Photograph by Rory McNamara
Monsters of Rock: Roger Tschann has been courted by L.A. music execs and may yet move to where the money is. But for now, Grizzly is his home.
Behind the Music
Beyond the doors of Roger Tschann's Grizzly Studios, legends are made
By Sara Bir
You hear stories. Oh, you hear stories: plates of petrified spaghetti in the sink; crusty punk rockers in gorilla suits with bottles of Jim Beam, standing in the driveway heckling passers-by; shock-rock bands smearing feces (or something like it) all over the studio walls.
Bands on speed. Bands with crazy people on speed. Bands that aren't even old enough to drive yet and have to have their moms drop them off at the studio, where they get all jacked up on junk food and soda. Bands that sit in front of a television playing fat-fetish porn as the studio is readied . . .
So the first thing you notice about Grizzly Studios--the actual, real life studio, not the one of legend--is that it's really not that bad. Where once there was a lot full of weeds there is now a brand-new deck, and the studio itself is clear of McDonald's wrappers and used condoms and empty beer cans--all the flotsam typically associated with rock bands gone wild. The sofa's pretty beat up, and recording equipment is strewn about, though not wildly. "The reason these cables are not put away," Roger Tschann says, gesturing toward a few piles of recording equipment, "is because we use them."
Maybe Grizzly Studios used to be that bad. As it is now, the bathroom looks in better shape than most public restrooms found in fast-food joints, even though it has no sink. But you know how stories are. They gain momentum upon each retelling, and any place as storied as Grizzly is bound to be the victim of wild exaggeration for dramatic effect.
Or maybe not. Some of these stories are true, and others may be slightly less true. But they're all good ones.
Someday someone could write a book about Sonoma County's underground music scene. It would make a great read, but not too many people would care, save the ones from the bands and maybe their moms and girlfriends or boyfriends. After a while, you learn that everyone in the scene is in some kind of band. It's like one huge band with 1,000 different side projects--one big, happy/miserable incestuous family. Some people you know by name; others, just by sight, and you will never know their names, just their faces and they way they lurk in corners and nod their heads to the music.
Probably half of that book would take place at Petaluma's Grizzly Studios, where Roger Tschann has been recording bands since 1993 or so. Sometimes he's credited as producer, sometimes he's credited as engineer, and sometimes he's not credited at all. What started in his mom's garage moved to grander digs where partyers have puked, legends have been created, and about a million bands have recorded. Most of them are locals, but some come from Santa Cruz, Oakland, and L.A. One band even drove all the way from New Jersey to record.
What makes Grizzly great is also what makes it not so great. "Grizzly is very comfortable," says Jon Fee, bass player for the Rum Diary, who have recorded an EP and two albums there since 1999. "Which is wonderful, but it can also become a band's worst enemy when it's time to work."
Ah, yes. Fun, comfort. Translated into rock-musician terms, that means partying. And party the musicians have. The studio itself looks like it's seen some rock. "You can't have on the big, bright lights. You gotta have these," Tschann says, flipping on a set of red and blue track lights that cast a seedy glow. "You close the door, you don't know whether it's day or night outside. You're in your own world in here."
It's difficult to put a finger on exactly which world that is--small-time rock stardom? Fledgling greatness? The sordid lair of rock incarnate, going on nonstop right under our community's nose?
"Having a career like this encourages you to have a certain rock 'n' roll lifestyle," confesses Tschann in his usual dry yet dramatic delivery, at turns self-deprecating and self-glorifying. He has longish, dark, unkempt hair; and has sported variations of a Fu Manchu/goatee arrangement for years. "It's not the jet-set rock 'n' roll lifestyle--people come here and they're all rock 'n' rollers. I've curbed my rock 'n' roll lifestyle a lot, and you will see that reflected in the organization and tidiness of the place. There used to be a lot more rock 'n' roll, let me tell you."
This coming from a man who uses the tag line "Smells like ass" in his studio's advertisements. But he's grown up since then. And he's put some stuff away, most of it in a narrow storage room full of junk. "I'm kind of a pack rat. I have a hard time throwing things away," explains Tschann as he pulls out a flat piece of plastic that's covered in spray paint. "This is one of the stencils they used to make the promo packs for Little Tin Frog's press kit. We're talking 1996."
It's precisely such junk--plus a library of recordings by hundreds of bands that have come, gone, and come again--that makes Tschann an archivist of North Bay music by default. "Pretty much every band that ever existed in the North Bay," Tschann says, pointing to a shelf crammed with tapes, "almost any band--they're up there."
Scanning their labels, you can receive a crash-course in North Bay music of the past decade or so: SFB, Meriwether, Skitzo, the Tonkas, Shut Up Donny, Cannonball, the Wunder Years, Farewell to Steam.
Those are all older recordings, though. As for the new stuff, it just keeps on coming. "Yesterday," Tschann says, flipping through a legal pad that makes up his recording schedule, "Go Time was here--California ska, kind of Sublime-ish." Also recently at Grizzly: Sorry about the Fire, Enslavior, Traction, and some metal band called Crucial Torque.
So that's ska, emo, and metal. "There's definitely trends in music, and that's reflected from people who come in here," says Tschann. "It affects me, too; I get into whatever everybody else is into. A lot of the bands that come to me are on the heavier side--maybe punk, metal. Most of the time, I record rock groups or live acoustic kind of things. It runs the gamut from bluegrass to bands like Inkwell, heavy pop stuff."
Grizzly's bread and butter are local bands, who come to the studio for dependable recording that's within their budget. "There's such a need for what he does. There's a lot of recording studios around the county, but I wouldn't really want to go to any one of them," says Gabe Meline, whose band, Santiago, recorded an album at Grizzly this summer. Meline works at the Last Record Store in Santa Rosa and has been in many North Bay bands over the years (including, for a few months, a Bruce Springsteen cover band with Tschann). "It's incredibly affordable, the sound quality is magnificent. Roger hangs out at shows; you can get drunk at a party with him. He's a good person."
"Grizzly is basically the Honda Accord of studios," says the Rum Diary's Fee. "It ain't a BMW and it ain't a Pinto. What makes it great is the finished recording product will always provide you with an honest description of the band. Roger will never make you sound better than you are, and he'll never make you sound worse."
Not everyone would agree, though. Some maintain that crappy bands with crappy equipment can go to Grizzly and come out with a decent-sounding recording, because Tschann will do what he can to make them sound good. Whether that's a good thing or not is up to the listener.
Sometimes bands--particularly bands from farther away--will camp out at Grizzly for the duration of their recording. "It's kind of fun. I like doing albums that way," Tschann says. "It's almost like a vacation for them, and it's cool because we'll barbecue and drink beer and hang out and record an album--like going to camp or something."
Camp Grizzly is typically what spawns the best stories--and the most trash. "If I had the gumption to bring my recycling in, I'd be a wealthy man." Tschann theorizes. "Every week there's a trash can full of beer bottles, because every week four or five bands come through."
A few months ago, Los Dryheavers came up from Watsonville with an entire library of wrestling videos to keep them entertained while recording their new album. That's the tamer side of Grizzly. There's a story involving closed-circuit video cameras and the unwitting participants of a sexual encounter who got spied on. There's a story about a band who smoked crack. Or the band who dressed up like the Village People . . .
And then there's Casey, who Tschann insists is "the future of rock 'n' roll." Casey (Tschann says he doesn't remember his last name) was a not-quite-all-there guy with the singing voice of Kermit the Frog, who played guitar and wrote strange little songs prodigiously. He'd hire a session drummer, book studio time at Grizzly, and record an album. Not as crazy as Wesley Willis, Casey was as serious. Sample lyric: "Minerals in my gray teeth / Minerals in my gray teeth . . ." When Casey moved to Portland, Grizzly lost its most unique client.
Tschann grew up in Petaluma, listening to "everything from glam metal to death metal to punk rock to shoegazer stuff." He used to play guitar in various bands, and when he convinced some friends of his to chip in to buy an ADAT (a recording device about the size of a VCR), the recording bug bit.
Tschann began acquiring equipment and set it all up in his mom's garage--"a bunch of rinky-dink microphones and stuff," he says. "Sure enough, it didn't sound like a record, just some rinky-dink studio. But it didn't sound that much worse than what all of my friends were getting out of going to more legit studios. And I was doing it super cheap. I got more and more into it, and eventually it became this obsession."
Figuring he could make a go at doing this for a living, Tschann quit his job at the T-shirt silk-screening place where he worked and put all of the money he made into buying more gear. The first band he recorded was called Lungbutter.
"I'm lucky that my mom let me do it in her garage for a few years. It was cool of her. She'd had just about enough. But I bet she kind of misses it now. Tattooed skinhead kids using the bathroom--'Hi, Mrs. Tschann.'"
In 1997, Tschann moved from his mom's garage to the "Ranch," as it's called, a house in an unassuming east Petaluma neighborhood. Tschann gutted it and converted it into what advertisements for Grizzly claim, perhaps only half-jokingly, is "quite simply the best recording facility in the whole wide world."
At the time bassist Josh Staples and his then-girlfriend (and presently wife and bandmate in the New Trust) Sara Sanger rented out the house next door to Grizzly. In the early '90s they started Flying Harold Records, which eventually put out albums by locals Cropduster, Adam Theis Ensemble, the Conspiracy, and others. Roger had become a partner in the label in 1994 with a release by Eric Lindell and the Reds.
Also launched at the house not long afterwards was Section M, a zine covering underground music in the North Bay with an irreverent but ultimately charming tone. It was a bit of a golden age for music up here. Venues were plentiful; bands like the Conspiracy, Edaline, and Cropduster developed major local followings; and idealism ran high.
Later that same year, Flying Harold, proving to be too time-consuming for its partners to support and stay sane (Roger often spent 60-plus hours working in the studio, Staples' band was frequently gone on tour, and Sanger was a full-time student with a full-time job), ceased to be. In 2001, the all-ages Inn of the Beginning, which hosted many local and touring bands in a midsized, hospitable venue, closed its doors. Most recently, Section M, in want of manpower and funding it never had in the first place, went on hiatus. These events all went down over an extended period, but they've been somewhat indicative of how diffused the music scene has become in the North Bay.
"Santa Rosa's a provincial town, and people involved in the music scene in Santa Rosa are in love with the idea that none of the really remarkable bands from here are going to go anywhere," says Meline "And that's unfortunate. There's a sort of nihilism that pervades us all, a romanticism of failure, and I think that actually affects the fact that Roger hasn't had a big hit."
Tschann himself is in a band. Tschann's alter ego ("Pedactor") plays drums in Aphrodisiax, a full-on assault of '80s metal, sort of on the Guns N' Roses tip, with songs about evil women and drinking too much. Scott "Scotty Steele" Morris--formerly of the Invalids, currently an engineer at Grizzly--does the vocals. Aphrodisiax don't play too many shows, but their CD sounds really good. Go figure.
A few years ago, an A&R guy from Virgin called Tschann. He had noticed some very nice-sounding records sent his way, and they were all recorded at a Grizzly Studios. Then someone from Capitol called. The big-time music industry came a-courting. "For a while there, I was talking to people from the L.A. world, and they were all saying that I should move to L.A. I've weighed my options, and I'm still thinking about maybe doing that at some point. But I like being up here. I like that I have some history here. Plus, I don't like L.A. that much. Maybe I would like it if I tried it out for a while, but it doesn't appeal to me very much right now."
In any case, Tschann isn't as content to sit in his pink bathrobe recording bands in a room full of empty beer cans as he used to be. Grizzly studios is growing up, sort of. "Back in the day, I'd sit there and hold the bands' hands through the whole process a lot more than I do now." he says. "I was often not credited as producing, but I never really cared. I just wanted to make some cool records. But to get on that industry track--it's a lot more of a different style of operating. I know I need to make some sort of next step, because I've been cruising along like this for a while. And maybe," he trails off, "the next step is moving to L.A. . . ."
And it's true. You get older, restless, ponderous about what else in the world there is for you to do and where you could be doing it. But Grizzly Studios is here now, and as long as it is, both the 16-year-old next door who just learned to play bass last year and the slightly balding mandolin virtuoso know where they can leave a record of their art for all posterity. And for hella cheap, too.
"Roger once told me his studio was the cheapest whore in town," says Fee. "I wouldn't know where to start with naming every single band or artist that has recorded at his Grizzly--he's pretty much nailed us all! And to think he's supposed to be the whore in this equation? Go figure."
"I just like music," Tschann says. "Music's cool. Almost everyone listens to music, and I think it helps to shape people's identity. It certainly has shaped my identity. If I wasn't doing this, I don't know what kind of stupid person I'd be. I like thinking of myself as some sort of maverick studio dude."
A Grizzly Sampler
Over the past seven years, some of the best and brightest recordings of the North Bay (and beyond) have come from Grizzly Studios. Here's a crib sheet.
Cropduster, 'A Strange Sort of Prayer,' 1998
The swan song of Flying Harold Records. Nearly every person spoken to for this story cites Cropduster's heartbreaking alt-country masterpiece as their favorite record to come out of Grizzly. Says Gabe Meline: "That record is as if the heavens opened up and the descending angel of all that is good landed in Grizzly Studios."
Cannonball, 'Hiphopulation,' 2001
Trombonist extraordinaire and Sonoma County native Adam Theis plays ringleader to Cannonball's funky circus of creative rapping and be-bop jazz.
The Pattern, 'Immediately,' 2001
Well, that whole 'garage band revival' thing didn't last too long, did it? Perhaps Oakland's Pattern, who dropped a string of singles and just one album in three short years before disbanding last month, sensed this. But they were a blast of a band, and on Immediately they distilled all of the energy from their terse, loud, and raunchy live sets into a six-song EP with hooks, sneers, and leers aplenty.
Sin in Space, 'Asteroid Band,' 2001
Santa Cruz's Sin in Space have sadly imploded (too much rock 'n' roll lifestyle), but they leave behind Asteroid Band, whose crystalline simplicity and upbeat aggressiveness call to mind Trompe le Monde-era Pixies in all of the best ways. The recording is clear as a bell. No tuneless emo-esque singing or messy fusion of 50 underground music styles here, and thank God. You play this CD and you know what you get.
Skitzo, 'Got Sick?' 2000
Decades will pass and civilizations will fall, but Sonoma County will always have Skitzo. This album's cover features a photo of lead puker Lance Ozanix's face imposed upon a woman's genitalia, so it looks like her--well, her you know--is puking. Metal, metal, metal, sick and addictive.
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From the November 13-19, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.