John Vanderslice – Back From the Wilderness


Aidin Vaziri | Most musicians deal with personal tragedy by turning to alcohol, drugs or the nearest TMZ cameraman. When John Vanderslice returned from his most recent tour and found out that his wife of six years was leaving him, he went shopping for hiking shoes.

“I went through a tremendous amount of personal trauma,” he says. “It was so out of the blue, it just wrecked me. The only thing that got me through it was walking.”

Vanderslice – musician, songwriter, producer, studio owner, San Francisco indie rock institution – charted hundreds of miles in the Northern California wilderness as he coped with the shock, following the coastline through Bolinas, Point Reyes, Mendocino and on. He wasn’t messing around. The Gainesville, Fla., native set aside his usual assortment of thrift-store duds – floral shirts and corduroy trousers – for fleece and synthetic insulation.

He is wearing his hiking ensemble today, strolling through Golden Gate Park’s botanical garden. If it weren’t for his tuft of freshly dyed blue hair – for the schoolchildren on field trips, a bigger attraction than the cloud forest plants – you could easily mistake him for a docent with a rather quick gait.

As Vanderslice, 46, makes his way past the redwoods and wildflowers (“Even the places they’re not tending are amazing!”), he explains how the long walks had an unintended effect on his work.

“It changed how I approached music,” he says. “The romantic poets used to say the rhythm of walking freed up something in their minds. It absolutely happened to me.”

The music on “Dagger Beach,” his follow-up to the 2011 Magik*Magik Orchestra collaboration “White Wilderness,” certainly sounds different from the baroque pop for which he’s best known. It’s stark, a little spacey and boasts some of his most revealing lyrics. On the title track, Vanderslice sings, “I set up camp in the woods, where the trail falls off for good.” It probably wasn’t easy recording it at his Mission District studio, Tiny Telephone, where his ex-wife is still employed as the accountant.

“There were some awful days,” he acknowledges.

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