For the past 11 years, Greg Wilkinson has recorded the Bay Area's crustiest punk/hardcore/grindcore/death metal/doom/black metal at Earhammer, his warehouse studio in West Oakland. He's also played in a ton of bands, including Brainoil and Deathgrave. Plus he's the sweetest guy imaginable. Every time I talk to Greg, I feel great afterwards. The other day I bumped into Al from Negative Standards, who's working on a new record at Earhammer. "Honestly," Al said, "It's half about making a record, and half about hanging out with Greg!"
What's the Earhammer background?
In '98, I was in a two-piece band. We both decided to go to recording school so we could record ourselves — to stay DIY, but to also get better documentation of what we were doing. That's when I started working in the school, CRI [California Recording Institute] in San Francisco, which is now defunct. I was able to use the facilities there, and kept doing that until it went out of business. Fast-forward a few years; I was doing some freelance [engineering] at [the underground venue] Burnt Ramen's studios, and [doing] whatever sessions I could get using my own devices. Eventually I was like, "Man, this isn't working. I want my own place, but I can't afford it." Then [fellow engineer] Sal [Raya] hit me up and said, "Do you want to do a studio?" This was around January 2004.
Did Sal live with you here?
He did. It was himself, his wife, and dog, at first. It was kind of a chaotic zoo! This place was really cobbled together. We didn't have the front room done.
But you were doing sessions within three months of moving in?
Yeah. The very first session we had here was a band called High Tone Son of a Bitch. Two guys from the band came down and did a lot of carpentry with us as a trade. Being in the music scene for a long time myself helped, and it got a lot busier than I expected. By 2008 I quit my day job. I had my work down to one day a week, and they were still willing to let me do it. But eventually I thought, "I feel like a jerk. I gotta quit."
And it's just you here now, right?
Yeah, Sal moved out in early 2013. As work picked up here for me, Sal started working for Hartman Pedals and became head of sound at the Oakland Metro [non-profit performing arts venue]. Both gigs were more solid for him. Cutting his overhead and freeing up space for the studio to expand was a good option for both of us.
What was your recording background, beyond CRI and Burnt Ramen?
I'd been recording since about '92 — lots of 8-track, recording my own bands, and my friends' demos.
So you weren't new to recording at all.
No, no. But Sal and I were super new to owning a studio! [laughs] I had a 1/2-inch Otari 8-track, and Sal had a couple of MOTU interfaces. We were able to cobble together 16 tracks. We'd try tracking drums on the 8-track and then layering everything. Sometimes we tracked all digital, depending on how fast people wanted to go — but, at best, we could get 16 tracks running. The console was a Ramsa 12-channel mixer. [laughs] It was really some clip-on mics, [Shure] SM57s, and an [AKG] D 112, and hope for the best. That was the first couple years. Every couple months we'd be, "Okay, we need another mic. We need some mic stands."
But you were busy.
I wouldn't say we were busy the first couple years. I was getting a couple of jobs a month. It was asininely cheap. [laughs] It was, "I don't have a real studio." It was a hundred bucks a day. Then it went to $150 a day, and, by 2008, I'd gone to hourly. I changed the rates to where I could pay my bills, get by, and still be affordable for clients.
Had you worked with, or for, other engineers much?
I've done some recording with other engineers: Dan Rathbun [Tape Op #10], Noah Landis [Neurosis], Kurt Schlegel [Lucky Cat Recording], and Mike Avilez from Burnt Ramen. I've done my rounds of checking out local engineers whom I respect and who have small operations. I always thought it would be cool to have a small operation. This isn't Fantasy Studios. But I missed the boat on interning. From the time I moved out when I was 18, it's been a scramble to get by and make bills, and unfortunately I wasn't able to go intern anywhere. I've pretty much learned through failing. [laughs] Throw mics up, and if...