Landmark to loudness

Pub date February 1, 2011

MUSIC Happy Sanchez’s office is above the cafe, by the entrance. There are only a couple of windows. One opens onto the parking lot, where a car alarm blares during our interview. The other is dark; below it are the building’s two hourly rehearsal rooms. Aside from the vibration of a double bass revving, we’re cut off from the activity going on at Secret Studios. As the owner, Happy makes up for this isolation with a wall of closed-circuit TVs showing the hallways and common areas tying the Studio’s 130 monthly rehearsal spaces together.

“Mostly it’s just about dealing with the headaches of running a business,” Sanchez says. The headaches, when your clients are all musicians, can be numerous. Bands arrive at 2 a.m., fresh from a gig, and decide to toss utility carts down the stairs. People try to smoke inside, piss in the parking lot, live in their units. Watch out for speed freaks. Make sure women aren’t being harassed. “Sometimes I feel like I’m the principal of the school,” Sanchez says.

Sometimes it’s just plain traumatic. “The one thing that upset me the most, this fucking guy was pissed at his girlfriend, took her cat, put it in the [rehearsal] room, and left it for weeks. Fucking poor cat was skin and bones by the time the girlfriend came and asked me to look for it. Most I’ve ever been upset at anyone. He was banned.”

“But most of the time people are pretty cool,” Sanchez is quick to add. “The people who are on the lease are level-headed. It’s always the friend or the guy that’s just hanging out that makes problems.” There is reason for me to doubt this statement, having just heard Sanchez tell another story about being held up at gunpoint by a rapper who wants his demo tape. But I’m still inclined to believe him, given the sheer number of clients he’s come in contact with in the 25 years since he took a job as a studio manager at Secret Studios, back when it was a small two-room operation.

At the time, Secret, like most of the studios in town, was about hourly rehearsal and recording space. The two units of Secret Studios were originally at Third St., before a mid-1980s move to 215 Napoleon St. in a building with lots of neighbors. “Mostly we did a lot of punk rock recordings, back in ’87,” Sanchez remembers. “This guy David [Pollack], who I later bought the studio from, at the time I was just working for him and he set me up with all these gigs.” They’d rent the place out for parties, for extra money. “Metallica rented it, back in the days when I guess they were big in Europe but they weren’t really that big, yet. Before the Black Album [1991’s Metallica] came out, when they blew up.”

Those involved in Secret during the Napoleon Street era attempted to confine major sessions to nighttime, but it eventually became clear — as the neighbors bitched — that a different location was needed. After the owner sold the business to Sanchez (“Basically, he gave it to me at minimal cost”), he was able to expand and then move into 50 units at the current location on 2200 Cesar Chavez St. The large warehouse with a single floor of small rooms was previously the sound stage for the talk radio TV drama Midnight Caller.

Sanchez credits some of his success to timing. “I got in at the right time. It’s just more expensive to build nowadays. People have tried to build big studios like this and it’s just not affordable anymore. They see it as easy money, but it’s not easy to pull off.”

One person who tried — and succeeded — was Greg Koch, who developed the nearly 180-unit Downtown Rehearsal in 1992. Earlier, Sanchez had passed on its Third Street location. “It was shady at night when most of my clients would be around,” he says. “That building was cheap, though. They couldn’t give it away.”

Downtown was a major competitor until the summer of 2000, when Koch attempted to evict all of his tenants without notice in an attempt to flip the property for a huge profit. In the process, he instigated a musical community revolt, resulting in a large cash settlement and the formation of a then-hopeful, now apparently stagnant nonprofit, SoundSafe. At the time of the turmoil, Secret Studios was still expanding to its current size of 130 units. “I basically opened my units and saw a huge influx of bands,” Sanchez says.

Sanchez has had many models for what Secret Studios should — and shouldn’t — be. He recalls that Francisco Studios, a Turk Street basement space, had a bathroom out of Trainspotting. He’s quick to admit that since he’s taken over the business, there have been mistakes and failures. A plan to start the International DJ Academy in the front offices of the building, with a partner who managed Invisibl Skratch Piklz, fizzled. “They never could quite get it off the ground,” he says. “It was a good concept, but I think they needed someone to run it as a business.” Along with a rap studio that was going at the time, the academy devolved into something that included a barber shop and a night club before Sanchez had to shut it down.

Which, technically, makes two rap studios Sanchez had to end. Back in the late 1980s, at Secret’s old location, there was a lot of money to be made from hip-hop. “These rappers were coming in and you could pretty much just charge them anything,” Sanchez says. “I think there was always the drug dealer in the background financing it. I swear, we had like three clients over time that got murdered. The first time it was kind of a shock. They found the guy in a trunk in Oakland. The second guy got murdered on the night of the earthquake in 1989. The scene just got too crazy. Gangster rap came out, and the whole vibe changed. It got really hardcore.” After a hold-up occurred at the studio and an expensive keyboard was stolen, Sanchez stepped away from the rap game in 1991.

Many artists have come through Secret Studios, but it’s not something Sanchez brags about. In part this stems from his respect for overall security, a high priority when theft is a concern. But it also has to do with his respect for confidentiality. The music business exposed him to a lot of drugs in the ’80s, and he himself struggled with addiction. From 1989 until 1992, he hosted a Narcotics Anonymous gathering — the Straight Edge Rockers meeting — in the studio on Sunday nights. “There were a couple people there that you would definitely know their names,” he says. “I’m actually thinking about getting it going again. It’s not as easy to pull off, but I always thought that meeting was so cool. There are a lot of people in the music industry that need that.”

Sanchez is desensitized to stardom. He’ll say that no one really big has ever been at Secret Studios, then rattle off a long list of names: the Dead Kennedys, Michael Franti, the Go-Gos, EPMD, Romeo Void, Chris Isaak, Mike Pistel, Toots Hibbert. Some of these connections are long relationships, some are incidental. MC Hammer rehearsed at Secret before he was big (but had the parachute pants). Gene Simmons came down in a limo.

Sanchez is happy with his success so far and grateful for the freedom to be a musician with a stable business. With another 10 years on the lease (which he hopes to extend to when his two-and-a-half-year-old son reaches adulthood), he’s satisfied with assuming a more administrative role at Secret. He does the books, handles the day-to-day issues, and makes his own music, composing for movies and television as the Latin Soul Syndicate.

For a lot less drama, Sanchez is a little less in the know about his clients and their role in the scene of the moment. A while ago, for example, he needed to contact a band about a bill. But the band was on tour, and he was referred to its business manager. He went online to look it up. He had no idea who the band was until he Googled “The Dodos” and a video popped up showing the band playing on The Late Show with David Letterman.