CAREERS + ED ISSUE: How one guitarist's passion became a means of San Francisco survival
LEFT OF THE DIAL It's a question most musicians are all too familiar with. If you tell someone at a party that you're a working musician, that person is inevitably going to ask — after a few polite questions about your hardcore band/classical jazz quartet/street-corner performance art where you alternate reading Blake passages with playing the accordion — "So, you have a day job?"
In a city like San Francisco, especially, the answer is almost always "yes." And there's no shame in that! Bartender, barista, Whole Foods cashier, teacher, graphic designer, marijuana dispensary employee — I've heard all of these in just the last month or so of musician interviews. A person's gotta eat.
And then there's Tim Marcus. On a recent, rainy Tuesday afternoon, the guitarist was hunkered down in a small bedroom-turned-electrical engineering workshop in the Lower Haight apartment he shares with his girlfriend. Marcus, 35, is one of the most sought after steel guitar players in the Bay Area. He spent the latter half of the aughts with the now-defunct (but much loved) San Francisco Americana band Or, the Whale. A few hours after this interview, he'll be playing Amnesia with alt-country rocker Tom Rhodes; two days later he's heading out on the road for a three-week East Coast tour with San Francisco folk songstress Kelly McFarling. But right now he's at his day job: Flanked by stacks of glass tubes, fuses, and various tiny metal parts whose purpose we can only guess at, he's building an amplifier. And not just any amplifier. An amplifier of pedal steel dreams.
As the founder, owner, and sole employee of Milkman Sound, Marcus has created a living from building toys — and he's the first to call them that — for musicians who are just as choosy as he is.
"I started playing guitar when I was 10, and played in bands all through middle school, high school, college," says Marcus. "I started doing it professionally in the early 2000s. And there just wasn't what I'd consider to be a boutique option [for amplifiers] for pedal steel guitars. If you drive a car, most people buy a Ford or a Subaru, but you have the option to buy a Ferrari. As a pedal steel player, in particular, you really wound up shoehorned into buying Fords and Chevrolets, things that are made for [regular] guitar players."
He gained the technical know-how required to build amplifiers from a couple places. Back East, he worked for a company that did repairs on audio-visual equipment, where he'd hand off old or unused parts to a friend who built amps in exchange for his tutelage. After moving out to San Francisco, Marcus went to work for BBI Engineering, an SF company that installs AV and theatrical systems for museums "and other places that use automated amps, where you walk in, push a button and everything happens," he says. "I learned a lot about making things that work well, that aren't going to break if they're subjected to kids poking at them day, in day out."
Frustrated at being unable to get the clarity and quality of sound he wanted out of his guitar, Marcus started small, ordering the best parts he could find — some vintage, some new, with a priority on materials made in America — to build one amplifier for himself. He still has it (it's sitting in a custom Milkman slipcover in the corner of the workshop, which, Marcus notes, is more easily navigated than usual — he just shipped out a bunch of amps) but he's revamped that first one more times than he can count.