John Vanderslice had been playing music for several years, first as a member of MK Ultra and then as a solo artist, but his career didn’t really take off until he set up camp in a San Francisco rehearsal space and started talking bands into letting him record them. He called the studio Tiny Telephone, filled it with vintage recording equipment, and before long was making first-class recordings. The studio’s popularity took off quickly, both with arty acts like Deerhoof and major-league indie rock stars like Death Cab for Cutie (who have recorded two albums there). Death Cab guitarist Chris Walla, who doubles as a record producer, has gone so far as to call Tiny Telephone the fifth member of his band. While studios are closing right and left these days, Tiny Telephone recently celebrated its tenth anniversary.
But rather than settle comfortably into his mixing desk chair and give up the stage, Vanderslice continued his solo career and kept getting better. His 2005 album Pixel Revolt proved to be his breakthrough, gaining him international acclaim. In addition to showcasing his recording skills, it displayed his knack for writing lyrics that touched on weighty issues (terrorism, political paranoia) through the personal narratives of fictional characters. “Trance Manual” appears to be the last thoughts of a journalist before he’s killed by a bombing in Iraq.
Vanderslice’s latest, Romanian Names, continues in a similar vein, but it’s much less heavy-hearted than Pixel Revolt and 2007’s Emerald City. The lyrics, more impressionistic than ever, are filled with imagery from nature: forests, horses, swimming, stars. Even a song titled “Hard Times” conjures pleasant memories of a summer vacation.
JOHN VANDERSLICE: The Casbah, Tuesday, June 30, 8 p.m. 619-232-4355. $12.