Q&A: John Vanderslice on Kickstarter Success, 'Dagger Beach' and Covering David Bowie

John Vanderslice
Autumn de Wilde

The San Francisco indie rocker's crowd-sourcing campaign has earned over $50,000 in its opening days.

With over a decade of albums on indie labels such as Barsuk and Dead Oceans behind him, San Francisco musician and Tiny Telephone studio owner John Vanderslice’s next project is going D.I.Y. To release his new album, “Dagger Beach,” and an album-length cover set of David Bowie’s 1974 LP “Diamond Dogs,” he’s turned to crowd-sourcing site Kickstarter – the buzzed-about platform that made Amanda Palmer over $1 million last year. Vanderslice is a ways off that mark, but one week in, his campaign is already a success, passing $50,000—over $30,000 more than his initial goal of $18,500. He spoke to Billboard on Friday about the vinyl resurgence, getting weird with Bowie and the wisdom of crowds.

Billboard: Congratulations on the Kickstarter campaign so far. Did you expect it would blow up like this?

John Vanderslice: I was going to put it at $20,000 and I got cold feet. I thought, “Man, we’ve got to undersell this, because if we don’t get to 20 grand…” The thing is, you don’t know how much pent-up demand is out there. I haven’t been touring that much. Bands become interesting to people and then they disappear in a very weird cycle and no one knows why. There’s a little bit of voodoo in there. I’m kind of overwhelmed. I honestly thought if I could get to $30,000, it would be a huge statement about the viability of doing this without a label.

How did you promote the Kickstarter? It seems to have reached an audience quite quickly.

Twitter is the new driving force that has been really different for me. Also, when you release a record on a label, you don’t have this position of desperation. You assume that the label’s going to do tons of work for you. The whole idea is, you just make art. Honestly, it’s better if you’re responsible for every aspect of your career, because labels are busy, they have 27 other bands. What I did notice right away, when I first started sending [it] out on my email list and on Twitter, you have a heightened tone of a man who is afraid. (Laughs) It’s not that they go to the store and I will magically ship every record store in America the exact number of copies of CDs you need to purchase. Those days are over.

The most popular Kickstarter reward levels right now are $65 for both albums on vinyl and the complete package on digital. It seems like you've been able to reach your most dedicated fans.

Absolutely, which is interesting because it also coincides with what I predicted and knew would never go away: a vinyl resurgence that continues. It’s starting to eat into not only CD sales but digital sales. It may be only a few percent of the American public [that] actively buys vinyl, but those are real fans, really obsessive, and they’re the ones that show up and they buy $65, or they spend $250 on the vinyl box, which we’ve had to add inventory on three times. That to me was the most shocking thing.

When a lot of your sales are vinyl, which is expensive to produce, certainly more than a download–is that a difficult margin to have to deal with when it’s what fans want?

Oh yeah, the margins are pathetic. Listen, this story is only interesting because I’m in the arts. Imagine if we opened a clothing boutique in the Lower East Side and we had all the costs associated with that and the sales that we generated on the spring rollout of our clothing was $50,000. Dude, we’d be booted out of that space in four days. I’m not complaining. I own a recording studio where the margins are also low, but that is a much more profitable business. That’s like a real business. The margins on this art-making stuff, the miracle is that there’s a margin at all. The miracle is that you’re actually not losing your shirt making art, which is very common.

If you were to get to, say, $100,000 in mostly vinyl sales–does that put you in a difficult position?

I would say no. I would say the higher the numbers go, the better it’s going to be for me. It’s funny because I have an econ degree, this stuff is pretty easy for me to understand when I see other people’s Kickstarters, but even my friends who are inside of the artist community—they’ll email or they’ll text me, and they’ll be like, “Oh my God, dude, you’re going to get rich.” It’s like, O.K., so the record costs $25,000 to make. The margins are probably around 50%, so the average margins on anything you see, including the $7,000 EP [reward]—that’s actually about 30%, so that’s lower—you’re looking at taking away $25,000 in expenses, straight up. So then you’ve got $25,000 left over. You’re seeing what’s happening with this game.

If I could walk away with $8,000 in profit at the end, I would be a champ. I will be in my basement for the entire month of April packaging up and customizing every single one of these boxes and basically running a mini-factory. I’m not complaining but it’s definitely the least efficient business ever. (Laughs). I find it thrilling, I love it and I can’t wait to do this again but my friends are very deluded as to what the end result is.

You’ve worked with a number of indie labels, most recently Dead Oceans. What was your experience like with them that made you want to shift over to doing it yourself?

I was very lucky, I was on two extremely good labels, I was on Barsuk when Death Cab [For Cutie] was selling a million records. That was an unbelievable experience. Death Cab and Barsuk created a family and an energy that was very unusual for labels. Dead Oceans is a fantastic label. I don’t know what happened to me, but I woke up about three months and I knew that I had to start my own label. It had nothing to do with Dead Oceans, they were really respectful and really good to me the whole time I was with them. But I knew to stay inspired and make it dangerous again, I had to go and be on my own. I knew it would help me make weirder, more committed and unusual music. And nothing about Dead Oceans was holding me back, but when you’re doing stuff on your own, you’re off the reservation. I knew that I would be able to make a David Bowie cover record without asking anybody, I knew that I would be able to put out rarities stuff without asking anybody.

Is there a lesson for younger bands here, or does crowd-sourcing only work if you’re in an established position?

I think there’s tons of bands that I’ve seen who have come through Tiny Telephone who have run very successful Kickstarter campaigns. We saw Tumbleweed Wanderers, they were doing their first album and they ran that up really high. The name of the game is always touring. That’s what it was in 1967 and that’s what it is now. If bands can find a way to cheaply tour and to make their live show incredible—this is not for everyone but there are bands out there that love to stay on the road and that’s how they did it, because that’s how you’re going to directly connect to people. I’ve probably played about 1,100 shows in the past 10 years and I think that if I wouldn’t have done that, there’s no way I would be getting those kind of numbers.

You’ve said that you’d like to tour less and spend more time recording and so on. Does the success of this allow you to do that?

Well, the way I’ve always operated is that—I own Tiny Telephone recording studios in San Francisco, we’ve added a second room—I’ve insulated myself from the cyclical economics of recording and touring by owning and concentrating on the studio. I pretty much work full-time at the studio now. It’s much more difficult for me to tour. I love touring, the best moments of my life were on tour… but it started having a psychic and personal cost. I wanted to concentrate more on not only recording my own stuff but producing other bands, engineering and opening a third studio. These things start to make it where touring is impossible. And other things happen, I have two cats, I’m in love, I want to be around those creatures more. But I will tour in the fall, I think you are insane if you don’t do one U.S. tour and one EU tour every record.

So many artists are in your position of independence now—people such as Wilco or Ryan Adams or Amanda Palmer. I’m surprised we haven’t seen more collaboration, a new artist collective label that pools some of these resources.

That’s a fantastic idea, actually. I agree, why not? The thing is that it’s clearly there, people are clearly invested in this. The more Kickstarter campaigns I find, the more I get excited about what people are doing. You have a much more direct connection to the creator and that’s just going to be more inspiring. People should actually really think about a band-label-collective idea on Kickstarter, it would do very well. It could be the beginning of something really interesting.

Let’s talk about your new albums. You’re a big Bowie fan. Why cover “Diamond Dogs” in particular?

It’s kind of an outlier for him, it’s probably the height of his drugged-out, cut-and-paste ‘70s era album. Mick Ronson wasn’t on the record, it’s a real transitional album for him because he made it after “Aladdin Sane,” before he came to Philadelphia for “Young Americans.” It really was the end of the glammy, fucked-up Bowie. For me it’s like a love letter to an album that I do feel is underrated and I did feel, because it’s so weird, because it’s so surreal, we could make a completely different take on the album. My goal was to make it much weirder. I don’t know if you can take “Ziggy Stardust” or “Station to Station”—I don’t know if there’s that flexibility in the material.

Did you happen to hear his new single, "Where Are We Now"?

I did, I thought the video was fantastic. I wasn’t crazy on the production, I knew he had worked with Tony Visconti on it and it just felt a little sonically vanilla for me. I’ve thought about Bowie almost more than anyone else in my life. I’m always happy he’s putting out music but I thought it could have easily sounded better because the melody line and the singing were quite good.

To touch on “Dagger Beach,” you’ve compared it to “Cellar Door” and some of your older albums – it sounds like it’s going to be more of a studio-driven, intricate album.

Absolutely. With “Cellar Door,” many of the songs were created by putting the drummer in a room and having them play, without playing to music. And they would determine the song structure entirely. I just said [to drummer Jason Slota], "Play, you create the form," and it really prevented me from leaning on these superstructures that I know so well, that every songwriter leans on: verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. There’s nothing wrong with those things, but they’re common tropes and they put you in a system that you’re really comfortable in. Also, I really wanted to bring back some danger, some distortion, some roughness into the album, which “Cellar Door” has a lot of. We wanted “Cellar Door” to be a study in distortion. [“Dagger Beach”] is a very fussy record on one level but there’s a lot of vocal takes that are first takes. The string parts on “Song for David Berman” took like 9 hours. It’s an interesting mix of very intentional and reckless playing. “Sloppy hi-fi” was my motto forever. I really do feel like an album has to have playing that is not quite worked out yet, because then the listener is part of that experience. Things that are not 100% right, they have to correct them in their brain.

You’ve always been someone who’s willing to try new technologies and distribution methods. I remember when you did a “blog tour” with exclusive videos in 2007. Beyond Kickstarter, are there other technologies or platforms on the horizon that excite you?

That was an incredible tour. It was really the beginning for me thinking, going to people directly was so much more interesting for me. I will do one club tour in October, but the rest of the summer is devoted to personalizing all of these packages to people who were nice enough to kick in, and I’m going to do a series of house shows. They can be anywhere, the requirement is it’s not in a bar. It completely changes the relationship to you and people in the room, it’s much more conversational, and it’s much more about storytelling. Playing in clubs is great, but Christ, man, we’ve all been collectively doing that for 50 years. We can do something different.

As far as social media stuff, I know that within a year someone’s going to come out with something super-interesting for bands. I actually loved Vine when it came out, that made me want to do an 8-second song to someone. So I’m sure that story is not totally written as far as what I’ll do next, but it will have something to do with whatever someone invents in the next year, for sure.