payoff of a successful narrative is worth it.
"My new one is the shit," he says. "It's exactly what I had in my head and in my heart. It's the closest I've gotten in my whole life."
Besides helming his own projects, Vanderslice and Tiny Telephone -- his 1,700-square-foot romper room of analog-centric recording equipment nestled in San Francisco's Mission District -- boast a list of indie clientele that includes Beulah, Creeper Lagoon, Richard Buckner and ex-Pavement player Scott Kannberg. In addition, he runs an MP3 hub that features new, rare and unreleased music free of charge from national bands (Bright Eyes, Jeremy Enigk, Of Montreal, Spoon) as well as relative unknowns (Granfaloon Bus and Kid Dakota). An enormous open-source supporter, Vanderslice also released Time Travel (again, free) through the Internet.
"I get a minimum every month of between 5,000 and 7,000 MP3s downloaded from my site," Vanderslice says. "I know it sounds counterintuitive, but I think it sells more records because we give away the whole records. The bizarre truth is that the more people hear of different bands and of music that they like, you'll have a small percentage that go out and buy it. Besides, I'm not any poorer, because I'm streaming digital copies off my server. It doesn't deplete anything from me. I think it's a huge, huge promotional tool."
On top of all that, because Vanderslice owns a recording studio (with 10 to 15 bands passing through in any given month), he's familiar with the bank accounts of a lot of musicians. "They write me checks, and I know which ones bounce," he says. "And some of the poorest musicians are the ones signed to major labels or who are big on indie labels, because they're more reliant on their label to get them money. They don't get that much to begin with."