Tiny Telephone celebrates a decade in indie rock

With the prevalence of today's home recordists, celebrating 10 years as a recording studio is no small feat for any business, much less one started almost by accident. Tiny Telephone, a small warehouse on a Mission District dead-end, was initially a rehearsal space for a collective of musicians. When most of the bands involved broke up, singer-songwriter John Vanderslice realized he needed an outlet for his "obsessive gear collecting." He took it upon himself to build a full-time studio, in part so he could record music at his leisure. "Knowing that I could use the studio to make any kind of record I wanted made it really palatable to get high on lead fumes from soldering," he jokes.

Over the years, Tiny Telephone has risen in stature as the birthplace for a variety of ambitious indie-rock albums, including Beulah's Yoko and Jolie Holland's Springtime Can Kill You. Not that the place looks fancy by any means. It possesses a "grandmother's attic" aesthetic, if granny were obsessed with packing every room with the likes of vintage 1970s keyboards, tape machines, and microphones.

That casual vibe has translated into some remarkable recordings, including the high-water marks in several bands' oeuvres. Here, then, are some favorite music moments — as remembered by Vanderslice and the musicians he's worked with — in Tiny Telephone's history.

John Vanderslice: Answering the call.
Autumn de Wilde
John Vanderslice: Answering the call.

1999: Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 records Bob Dinners and Larry Noodles Present Tubby Turdner's Celebrity Avalanche

The band rented Tiny Telephone for an entire month, which Vanderslice says really helped cement the space as a studio. During this time, he says, he was really just a Thinking Fellers fan whose persistence paid off: "[I] kept going to their shows and bugging them to come record." He credits this tradition of bands "camping out" for days or weeks at a time to record with producing some of Tiny Telephone's best music.

1999: Granfaloon Bus records Good Funeral Weather

"This was one of the first records I heard out of the studio where I was shocked at the fidelity," Vanderslice says. He'd previously thought of Tiny Telephone as a "super-lo-fi place," but hearing the album's majestic mix of twangy country-rock with unusual instruments like French horn and vibraphone changed his mind: "It was really one of the proudest moments I've had."

2003: Death Cab for Cutie records Transatlanticism; in 2008, the band records Narrow Stairs

Seattle's Grammy-nominated indie-rock act brought a truckful of guitars and amps for both sessions, Vanderslice remembers. Death Cab guitarist and producer Chris Walla calls Tiny Telephone "the fifth member of the band," and credits the quiet isolation of its somewhat out-of-the-way location for enabling him to "get locked in there in the most beautiful kind of way."

2007: Deerhoof records Friend Opportunity

"They're incredibly smart and organized in how they record," Vanderslice says. He explains that the group operates in an unorthodox fashion, recording eight-bar sections of songs at a time, then digitally stitching the pieces together later. "Like Radiohead, they've fully utilized the kind of cut-and-paste [recording style]," he says. Deerhoof guitarist John Dietrich remembers something more old-fashioned about creating Friend Opportunity. For "Look Away," Dietrich recalls running guitar tracks through half a dozen guitar amps cluttered with shakers and tambourines. The setup created a buzzing sound every time the instruments hit a loud note and "turned it into something a little bit more magical," he says.

2009: John Vanderslice records "Penthouse Window"

Vanderslice picks his own tune — an uncategorizable potpourri of clarinets, piano, and vocals from his as-yet-untitled forthcoming album — to illustrate the community aspect of Tiny Telephone's DNA. Vanderslice wrote the lyrics, while the song's ambitious music was composed by studio intern Max Stroffregen and features clarinetist Ben Goldberg, who has turned up on a number of Tiny Telephone tracks over the years.

 
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