John Vanderslice on Covering Bowie and Why Kickstarter Is “Just As Involved As Some Labels”


Indie veteran John Vanderslice has long been a Flavorwire favorite, so our ears most definitely pricked up when we heard he was self-releasing two new albums this spring, especially since one of them is a full-length cover of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs. The albums are both financed by a Kickstarter, which hit its $18k target within days — it was sitting at $54k when we spoke to Vanderslice yesterday, with some three weeks to go. In a lengthy interview, he gave us a fascinating insight on the mechanics of Kickstarter, the ins and outs of financing an independent album in 2013, and his career as a long-term Bowie obsessive.

Why release these albums yourself, rather than through [your former label] Dead Oceans?

Well, four months ago, I woke up and I just knew. I don’t know what it was, why I was so anxious – maybe I had questions about the release schedule, I had questions about whether they would let me do this Diamond Dogs record, maybe I had questions about my future on the label, but I woke up and I knew I had to get off Dead Oceans and start my own label. There’s not a negative there for me, it’s just that I knew I had to have complete control over what I wanted to do. I’ve been on record labels for ten straight years and I’ve made ten full-length albums. I’ve probably played 1,100 shows on tour, so for me, I had to know that I was doing it on my own. And look, Dead Oceans is a phenomenal label. My friends thought I was totally insane when I broke free. They thought it was a terrible decision. And it might veer out to be a bad decision, but what matters is you have to do what you’re supposed to do.

It must have been kind of terrifying, though?

It actually made me physically ill. I do own a recording studio, so I do have a little bit more flexibility, but my flexibility is mostly to run up tabs with people who help me make records [laughs]. I had run a tab that was probably about $1,500-$1,600. And when you make a record on a label, you get a sizable advance. There’s an enormous amount of downtime, there’s about nine months where you’re just recording and not really touring… you’re not taking an income, you’re just spending money and the more ambitious you are, the more you’re going to get into debt. And then you start thinking about production costs and vinyl… I don’t know, man. It was really difficult. And the amazing thing is, I really didn’t think about doing a Kickstarter. But then, a few of my friends mentioned their Kickstarters and then I started paying attention to bands doing Kickstarters that were interesting. For me, as long as it wasn’t pure fundraising, that it actually had some utility, it was really a good option for me.

Did you follow that whole Amanda Palmer thing, how she made $1 million on Kickstarter?

Yeah, [and] I saw the whole backlash, too. I mean, I didn’t have as much of a problem with that stuff as much as other people did. I was very interested in it. The less barriers that you have between people listening to your music, and the less barriers you have between the distribution of your music, the more you control it. And I think that for me that was the lesson with Kickstarter. But it is scary, because you’re leaving a kind of a collective that’s curated your own release with other bands they’ve chosen, and it feels like you’re part of a family.

The thing is, when you go on your own, people respond in a way to your desperation, I guess [laughs].

It’s a matter of selling, I guess. Convincing people that they should invest in your record. It seems like a kind of mercenary thing to do, but also it means that you’re able to deal with your fans directly.

Yeah, and it seems to me that you really are in a much more vulnerable position, I think that that brings people closer to you.

Do you have any thoughts on Kickstarter in general as a phenomenon, the way that it has the potential to affect how people finance records?

Well, I got to say one thing, man, just from a user perspective: they’re smart motherfuckers. They contact you, they guide, in a way, because they don’t want you to fail. You’re a reflection on them and vice versa. They got in touch with me and helped me in a way that I honestly did not think was going to happen – they basically emailed me and said, “Hey, if you want to have a phone conversation with me, I can help you with some problems I see.” I sent someone at Kickstarter a preview of what I was going to post. They called me [about it], and they were incredibly insightful. I mean, of course, this is all they do. But they pointed out things that would’ve been really stupid for me to do. And also, they helped tighten up the language and the idea of what [I was] doing. They’re just really, really smart. Whatever input they gave me didn’t interfere with the content of what I was saying, but it definitely made it a lot clearer for people. In a weird way, they were involved as much as some labels that I’ve been on. They were on the phone with me.

That’s really interesting.

And I know that they do that with a lot of people. They’ll do it for anyone who wants to reach out to them.

I was going to ask if you think that they do that for everyone.

I’ve heard of many small bands who have had phone conversations with Kickstarter, and that is so useful, because you’re operating in the dark. You really have no idea how it’s going to go.

Just out of interest, do they have any kind of method of enforcing that you deliver on the rewards you promise your backers?

I guess they have to trust you on a certain level. It’s an interesting question, because I’m pretty deeply cynical. I see bands that have like 50 rewards and I know them, I’ve hung out with them backstage and watched them get completely obliterated by 11:30pm and I’m just thinking, “I love these dudes, but there’s no way they’re going to send out a thousand packages.” It’s just not going to happen. And it can’t be Kickstarter’s responsibility to micromanage the delivery of every single project. It’s just too much to ask. It’s almost like saying, “Should a label be responsible for a band making a good record?” Yeah, on a certain level they should, but many bands are just going to make a bad record.

They’re going to take the advance and drink it.

[Laughs] Yeah. And so, I mean, this is kind of crazy to say, but I think — and I’ve backed three Kickstarters — I’ve actually thought, “Are these people actually competent enough to deliver what I’m asking them?” But I do imagine that it is a problem. I mean, bands throw shows all the time, bands cancel shows.

You’ve attracted a lot more funding than you were looking for – do you know what you’re going to do with the extra cash?

Well, the way that it works is that it’s really a pre-order. The profit margin would be an untenable business for people who were actually trying to make money. I don’t want to throw out numbers because then it sounds defensive, but I think it’s very interesting. This is how these things roll: so the end tab of making the records was about $23,000. The profit margins are about 50% on everything — maybe a little bit less, but let’s be really generous and say 50%. Let’s say the Kickstarter ends at $60,000, so profit margins are 50%, so you have $30,000 worth of profit — but the album costs $23,000 to make. So all of a sudden, we have a profit of $7,000, which is completely ridiculous for like five months of work. So there’s this number on a screen, but… I mean, even my friends have been, like, “Dude! What are you going to do with all this money?” And I’m like, “There’s no money there, man.” I have to print vinyl for two records and print t-shirts and print a silkscreen and print the vinyl cases, and then you have to ship everything out…

We’ve been getting a lot of orders from Japan and Australia, and you know we’re going to lose money shipping there, because the costs we’ve [estimated] are geared toward EU shipments. All this stuff adds up. As far as Kickstarters go, it feels very successful, but I’d love for these numbers to go up [laughs]. It’s just human nature. The first three days, the numbers went up so fast… You kind of get addicted to it. I’m staying with my girlfriend now, and we were sitting in front of the computer for three days straight, watching the numbers. It was so much fun. But look, in the end, I chose to do this, and not for a second do I complain, but it’s an indication of how skintight profit margins are in the arts. And the reason why is not because people don’t appreciate art. That’s not true. It’s because everyone wants to be in the arts, and that’s amazing. I’d love to be in film. I’d love to be a cinematographer! I can’t think of a cooler job. I’d love to act. I think it’d be absolutely stunningly terrible, but that’s never stopped anyone from pursuing their dreams.

Why did you choose Diamond Dogs for the Bowie covers project?

I’m a pretty long-term Bowie obsessive [laughs]. For me, it’s really 1971 until… honestly until the end of the first side of Scary Monsters. Everything in that realm is fascinating for me, from a songwriting perspective and also from a recording and sonic perspective. I mean, he changed bands and genres like he was changing theater clothing – he did something no one did in the ’70s. He also did that with recordings, if you look at Young Americans versus the sound of Aladdin Sane versus the sound of Low, these are albums have nothing to do with each other. And there’s very, very few bands that can say that. Diamond Dogs always felt… it’s an obtuse record, it’s his most drugged-out record, the album where he took the most control: Mick Ronson was gone, Carlos Alomar wasn’t on board yet. He played all the guitar himself, he played more instruments on Diamond Dogs than on any other records. And it is also the most conceptual of all his records. It’s a halfhearted, Orwellian concept record because I guess he got sued by George Orwell’s sister or something? [Laughs] The whole story of it is goofy and amazing. I think it’s a very underrated album, actually.

How did you approach recording it?

Well, this is dangerous territory, to get too close to your heroes. I thought, “Well, we’d better make it weirder, better make it rougher, and we better modernize it,” so the first thing I did was I asked my friend who’s a fluent German speaker to kind of sing-speak the opening “Future Legends.” She’s a really beautiful singer, actually, a country/Americana singer but with a pretty authoritarian, stentorian German speaking voice, and so we changed some of the words to “Future Legends”… we wondered, “How are we going to introduce this record?” and “Are we going to cover the album like it’s a blueprint or try to just pick and choose what’s interesting?” I think it had to be sort of dismissive for it to be original enough, or it wouldn’t be enough of a diversion from the original content. So I cut out many verses, I changed the lyrics when I felt like I needed to change the lyrics, I changed the melody line quite often, some songs are, especially the bigger songs like “Diamond Dogs” and “Rebel Rebel” are completely revamped, we changed chords and structure, because otherwise if you adhere too closely to the original structure, it’s not enough of a break from brilliance. You got to burn it down. A lot of people have covered my stuff and sent me their versions of it, and the songs that I liked by far the best were the ones that were most dismissive of my own.

How would you feel about Bowie hearing the album?

That would be tremendous. He’s probably one of the top three most influential people in my life — he’s been tremendously important in the way I think about music-making and the way I think about songwriting. I have an optimistic feeling that he’d find it very interesting. It’s such a restatement of that album, and it’s loving but it’s not too loving. I think he would find it fascinating.