In two years, John Vanderslice and his studio, Tiny Telephone, have become unlikely focal points of the local pop-rock scene
By Mark Athitakis
Last month, Tiny Telephone studio celebrated its second anniversary. Actually, there wasn't much of a celebration -- the day pretty much came and went. In fact, the place's owner, John Vanderslice, has to consult a notebook lying on a table in the control room to recall the exact date he opened it. On the inside cover of a Tintin blank book, he's written: "Tiny Telephone studio opened 9/11/97."
The notebook is a sign-in sheet for the bands that have recorded there, filled with "typical bored musician junk," as Vanderslice puts it. "But there's some great poems in here. There's funny stories." Not to mention random doodlings, scraps of lyrics, and other creative detritus. But more interestingly, the notebook has become a sort of snapshot of the local independent rock scene of the past two years: Creeper Lagoon, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Granfaloon Bus, members of Counting Crows, Dieselhed, Beulah, and Richard Buckner, among many others, have all spent time in Tiny Telephone.
The studio itself isn't much to look at. Most studios aren't -- by definition, they're simply spaces, large enough to fit musicians, instruments, and the equipment required to record them. Vanderslice jokingly calls Tiny Telephone's location a "shantytown" -- it's nestled on a Potrero Hill side street surrounded by a variety of metal-paneled buildings. Kal Spelletech's Survival Research Laboratories is nearby, along with a body shop. Heaps of car parts, in various states of rotting and rusting, clutter the parking areas around them.
Tiny Telephone started out as a co-op rehearsal space, used by a handful of local musicians, including Vanderslice and his now-defunct power-pop band MK Ultra. As other people dropped out or moved on, he looked into converting the place into a fully functioning analog studio. Borrowing some start-up funding -- "mom money," Vanderslice jokes -- he started gathering equipment, from amps to pedals to a vintage 16-track recording deck from Hyde Street Studios that, legend has it, was once owned by Beach Boy Brian Wilson. (As it happened, the deck turned out to be a bit too vintage and unwieldy, and Vanderslice has since disposed of it; it's now in the possession of local pop-rockers/Beach Boys obsessives Oranger.) The place is riddled with keyboards of all shapes and sizes and tones: a Moog, a piano, an organ that belonged to the Mommyheads, and a Hammond organ that was worth $6,400 in 1965 which Vanderslice bought from some kid for $300.
Tiny Telephone's first year was mainly about working out the kinks of managing a 1,700-square-foot recording space, assembling the right equipment, and keeping things in order. Today, Vanderslice is griping about a band that's left a $3,500 tube microphone exposed. "Humidity," he explains, placing a plastic bag over it. Later, he'll be spraying the control room with anti-static spray. The obsession with keeping things in order is a result of two things. First is Vanderslice's knowledge that recording can be an intimidating experience. "A lot of people know that I'm in a band," he explains. "They know that I've been through the whole thing, and this place is set up for convenience.
"People go [into a studio] and they're exposed. They're spending a hell of a lot of money, and they need to feel comfortable where they are. I've been in big studios spending more money than I had."
Studios are expensive; at the high-end level fees can go up to $1,000 a day, and while record labels cover recording costs, those costs are expected to be recoupable, meaning the label plans to be paid back through royalties from the resulting album's sales. In the Bay Area, there are enough big-time studios to go around: Hyde Street, Toast, and Sausalito's Record Plant all service the Third Eye Blinds, Metallicas, and R.E.M.s of the world. But smaller, more affordable spaces aren't quite as easy to come by, and San Francisco recently lost Brilliant Studios.
The other reason Vanderslice pays close attention to goings-on around the studio is that the place is starting to become successful. "Slowly, people started hearing about us," says Vanderslice. "After a year, after we had some credits and people started hearing about us. Then people from out of town started hearing about us." For those who pay attention to names in the indie-rock world, the list of those who've recorded at Tiny Telephone is impressive, including Washington cause célèbre Death Cab for Cutie. The space has also attracted respected producers like Jawbox's and Burning Airlines' J. Robbins from Washington, D.C., Shellac's Bob Weston from Chicago, and Austin-based John Croslin, who played in the jangle-pop bands Zeitgeist and the Reivers, and produced one of Vanderslice's favorite records, Spoon's 1997 Soft Effects EP.
"The first time I heard Soft Effects I just went nuts," says Vanderslice. "I thought it was the best-sounding record I'd ever heard." Vanderslice was inspired to try to track Croslin down and sell him on the studio. He succeeded: Starting in January, Croslin moves to San Francisco and works as Vanderslice's partner and house engineer at Tiny Telephone. "I've been in Austin for 20 years, and I love it," says Croslin, "but it was time for a change." Adds Vanderslice: "Bringing Croslin in expands the opportunities to bring in the bands we want to record."
And that means bands that aren't just part of the local power-pop scene, though even a cursory glance at the groups that've recorded there -- and the resulting albums -- reflects some of the best rock and pop that's come out locally in the past year. Beulah's magnificent When Your Heartstrings Break is perhaps the most popular title, but there's also a fine string of EPs: Charmless' Nothing Nice Rhymes With Your Name and Oakland-based Bitesize's The Best of Bitesize, a 20-minute disc rife with perfect, perky harmonies and shimmering guitars -- an album so unapologetically immersed in goes-down-easy pop you don't so much listen to it as gum it.
"I'm a Beatles guy as opposed to a Nirvana guy," says Vanderslice. "I like heavy melodies and vocals. Whatever the dressing is underneath, I don't really care." Still, he doesn't describe himself as any sort of local rock patron, nor does he feel any particular need to promote Tiny Telephone, which is booked solid through the beginning of next year anyhow. His hesitation stems from his day job as a bartender. "For four years, I've been working at Chez Panisse. Their whole thing from the very beginning was just to spend an outrageous amount of money on ingredients -- their kitchen has no budget, the chef can order whatever they want without clearing it with anybody. They also decided to never advertise, and that really impacted me. I thought that's pretty brilliant. Going by reputation gives it more of an underground feeling."
But if Vanderslice is more a hard-core fan than a patron, he's also working to get the word out about the bands he loves. This week, he launched an MP3 site at Tiny Telephone's home page (www.tinytelephone.com) featuring songs from bands both local (Granfaloon Bus, Chantigs, Mommyheads, MK Ultra) and national (Spoon, Sunny Day Real Estate's Jeremy Enigk). Despite much of the ongoing debate about the usefulness of MP3 files, Vanderslice stands his ground. "It's really in their [the bands'] best interest to give away their songs for free," he says. "I just think if things are available for free that your audience is much, much larger, and people are willing to take a chance to listen." All of the postings are done with the musicians' permission and input. "It's important to allow them to really understand what I'm doing, that this is a fan page," he says. "I have a visceral love for this music."
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