“I’m a sick person,” confesses John Vanderslice.
He’s not wrong.
Vanderslice suffers from a terminal case of G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) and it’s spreading. One recording studio became two, and then two became three as Vanderslice continues to salvage and rehabilitate only the finest pieces of vintage analog recording equipment for his Tiny Telephone recording empire.
Today we’re in San Francisco, in the lower southeast corner of the Mission District, where Tiny Telephone, a ramshackle corrugated tin building sandwiched between Highway 101 and the Pacific Ocean, remains a beacon of DIY punk rock hope in a city ravaged by the raging tides of the tech boom.
Vanderslice opened Tiny Telephone in 1997 as a communal rehearsal space, but when his partners came up short on rent money, he converted the facility into a full-analog band-friendly recording studio, keeping his rates reasonable enough that even scrappy young bands working service-industry jobs between tours could afford to create high-quality, professional recordings in a relaxed creative environment.
Before long, Tiny Telephone’s discography bloomed with the blossoming west coast indie rock community, bringing to table the fruits of labor by such artists as Sleater-Kinney, St. Vincent, Death Cab For Cutie, Spoon, Deerhoof, and the Mountain Goats. But Tiny Telephone’s punk rock roots run much deeper.
Between 1974 and 1987, as the scent of patchouli began to fade from the corner of Haight and Ashbury, the building which now houses TT was home to The Farm, an urban farming and art collective which hosted legendary performances by some of the Bay Area’s best - the Dead Kennedys, Flipper, and an early iteration of Faith No More; a history not lost on Vanderslice and which informs his strict analog-only workflow.
“We enforce tape recording,” he says. “Pro Tools… [can make] the boldest, ‘fuck you’ punk band turn into the most paranoid weirdos. People get very timid very quickly. You need to encourage boldness and a certain kind of violence in recording.”
To capture the violence, he calls upon a curated array of vintage and modern equipment. Microphones by Josephson, AKG, and Coles feed preamps from Ampex and Neve on their way to a Studer 827 2” tape machine before being mixed on either a Neve 5316 or Neotek Elite console patched into an Ampex ATR-102 ½” tape machine. There is no digital conversion in the signal path and Vanderslice likes it that way.
“If you’re on a computer here, you’re doing a commercial or a voiceover, or the engineer has totally given up on you,” he says between chuckles.
Tiny Telephone’s outboard racks are stuffed with effects, but when it’s time to get hands-on during a mix, Vanderslice patches in one of the “dozens and dozens and dozens” of EarthQuaker Devices at his disposal. “I use this at least once a record, if not more,” he says, cradling a Rainbow Machine. “Oh yeah, we’re gonna have fun.”
Before we go, he treats us to an impromptu drum re-amp session where he pulls and stretches the beat through time and space as he manipulates the Rainbow Machine’s Tracking and Magic controls. And then the phone rings.
“Hello? Is anyone there? Oh, it’s a debt collector. I’ll just hang up on them. Done.”