When Phoenix New Times caught up with John Vanderslice by phone to talk about his upcoming gig at Valley Bar, he was busy responding to emails and doing what he called “the work of middle management.” He discussed how setting up sessions, collecting deposits and final payment, and running an in-demand recording studio keeps one busy, grounded, and humble.
For those unfamiliar with Vanderslice, who turns 52 in May, the longtime Bay Area-by-way-of-Florida musician and songwriter’s music is a treat for the ears and brain. His incredibly smart lyrics can put a smile on one’s face or tug on one’s heart strings, and they’re on full display on his 11th studio album, The Cedars, released on April 5 via Native Cat Recordings.
As a guitarist and keyboardist, Vanderslice is more than adequate, but where he really excels is in arranging and mixing his songs so that every instrument — no, every sound — is in the right place. If you like well-arranged indie rock with a soulfully elegant pop sensibility, you’re going to love him whether you’re in your car, at your house, or at the show.
The list of clients Vanderslice has worked with at his Tiny Telephone Studios, which has locations in San Francisco and Oakland, is impressive — The Mountain Goats, St. Vincent, Sleater-Kinney, Spoon — but he’s not just into working with big-name artists. Tiny Telephone is a studio where anyone with a band can afford to record, and Vanderslice aims to keep it that way as long as he can.
Phoenix New Times: You mentioned how doing the work of “middle management” keeps you grounded. Is it helpful to be the most grounded person in the room when you are dealing with musicians?
John Vanderslice: Yes, although I would say that there’s been a shift because it’s so brutal out there and the margins are so razor-thin that bands are often very functional. The ones that tour, you know, are making a go of doing this for a living. I would say that they’re highly functional in general. Impressively so, actually.
For this tour, will it just be you on your own or will you have a band backing you up?
I’ll have a band with me and they’re fiercely good. They’re called Meernaa, and they’re comprised of very-important-to-me session musicians and engineer producers from Tiny Telephone. They are a fantastically structured band and they’re very, very good. We just did South By Southwest together and they got tons of good reviews. They’re really good.
So, Meernaa will back you up and do their own set?
It’ll be a curated night. I’ll DJ the night and then Meernaa will play and then they’ll back me. And it’s just so fun and so interesting and we play a lot of the new record (The Cedars) and they’re just, of course, really good musicians because they do a lot of heavy lifting in the studio so they’re like a thoughtful, smart, group of people to play with it. It’ll be really fun.
Tell us a little bit about your new record.
Rob (Shelton), who plays in Meernaa ,co-produced my new record with James Riotto, and the record is very, very different from anything in my catalog because of their involvement. I gave them co-songwriting credit on everything. I think they’re geniuses.
John Vanderslice. With Meernaa. 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, at Valley Bar, 130 North Central Avenue; valleybarphx.com. Tickets are $13 via Eventbrite.