Big space for small bands at Tiny Telephone

“There may be a little of a fascist inside of me.”

John Vanderslice doesn’t beat around the bush. A musician and record producer with 10 full-length albums released under his own name and engineering fingerprints on countless others, he is also the owner of Tiny Telephone Recording, an analog recording studio with locations in both San Francisco and Oakland.

Opened in the Mission in 1997 (with the North Oakland location following in 2011), the two studios have seen more than their fair share of notable independent artists cutting tracks. The Mountain Goats, Death Cab for Cutie, Spoon, Magnetic Fields, Bob Mould, Sleater-Kinney, Explosions in the Sky — the rotating roster is a who’s who of important musicians to the independent music scene over the past two decades and beyond. Vanderslice believes the success of his studio since opening is in no small part due to the way he interacts with the groups that come to play.

“The process is so incredibly complicated when you’re recording to get from what you hear when you’re in your room to a fully recorded version it’s as far from blocking out a scene in your living room to a finished film,” Vanderslice explains to me. “It’s so far removed from the intent of the artists, that if (the engineers) are not translators that are super, super good at what they’re doing, it will be absolutely shit.”

Circling back to the assessment of his inner fascist (“Or at least an autocrat”), Vanderslice believes that “if you look at something under a microscope you change it, and that happens in the studio every day.” Instead of resisting these changes that come from moving the music out of the practice room and into the studio, he wanted to create a space to be able to turn it into a productive feature.

“I became fascinated with harnessing that chaotic power that happens,” Vanderslice goes on. “If you’re going to have it anyway, why don’t you build a place with people and instruments and gear where you can actually take that chaos and use it for good.”

Enter Tiny Telephone Recording. At the end of our interview, Vanderslice invited me to drop by the Oakland studio while a band was coming in to record. The studio itself reflects the environment he’s trying to foster: comfortable, clean, with enough gorgeous gear to make anyone who’s ever plugged in a microphone weep. A wall-to-ceiling bookshelf dominates one side of the room, stocked with everything from music theory books, novels, more vintage gear and of course, a beautiful turquoise rotary phone.

The studio is remarkably open; while space is available to isolate a member of the band if necessary while recording, the rest of the studio puts everyone right next to each other. The high ceilings help create a spacious but intimate feel inside of the room. “This room is incredibly live,” a woman who was also taking a tour of the studio mentioned when she walked through.

In recording terms, the flip side of this would be a dead space — a sound-dampened, clean room-esque vibe you may have experienced if you’ve ever walked into another studio. This dichotomy speaks to what Vanderslice is trying to create with the artists who come to the studio.

His involvement and willingness to critique and engage with the bands creates what he believes is a far more honest product. As opposed to “being very unconscious about the process, where [the band] really thinks they’re putting up microphones and whatever the band’s playing is what’s going to happen on the other side of the glass,” as Vanderslice describes.

Vanderslice’s desire for creating good music comes from a lovingly selfish place: “To be blunt, I wanted to be able to boss around bands. John Ford and Preston Sturgess, they didn’t make their films by being passive agents. There’s actors, there’s cinematographers, there’s scriptwriters. I’d get a record back that I wasn’t involved in mastering and I’d be like ‘Man, this record fucking sucks.’ It just bummed me out.”

So how does Vanderslice’s self-proclaimed fascist recording ideology mesh with creating a comfortable space for bands to translate what they came with into what they want to leave with?

“I’m being a little bit funny because if you read an interview with someone and they’re not funny, you stop reading,” he laughs to himself. “Half the time, I’m like, ‘holy shit this is some practiced shit.’ But really, the context of all this stuff is that of course if we don’t do it in a diplomatic and philosophically super kosher way, we would have been shut down twelve years ago.”

Again, John Vanderslice doesn’t beat around the bush: “My trick is to be very, very honest with people and say exactly what I’m saying to you to them. I’m 100 percent comfortable being direct with people and saying it with a smile.”

Having a track record as a solo artist and producer to back it up doesn’t hurt either. “Things are going to change and the next level is we need to monitor whether those changes are aesthetically valuable to us and if they’re not, we need to be ready to make extreme decisions about what we’re going to do. You have to have cultural credibility to enforce those changes or even suggest them.”

The end result is a studio that turns its head at caution and timid studio sessions. “It’s not about carefulness,” Vanderslice notes. “I’ll tell bands, ‘This song is so drab, if we don’t throw a grenade in this acoustic guitar right now, we’re done for.’ ”

Honesty, for Vanderslice, has translated effectively as a business model as well. “Most studios I had recorded in basically just wanted to keep the lights on. They were absolutely terrified of saying anything that would get a band not to confirm and pay for days,” he recounts. “I don’t care if bands come here, I want them to be happy. But I do know it’s incredibly valuable to have a studio that has a clear aesthetic vision that you can react to.”

That aesthetic attracts bands both big and small from all over the area. But not too big.

“Any kind of hierarchy bums me out,” Vanderslice says. “We tend to shy away from booking bands that are really big, because they show up with three managers and fax machines and they’re just a drag. Those bands don’t need us! They get comped studio time all over the place. We’re more after working class bands within the fabric of a music community.”

After all, despite the control he openly admits to enjoying as the studio owner, he’s far from recognizing that if something isn’t broken to not fix it.

“Sometimes you get a band that’s fully realized, and they’re just really fucking smart. You don’t go to tUnEyArDs or Deerhoof and tell them what to do,” Vanderslice says. “But if … you don’t have an honest conversation about the basic ingredients of where you’re starting, then you as a producer are a rat. And you suck.”

For Vanderslice, sometimes that means looking at the ingredients in a different way altogether.

“I don’t give a fuck about pitch,” he admits. “I care about commitment to performance. Morrisey is sharp all day long, no one cares.”

All these factors culminate in a studio that wants to create great things with local bands and beyond in a mutually beneficial way between artist and producer. “If you don’t keep analog recording accessible to working class bands, you’re just going to get a bunch of idiot clients in,” Vanderslice says.

When I mentioned how unique that sentiment seemed to be in the music industry today, he simply replied, “I’m a weird dude, man.”

In this case, weird works.

Contact Timothy Schoepp at [email protected].