Even when someone else sings a John Vanderslice song, it's not hard to hear his songwriting traits. With an almost cinematic flair, the bleached-blond singer writes vivid first-person songs that blur the line between storytelling and impressionism with a novelist's eye for detail and a poet's ear for precise, forceful word choice. His intricately detailed lyrics serve as a counterpoint to atmospheric, ambient songs, some of which owe as much to electronic music as they do rock & roll.
"Up Above the Sea," from Vanderslice's 2004 album Cellar Door, introduces a narrator just as the bluebird of happiness is haunting him with an eerie persistence that Poe would appreciate. By the time Vanderslice sings of buying a rifle "with a Bushnell scope" under a relentless, jarring synthesizer riff, it's clear that the listener is in the hands of a songwriter willing to blow away expectations of what qualifies as a singable lyric. (The bluebird doesn't fare well, either.)
Just as he subverts expectations in his songs, Vanderslice has built his reputation on challenging the accepted notions of authorship and ownership in music. This philosophy has guided many of the singer's actions over the past few years, from authorizing free downloads of live concerts to, just recently, offering a remix of 2005's contemplative Pixel Revolt, in which producer Scott Solter completely deconstructs and disembowels Vanderslice's songs.
Solter strips away most of Vanderslice's vocals, and by demolishing the structures of songs, he crafts an alternate-reality version of the album. Perhaps most radically, for his current tour Vanderslice has undertaken the risky proposition of turning the microphone over to his fans, inviting untrained singers to belt out Vanderslice originals. For the singer, it serves as a means of breaking down the structure of the concert-going experience.
"There's a very standard, conservative approach to playing music live there are variables, and what you try to do when you're playing is try to limit the variables as much as you can. Otherwise it becomes a little too stressful," says Vanderslice, who turns 40 this year. For this tour, Vanderslice is touring with drummer and keyboardist Dave Douglas, and utilizing a more stripped-down approach than he is used to. He explains that on past tours, with four or five members onstage, the band had a tendency to play a scripted, precise concert that, while musically satisfying, built a wall between the singer and his fans.
"It precludes talking to the audience at certain points, of letting things happen it's rigid," he says. "If you're nervous about playing live, it's kind of comforting, but I guess I'm more comfortable playing and Dave has taught me to be looser and a little bit more free onstage."
Certainly the most obvious sign of this onstage freedom is the live-band karaoke aspect of this tour, something that adds a dimension of invigorating uncertainty into the concert, for both the professional and amateur musicians on the stage.
"When we bring people up now, it's pretty new to me, but it's fantastic what it does it literally grinds the show to a halt," Vanderslice says. "Like someone comes up there and they may have a question about how to start, and you just have a conversation with them on the stage. I think it's amazing."
While concertgoers can expect to hear Vanderslice (or a random audience member) sing well-loved songs such as "Letter to the East Coast" at this week's concert, they can also expect to find him test-driving new songs from his forthcoming album. Describing the disc as "created and arranged by my band" and having finally settled on a permanent lineup, Vanderslice plans to tour with this band in celebration of the album's August release. He has yet to pick a title for the new record, something he says he's waiting to do until someone forces him to: "I try not to decide anything creatively until I have to, because there's so much knowledge that you get just by doing nothing and waiting."
His first solo album, Mass Suicide Occult Figurines, takes its title from a line in Neutral Milk Hotel's "Song Against Sex," while Cellar Door comes from the refrain of the Mountain Goats' "The House That Dripped Blood." He is not above looking again to outside sources when it comes to christening his new album.
"I would happily plagiarize everything I'm doing just to save energy and time, if I could," he says, laughing. "I'm not really hung up on authorship at all. I gave up on all that stuff a long time ago, and I think that's a good thing. I think people are so hung up and kind of a little bit full of themselves about what they make and what it's worth."
His belief in a kind of open-source authorship and his lack of ego when it comes to other people's treatment of his songs has led to some fruitful collaborations. Despite his own prowess as a songwriter, for Pixel Revolt Vanderslice called on the talents another singular songwriter, John Darnielle, who records as the Mountain Goats. Darnielle was called in for what Vanderslice calls "workshopping," and with his typical humility, he describes the process.
"He was extremely respectful of what I was trying to get at," Vanderslice says of Darnielle. "Only a couple times did he tell me to tear something down and only a couple times did he do serious renovations on the structure of the lyrics. He was very, very good at getting me to just do very clean and simple cuts on stuff and to tell me when to be clearer. He would suggest some verses and lines that are some of the best lyrics in the batch."
In particular, Darnielle lent his skills to "Trance Manual," perhaps the most beautiful and convoluted song on Revolt. (Darnielle was responsible for the line "wear your aqua mirabilis dotted on your pulse points," a line that Vanderslice refers to as "unbelievable.") In the song, an American reporter embedded in Iraq gives a series of serpentine instructions to an Iraqi prostitute, past armed guards and barricades and into the bowels of a Holiday Inn's sub-basement.
"The idea there is that the directions are convoluted our place in Iraq is so fucked up and so misplaced that to find the American presence in Iraq is like a bizarre series of contradicting and confusing directions," he says. "I loved [that] the whole setup of the song was just getting to that guy's office." And while Darnielle was responsible for suggesting the sexual-solicitation-as-political-occupation metaphor, Vanderslice still found a way for the track to double as a love song: "Dressed like that, you are a flag of a dangerous nation/Dressed just like that, you are some kind of declaration."
If Vanderslice's fans have come to expect the unexpected from his songs, the singer has tried to avoid letting himself be burdened by the expectations of his crowd. In a sense, by offering the fans the chance to live out the fantasy of being lead singer for a song, Vanderslice is getting what he wants: an unpredictable show in which the barrier between singer and audience has vanished.
"I don't want to sound selfish, but I guess I'm really only interested in what I'm interested in, because if I was too paralyzed by what I thought people wanted then we definitely would be more boring," Vanderslice says. "We're willing to have someone completely ruin a song, or completely outdo me."
The open-mic aspect of this tour may be a thrill for Vanderslice, but what about the audience? How do they feel about some yokel flubbing the lines to the late-summer wistfulness of "June July"? When asked if people have complained to him about the guest singers, Vanderslice offers a glimpse into the dark territory of his fans' psyches.
"I'm sure people think that, but I'm sure people think everything," he says. "I'm sure there's someone in out the audience thinking 'Man, I would love to sodomize that guy,' you know? I'm sure that people are thinking, like, 'I would love to burn these guys' van to the ground,' and I'm sure someone else is like, 'I wanna move next door to that guy and stalk him forever.' You have to be open and honest about the multitude of people's thoughts."