Berkeley’s Fantasy Studios overcomes the shrinking music industry with a new vision to welcome a larger creative community.
Refuting your own death can be an awkward affair. For Fantasy Studios, the West Berkeley landmark located at 10th and Parker, the necessity of proclaiming its ongoing operation is more than a little discomfiting, an acknowledgment that even the most successful institutions can be rocked by the seismic shifts that have upended the music industry over the past decade.
On a recent rainy afternoon, Fantasy’s famous studio rooms thumped with activity. New York bassist Christian McBride spread out with his jazz/funk band in Studio A to record his next album with Grammy-winning producer Joe Ferla in the control booth. Remastering guru Joe Tarantino huddled over decades-old tapes from the Monterey Jazz Festival, preparing a series of live CDs by jazz legends like Dave Brubeck and Oscar Peterson. And veteran producer Lee Townsend painstakingly worked with Bill Frisell in cozy Studio D, mixing the guitarist’s upcoming album inspired by the World War II–era photos of Mike Disfarmer. Rather than being prepared for burial, Fantasy is alive and kicking, and in the midst of an ambitious plan to expand its mission far beyond recording tracks for albums and film.
While the Bay Area has never been home to major record labels, the region was a favorite destination in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s for bands seeking a jolt of inspiration. Local artists often preferred to document their music close to home, and they all had numerous studio options, from The Plant in Sausalito to San Francisco’s Toast, Different Fur, and Hyde Street. But the advent of inexpensive home-recording technology, not to mention rising rents and soaring property values, has swept away many Bay Area studios. No wonder, then, that rumors about Fantasy’s impending demise started circulating in the wake of the building’s 2007 sale to San Rafael–based Wareham Development. In 2004, television producer Norman Lear had spearheaded a consortium with Concord Records to buy the Fantasy company, with its dazzling treasure trove of jazz, soul, folk, and blues labels, and the studio’s recording
equipment. In the beginning, Concord rented the studio space at the 10th and Parker complex. The building’s fate was an afterthought, and for several years the studio languished while the Beverly Hills–based Concord Music Group tried to figure out what to do with the storied facility. Despite the bumpy ride, Fantasy never shut its doors; today, it’s reinventing itself with a bold new vision to meet the needs of artists of all kinds—both established and unknown—in the Bay Area and beyond.
Veteran producer Jeffrey Wood, who was hired in 2007 by Wareham to manage Fantasy, replacing longtime director Nina Bombardier, is busily reinventing Fantasy’s mission, looking to make it available to the Bay Area’s creative community. His challenge is to publicize that mission to people who may realize that Fantasy is still a thriving studio but don’t think of bringing a project there because they associate the facility with big-budget productions. The studio already works extensively recording voice-over and additional dialogue with the many independent documentary filmmakers ensconced here at what’s now called the Zaentz Media Center (after Saul Zaentz, the Academy Award–winning producer who oversaw Fantasy’s expansion into a multimedia powerhouse in the mid-1970s). Now, however, it’s also reaching out to independent musicians, music schools, public radio, and an international array of studios through digital transmission (ISDN) lines that enable artists to collaborate remotely with players across the globe. With the full support of Wareham, Wood is looking to turn 10th and Parker into a creative hub where projects with modest budgets can find a home.
“People still say to me, ‘I thought you guys closed two years ago,’ or ‘I could never afford to record at Fantasy, you only do major labels,’” Wood says. But in fact, “we do everything. We do demo recordings. We’re offering free studio time for Berkeley High jazz bands, and the Oakland school system. High-end studios with big rooms and great sound where people can play together at the same time will always be around, but how can we modernize and expand this concept? What we’re trying to do is not fashion ourselves after a studio, but as a creative project.
“We have these facilities, how can we use them creatively to become a vibrant part of the community?” adds Wood, who makes the recording studios available for video shoots, invitation-only concerts with live recordings, the public radio outfit PRI, and other radio stations.
OPENING UP THE STUDIO to the larger creative community by offering discounted rates is part of Wood’s vision for transforming Fantasy. A compact, soft-spoken man whose light brown hair is giving way to gray, Wood projects an unflappable air. At first glance he seems too mild to revivify an institution that once reverberated with rock ’n’ roll energy. But in a series of interviews at the Fantasy complex, Wood offered an unflinching diagnosis of the studio’s predicament, leavened by his love of its legacy.
“People think we’re closed because of the sale, and then so many other studios have closed in the last few years,” says Wood. “The last few years under Concord nobody knew what was up. The rumor mill was rife, but we never went dark. They didn’t know what to do with it. A studio takes constant energy, and it was just an acquisition for them. They had said they were going to pull the plug, but we worked through the transition. Wareham kept staff on and paid them to keep it running. They’ve been upgrading the studios. A lot of great music was recorded here and it’s got an important vibe. [Grammy-winning producer] Joe Henry said he couldn’t think of a place outside of Capitol that has that vibe.”
The first time I visited Fantasy was in the winter of 1997, and I was immediately swept up in the studio’s mystique. I was working on a documentary about the San Francisco jazz/cabaret singer Wesla Whitfield, who was recording in Studio A. Ensconced in a small side room for sound isolation, she set aside her knitting when the quartet finished working out an arrangement and launched into a sizzling version of “My Favorite Things.” Orrin Keepnews, jazz’s most eminent producer, sat in the control booth, nodding his head as she turned up the intensity after each verse. Back in 1972, Keepnews left New York City to take over Fantasy Records’s expanding jazz program, reissuing classic recordings from the catalog and producing new sessions by the roster of jazz stars. Over the years, he also produced dozens of albums in the studio, making it the most important center for jazz recording on the West Coast.
The Fantasy vibe is tangible from the moment you walk into the light-filled foyer. The ground floor is dominated by the studios, while the building’s six upper stories are honeycombed with offices rented by filmmakers, production companies, post-production facilities, and multimedia operations. The studio’s 30-plus-year history as the recording destination of choice for a succession of jazz geniuses, folk singers, blues masters, rock icons, punk combos, and pop stars greets you as you approach the double doors into the lobby, flanked by large black-and-white photos of jazz giants Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, and Sonny Rollins, all of whom recorded classic albums here.
While the biggest of Fantasy’s three rooms, Studio A, features a lava rock-and-wood panel control room that feels like it belongs on the set of Hawaii Five-O, the halls are lined with gold and platinum records representing various eras, from Santana’s double platinum disc for Shaman to Rancid’s gold record for And Out Came the Wolves. Oakland rapper Too Short’s bling from Life Is . . . Too Short hangs near Green Day’s Dookie, which isn’t far from the triple platinum trophy for En Vogue’s Funky Divas. The plaques are mementos from an age when record labels thought nothing of dropping a quarter-million dollars on an album by a new band. Perfectionist rock stars used to check into studios for months at a time to create their next magnum opus. But that world is gone, from top to bottom.
The digital age has swept away many of the pillars of the old music business, hollowing out record labels and ending the four-decade reign of vinyl. In the past five years, online downloads have supplanted the compact disc as the primary avenue of music distribution. Just as significant, but far less visible, is the impact of the desktop recording and editing platform Pro Tools on the recording industry. Since the rise of the record business in the 1920s, recording was a capital-intensive endeavor requiring highly trained personnel and a studio outfitted with state-of-the-art gear. The release of Pro Tools in 1991 by the South Bay company Digidesign enabled musicians to record, edit, and engineer their music in home studios without spending tens of thousands of dollars. By the end of the decade, Pro Tools had become sophisticated and powerful enough to efficiently create entire albums, radically democratizing the recording process. But engineering a recording requires a very different skill set than composing a tune or playing a guitar. It can be difficult to do both well simultaneously.
“Technology has brought higher-quality recording to the masses,” Wood says. “Pro Tools has empowered people to make recordings much more cheaply, but there are a lot of bad recordings. It seems like every band has at least one person with Pro Tools. They’d make an album and then they’d come in saying, ‘How come when I do it, it sounds like a demo, but when you do it, it sounds professional?’ Self-engineering limits a performance, because the artist has to concentrate on this whole other realm, and the recording is limited by what they don’t know.”
Indie studios are also limited by space and equipment. A band going the DIY route is likely to record in a converted garage or living room with towels serving as sound baffles, while Fantasy’s Studio A and Studio D can capture an orchestra or a big band with state-of-the-art microphones. The smaller Studio B features excellent acoustics and a range of equipment unavailable at home studios or even most other professional facilities, such as the analog tape machines that captured music before the digital revolution. (Studio C is rented by a tenant.) Judging by some of the artists who have availed themselves of a Fantasy room in recent months, it seems that whatever the temptations of Pro Tools, an old-school studio is still a valued resource. Wilco guitarist Nels Cline’s volatile Singers trio recently recorded a new album at Fantasy. Cline could have crossed paths with rapper Mos Def and R&B star Estelle, the pop combo Music for Animals, or the Tuvan throat-singing ensemble Huun-Huur-Tu. Michael Pollan, the celebrated food writer and U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism professor, taped a segment for PBS, and Oakland guitarist and producer Henry Kaiser recorded a free jazz session.
“The studio’s history and heritage is phenomenal,” says Chris Barlow, one of Wareham’s partners. “When we took over the operation of the studios, we purchased the recording equipment from Concord Music Group. There was a lot of deferred maintenance, and we made a significant investment in the renovation of the studios. We’ve been marketing the smaller studio to up-and-coming indie bands. Not only is music being created there, there’s sound work for major movies, commercials, and video games. We’ve been aggressively pursuing new avenues. Studio A is renowned as the best-sounding room in Northern California. There may have been a perception that Fantasy Studios was an elitist institution, but we’re working hard to get the word out. We’re open to start-up bands right out of the garage to full-blown CD projects.”
Henry Kaiser has been a regular at Fantasy in recent years, using the studio for dozens of projects, including the soundtracks for the Werner Herzog documentaries Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World. He’s made the place a second home in recent years. “It’s the last real studio,” says Kaiser, who found Fantasy pricey in the late ’70s compared to other studios back then. Now, though, he considers the rental fee “the best bargain in town.” Fantasy’s recording fees vary widely, Wood says, depending on the number of staff needed, the number of recording days, the required equipment, and the size of the studio. “There’s no [other] studio left that has a full maintenance staff who came up through the apprentice system,” Kaiser says. “That knowledge is just as important as good gear. There are a few little indie studios, but they don’t have the big wonderful rooms that nobody can afford to build anymore.” As for DIY recording, Kaiser concedes that “a lot of great new music has come to pass with Pro Tools.” However, he says, “a lot of music can’t be captured in home studios, with the bad mics in small rooms with bad acoustics. I have this awful feeling that there are many kinds of music that’s not being recorded anymore.”
IN MANY WAYS, WOOD’S entire career has prepared him to engineer Fantasy’s reincarnation from a studio into an arts center. Born and raised in Chicago, he studied classical piano before finding himself smitten with the electric guitar. After years of honing his skills as an arranger and songwriter, Wood became known as a prolific film score composer, working mostly for independent features. In the mid-1980s he landed in London, where he successfully made the leap into producing. By the time he moved to Los Angeles in the early ’90s, he had connections all over the continent, and had gained extensive experience on the business side managing acts like Rain Parade and The Church. In the East Bay since 1994, Wood became a fixture at Fantasy during Nina Bombardier’s tenure, producing sessions by Penelope Houston, Rhiannon, Alex Acuña, Luka Bloom, and Erika Luckett.
Widely respected in the music community, Wood was a savvy choice to run Fantasy. Even though word has been slow to get out about the studio’s new mission, there are some significant indications that Wood’s open-door policy is paying dividends and making converts. Some DIY artists who religiously avoided major studios are starting to gravitate to Fantasy, like drummer Weasel Walter, a pioneering figure on Chicago’s no-wave movement. He settled in Oakland in 2003 and immediately plunged into the region’s roiling free jazz/avant rock scene, collaborations he’s taken to documentary at Fantasy.
“I’m coming from a place where I play experimental music, and everything’s on a shoestring,” says Walter, who first gained notoriety as a member of The Flying Luttenbachers. “For most of my 20-year career I have been a hater of studios, so much that most of the ’90s I refused to set foot in one, I was so nauseated by the experiences I had. I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of it, and I was spending a bunch of money. My view has shifted since working at Fantasy.
“Here’s the milieu right now: everyone’s a musician, everyone thinks they’re an engineer and a genius at mixing and mastering artists. But Fantasy has come up through this tradition of recording. There’s a certain quality that comes from that, that you just can’t get at a $50-an-hour studio. They have equipment you can’t just go out and buy. The price leap seems significant, but being a person who mixes and masters at home, I’ve spent a lot less time recouping audio recorded at Fantasy because what I got back was done right. Time is actually money. I’m an extremely DIY artist. I release my own records, and I’m actually convinced that going to Fantasy is worth the money.”
THE STORY OF THE FANTASY building is inextricably linked to the tangled tale of Fantasy Records, which was launched in 1949 by the brothers Max and Sol Weiss. They found early success with a bespectacled pianist/composer from the ranchlands of Concord who had studied with the prolific French composer, Darius Milhaud, at Mills College. The widespread appeal of Dave Brubeck’s modern jazz paved the way for popular releases by Latin jazz vibraphonist Cal Tjader and pianist Vince Guaraldi. Saul Zaentz, a jazz aficionado who had married Charles Mingus’s ex-wife Celia, joined the company in the mid-’50s, and in 1967 he and several partners bought out the Weiss brothers. Zaentz didn’t know it at the time, but Fantasy’s financial future was in the hands of the Golliwogs, a group of teenagers from El Cerrito with a tough roots rock sound. Renamed Creedence Clearwater Revival, the group scored its first hit in 1968 with “Susie Q,” one of more than a dozen classic tracks that turned Fantasy into a powerhouse.
At first Zaentz used the Creedence cash to buy up indie jazz labels, starting with Prestige, Riverside, and Milestone. Eventually the Fantasy stable included Stax, Contemporary, Specialty, Pablo, Takoma, and Kicking Mule (now all owned by Concord Music Group). At the same time, he built the Fantasy headquarters at 10th and Parker, and launched a film production company that scored Oscar gold with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (he took home the Best Picture Oscar twice more, for Amadeus and The English Patient). For the first decade, the studios mostly served the Fantasy labels and Zaentz film productions, but in 1980 the doors opened to outside projects. Zaentz gave up his seventh-floor office when he and his partners sold Fantasy to Concord, but The House That Creedence Built still attracts artists and producers with an audacious creative streak. For Lee Townsend, a Berkeley-based manager, producer, and curator who has worked extensively with some of jazz and pop music’s most gifted artists, Fantasy is building on its singular history as a haven for musical exploration.
“I’m particularly excited about this new incarnation,” says Townsend, whose credits include albums by Bill Frisell, Paul Dresher, Kelly Joe Phelps, Loudon Wainwright III, Dave Holland, and Petra Haden. “Jeffrey Wood is extraordinarily sympathetic to creative people. He’s a former producer himself, and he knows how to facilitate whatever circumstances you need.”
While Townsend produces numerous albums for major labels, he also takes on many projects by artists recording for indie outfits with small budgets. He long maintained relationships with studios in San Francisco, but in recent months he’s increasingly turning to Fantasy, both because of the high level of service and the closure of other facilities.
“A lot of stuff is happening in people’s home studios, recording a track at a time, which is fine,” Townsend says. “But when you have a very nice console and a beautifully designed, acoustically tuned room, of course there’s a different level of professionalism that comes with that. There’s a certain kind of history there, too. Like when you walk in to the Village Vanguard, you know stuff has been happening there for a long time, and you can feel it, and that’s true of these old ’70s-style rooms at Fantasy. Music is coming out of the pores of the walls.”
Andrew Gilbert is The Monthly’s music critic.