- Posted on Mar 4th 2011 5:30PM by Arielle Castillo
Autumn de Wilde
His latest, 'White Wilderness,' is a collaboration with the Magik*Magik Orchestra. The ensemble's lush, dramatic strings have cast Vanderslice's songs in a whole a new light, and the singer says the partnership will yield at least another album. In a recent interview with Spinner, he looked ahead to performing at SXSW and explained how, in order to become a career musician, he had to overcome a disastrous high school talent-show experience.
How did you first start playing music?
Growing up in Florida, my mom kind of forced me into taking piano lessons when I was young. That was really the first time I thought about music as entertainment. When I was nine, my babysitter, whom I had a huge crush on, brought over 'Quadrophenia' by the Who. I'd associate that record with this unknowable and tremendously awesome girl.
I asked her to explain what was happening in the music. You know, the first time you hear a multi-track rock record when you're a kid, it doesn't make sense. There is so much going on and some of those songs are like suites, where they're very long and complicated. It felt like she was inside a really appealing musical universe, and so I guess that was really like the beginning of it for me.
Then when I was in sixth grade, they had an elective in my public school to take guitar lessons. You could learn any guitar solos, and that's where I was first exposed to classic rock, like the Zombies, the Allman Brothers and Creedence Clearwater Revival. That's a huge thing when you're 11 years old. I look back now and it's stunning to me that that was a course offered in public school.
You eventually moved to Washington, D.C. Did you have much contact with the scene there?
I did, and there was much more of a music culture. There were those Dischord bands, like Minor Threat and a really intense punk scene. Though some of those guys actually went to my high school, I was kind of a nerd. I was totally into Yes, Genesis and King Crimson. Punk seemed very dangerous, and I probably thought I'd be punched out if I went to one of those shows. Things were so much more stratified then.
I did play in one band called the Id, and I remember we played one show at another high school's talent show. I guess we didn't have the courage to play one at our own school, so we played the song 'Echoes' by Pink Floyd, which I think was like 21 minutes long. I'm sure we just butchered it to hell.
I remember very, very clearly -- I will never forget this -- when I was leaving the stage, I put my guitar and all my pedals and cords into my guitar case. I picked it up and hadn't clasped the case, so everything fell out on the stage. For whatever reason, there was no music on and it was totally quiet, and the people in the audience laughed. I mean, it's hilarious, right? I would be laughing, too.
But it was, like, five years before I played music again. I was devastated. I couldn't get over it.
How did you eventually get back into performing?
When I got out of college, at first, I really wanted to be a public school English teacher. I moved to California and I was living with my girlfriend out here. I went to two years at Berkley, because I was really thinking that I needed a masters to each in the California school system.
Then in my second year, I started playing in a band with friends from high school who had moved out here. The first time I played live, it was amazing. I was hooked. It changed everything. I really dropped everything at that point. I finished out that semester at Berkley and then went into music full time.
There was no looking back. Financially, it can be very treacherous. I was a waiter for about 10 years, so I was really subsidizing everything I was doing. Then slowly I started the studio in 1997, and after about the seventh year, it started to become profitable, which made everything easier.
After the break-up of your band MK Ultra, why did you decide to play solo under your own name instead of starting another band?
Honestly, I had a huge list of band names and in no way wanted to play under my own name. I just couldn't think of it in time, and then got asked to play Noise Pop, which is a local San Francisco festival. The only reason I thought that it would be okay is it's such an odd name, and it's my real name.
For an artist like you who has enjoyed a pretty long career and released a lot of records, what is the appeal of continuing to perform at SXSW?
It's one of the most tremendous things you can do as a performer. We're playing six shows in four days, so in just the intensity, it's almost like a triathlon or something. It's insanely anxiety-producing. You have to sound-check in 10 minutes, and then you have to change your set while onstage because of certain parameters or problems with the gear or PA. It's a fantastic challenge, and we're playing some amazing shows. You get to meet bands and play with bands you love. It's much more fluid than just going on tour.
Catch John Vanderslice's SXSW Set on Wednesday, March 16 at Red 7 Patio (611 E 7th St.) 10:35PM.
Keep Austin Weird: Fun Things to Do at SXSW | SXSW Survival Guide: Advice, Tips and Tricks From Artists | SXSW Road Trip Guide | Top 100 Bands at SXSW 2011
Latest SXSW News | All Things SXSW