John Vanderslice is all smiles. On a small stage at the rear of Seattle's Easy Street Records, he grins as he plows through a solo acoustic set for the gathered throng leaning against the CD racks and used-vinyl bins, bobbing their heads to songs from the San Franciscan's terrific-sounding, phenomenally affecting fifth full-length, Pixel Revolt (Barsuk). After the performance, he eagerly shakes hands and jokes around with each fan in the autograph queue. Later, a dozen fans in the parking lot won't let him leave just yet, so he hops on a car roof and beams as he strums his four-track-recording ode, "Me and My 424," under the darkening evening sky.
In one sense, his demeanor is entirely expected: The 38-year-old artist and producer has a well-deserved reputation as one of the nicest, friendliest, most down-to-earth musicians in all of indie popdom. Yet a spin through Pixel Revolt reveals some of his most unsettling songs to date, and it's a bit shocking to see him look so cheerful in its aftermath. Sure, Vanderslice is known for dark, vivid, fictional narratives lodged inside thick, melodic layers of guitars, synths, live and mechanical drumming, horns, vibraphone, and loads of other studio bells and whistles (literally); his stories frequently address mortality, familial strife, political waywardness, and societal dysfunction. The first half of Revolt is packed with such melodrama: A coalition soldier takes a fatal bullet during his first foray into Iraq ("Plymouth Rock"); an anti-American militant questions his commitment to the cause ("Exodus Damage"); a homicide detective suspects one of his three fellow cops is a serial killer ("Continuation").
The record's second half, though, seems to turn more personal and a lot more disturbing. There's the Hold on, hold on refrain of the ominously titled "Farewell Transmission." There's "Dead Slate Pacific," a quasi-love song to a therapist who has prescribed the narrator the antidepressant Celexa, in which Vanderslice achingly croons The only thing standing between me and that long rope over a carpenter's beam was you. Finally, consider the snail's-paced, strings-laced instrumental elegy "The Golden Gate" -- in his Revolt "user's guide" at JohnVanderslice.com, John notes that "Almost everyone jumps from the eastern side of the bridge, facing the lights of San Francisco."
Granted, one shouldn't assume these moments are any less a figment of Vanderslice's imagination than his more fanciful narratives, but they're still enough to make you ask the guy, "Uhh, are you okay?"
"I am now," he chuckles shortly after the Easy Street appearance, "but I was in a wormhole of suffering and I could not get out."
Confirming that Pixel Revolt contains the most nakedly autobiographical songs he has ever written, Vanderslice explains that his troubles began in 2004, not long after the release of his critically acclaimed Cellar Door. Burnt out from the most touring he'd ever done for one album, stressed about the follow-up, and severely bummed about breaking up with his longtime girlfriend, he found all of those miseries converging to create an even more dire state of mind.
"I was a little afraid of what I was gonna do," he admits. "I was having these unhealthy, supremely morbid thoughts, and I'm already a morbid guy, so if I can shock myself, then that's really something! And [Mountain Goats leader] John Darnielle, who I was working on new material with at the time, was like, 'Man, I'm really worried about you.' When friends who are as crazy as you are are worried about you, that's a sign."
And so, as he eloquently describes in "Dead Slate Pacific," Vanderslice went to a therapist and got on Celexa. "I don't romanticize being depressed or psychologically disturbed," he notes. "I don't think there's anything to be gained by it. A lot of songwriters feed off of it, but for me, I'm much more creative and productive when I'm happy and stable."
Still, as he continued the steady process of crafting Pixel Revolt's lyrics with the help of Darnielle (who "edited, expanded, and improved upon" them, as Vanderslice writes in the album's liner notes), Vanderslice found his mental state worsening. The situation only intensified as he commenced recording sessions at his renowned Tiny Telephone studio down in SF's Mission District, joined by longtime collaborator Scott Solter and a host of other musicians.
"I went to look for a Christmas gift for my mom down at San Francisco [Shopping] Centre, and it was like there were waterfalls of data and these garbled sounds that were choking my cerebellum," Vanderslice recalls. "It was like a bad acid trip, and I hadn't been out of my house much or in that intense of an environment in a while, and I was thinking, Am I getting crazier or is this drug producing this effect? So I just thought, Man, I gotta get off this shit."
Unlike the fate of some of his fictional characters, this story has a happy ending: Vanderslice switched to another antidepressant that helped steady his moods. To conquer his burgeoning stage fright, he played guitar with the Mountain Goats on a handful of spring dates, a pressure-free environment among friends that helped tremendously. By this past summer, he concludes, he was completely off meds and pretty much back to his happy old self. "Now that I look back on it, I see it as a storm system that moves in, maybe does some damage, and then passes, and you have to look at it as a natural part of being alive," he says. "That's how I get through it without being afraid for the future."
Which is why you'll see him smile, even after he sings "Dead Slate Pacific."
"One of the regrets I had when I finished the record was that I felt there's some songs on it I'm never gonna wanna play live, because it's gonna dredge all that shit up," Vanderslice admits. "But the thing that happens is that when you feel better, you get a little self-assured in the sense that, 'You know what, I'm on stable ground again,' and if you can't embrace all the crap you went through and aren't able to face it on some level, then this is not living. You can't be afraid. This really happened, you wrote this, and this is the truth."
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