Click the icon above to view the article. Click continue reading below for text-only version.
Anyone who spent their formative years in Florida accepts that a childhood spent here is unlike being raised on any other terrain. Raised in Gainesville, indie songwriter John Vanderslice is part of our state’s kids club, and although he moved to Maryland at 11, his ties to the south of the South supersede any connection he’s felt elsewhere, even his beloved current home in California.
“I’m a product of the South and I’m a product of Northern Florida, and that has made me in some ways – it might be an illusion, it might not be true – but it makes me feel a little bit different and maybe a little bit more unique,” Vanderslice says. “I do think it matters where you grew up. I grew up outside.
I grew up in the sun, outside, in Suwannee River, in the Atlantic Ocean, with a family that has been living in Florida since the beginning of time. That stuff, really, it’s part of your biology.”
Which is why Vanderslice is always sure to make it back here on his tours. His most recent album, Dagger Beach, is definitely inspired by California’s open spaces, though. But its pivotal track, “Song for David Berman,” discovers its haunted sadness not on any landscape, but in connecting with the somewhat recently retired Silver Jews frontman.
“I was really, really impacted by him leaving music,” Vanderslice says. “I don’t know why, but it really got me. It felt necessary, and it felt certainly rational, but it shook me in a way where you think, ‘Oh, this is temporal.’ Your favorite people definitely can make a decision to never play another show again, to never make a record again.”
Dagger Beach is Vanderslice’s ninth album, and his fans know him to be a tireless tour-driven musician, but he admits that after playing more than 1,000 shows, perhaps it’s time that he slowed down, too. Berman’s dismissal of music resulted in a somber epiphany for Vanderslice, a longtime fan of Berman’s who says he offered a model for the kind of songs Vanderslice wanted to create.
Check out this limited batch of event tickets, featuring tour photos Vanderslice took over the past decade.
“I just started aggregating all of these thoughts and feelings and images that I had of him, and it felt like the world was unfair and bullying to artists,” Vanderslice says. “To me and to everyone. And so I just wanted to write kind of a surrealist love letter. It’s a song of mourning about him withdrawing from music, which was a huge deal for me. He was kind of a guidepost as to how to make very personal and meaningful narrative records.”
Although Dagger Beach definitely continues that tradition, Vanderslice challenged himself structurally by relinquishing control at the start of the composing process to percussionist Jason Slota, who began the writing alone in a room, playing to a click track. The resulting illogical tempos created a new struggle for Vanderslice, an otherwise seasoned songwriter.
“There’s some time things that happen in ‘Song for David Berman’ that are very irrational, and it took me a long time to write around that into a song, and that’s why I think that song builds in such an unusual way,” Vanderslice says. “It’s because [Slota] was really road-mapping it. If I would’ve written that song, it would’ve been more square.”
A seeming glutton for punishing music experiments, Vanderslice wrapped Dagger Beach and immediately turned to reinterpreting songs from a different muse, David Bowie. On John Vanderslice Plays Diamond Dogs, Vanderslice assembled a band to record his version of the Bowie album in full. He did so in a total time crunch, as it was expensive and his bandmates had conflicting, busy schedules.
“We wanted the record to be very, very loose and somewhat reckless,” Vanderslice says, adding that he will be performing songs from Diamond Dogs on this tour, despite the difficulty of doing so live. “And it could’ve gone the wrong way. It could’ve been sloppy. But I’m really happy with that record.”
For Vanderslice’s Orlando show, there’s the potential for a similar sort of sparkling magic to what David Bowie achieved by theatrically reimagining George Orwell’s 1984 in a post-apocalyptic world on the second half of Diamond Dogs. With impromptu collaborations between Vanderslice and local musicians from the Pauses and Moon Jelly in the unique setting of the Acre, the only way show organizer Dave Plotkin could kick this up more is by inviting fire-eaters and acrobats.
Oh wait, he did. Fun Dipped Productions will add circus antics to the night in the outdoor venue that will likely be a compelling reminder to Vanderslice why he still considers our freak state of Florida to be his true home.
“I do really feel like I’m a product of Florida,” Vanderslice says. “Central/North Florida was everything to me. I moved to suburban Maryland after that, which does not have the same impact as far as landscape, as far as culture, as far as a geographical intensity. It just did not. I later really appreciated how much Florida had impacted me.”