Late in 2009, the Mission recording studio Different Fur played host to a night of local musical magic. Upstart Berkeley band the Morning Benders was recording a video with the then-scarcely-heard-of S.F. music video outfit Yours Truly. It was a few months before the release of the band's second album, Big Echo, and the members wanted to capture a unique performance of opening track "Excuses." With Yours Truly's crisp camerawork taking it all in, the Benders gathered dozens of friends — which included local music luminaries like John Vanderslice — and cut a swooning, wall-of-sound version with only four mics. "Excuses" attained a cinematic grace that night at the studio, and the video, posted on websites like Pitchfork and Gorilla Vs. Bear, was an overnight success. Helped by the album and video, the Morning Benders skyrocketed to national notoriety, and Yours Truly became the new standard-bearers for independent music videomaking. (The "Excuses" clip is still Yours Truly's most-watched video.)
The shoot also marked a new period of prominence for Different Fur, a cozy complex tucked behind dual red doors on 19th Street near Valencia. The place has a long, rich history — it has hosted sessions by Stevie Wonder and David Byrne, among many others — but now Different Fur is building a reputation as one of the more desirable places for local artists to record. Part of that is thanks to the interests of owner and engineer Patrick Brown and the other engineers, who regularly bring in artists they find in the city's clubs. Local studio alumni include, of course, the Morning Benders, who recorded their debut album here; rising beach-pop stars AB & the Sea, who came to S.F. from Wisconsin to record at Different Fur and stayed; and the promising jazz-funk group Grillade.
Part of it is the ongoing success of Yours Truly, which continues to drop by for late-night video sessions. "Different Fur has been a huge factor in the building of Yours Truly," site cofounder Will Abramson says. "Without them, I don't think we would have been able to grow the way we have."
And of course part of the studio's popularity — it's pretty much constantly booked — is owed to the facility and its employees. Its engineers have diverse musical interests and are about as laid-back as music types get. There's a sofa, a kitchen, and a sauna upstairs. And if you do something funny during a session, chances are Brown will tweet about it.
On a recent afternoon, Brown recounted the studio's history as the indie-rock band Lilac laid down drum tracks for a new album. The place was founded as a musical commune in 1972 by synth expert and producer Patrick Gleeson, who recorded the storied Herbie Hancock albums Sextant and Headhunters here. Different Fur was used through the '70s and '80s by Neil Young, Phil Collins, Devo, Brian Eno, and many others. In 2004, the studio took on Patrick Brown — then fresh from a recording program at Expression College in Emeryville — as an intern. Brown worked his unpaid ass off for 12-plus hours per day, six days a week. He began booking his own sessions at Different Fur, and soon became a full-time engineer. "Most of the time, I just slept here," he remembers. Six years later, he took over running the studio, and soon after that, he bought the place. Now he manages the studio, oversees sessions, and lives upstairs. (He claims he can't hear it when bands hold all-night sessions in the ground-floor studio.)
Times aren't exactly easy for professional studios. They're expensive, and technology now allows almost anyone with ears and a laptop to record at home. Different Fur also doesn't attract the kind of big-name clients that New York or L.A. studios do, but then, as Brown puts it, Different Fur isn't a major-label kind of studio. "We don't tend to have those clients that come in and ... pop champagne while in the studio," he laughs, noting that his place is "doing better than surviving." Along with the rise of Yours Truly, the Bay Area's growing status as a musical technology hub has helped revive interest in recording here, Brown says. So even the diminutive Different Fur manages to attract talent from across the world: German-based producer Tom Krell, better known as How to Dress Well, comes to S.F. to record. And even big touring artists like Flo Rida and Will.i.am have stopped by to lay down some ideas.
But Brown and the crew are content to keep their focus local. They're excited to work with local labels like Tricycle and Omega, and artists like indie singer-songwriter Ash Reiter, and rap collective Team BackPack. Of course, they love seeing acts they've worked with in the past — like those Morning Benders — continue their rise, and it hasn't hurt that some have managed to bring the name of a certain Mission recording studio with them.