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Sound Works? 

Tony Espinoza poured his dot-com millions into the fanciest music studio in town. With balls like that, who needs street cred?

Wednesday, Jun 9 2004

Page 4 of 5

"Everyone is privately off making records in their bedrooms, and there's very little exchange of artistry, performance, or technical information," observes Count, who started as an intern at Toast and who's now a successful freelance remixer/producer, having worked with local acts like Lyrics Born and Blackalicious as well as the Velvet Underground's John Cale at Soundworks a few months ago. "It's sad -- it's like there won't ever be another Motown scene, or another Bristol scene, or even a Seattle scene, because one of the primary components is missing."

That primary component -- what can only be referred to as the "vibe" of a place, the feeling of community spirit that brings out the best work among a group of artists -- is what will make or break Soundworks. The older studios around town seem to have lost it. Tiny Telephone has it, but is still making payments on it. What it would take for Espinoza to create it at Soundworks would be for a handful of credible local acts to take a chance on a shiny new studio and its atypical owner. They'd need to put their preconceptions aside and trust that there's more to Espinoza than big money and big talk. Already, there are a few that have taken that chance.

It's noon on a bright, sunny Tuesday in May, not that you could gauge the weather inside the windowless Studio A, where Espinoza, Spooner, four interns, and the members of local atmospheric pop-rock quintet Elephone have assembled to begin putting the finishing touches on the band's forthcoming EP. Today, Elephone is recording a new song, so Espinoza's crew is milling about like worker ants, setting up mikes, drums, guitar amps, keyboards, and other equipment.

An hour earlier, Espinoza and I had been talking at a cafe around the corner. When I'd asked about his time at AOL, he'd laid out the circumstances behind his departure, how he had foreseen that the company's expansion into music was too early, that it would be years before music and the Internet would profit from a marriage. When the VP in Espinoza comes out, it's obvious: He knows the names of all the CEOs and major players, knows and can explain why this or that management decision resulted in this or that profit or loss.

"I left on the kind of terms," he said of his exit, "where Barry [Schuler], who was the CEO at the time, told me that I was leaving $40 million on the table."

But that was an hour ago. Right now, seated in a swivel chair in front of his mixing board, a pencil tucked behind his ear and his foot tapping like an anxious schoolboy's, Espinoza is every inch the producer. He's in the zone, managing his handful of young interns with a gentle touch. Spinning in his chair, he grabs a CD and throws it on the control room's warm, ultra-high-fidelity system.

As the opening plucked bass notes of Interpol's "The New" smother the studio, the business of plugging and unplugging, cueing and adjusting, takes on a kind of rhythm, like a movie montage. This is Espinoza's own mix CD; in addition to Interpol it includes tracks by Swallow, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valentine. Espinoza is big into '80s shoegazer stuff.

"I'm trying to get my ears turned on. ... There's different kinds of listening. There's listening on an analytic level," he explains, referring to our earlier conversation, "and there's listening on an emotional level."

For the rest of the day, he'll be doing a lot of the latter.

"What's this song about?" Espinoza asks the members of Elephone.

"That's hard to say," responds guitarist Terry Ashkinos.

"That's what every band says," the producer counters. Eventually Espinoza gets it out of them.

"We're trying to break down the routine of the everyday. This is a haunting song," says guitarist/keyboardist Maurie Skinfull.

"Haunting, that helps."

After 20 minutes of conversation, Espinoza sends the band into the studio. He has stuck two pieces of tape on the mixing console in front of him, one with the word "haunting" written on it, the other with the phrase "darkness before the dawn, but the dawn might not come." It takes band and producer seven more hours of subtly tweaking each element, but eventually they get the song right: It sounds urgent, a little desperate, and, yes, haunting.

Before Elephone found its way to Soundworks, the group was working at Plant Studios, but ran out of money and time. When Elephone's drummer, Gavin Haag, an intern at Soundworks, pleaded the band's case to his boss, Espinoza took the fivesome in, offering them his staff, his producing abilities, and the full use of Studio A. This kind of package anywhere else would cost well over $2,000 a day; Elephone booked its day for a couple hundred.

"He's essentially taking major-label culture and using it to finance independent acts," says Skinfull. "[Yesterday] they had Vanessa Carlton in here with Stephan Jenkins [of Third Eye Blind] producing parts of her new record. He's not going to make money off bands that he really values; he's going to make money off bands that are already established, that don't really have a local following."

Adds vocalist Ryan Lambert, imitating someone divvying up a pile of money, "He's kind of doing this: 'Thank you very much, and put it over here.'"

About The Author

Garrett Kamps


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