Thursday, June 18, 2009

John Vanderslice and The Tallest Man on Earth, June 14, 2009

John Vanderslice In Studio Session at WERS

1. John Vanderslice - Romanian Names
2. John Vanderslice - Forest Knolls
3. John Vanderslice - Sunken Union Boat

John Vanderslice - Fetal Horses (Live at The Empty Bottle in Chicago on 6/6/09)(right click save link as)

The Tallest Man on Earth - King of Spain (Live at Union Music in New York on 6/14/09) (right click save link as)
(courtesy of hooves on the turf)

John Vanderslice took a seat next to me on a sill beneath the large, glossy windows facing the bustle of Tremont Street as his band finished packing up their gear in the studio. His brown hair was disheveled from the headphones and his pale blue eyes gazed intently as if I were an old friend. He had about ten minutes before they were officially late to sound check for their show that night at the Middle East Downstairs. Their tour with The Tallest Man on Earth was in support of the newly released Romanian Names. Vanderslice told me his plans for after the gig, “Tonight we’re driving to Cape Cod and staying at Matthias’ parent’s house.” He said, “We’re sleeping on the beach, having dinner at three in the morning and then driving to D. C. It’s thrilling.” His love for performing makes a hectic touring schedule suit him well. The WERS studio session and the concert gave two unique perspectives to the pithy pop enchantments of John Vanderslice.

From outside, his manager put an iPhone to the glass so Vanderslice could see the time. He was ready to leave, but I asked him another question and he crossed his legs, interested in talking about pop music. “If we want to be very general, there’s a thread running from western classical music. Shit man, you can see echoes of it in Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective,” he said. “There’s a Bacchic kind of chord that’s part of what we do and what we’ve been doing for a long time.”

The buzz Vanderslice gets from playing his songs still lingered in his gestures and voice. It’s the reason why he’d rather not explain his music, encouraging fans to listen to his records any way they can. “Isn’t that the cool thing about the Internet, is that we don’t need to sell anything anymore? If you sign up for my twitter, it’s free. I’m not obliged to say anything intelligent,” he joked. “If you do something that you really feel passionate about doing and you spend a lot of time on it, people will come.” This attitude has been working for Vanderslice so far. Romanian Names is his eighth album and he’s played and produced music at his studio, Tiny Telephone, with The Moutain Goats, Spoon, Okkervil River and Death Cab for Cutie.

When asked to compare his experience in Boston to other places, he was cautious in defining the city as he noticed that the personality of the nation is blending together. “People move around so quickly in the states now. If you’re in Boston you could see someone that you saw in LA six months ago,” he said. “So, I wouldn’t say there’s a character difference going from city to city as much anymore.” He explained that his experience depended more on the architecture of the room, the sound system and the audience. As far as Boston’s listeners go, Vanderslice feels like he fits in well. “Boston’s got a very well educated music audience, like New York,” he said. “Those are the people that I relate to, man.”

Vanderslice said he likes the energy of playing in the studio better than at a live show or on a recording. “It all happens really fast. It’s an arrangement that’s determined by their instruments. For example, I’ve never seen Jamie play upright bass,” Vanderslice said. “He’s never played any of those arrangements. Things like that make it an immediate challenge.” At WERS, John Vanderslice took the form of a five piece acoustic set. Jamie is James Riotto, who helmed the deep, meandering bass line for “Romanian Names.” It’s a song that Vanderslice explicated later at the show to be about two gymnasts who fall in love, but shouldn’t be together. Sylvain Carton relinquished his guitar duties for the session to play woodwinds and his delicate flute playing set the floral ambiance of the tryst.

The mood then shifted to the bumping chill of “Forrest Knolls,” guided by Ian Bjornstad’s spacious, booming piano. The drummer Matthias Bossi sat with only a floor tom and thumped out the skittering heartbeat of the song. This eerie aura framed the listener in a movie shot from the stalker’s point of view, watching deer through a window and from down a long hallway. Carton switched between flute and saxophone to punctuate the track. Vanderslice’s melodies for the last two tunes, “Too Much Time” and “Sunken Union Boat,” were so addictively catchy that afterwards any radio listener must’ve gone through a touch of withdrawal.

The concert that night at the Middle East had a heavier, more energetic tone. The Tallest Man on Earth’s engaging and erratic opening performance was no exception. When Vanderslice chooses a band to tour with, he wants them to be someone with whom he’s close. “We’ll never play a show without knowing who the person is, not only their music, but as people,” he said. There must be some cosmic force behind this idea, because Vanderslice has a knack for touring with artists that end up getting a lot of attention. “We choose everyone we tour with. We toured with St. Vincent, Bishop Allen, Bowerbirds, Sufjan Stevens. We might just be ahead of the curve and later people catch on,” he said. The Tallest Man on Earth’s first release Shallow Grave has already garnered a lot of favorable attention.

This lone Swedish guitarist’s finger picking was so furious you wouldn’t think he’d be able to concentrate on anything else. Kristian Matsson wandered around the whole stage the way his lyrics and sound venture without a compass through the wilderness. There was an unpredictable comedic element to his performance flowing from the enthusiastic and crazed faces he made at the crowd. During guitar interludes he walked right up to the audience and awkwardly bowed in, at times face to face, forcing them to lean back to avoid the guitar. It was a sight which always elicited laughter. Combined with the intensity of his sharp rasping voice and his possessed stage presence, his set was simply fun to watch. His set ended with the life-threatening fury of "King of Spain," a brilliant unreleased song in which Matsson yearns to dethrone Spanish royalty (and wear his "boots of Spanish leather").

Back at the studio, Vanderslice warned me that for his live show I should expect something far more aggressive. There were thrashing thunderous riffs on songs like “Fetal Horses.” They played songs off of nearly every album, including many songs from Cellar Door. The band took their usual arrangements with Sylvian Carton’s hollow body electric guiding rhythm and melodies. Ian Bjornstad manned the electronic grindstone, playing the keys of a beautiful antique Wurlitzer and a Moog synthesizer. The only thing missing from Vanderslice’s live show were the digital decorations and the flurries of female voices or layered vocals, which adds a lot of the individuality to his recordings.

Even when the band left the stage for Vanderslice’s solo acoustic, his songs still had intensity. He played “Lucifer Rising” from the tour only release Moon Colony Bloodbath, his latest EP written with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. The low lighting bathed his face in bloody colors for the cannibalistic curse in which he took the role of “John the Ripper.” Vanderslice said, “We wanted to make this song as violent as possible, but we probably could’ve taken it further,” with which the crowd agreed. Even lines about tearing through flesh seem to contain his defining optimistic ambience.

Vanderslice and his band jumped down into the middle of the crowd to play their last song acoustically around a little lamp on the floor. They got the whole crowd singing “Keep the Dream Alive” from Time Travel is Lonely. Vanderslice joked that he wanted to have a Public Enemy dance party at the end of their set, but this sadly never materialized. Instead, Vanderslice hung out at the merch table, embracing fans with blissful euphoria.

John continues to tour in support of Romanian Names around the country through October.

~Lee Stepien

Photography by Amanda Albion

Posted at on June 23rd, 2009

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