From his start as lyricist and leader of rank and file indie rockers MK Ultra, John Vanderslice emerged to become one of the genre’s most inspiring figures as the century turned — thanks to his literate, sharply appointed solo albums and his work as owner of San Francisco’s Tiny Telephone Studio, where he shepherded some of the indie scene’s key figures.
After a childhood spent mainly in Florida and Maryland, Vanderslice made his way to the West Coast, where MK Ultra was synthesized from the basic parts of a band called Cylinder. The self-titled, self-released debut isn’t fully formed, but many of Vanderslice’s key elements already bob at the forefront of the 15-track collection’s indie rock intentions — chiefly, his keening, high register vocals and clean, chiming rhythm guitar. There is an edgy political undercurrent (in “John Dean,” “Post Office Bomb” and others) — but it’s the dizzying melody and disconnected snatches of short-story-quality narrative of “Birds Don’t Know the Names of Notes” that highlights a record that only occasionally rises from the dime-a-dozen mid-’90s indie rock swamp.
The debut’s lineup disbanded six months after its release and Vanderslice brought in bassist Jon Merker, drummer Matt Torrey and guitarist Jordan Newhouse for Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. The songs weren’t, of course, for an actual film, but that didn’t stop the admitted movie freak from inventing a back story and other ephemera for it, the first glimpse at a penchant for publicity-hoax-dabbling. The music takes the sonic seeds of the debut and begins to grow them outward, reaching beyond guitar-bass-drums: “Serbian Folk Song” mixes helicopter sounds effects and Pixies-style crunch, while “Billy Dale Hunt” twitches on overlapped vocal tricks and whooshing electronic accents and several tracks of poetry set to swirling acoustic strumming. “Letting Go” is a suicide-tale whose chorus contains what might be a MK Ultra-lyrical-summation: “There’s a sweetness in the worst things.” In terms of youthful enthusiasm and sonic discovery, it’s the band’s best.
The Dream Is Over arrived around the time the group logged its first serious road time — playing shows supporting Original Motion Picture and with emo-heroes Sunny Day Real Estate — and as Vanderslice had begun to build Tiny Telephone. Recorded there in separate stints, the disc bore the darker, heavier rock imprint of a touring band (and shared elements with Sunny Day’s twin-guitar emo-prog-gloom). There are moments of acoustic introspection (the title track) and some churning pop songs (especially things like “Red Cross” on the record’s second half) that lighten the mood, but it’s not hard to hear a band that had painted itself into a corner and would soon break up. (Vanderslice, a strong proponent of file sharing, made the entire MK Ultra catalog available as free downloads from his website.)
Working under his own name on Mass Suicide Occult Figurines (a title nod to Neutral Milk Hotel), Vanderslice ascended to new levels of artistic achievement and media exposure. The latter was mainly the result of a chunky rocker called “Bill Gates Must Die,” which (so says Vanderslice) caused Microsoft to (among other things) sue him and bug his phone (which they didn’t). But the hoax (including a cease and desist letter crafted by Vanderslice from a bogus ‘Soft exec) did get him media exposure. The former was the result of the album’s intriguing sonic surfaces. There are a few final MK Ultra scraps mixed in, but it’s the keyboard-driven indie pop that sticks to the ribs. From the “ba-ba-ba”s of the lead “Confusion Boats” to the bedroom balladry of “Ambition” and the heart- arrow “Gruesome Details” there are countless creative touches that make the fussed-over production sparkle like broken glass catching sunlight. That all eleven tracks are shot through with a sensibility that contains serious Rundgren and Bowie knowledge just makes it more unique.
Time Travel Is Lonely is a loosely themed concept recording (something tied together by the letters of a sibling in Antarctica); with Tiny Telephone as his personal plaything, Vanderslice managed to conjure his deepest sonic seabed yet. For MK Ultra, he collaborated on lyrics with writer/editor Amanda Yskamp; this is poetry and pure Raymond Carver territory. “Little Boy Lost” and “My Old Flame” are adapted from William Blake and Robert Lowell, respectively, and “Gainesville, Fla” sums it up with “I was born in a summer storm / Grass was cold but the sky was warm / And so I hover now in between the slight sliver where life can breathe.” Around ambient electronic smears (including three “interludes” that string-swirl with classical gas) muscular percussion precisely placed and a swarm of gurgling guitars and keyboards, Vanderslice upped the indie pop ante again.
By the time of Life and Death of an American Fourtracker, Vanderslice (and co-sonic-conspirator Scott Solter) had coined a term for his swirling sound: “sloppy hifi.” And though the central figure in another loose concept record (the title says it all) could never have gotten the deep textures and full drum sounds captured on “Underneath the Leaves,” a fierce indie spirit and truly beautiful sonic landscape make this Vanderslice’s best work. “Me and My 424” is the key statement, a home- recording wail into the night sky (“You can ask the 424 / For guidance and for help…It’s not really four tracks / You can add and subtract / Unlimited the sky above you and / Me and my 424”). But “The Mansion,” “Fiend in a Cloud” (again from Blake) and the monumentally great “From Out Here” (surely one of the best summer-night boardwalk songs in decades) aren’t far behind, thrumming and buzzing in evocative grace on a record that is a inspiring statement for indie rockers everywhere.
Cellar Door, which brought Vanderslice full circle, is a deep and dark disc that abandons concept to wrap themes echoed from his MK Ultra days in the most mature, haunting melodies of his career. With the same vague and menacing political undertone of the old days, Cellar Door features “Pale Horse,” an anarchy vision with words from Shelley; “Heated Pool and Bar,” a modern-day US soldier vamp; and “Up Above the Sea,” a sharp bite of slowly creeping suburban weirdness. Even better are the Kubrick-like disconnect of the underwater- sounding “Lunar Landscapes,” “When It Hits My Blood” (a thrilling drug-addict meditation), “My Family Tree” (with a gorgeous, Rufus Wainwright-like chorus) and the superlatively melodic “Promising Actress.” Pairing vividly literary lyrics with his most minimal musical arrangements (Solter gets full credit as collaborator), Vanderslice balances chamber arrangements (piano, keyboards and acoustic guitars dominate) and sparklingly direct soundscapes to produce a stark, multilayered gem.
In early 2004, Vanderslice self-released the limited- edition MGM Endings, a 12-track collection of remixed Cellar Door tracks and other session tidbits whirled with a deep-soundtrack blur.