John Vanderslice, the entrepreneur, musician and record producer, recently expanded his Tiny Telephone Studios to the East Bay with a brand new recording facility in Oakland.
Since 1997, Tiny Telephone has thrived in San Francisco, producing albums by Death Cab for Cutie, Spoon, The Mountain Goats, and Third Eye Blind, to more recent productions by Into It/Over It and Thao and The Get Down Stay Down. In this time, owner John Vanderslice has pumped out ten records of his own, including his last album Dagger Beach, inspired by the California landscape and tortured romanticism of personal reflection, and his unique cover of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs.
Vanderslice moved from Florida to the Bay Area, where his quest was never fame. In fact, he retained instant controversy over this song, “Bill Gates Must Die.” Embodying his cynical and un-phased sentiment, he created a studio tucked away in the Mission District where history runs wild with a fervent creativity for musicians who grew up playing their parents’ vinyl, appreciating warmth of analogue recording and not giving a shit about trends.
We caught up with Vanderslice to talk about his newest studio Tiny Telephone Oakland, his inspiration behind analogue recording and his future endeavors.
Tell us more about the new studio you just opened in Oakland…
The interesting thing is that, like most things that end up being important and interesting in ones’ life, it ended up being more complicated and difficult, and less fun than I could ever imagine. Regarding funding, it’s basically that ‘story’ of an arts organization trying to get funding. If I was a person with cash, I don’t think an arts organization is what I’d be funding…I’d been asking people I barely knew to loan me money, and I was thinking they could go one way or the other and they’d be better off.
It was an intense and painful journey for a lot of people. It took about three years from top to bottom, but the last couple months when everything started adding up, it started feeling pretty different. It opened in January, and it’s like getting a three- year old out of an insane asylum.
What made you want to expand to the East Bay?
Ego disorder. Artist are a bunch of fuckers. I’m a sicko. I’m like a drug addict running a narcotics meeting. I know all the bullshit of running a studio and I have two studios (Tiny Telephone SF) that are always sold out. I’m being kind of funny about it but it’s also really sick. You can say all this stuff distracts you from your own death or meaningless of life. I’m not trying to be intentionally dark, I’m actually a smiley happy person. I just like opening shit and functioning businesses in the arts, businesses that aren’t floated by family money. That excites me. Part of it is simply ego and I have that, like a lot of people. Once the high is gone, you look to the next venture.
What inspired you to open your own studio to begin with?
I didn’t respect the other studios that were options for me when I was recording. They didn’t feel like they were creative, intelligently-designed spaces built to serve artists. First off, they didn’t have any instruments in them, or any taste. Studios tend to go down two roads; either DIY with very unreliable shit, or oddly enough they have too much money lying around, like why would they have this $11,000 microphone? Those places were often run by people who didn’t play music, play instruments or have any skin in the game. They felt like they were on the periphery. I never liked that vibe. I realized they weren’t created spaces, not only for me, but for anyone. There was nothing on the other side of the glass.
Recording studios also seem to be battling the emergence of home studios. Is this a concern for you as a studio owner?
I think home recording is the best thing ever. I remember hanging out in studios during the Tape Out Conference. There was a big studio that shut down and people were very split between home recording and whether the descending digital era was positive or not. To be without it is nothing but a boon because [home recording] gets people interested in recording. And what’s so good about a studio? There’s no super structure for anyone. For some people, their career thrives on a good engineer while others don’t need that. Art is completely sensitive. I grew up home recording, so for me when I heard studios diss home recording, it rubbed me the wrong way. If you’re gonna be a careerist, you have to have different phases of output.
There’s tons of bands I give a tour to and give me recordings and I’m like, ‘why are you leaving home?’ [Home recordings] are very stylized and reflects something unique about your weirdness and songs, and if you go into the studio it might be undermined. Some bands can’t be home recorded. We definitely send twenty percent of people back to home. Home is great, there’s nothing wrong with that. Depending on what people are doing instrumental wise, there’s a fidelity, and some people are not very good at recording themselves, but anyone who’s grown up with the internet has a huge advantage over older people.
It seems like most recording nowadays is digital, and you’ve separated yourself by using old school analogue recording…
I do think that studios that are thriving are running tape machines because you have to provide something that people do not have access to at home. Digital is like a microwave oven. It’s not complicated. Digital converters just don’t sound very good. You have to get into to very expensive digital systems that can compete with good studio tape machines. I don’t think that it’s inherently interesting. I don’t see a tape deck and start weeping, but the world totally bailed on analogue and I was standing there really happy because I bought five tape decks in a year. The general Pro Tools world is garbage, and I own three Pro Tools systems. If you think that’s going out to dinner, then you and me are not gonna get along.
What advice would you give to future producers/engineers?
The odd thing that I see is a lack of cynicism. It’s a crazy thing to say in a way. Maybe I’m just a cynical person. It’s like if someone brings in a cool old retro-as-fuck looking keyboard that has a sparkle speaker case that connects to it and has these beautiful fonts, my immediate reaction is that it looks too good and sounds like shit. I’m dialed up to be cynical at all times, like do these things that are completely fetishized have any value at all? Like players that are technically good are gonna be a benefit to a record, but how come those whose fingers are technically bad can’t be exceptional? There’s a strength in limitability. When I see people that can thrive, every single question they have has a squinty eyed cynical starting point. You can’t be a downer or mentally ill about it, but people ask me all the time and this is what I see very rarely; an intelligent and overarching cynicism.
Where do you see the world of recording going in the next five years?
I think it’s pretty great already. People have access to a lot of different options. There’s been a real resurgence in indie studios in every city. There are good affordable cool options with people running tape machines in Portland, Seattle, LA, San Luis Obispo, Sacramento…there’s studios out there that have hit that middle road. It’s a great time to be in recording. There are so many fucking bands and cool creative people. Once you can stabilize your studio, it feels like a good place to be. I don’t think there will ever be a shortage of people who are creative.
You haven’t personally put out any music since 2013’s Dagger Beach and Diamond Dog’s records. Do you have anything in the works?
No, and it feels awesome. I’m definitely taking a break and it feels incredible. I’ve said to myself that I wasn’t gonna write music while building the Oakland studio. I wanted to find a different space and once the studio was done I started producing records full time because I was super broke, but I’m super happy doing it. Early next year I might wanna make another record, but I’m right in the middle of the new Samantha Crain record. I’m doing the Bombadil record and maybe four more after the year. It feels amazing to be involved in someone’s album and respect the artist and not have to go on tour, and running the three studios have chained my day to day life and It’s a little more complicated. I’m also involved in some other crazy shit that I can’t talk about now.