Tiny Telephone Studios is basically a functional shrine to vintage recording inside a warehouse at the end of a small Mission street. It's in the middle of the city, between Potrero Del Sol Park and the 101 freeway, but it feels isolated and slightly surreal: a labyrinth of inviting spaces filled with beloved old music machines. On a recent weekday morning, John Vanderslice, the 46-year-old indie singer-songwriter who owns the place, sits on a vintage sofa inside one of the side rooms — high blue walls covered in framed pictures, a dangling sousaphone that's been converted into a ceiling lamp — and recalls the day his heart broke.
As Vanderslice tells it, he was returning home, exhausted and uninspired, from a grueling European tour. His wife of six years, who is also the studio's accountant, picked him up from the airport. Then she announced that she was leaving him. "It was the most stunning news I've ever heard in my life," Vanderslice says, with a wincing laugh. "I had never felt like I had so little power in what happened in my life. I just — I don't know, I fell apart."
He pretty much went crazy. Vanderslice started isolating himself in the remote wilderness, despite the not-inconsiderable problem that it completely terrified him. He quit Dead Oceans, his record label, because he knew the reasonable people there wouldn't wouldn't let him release the kind of record he was making. He pared down his songwriting and obsessively trimmed his lyrics. And he gave up altogether on choruses, bridges, and pop song structures. Why? "It had to feel risky again," he says of making music and, it seems, of living life. "At some point you just want to make your own mistakes."
How John Vanderslice put himself back together is the story of Dagger Beach, an aching, beautifully imperfect bummer of a new album that comes out this week. Though it's more about his resurrection than his break-up, the emotional hangover from Vanderslice's divorce shades every portentous, pained one-liner — and there are many. He begins the album with a lyric that aptly sets the tone: "One day the paint will be stripped right off/your pretty veneer, and you can bet for sure/raw wood never looked so good," he moans, sounding naked and more than a little distracted.
Though Dagger Beach is beautifully recorded — full of the unnameable sounds and subtle distortions you'd expect of someone who owns one of the city's best recording studios — you won't find many pretty veneers in it. From the expansive orchestral pop of his last album, White Wilderness, Vanderslice has pared down to a kind of surgical folk, heavy on tweaked acoustic guitars, stuttering percussion, and ghostly vocal melodies. There are no choruses or hooks anywhere, and the order of the songs defies any easily satisfying pattern. It flows from one linear story-song to the next, with moments of harrowing revelation or stunning beauty: "Song for Dana Lok" is a bittersweet ballad on its own, but heard third in the album's sequence, it feels positively radiant.
The difficult order came by design — it's partly why Vanderslice launched a Kickstarter to fund the project. On a label, he says, "You get into email threads with five or six people, where there's a committee chiming in on sequencing and chiming in on what song should be kicked off the record or stay on the record. And that stuff's fine, but you start to get an averaging out. I wanted to make a weirder record."
By indie-pop standards, Dagger Beach is definitely weird. But all you have to do is look at the lyric sheet to know it's worth getting your head around. "Harlequin Press" is one of the album's most fully fleshed-out narratives, and the song Vanderslice brings up most in conversation — a tale of love and ambition told in just seven two-line verses. A few others, like the quietly raging "Sleep It Off," and the closing "North Coast Rep," rank among his best. Even the second-tier songs brim with great lines: "Your switchblade fell and hit the light/massacres are disguised as battles all the time."
Sometimes Vanderslice can be too vague and/or oblique for his listeners' good. You get the sense that some of these songs are inside jokes or confessionals between himself and maybe a few others, with lyrics impossible for an outsider to parse. Asked about the wordless "Song for the Landlords of Tiny Telephone," Vanderslice seems glad someone got the punchline. "That's it — it's instrumental," he says, just as his landlords have been to the studio.
So Dagger Beach is engrossing but also difficult and flawed, and Vanderslice knows that. He doesn't mind. Its primary utility was to Vanderslice himself, a bulwark against total insanity, a collection jar for the thoughts he had as he hiked for long days in the woods and tried to reassemble himself. After a handful of solo trips, walking around the woods of Northern California, Vanderslice came to love that experience, and need it. He hiked the Lost Coast. He hiked all the trails in Point Reyes. And one day, stoned and listening to Radiohead on a beach there, John Vanderslice watched the winter sun set and realized that he felt better. "I was such a pro at being alone, such a pro at being in that situation," he says. "By the end I realized that I'm probably going to break someone else's heart, or someone is going to break my heart.... And you're going to survive. You are going to find a way out of it."