John Vanderslice to Open Tiny Telephone Recording Studio in Oakland

John Vanderslice’s new location of Tiny Telephone studio puts the analog back into recording.


Bogen Rp2 Tube Amp

Courtesy of Tiny Telephone

Back in olden times, like before the Internet or even cell phones, a little connector called a Tiny Telephone was used in telephone switchboards. They were the metal prongs that operators plugged into holes to connect calls.

Singer, songwriter, producer, and recording studio owner John Vanderslice liked the name so much he chose it for his three recording studios, one of which will open in Oakland in July. It’s a perfect name for his life’s work, creating a successful future by looking back at the past. Or, rather, listening to it.

“I just thought it was a killer name, so odd and weird,” said the 37-year-old sound fanatic who recorded 20 albums for other people last year and has released 10 of his own since 2000. “I thought it was like a strange, abstract kind of name that actually refers to something that was used every day, so I like that.”

Tiny Telephone uses vintage guitars from the 1950s, amplifiers from the 1960s, and those monstrous machines thought to be the opposite of the modern digital era—tape recorders—to bring the old feel of vintage rock ’n’ roll to modern recording artists. Journalists have written about his sound and attention to sonic detail in Wired magazine, the SF Bay Guardian, and The New Yorker.

Vanderslice scouts the world for what’s left of the great, old equipment because, he says, no one is making it as good now. “All the geniuses are in tech; they’re not in music. I mean, they’re not in gear creation. Those days are long gone. But we are booked every single day, and our focus is on analog.”

His clients include a who’s who of independent sound artists such as Bob Mould, John Doe, Sleater-Kinney, Thao Nguyen, Death Cab for Cutie, Samantha Crain, and Spoon. Critics might say the one thing such disparate artists have in common is a “low-fi,” rootsy sound. Their records have the earthy authenticity of a passenger train chugging all night through the plains of the heartland, compared to say, the flashy, loud, Blue Angel stunt jet music of Katy Perry.

“I was influenced by the late-1960s recordings,” Vanderslice said. “The Zombies, The Who, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. That’s what I was obsessed with when I was 12. The fidelity of those albums was really good.”

But a decade later engineers came up with a faster way to record using digital equipment that transferred sound into the 1’s and 0’s of computer programs. It was certainly easier than having to back up tape and record over and over again—or God forbid— to hack away at delicate acetate with a razorblade to edit. But as with so many advancements, plenty of musicians thought the new technology erased the soul and artistry of the old records.

“Running a digital studio is a completely pointless endeavor,” Vanderslice said. “Everyone can run one at home now.”

Vanderslice opened his first studio in San Francisco in 1997, while working as a waiter at Chez Panisse, where he learned the importance of attention to detail. It was geared toward working-class bands that couldn’t afford the $2,000 a day big studios charged. Entry to Tiny Telephone, which is located on residential San Bruno Avenue, 100 yards away from a skate park, was only $100 a day. Today, with the building’s two studios booked four months in advance, the rates range from $275 to $375, and he buys the best of the old pianos, recorders, mixing boards and amplifiers.

The new Oakland location is in the Longfellow neighborhood, which at 3,000 square feet is bigger than the other two studios combined.

“Oakland is absolutely the future of arts in the Bay Area,” said the native of Gainesville, Fla., who moved West in 1990 to follow a girlfriend. “There is no doubt in my mind that’s the only place where the arts can like live and be oxygenated and flourish and breathe. I live in San Francisco, and this place feels like you’re one step away from Pebble Beach now. It’s some crazy shit, man. That’s just not what you need to have a healthy arts community. It’s really kind of sick, actually.”

Unlike many musicians, Vanderslice is comfortable running a business and enjoys the math behind making the studio successful. He’s “really proud” of the fact that he employs five full-time workers. He’s also acutely politically and economically aware.

“There are structural problems with the economy,” he said of the reasons the city is failing as an arts community. “The marginal tax rates are way too low. Part of it is that there’s an income disparity that’s built in, but there’s also, if marginal tax rates were way higher, like Clinton-style rates, it wouldn’t feel so stratified. You know, like you’ve got a tent city right next to Tiny Telephone. You have a lot of very underserved people in the Mission up against people paying $3,500 for a one bedroom. It’s untenable. It’s really sick.”

He’s excited about working with Oakland artists and has been listening to more hip-hop music these days than anything else, a surprise given his background in alternative rock. His current faves include rappers Open Mike Eagle, Busdriver, and Lil Herb, but the artist he’d most like to record is England’s Radiohead.

“I would love it,” he said. “They are untouchably huge. They’ve got their own team of people. But would I like it? I would like cut off my thumb; you know what I mean? I would, like, go nuts for that.”

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