"Turner Classic Movies is the font of all life," San Francisco singer/songwriter John Vanderslice says.
The old films comfort him late night after late night. He's also heavily influenced by classic prose and poetry, fictional and not-so-fictional tales of fantastical places and unforgettable adventures. All of which, amazingly, find their way into his music.
The lyrics of "Pale Horse," the opening song on Vanderslice's latest album, "Cellar Door," are adapted from Percy Bysshe Shelley's "The Mask of Anarchy," which was in turn inspired by 1819's Peterloo Massacre. (Look it up.) It's a heavy start, but not heavy-handed, because Vanderslice always tells his jarring stories with glorious, soothing melodies.
Vanderslice is a multifaceted fella, with interests that don't logically overlap, like a girl at Old Navy reading "The Believer." But the reality of complex individuals -- and their internal contradictions --is always cooler and stranger than even classic fiction.
"I absolutely think it's weirder when things are real, when they really happen," Vanderslice says. "Things have to fall into place within the laws of physics and human interaction. That's more interesting than making up something."
As for the music itself, it splits the difference between the Kinks and Grandaddy. Vanderslice is simultaneously grounded and lost in space -- or at least his characters are. Listen closely -- or don't. It's cool either way.
Consider the song "Up Above the Sea," in which Vanderslice sings the following lyric: "Every day, the bluebird comes down and stares at me for hours," a line so pretty that the first time I heard it I wanted to go buy another bird feeder. The song, though, concludes with the narrator losing his shit, buying a rifle and blasting the bird into feathery bits. I love animals more than anybody I know, but I love this song too. As for Vanderslice: "That song, to me, and to just me, is about Saddam Hussein."
Glad I asked.