Exclusive: John Vanderslice Talks Shop


While many people know John Vanderslice from his solo work and his time with ’90s alt-rock act MK Ultra, it’s been 10 years since the indie stalwart opened his Tiny Telephone studio in San Francisco’s Mission District. The former warehouse has since birthed indie landmarks such as Beulah’s Yoko, and more recently, records by the likes of Spoon, Okkervil River, the Mountain Goats, and Death Cab For Cutie.

After the jump, we chat with Vanderslice about the merits of home recording, the disasters of a flooding studio, and the way to keep your business viable in an ever-shrinking industry.

Flavorwire: In today’s music industry, how does a recording studio manage to keep afloat?

John Vanderslice: Well… you keep prices very low, add tons of gear and pray.

FW: How much has home recording changed the game? Obviously, getting to record in a legitimate studio is one of the measures of “making it,” but will that always stay true when everyone is recording on a laptop?

JV: Home recording has helped a lot of people make great records under conditions of near-freedom. It has also taught musicians a lot about engineering and made them feel more confident in the studio. But this last part can severely compromise a studio recording.

FW: Would you say that home recording makes some musicians less willing to compromise in the studio, even if it improves their sound?

JV: A little information can be a dangerous thing. In my own experience, my recordings have come out way better when I put my faith in the engineer and concentrate on what I need to do: write, sing, and play.

FW: Which pieces of equipment do you personally think are the most important to get when you’re building your own studio?

JV: A credit card.

FW: If someone has built a passable home studio, what do they need to take it to the next level? To make it “legitimate.”

JV: If a band is making good sounding records at home, I always tell them to stay there. Some bands are destroyed by going into a big studio… others flower.

FW: When most people talk about Tiny Telephone, they’re quick to mention vintage instruments and equipment… is producing an “old sound” just a personal preference, or has something been objectively lost with more modern equipment?

JV: Vintage is a marketing gimmick, and if it didn’t work so well, we wouldn’t all use it!

FW: Have things at Tiny Telephone always run smoothly, or were there a lot of problems you sort of solved as you went along?

JV: Running a studio is a nightmare. Maybe having kids is worse, but I’m not sure about that! Imagine driving with your cell in hand through a snowstorm in the sierras, late for load-in on tour, and trying to tell an engineer what to do during a flood in the control room. But it’s also given me some of my greatest happiness as well. Ha! Wow, that did not sound honest!

FW: If Tiny Telephone were just starting today, do you think it would have been easier to get off the ground? What is the most important piece of advice you can offer to someone looking to start their own studio?

JV: I’ll answer the second question first: DO NOT do it. You are entering one of the most competitive and low-profit-margin businesses possible. If you want to make records, stay at home and turn a garage or a basement into a small, efficient recording room. If you want to run a business, <a h ref=”mailto:jv@tinytelephone.com“>email me</a> and I’ll give you 50 more rewarding things to do with your money. If it’s not a business, then keep it modest and private. If I had opened a bar in the mission 10 years ago, I’d be rich. As for the first question… I think it would be very difficult for us to start now. It seems we got in early.