P / P Interview: Jack Shirley – Founder of The Atomic Garden

Written By: Giovan Alonzi 

jshirley1

I am sitting behind a drum set in a large, black room with royal blue curtains cutting the corners of a window separating me from my band and Jack Shirley. He is operating dials, knobs and screens. He is focused, moving, true and attentive.

My band and I are all very impressed. “Ready when you are,” he says into my headphones. He is operating our spaceship; he is Captain Kirk and Spock, Geordi and Chekhov and sure, even Crusher. “Fuck. Let’s do it again,” I say, staring out of the fish bowl style glass window into the flight deck where (I wonder if) my voice sounds super tiny. I look at the microphone at the other end of this private pantheon, and it’s huge. It’s the most phallic mic I’ve ever seen. It looks alien. It looks like the offspring of the Obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. From what I’ve gathered, it’s recording the meaty “thud” of the room. Again, I am very impressed. ‘Later,’ I think to myself, ‘I must ask this man questions.’

………………………………………

Now, I am walking through the Mission district in San Francisco, thinking about the band he was in, Comadre. I’m thinking about the bands I know he has recorded: Great Apes, Wild Moth, Tony Molina, Joyce Manor, Big Kids, Deafheaven, Loma Prieta, Botanist and Graf Orlock. And I’m thinking about how my internal list doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the archives he‘s built at his East Palo Alto, CA recording studio, The Atomic Garden.

“What do you want to talk about again?” he says, sitting across from me at La Oaxaqueña. “Passion as business,” I say, “and how does DIY work?”

jshirley

P / P: What did you start off using to record bands?

JS: I had a small ProTools setup. I couldn’t record with more than two mics at once. I had to get creative with that and record drums with two mics, then I would overdub a bunch of stuff after that. By no means did (the recordings) sound fantastic.

At the time, I lived in an in-law unit off of my parent’s house. It looked like it used to be a garage, but it was part of the house. There were three areas in the place: a living room, a bedroom, and a kind of walk-in closet that became my live room, my control room and my vocal booth. There weren’t doors separating any of it. Just walls. That’s how I started recording, in the same room as the musicians while they were playing.

P / P: In regards to your current recording studio, The Atomic Garden, there’s a really intimate vibe. It’s really friendly. Do you think this kind of atmosphere carried over from the in-law space?

JS: I guess. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that my studio feels comfortable because it doesn’t feel like a museum. Big studios can feel very sterile and super pristine—you don’t want to touch anything. I think the place not looking like a typical studio helps people relax.

P / P: Do you remember the first few albums you recorded that made you realize you wanted to pursue recording seriously?

JS: Well, I had been recording for maybe a year and I was getting more serious about it, and I was getting better at it. There was this band called With Eyes Like Static who were from San Francisco. They played screamo, indie-rock stuff. I remember pulling up the music we tracked the day before and I was blown away. I didn’t do anything different than I had been doing, but those guys just sounded fantastic. I’d say that helped me become serious, and recording the first Comadre record; those two were good ones for me.

It’s one of those things where if you can record people who play well together, and the band sounds good, it makes recording so much easier.

wildmoth

P / P: The other day, I was talking about the words amateur and professional with a friend. Amateurs—in performance or entertainment—are typically thought of as artists who are not being good enough to make a living off of their art. Professionals on the other hand, are so good that they can make enough money—playing music, acting, or whatever—to live without needing a day job. But, there’s another side to the word amateur that isn’t as popular: someone who isn’t making money off of their passion or mode of expression purposely. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bad at pursuing their passion; it’s more like they purposely reserve their expression for their own recreation. Can you talk about the changes in creative head spaces you’ve experienced as you’ve made the switch from amateur to professional?

JS: I’ll tell ’ya, I’m self-taught and recording is really hard. It’s the kind of craft or skill you can never get good enough at for yourself. You’re never totally satisfied. I could feel early on, that I’d never live up to my own standards. But that’s what keeps me wanting to do it.

When I started recording bands for money, it became much more serious. It was a positive thing for me, though. I have to make the recording sound good. However, if you’re getting paid and you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t experiment. You wouldn’t know what to do if your experiment didn’t go well. Nowadays, if I do an experiment and it doesn’t work, I can correct it.

P / P: When did experimenting and recording become a full time job for you?

JS: About eight years ago.  I was working 30 hours a week at an auto dealership. I was starting to record 20 or 30 hours a week, and I was going to school for illustration for probably another 30 hours a week. I realized this wasn’t all going to work. 90 hour weeks don’t work out for anybody. So, I quit my job as a total gamble to see if I could pay the rent by recording bands, and it worked! At one point, I realized that I didn’t want to illustrate for a living. There were people in the program who breathed art and drawing. When they woke up in the morning, it was the first thing they wanted to do. For me, that was recording.

P / P: So, when you got to the space that is now The Atomic Garden, there was a warehouse there?

JS: Where the studio is, floor to ceiling, there was nothing. That was all built. It really is about priorities.

P / P: Before we met here to talk, I thought back to when I first got a copy of Comadre’s album, “The Youth”. On the back of it, it says ‘do it your-fuckin’ self’ on the barcode, right?

ddtony

JS: It says, “DIY or DIE.”

P / P: Yeah! It was personally funny for me to be familiar with that and then come to your studio for the first time. For someone like me who doesn’t have a reference point with any other studios, The Atomic Garden seemed completely professional. The DIY/punk aesthetic—the one in the scene Comadre was apart of, often seems a little grimier, purposefully misshapen or something. You built that yourself, but it also seems way more legitimate than what is typically labeled DIY.

JS: Anything that’s DIY in the early stages is going to have that amateur vibe to it. My old roommate Dan used to do screen printing out of the other side of the warehouse that The Atomic Garden is in. He started screen printing DIY, one-color screens in his bedroom with watercolors, just to get something onto a shirt. It looked super amateur, but he loved doing it. He’s been doing it now for 10 years now, and he’s living in Germany running a business with his buddy. It’s not huge, but it’s a professional business, and they’re punk guys who just like printing. When you walk into their shop, it doesn’t look DIY anymore; it looks really professional.

P / P: How would you define community involvement in the DIY/punk scene?

JS: I mean, you have to be an active participant? Obviously, if you don’t go to shows, you can’t support a scene. If you don’t buy records, you can’t support a scene. That’s how the average person can stay involved. You can always take that a step further and distribute and sell stuff. You can bake cookies or whatever. You can set up a show…

When I started recording bands I became way more involved in the scene. Not only am I hanging out with all of these people, now I’m really getting to know all of their music.

P / P: This idea about support, in the way we’ve been talking about it, it comes down to supporting the scene financially?

JS: Oh yeah. It takes money to do this shit.

P / P: It kind of makes the whole scene look like a business. But then, how is that different than any market? It’s this clash between an anti-consumerist ethic and then being a part of something—a DIY/punk/progressive/alternative culture—that needs to be consumed.

JS: I had a kind of “run-in” one time when I was driving the band Trainwreck on a two-week west coast tour. We played at this piano warehouse. It was a really cool place. They were doing a donation only thing at the door for the show. About 50 people came and it was a pretty good show. In the end, the promoter comes up and is like, “I got $50 to split between the three bands. You guys figure out what you want to do.” In a situation where it had just been Comadre, I would have just said, “Uh. Ok. Thanks.”

But, because it was Trainwreck, I said, “Wait a minute…there were 50 people here. You could have gotten $250.” And he was  like, “You can’t just charge at the door! This isn’t a venue!” I said, “Yeah…but it is.” This band had spent close to $10,000 to get here. You know what I mean? To do an international tour (even a punk rock one) you still have to buy five plane tickets, you have to buy enough merch to sell on the tour to try and get your money back and you don’t ever break even. So, yeah, it’s not about money.

They’re not going to make their money back. Sometimes people don’t think about some of that stuff. It’s valid. This international band is playing; even if you don’t buy anything, at least get them five dollars at the door, you know?

P / P: What’s DIY like in Europe?

JS: It’s huge. You’ve got tons of anarcho-squats; all of them are based off of that DIY ethic, and half of them are government subsidized. I guess it’s similar in Australia too. The scene isn’t really that different around the world. They might do it a little differently, but it’s still the basic idea. Europe wins, though, hands down. They do it the best. They take it more seriously.

In the States, we’re terrible at it.

P / P: [laughs] We’re lazy?

JS: Totally. There’s no standard to anything. In the States, you could do a 40 day tour and maybe get one meal given to you. It’s embarrassing once you see the contrast. When the Euro folks come here, they love it because they’re playing in a place where a lot of bands they love are from, and it’s a different experience, but it’s work. When you go to Europe to tour, it’s not work, it’s fun. You get two meals a day given to you. Your shows are pretty well attended because the promoter usually does a good job. The people that come see you are more enthusiastic about seeing a band play. It’s pretty fuckin’ cool. They take good care of their people.

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