For more than a decade, John Vanderslice has created compelling music, first with his band, MK Ultra, then as a solo artist. Since 1997, Vanderslice has owned and operated Tiny Telephone Studio, earning the respect of notable clients and peers such as Death Cab for Cutie and Okkervil River while providing a steady revenue stream. He commonly puts out an album a year, and in the past 12 months alone, has recorded a free digital-only EP and an LP with the Magik Magik Orchestra, to be released on Jan. 25 by Dead Oceans, his new label after leaving longtime hub Barsuk.
So, what does Vanderslice do with his rare scraps of free time? Why, play Santa Claus, of course. When Three Imaginary Girls, Seattle’s venerated indie-rock enthusiasts and promoters, needed a new Santa for their Dec. 16 annual holiday concert fundraiser (more on that below), they asked Vanderslice and he enthusiastically agreed. This year’s beneficiary, Teen Feed, provides meals for homeless youth. “Columbia City Theater donated the venue, the performers are playing either for free or an extremely modest donation, and we don’t take any cut,” says TIG’s Victoria VanBruinisse. Adds TIG’s Liz Riley, “We are way too lucky and eternally grateful for Mr. JV, with his colossal amount of charm.”
You can pick up tickets here for $15. The event is 21+ and doors open at 7 p.m. Merchandise benefiting Teen Feed will be sold at the event. Donations of checks and packages of white tube socks will also be accepted.
: One of your strengths as a songwriter is your ability to empathize, to effectively tell a story through another’s eyes. Was there a defining event in your life that taught you to consider things from others’ points of view?
John Vanderslice: Well, to be honest, until a few years ago I was typically self-absorbed guy. Basically just trying to deal with the Google alerts, you know? I think that’s probably pretty standard and understandable these days. But a year ago, my wife recommended I volunteer at 826 Valencia. I help grade-school kids with their schoolwork and take them to a park, where they pelt me mercilessly with dodge balls. It changed my life. I had never really hung out with kids before. Isn’t that strange? I related with them 100 percent. It has taken a serious hold over me! Since then, I’ve been addicted to public service.
: The Three Imaginary Girls told me how thrilled they were you stepped up with little notice to play Santa at their holiday concert. What compelled you to say yes?
Vanderslice: Well, when Three Imaginary Girls calls, you best answer, “Yes.” I’m there for Three Imaginary Girls and Teen Feed! I’ll fly in that night and don my suit in the mini-van on the way to the show. Teen Feed is a tremendous charity doing necessary work so helping them has to be a good thing. John Darnielle [of the Mountain Goats] asked me a few days after I had accepted the invitation to come to Seattle. I would have done both shows either way. I feel lucky to have such good people who want to do things with me!
: Three Imaginary Girls’ annual holiday fundraiser has become a Northwest indie rock staple. He who dons the Santa costume sits for pictures all night while the official photographer snaps away and hundreds of drunk music fans adorn Santa’s lap. The Long Winters’ John Roderick, your friend and former label-mate, played Santa each previous year but has a recording conflict this time. You genuinely seem to enjoy interacting with your fans, but is part of you wondering, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”
Vanderslice: Ha! My goal is often to put myself into situations where I’m forced to ask myself that question! These are teaching moments. Man, I love Roderick. It’s bittersweet. I was really excited to spend time with him, but I’m inspired to fill the costume. I’m bulking up now with weight-gain shakes.
: You’re not quite a virgin Santa, as it were; you’ve also played Santa for your neighbors’ kids. Do you think sometimes the goofiest and simplest acts infuse the most joy into an often confusing world?
Vanderslice: Ha! It is true! I have a lot of experience in that flame-retardant synthetic suit. Oh yeah, that’s what the neighbor kids and kids at 826 Valencia teach me every week, that there is so much pleasure in acting the fool. Most of these kids are between nine and ten and it’s such a special time for them to be alive. It’s before self-consciousness sets in, the clothes and mirrors and trying to be cool.
: What charities and non-profits do you routinely support? And which do you think merit more attention than they receive?
Vanderslice: Oh, it’s tough! Once you start looking into this world, there are countless charities that are desperate for any help whatsoever. We try to keep it local: Meals On Wheels, Larkin Street and the San Francisco Homeless Prenatal Program. It is very addictive. I have Robin Hood-esque fantasies of stealing hordes of gold bars from rich Glenn Beck-ites and redistributing the wealth myself. If the government isn’t going to do it…
: Do you believe artists have a responsibility to help the suffering? Not in a messianic or cheeseball way, but the best artists have a singular gift and the ability to reach thousands. What do you like to do with this opportunity?
Vanderslice: This is a tough one. I don’t think artists necessarily have a responsibility, at least not in every phase of their career. I think there’s some wonderful work being done by incredibly self-centered people. I know because I see them in Tiny Telephone all the time! Sometimes you have to be monomaniacally focused on one thing. That being said, there are many, many part-time ways to help others. And the cliché holds: the volunteer often feels like the lucky one in the relationship.