Andrew Oswald at Santo Recording (all photos: Jon Bauer)
The graffiti-covered building is unassuming from the outside, but at the first step within, a familiar warmth emanates from the modest vintage decor. An array of older model microphones line the top of a piano and a collection of dated guitars cover the back wall of the live room. Upstairs sit Oswald’s new digs, a smaller space that was being used for storage before he made it his own last year. A Himalayan salt lamp perches atop a mixing speaker, along with a Unity skateboard deck and a slew of LPs that Oswald has worked on line the wall — Blues Lawyer’s self-titled, Club Night’s What Life and Marbled Eye’s Leisure, to name a few.
“Recording is always a more serious pursuit and music has always been for pleasure,” he says. “What comes of the bands that I’m in is all for fun. There’s not a lot of material pursuit or lofty aspirations in that.”
Behind the scenes of the Bay Area’s brimming community of independent musicians is an under-recognized workforce that facilitates a font of creativity — audio engineers like Oswald. Since moving to Oakland in 2008, he’s worked on hundreds of projects, primarily for local bands who were attracted to Oswald’s commitment to affordable recording. His work spans many of the albums that represent the rich diversity of the local rock scene, including the glowing nostalgia trip of Meat Market’s Dig Deep and the breathy, invigorating performances of the World’s Live on Lower Grand Radio, along with countless others. Apart from his studio career, Oswald has contributed as a member of bands Creepers and Lysine, and currently performs in the angular punk project Marbled Eye, maintaining a graceful balance as artist and engineer.
A scroll through the discography listed on his website illustrates the industrious nature of his work ethic, but even that lengthy tally doesn’t include some of the smaller projects and mixing work he’s done. Like many celebrated audio engineers, Oswald’s strength is to be both amenable to a band’s wishes for their recording and to know when to step aside to further those goals. The range of genre and level of band that he’s worked with varies widely, making a signature sound impossible to pinpoint, but a stamp of authenticity comes with each recording. When you listen closely, you hear music that has been labored over with cautious meditation. In this intersection of accessibility, affordability and open-minded production, he’s found a fulfilling career in helping artists he admires to produce on their terms.
“There’s a time and a place, and certain projects need a recording studio,” Oswald says. “I think that there are a lot of projects that wouldn’t have found a recording studio — or someone who was receptive to them and what they were trying to do — if Secret Bathroom wasn’t around when it was.”
It’s Oswald’s capacity to adapt that has bolstered his career numerous times, whether it’s recording remotely, chasing after a wayward idea in the studio, or dealing with the upheaval of his professional life, which he was required to reorganize last year. In January of 2018, the building that housed Secret Bathroom Recording Studio was sold, with Oswald and Max Senna (the engineer he shared the space with) set to be evicted by the end of July. Though the studio that had been their home in both literal and figurative ways was now being snuffed out, they resolved to fill the remaining months with productive sessions.
The unattainability of reasonable rent prices has been a familiar part of Oakland’s recent story, and the struggle to find the type of space needed for recording made Oswald’s new plight difficult. He managed to move the sessions that would no longer be possible at Secret Bathroom with help from friends and the surrounding community of studios, until finally landing a consistent spot at Santo. “That was hard,” he says. “I kind of feel like I’m only just now coming to terms with it, because for the first year it was just survival mode.”
Secret Bathroom was a special place for Oswald and many local musicians, named for the cluttered layout of his early home recording setup. It started in 2011, when Oswald was living across the street from the building that would later house Secret Bathroom. He and Senna saw an opportunity in the blank slate of the empty building: They could build out their own studio, using the experiences they’d had working in other spaces to create a functional recording operation. They built bedrooms for themselves first, and then the living areas took a rudimentary shape. They would save enough money to buy supplies and enlist their friends into working eight-hour construction days to get one project finished at a time. Usually, they would run out of supplies, money or their friend’s enthusiasm, and go back to saving for the next push.
“We had a pretty clear vision for what we wanted the space to be,” Oswald says. “There was a huge gap in our skills and our ability to actualize it. Who knows if we had known just how much work it would have been if we would have still done it, but I’m glad that we didn’t know how much work it was, because I’m glad that we did it.”
Oswald was recording in the space as the structure slowly formed, acquiring upgrades in equipment along the way. Eventually it came together: a control booth with a board for mixing, a big open space with high ceilings and an isolation room. From 2012 through half of 2018, Oswald began to operate almost exclusively in Secret Bathroom, assisting in the production of hundreds or EPs, LPs, and live recordings. He partnered with Lower Grand Radio to curate a monthly podcast series of streamed performances titled Live From the Secret Bathroom, capturing intimate recordings from touring bands and locals alike. His commitment to affordable recordings and creative endeavors was strong, even when the success of Secret Bathroom meant that they could start charging more per day, Oswald kept his rate at a humble $300 per day.
“I was able to run it, and have enough money to reinvest in it and get new equipment and have enough money to live,” he says. “It didn’t make sense to me to make it less accessible.”
His interest in recording started as a teenager, after discovering the enchanting magic of a friend’s portable recorder. From there, he recorded the bands that he’d played in until taking on an internship with Studio West in San Diego, where he grew up. In the internship he learned the practical knowledge that guides him today, taking away lessons from real-time recording situations. When, in 2008, Oswald moved to Oakland and attended Expression College in Emeryville, his access and time in the school’s studios allowed him to hone those skills and begin to build a body of work. He looks back at those early recordings with a sense nostalgia pride and a feeling of growth. “I definitely was still figuring out what the fuck I was doing, but so were everybody else in the bands,” Oswald says. “I was definitely more confident than I should have been at 18. We were all figuring it out together.”
“There’s a time and a place, and certain projects need a recording studio,” Oswald says. “I think that there are a lot of projects that wouldn’t have found a recording studio — or someone who was receptive to them and what they were trying to do – if Secret Bathroom wasn’t around when it was.”
At present, Oswald’s work is consistent, largely built upon the reputation he made for himself with Secret Bathroom. Most of his time is spent working at Santo, though sharing the space has required a shift away from the solitude of the studio that he’d built himself. He plays bass in the anxious post-punk group Marbled Eye, whose presence in the music scene is both inventive and formidable. They tour Europe in June, after an Oakland show at the Golden Bull, giving Oswald the rare chance to listen to music as a relaxed participant, rather than with the critical lens of his craft. While Secret Bathroom is gone, the experiences that he remembers fondly continue to inform his career path, which he hopes, someday, will lead him back into a studio of his own.
“I definitely have a huge sense of pride in what Secret Bathroom was and what we were able to do,” he says. “It’s amazing what a few stubborn idiot punks got done with very little money and an incredible amount of willpower.”
Marbled Eye, Divorcer, Blues Lawyer, Buttercup
May 28, 2019
$8, 8 pm 21+