Landmark to loudness

Happy Sanchez keeps the secrets beneath the noise in Secret Studios

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Secret Studios' Happy Sanchez
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY BEN HOPFER

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."

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