If good art indeed comes from suffering, John Vanderslice has been having an exceptionally artistic year. Having, in his own words, ”just kind of shut down” at the end of a long-term relationship, the former MKUltra frontman, who is known in indie-pop circles for his chameleonic ability to inhabit musical characters — Vietnam vet, Internet pedophile, Guantanamo guard — nearly lost the plot on his latest project. ”I wanted to write a war record, an album that was about Iraq and Afghanistan,” he explains via phone from his San Francisco home, where he also owns and operates Tiny Telephone, an analog studio that’s played host to indie luminaries such as Spoon, Death Cab for Cutie, and the Mountain Goats. Initially, he attempted to immerse himself in the conflict’s sources and stories, and set about recording with his usual arsenal of exotic instruments: mellotron strings, Wurlitzer, cello, steel drum.
But a heart that hurts can be less than cooperative: While the just-released Pixel Revolt (Barsuk) retains several visceral, fractured portraits of war (see ”Plymouth Rock” and ”Trance Manual”), romantic loss suffuses nearly every track.
Even in the best of times, the itinerant life of a musician — constant touring, long recording hours — can be lonely and disorienting. These days, though, Vanderslice finds comfort in his studio. ”There are amazingly good people that come in all the time, it’s like a rec center,” he laughs. ”I can go there at 10 at night and it’s humming. When you do find community, it’s the best thing in the world.”