AjiSignal is taking a look at the people who are helping make the music in cities. This week AjiSignal is talking with engineer and producer Chris Testa who recently opened The Greenhouse recording studio in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake.
AjiSignal: Hey Chris, thanks for sitting down with us. Lets get down to it! Who are you, where are you from, and what do you do?
Chris: Whew… so formal… ha!… I’m from New Jersey living in LA and I make records.
You are not a West coaster. Tell us a bit about how u ended up in LA.
The first studio I worked at was the legendary, now defunct, Hit Factory on 54th and 10th … I met a lot of great people there and it was a great experience. I eventually worked with Jim Scott and John Fields (both of LA) within the same month and I hit it off with both of them. I was looking to leave and they both wanted me to come work with them in LA. John was the first to offer me a job so I left for LA and stayed with John and worked on a number of things with him. After about a month I came back, packed up and left with a friend of mine to live in LA. Working with Jim Scott didn’t happen for another year at that point, but the reason I came to LA was because of the encouragement of Jim Scott and John Fields.
I know that your newest endeavor has been building out a recording facility. So tell us what it is called and how it came about.
I started calling it the Greenhouse because I painted it green. Pretty original, I know. Anything non-techy sounded good to me. I just needed a place to do more than edit and mix which I could do in my house. The space is not that big but everything is set up there and I can track anything… drums, bass, guitars, piano, keys, vocs… all of it… Budgets are small in the music biz these days and if you can get a cheap place and just have a day rate for you, with your place included, you’re able to keep costs down for bands on a budget and pocket as much money as you can for yourself. I had just done a couple of big budget records and I wanted to work more with bands that weren’t signed and making good music, so I kind of have to have a place like this.
With all the home studios popping up, and all the major studios in town, The Greenhouse falls in between. Are you approaching the creation of The Greenhouse so that it brings the best aspects of a home studio and the best aspects of a major studio together? (You had a home studio here too at one point right?) Also, can you comment on the recording studio business in LA and tell us how you fit into the fabric of the studios in town.
Well, first and foremost, it’s my fun-house…. a place to be creative in comfort… Secondly. it’s a place for me to do more gigs for more bands on a tighter budget, or nowadays, no budget….I’d like to think that I can be satisfied with whatever is done there but it does have it’s limitations, although I can work around them. There are a lot of big studios still left in LA and that’s probably because a lot of others have closed and they’ve picked up the slack. There are still major label records with decent budgets these days and you can afford to go to a bigger studio in these situations. Most situations involve getting the most bang for your buck so that’s where the Greenhouse falls. Its a much better place for me to work. Everything is tailored to how I like to do things and I can move quicker and keep the inspiration rolling. Plus it’s 4 blocks from my house and 2 blocks from the center of the main drag in Silver Lake so you can’t beat that.
Was there a reason you opened up the studio in Silverlake and not further West? Was Silver Lake’s creative community an influence in you opening up The Greenhouse there?
Not really… the motto in LA is “live where you work”… the place really just kind of popped up and it happened to be close and affordable. I’m hoping the location is a benefit. I like being in the center of things if you’re in a city… otherwise, the more remote the better. I’m literally a couple of blocks from all kinds of cafe’s, bars, clubs, restaurants and coffee shops. People can keep themselves occupied even if their hanging out and not recording. When the weather gets a little nicer I’m just going to walk here.
I understand that you’ve worked in studios of all shapes in sizes in town. Are there any favorable attributes from other studios that you are trying to incorporate into The Greenhouse?
Well. my place is so small that I can’t really have many of the luxuries of a classic studio but if there is any one thing I take from them is functionality. I’m really big on having everything working perfectly all the time. Not all of my gear is amazing, but I do use all of it and it all works great, and is ready to go. I like to be able to move from any one thing to any other so it pretty much all has to work all the time. I also like to feel comfortable…so I had this theory when I was putting it together that beautiful women walking around barefoot had to feel comfortable everywhere… I think I’ve succeeded in that…. ha! you need some sort of atmosphere where you can easily lose yourself and let your guard down… then everything else will come… the groove, the sounds…
How would you describe the recording philosophy behind The Greenhouse? Are there things you always want to accomplish with an artist or group while working in the context of The Greenhouse? I ask this because your studio is setup in a bit of an unorthodox fashion by having a combined control room and live room.
I want to be able to do anything involved with music there. I’ve worked on records, movies, tv shows, websites… all of it. Anything that’s interesting with interesting people is what I’m interested in being interested in .. :)… When I first came to LA from NYC I had a great experience. I went to visit a drummer friend of mine named Dorian Crozier and he was cutting drums in a tiny one car garage (a for people not from LA, the old one car garage’s don’t even really fit new cars… they’re tiny). When I walked in, there was this drum-kit crammed in the corner, a Pro Tools rig right next to it and everything was on top of each other… He hit play and I couldn’t believe what he was doing. It sounded big and powerful and I was blown away… So ever since then I’ve never thought the place you were in was much of a limitation. If you get creative and have some good instruments and good gear you should be good to go.
I know that you recently worked with Source Victoria from Tempe, AZ, and you’re working with another band in Tempe too. What’s going on with that and how did it all come about? Are you approaching these projects differently now that you have The Greenhouse at your disposal?
I’m actually in the middle of making the new Reubens Accomplice record. They’re a fantastic band with a really interesting dynamic to the music. It’s still very early on but we have some great stuff tracked already and the guys have written some great songs. I mixed all of Source Victoria’s latest CD (mastered a few songs too) and did some tracking with them last month when I was in Tempe working with Reuben’s Accomplice. I met both bands through Jim Adkins when I was making the latest Jimmy Eat World record in Tempe last year. Jim is a big fan of the local music scene and very much a part of it. From going out with him I met all these guys and got to see a bunch of good shows in bars… when both bands needed help JIm just told them to call me and one thing led to another… a highlight being Jim and I playing with Source Victoria on stage at their record release party… as far as having the studio goes… it just gives me a place to be creative in private and do what I have to do with the things I’m working on…
Any predictions on how we will see The Greenhouse evolve over the coming year?
Not really… I just hope it’s busy… I view it as a spring pad to the next place… if you’re not moving up you’re moving down…
Tell us a little bit about the acoustic and aesthetic design of your studio. Did you have a specific aesthetic you were going for or did it just evolve as you built it? I heard something about building a little pond out on the deck?!
Each place kind of tells you what it’s going to be based on it’s size, shape and what it’s made out of. I just tried to work with the place instead of against it and I think it worked out… It’s not big but there are 3 separate rooms to record in all with a different sound. The main room is a concrete floor with area rugs. The main iso booth is a wood bamboo floor and a smaller booth has a carpet floor. So I have a few choices. As far as the aesthetic, it just had to be comfortable and functional. I had an idea of the cliental that I want at my place and it had to be good enough for them. In the end, I’m the harshest critic, so it had to be up to my standards. We started with the electrical and 4 months later we’re close to done…. whew… and yeah… the pond is coming… I don’t think that the vibe should ever be more important than the functionality of a studio but I do think they are just as important as each other. Most people just don’t get that. Unless you’re the only person that’s ever going to be in there then you’re place needs to feel comfortable to all types of people.
And lastly, after a couple long days of working with a band from out of town, where would you take them out after the last day of recording?
I just had a great experience… I was doing some additional work with Butch Vig on a record he was producing for the band the Subways… the last nite they were here they played their first show in 3 months at a small club… they fucking kicked the shit out of everybody, and took off for home… I’d say that’s a great way to end the time spent recording… letting it all out and taking off… I mean, everything else is bullshit anyway..
Thanks Chris. Look forward to hearing the new records.
AjiSignal is a magazine
about new music in cities.