Refuge at the End of San Francisco: Eric Bauer’s Mansion and the New New Psychedelic

Richard B. Simon on February 4, 2016

San Francisco is dying. The epicenter of American counterculture—a spawning ground for beat writers, wave after wave of psychedelic rock and punk rock, the environmental movement and the gay rights movement—has been colonized by tech companies. Planet-scale social networks flow through this city, every digital transaction leaving a penny, every click a micro-penny. Information and wealth are accumulating here, attracting young coders and venture capitalists seeking fortunes, and rapidly washing the old, weird Frisco away. Construction cranes perch like alien landers. New office buildings and luxury high-rise condos seem to pop up weekly, obscuring the views of the mountains, the bridges, the Bay. A tsunami of evictions and displacements seems to rise relentlessly, along with home prices and rents. At this writing, it costs, on average, $4,200 to rent a two-bedroom apartment and over a million to buy a house. If, as David Byrne has said, the most important thing an artist needs is cheap rent, then San Francisco is no longer a place for artists. And artists—once drawn here by the city’s storied history— have been fleeing in droves, for Oakland, Calif., Portland, Ore., Seattle and LA.

Behind a secret door, down disjointedly striped stairs, past a Buddha and mandala, and behind a velvet curtain, a warren of rooms lay piled with analog recording gear. Loose heaps of records and pro audio gear mags. Tube amps and stray guitars. Cloth-wired mixing consoles. Massive Studer 2-inch tape machines. An old Tascam 388, the brown slab of ¼-inch, 8-track tape recorder that has become a staple in the garage-rock underground. On the blue walls, pink elephants file past pyramids. A giant smiling mouth with a rainbow for a moustache balances a white rabbit silhouette on its tongue.

This is Bauer Mansion—a lo-fi hot spot in the analog rock underground. The Mansion has become the locus for both the garage scene around Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, Mikal Cronin, Sic Alps and Peacers, and the faction of the San Francisco psych scene that has as its core the members of the seminal post-punk psych band Comets On Fire, as well as singer-songwriter and Espers alum Meg Baird, singer and guitarist Charlie Saufley of Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound—all playing in various combinations, on one another’s solo and side records, sharing gear and space and ideas. The scene is reminiscent of those old days at Wally Heider’s studio in the Tenderloin, only about a mile away, where the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young would record down the same hall, and sit in on each other’s records, or stay up all night jamming with the steel wheels spinning.

The mansion’s control room has a purple couch, three 6-foot towers full of rack-mounted processors, and a 24-channel mixing console. Producer and studio owner Eric Bauer is at the board. He’s a thicklimbed Midwesterner, a native of Kansas City, Mo., a barbecue connoisseur. His skin is pale pink, his hair a nearly white blond. One might imagine he never leaves the studio. The lanky, curly-haired tech wizard Bob Marshall hunches over a computer display like a Morlock.

Through a small, wood-framed window, the recording space glows half blue and half red. Comets’ Noel Von Harmonson, maestro of sonic maelstrom, stands poised behind an audio oscillator and an Echoplex. Closer to the control room, singer and guitarist Ethan Miller is screaming, his hair and beard wild.

The work this night is on a new Comets On Fire album. The full band had been in the studio a few months before, laying down the basic tracks live. Miller and Ben Chasny swapped time dubbing in guitar leads. Now, it seems, they’re down to the last two rounds of vocal tracks. Bauer has run three lines from Miller’s vocal mic— one clean, one distorted and one through Von Harmonson’s cosmic weather machine.

Since his 2012 Howlin Rain opus The Russian Wilds, Miller’s lyrics have become more poetic, looser, more Beat. Now, he’s at full throat, telling the story of a Hieronymus Boschian nightmare swamp odyssey full of frogs and gators, an aggressive preacher and questions about sexuality. They’re working on the ending. Miller runs through the vocals over and over, trying to get the phrasing and the timing right. He stops the session, takes out a pen and revises the lyrics. He, Bauer and Von Harmonson discuss how to build the sonics so that the Echoplex and the lyrical intensity crest with the narrative arc. Miller tries various levels of full-throat and less than full-throat Comets-style singing. It’s traditionally a hardcore-punk shrieking but, as Miller’s voice has matured, he’s more in control of the overdrive. He’s got new tricks.

Miller takes his shirt off. On tape, drummer Utrillo Kushner has Comets in the groove, a heavy chunker. Ben Flashman’s bass is beefy and chorded. The guitars blare. The story builds. The preacher hounds the narrator. The distortion balances against the noise machine, the echoplex intensifies, Von Harmonson pulling Miller’s voice and the spaces between into a UFO spiral.

Miller drives and drives his voice until he is losing it, and panting. He jokes about long-term vocal damage.

“Bit of tissue flying off onto the Neumann,” Von Harmonson says. It’s an expensive microphone.

After the session, Miller and Bauer make plans for the next day when they’ll be finishing up a rough mix of a Howlin Rain show—recorded live on the 388 a few months earlier—in the spirit of Castle Face Records’ Live in San Francisco series that includes key installments by Ty Segall, Fuzz, White Fence and Thee Oh Sees. They rave over Meg Baird’s new record, Don’t Weigh Down the Light, also recorded here, and wonder whether she’s going to tour.

Von Harmonson, Miller, Baird and Saufley have a new band, Heron Oblivion— a heavy/sweet psych band with a dreamy vibe built around Baird’s crystalline vocals and crisp, spare drumming, Saufley’s and Von Harmonson’s guitars (alternatingly clean and reverbed or blazing and feedback-drenched), and Miller hanging back on the bass and backing vocals. The two tracks posted online garnered a frenzy of attention. And on this day, a three-record contract has come in from the famed Seattle indie label Sub Pop, which is also Comets’ home.

Von Harmonson and Miller agree that the best plan is to meet—the four of them— and ink it.

Eric Bauer bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco on a whim in 1998. He fell into the noise scene, and as the dotcom boom crested, he had a warehouse space/apartment South of Market, itself a former dot-com space, which he dubbed The Clit Stop, and began putting on underground art/noise shows, featuring bands—often his own—that were rooted in a similar concept.

“My first band [in San Francisco] was me on synth and this other guy on six turntables,” he says. “It was pretty much inspired by musique concrète. We were super into David Tudor and Bernard Parmegiani and Stockhausen and stuff like that.”

Bauer would bring Von Harmonson’s band The Lowdown, as well as Deerhoof, to play as often as he could. The two became fast friends, bonding over noise and circuit-bending gear (rewiring, say, an old Speak & Spell to get new, weird or useful sounds), and gigging in avant-garde noise combos.

“He’s always lived in some alternative style dwelling,” Von Harmonson says. “The Clit Stop wasn’t really zoned to be a living space. And then he moved to this other place at 16th and Mission that was a basement warehouse, and then he was at a different spot at 14th and Mission, back when that side of the Mission was super rough. And he lived behind a storefront. He had no windows in his entire place, and you had to walk through this weird kind of beach-cruiser bike shop to get through to his apartment. But ever since then, he’d be like, ‘I’m starting to get gear to set up a studio.’”

Bauer made the jump to Chinatown in 2008. He rented the underground space, got a five-year lease, then two years ago, as the latest boom picked up steam, signed an additional 10-year lease. He started with the 388, recording friends and, eventually, Segall’s Melted, Twins and Goodbye Bread. He literally lived in the studio; it has got a bedroom, a kitchen, an enormous sectional sofa. And as he got more serious, and the records he was making began to command attention, he added the bigger board, the rack-mounted processors and the Studers, each of which is about the size of a refrigerator, and one of which Segall helped move.

“Him and I, God, we were in my old car,” Segall says by phone from LA. “We went and got it from the East Bay and drove it down. We had to roll it down his street in Chinatown. It was one of the sketchiest things ever.”

Segall says he moved to LA when he got tired of living in 10-by-10 rooms in San Francisco. Now, he’s got a full home studio—and it’s modeled after Bauer’s and even incorporates Bauer’s cast-off gear.

“All of the gear I’m accustomed to, or familiar with, is from his house. The orange Chorus Space Echo Roland one? I have that now ‘cause that’s on every record that I did at his house. I actually have his old board. I have the machine that we did Goodbye Bread and Twins and Hair on. I bought it off him when he got his second Studer. So yeah, for me, his house very much created how I record myself now at home.”

In August, Ben Chasny was in Seattle, playing a solo acoustic Six Organs of Admittance gig. He has unruly dark hair, a thick beard and an almost nervous intensity.

His project this past year has been developing, writing and recording with his new Hexadic System. It’s based in postmodern philosophy and occult numerology—designed to be played or activated with a deck of cards. There’s a book and a custom deck, but any deck will do. He built it to break himself of wellworn tricks, to advance beyond an artistic plateau. By drawing cards and arranging them in a “Hexadic Figure,” then following organizational rules laid out in the system, a songwriter composes from a progression of rhythmic timings, of fields of notes that can be played during a certain time segment, of consonants to be used in a particular order in the construction of lyrics.

He recorded 2015’s Hexadic at Bauer Mansion. It’s a disconcerting rock record that is as challenging as free jazz, with Von Harmonson on drums, and either Saufley or Deerhoof’s founding guitarist, Rob Fisk, on bass.

Chasny came to the studio with the Hexadic charts. But it’s more a loose set of shifting rules than a precise arrangement. So the album was recorded mostly live, as in a laboratory.

“Each player has a choice of what notes to play for a certain amount of time, then you move to another time, then you move to another time,” Chasny says. “So I didn’t know what anyone was gonna play. I mean, Rob, the bass player—or Charlie played bass on it, too—he could have decided to play a different note, or this note or that note. So yeah, the charts for them are even more open than straight chordal charts. Somewhere in between charts with chords and a pure graphic score, where it’s more open to a subjective interpretation, like Stockhausen or something.

“We basically went through the charts for about an hour to two hours, and then we recorded. I’ve never actually played with real jazz musicians but, from what I’ve read, it felt like more of a jazz type of recording experience, where we had charts and we were improvising through the charts, and then we say, ‘OK, this is what we should do.’”

Saufley says that playing in that context was, at first, intimidating—and then electrifying.

“To go into that situation where you feel like you’re getting tossed into a Coltrane improv situation, where you’re given the basic skeleton of this mathematically, spiritually conceived system that he’s done, that you don’t really understand. I’m a garage musician, and I didn’t know if I could hang. So, I was scared, but once the music went, it was just delicious.”

As many artists do, Chasny lived at the Mansion during the recording. So he was able to process the sessions alone late at night or during the daylight hours when Bauer is away—at his gig tutoring English as a Second Language students at San Francisco State University—and recalibrate for the next day’s mixing or recording.

“Eric would go home and he would just open up the console to me so I could be actually at the console all night long, listening to stuff with playback and fooling around with stuff,” he says. “We would do a mix, and then he would come back and I’d be like, ‘Well, we’ve got to change this.’ Most of the stuff on the Hexadic record— that would mean the guitar needed to be louder. That guitar is way louder than guitars usually are on records. But that was part of what I wanted to do—something really extreme. So that happened because I was able to spend that time by myself in the studio, [making] many notes with many explanation points, saying, ‘You must turn it up! Don’t let him talk you into turning it down!’”

Meg Baird played in the Philadelphia psych-folk band Espers and in the punk band Watery Love. She is revered in Philly, Saufley says, as a folk artist with a particular sensibility. Unlike Philly producers, Bauer had few preconceptions about who Baird was or how she was supposed to sound. He hadn’t really recorded a quiet record before. And that has been liberating and given her space to find new ways to use her voice.

“Eric was fine with chasing some stuff down that was not going anywhere, adding more layers,” Baird says. “It felt a little bit more like artist residency than like, ‘OK, we’ve got one week. When you’re done, I’ve got somebody else right in here—it’s over.’ Which is usually how it feels when you’re trying to record in a studio on a small budget. It felt more collaborative.”

Don’t Weigh Down the Light, recorded as a duo with Saufley, is a contemplative record, its feel rich and oceanic. Baird’s singing can sound medieval, the sound of fantasy; here, it’s set amid thickly plucked bass notes, subtle fingerpicking, flavors from the great acoustic rock records. Her voice is cool and crystalline and sleepy, but with a warmth, like beach glass, layered in wave after harmonic wave of soprano and mezzo-soprano. Those layers, shot with earthy strumming and ridden by searing electric leads, add up to a complex collection of music. Bauer’s influence, Baird says, kept her from being “too modest and Mennonite. He says “Yes,” and “More,” all the time. He loves color. He likes things that are really stimulating. It keeps you from being too boring.”

To Baird and Saufley, the Mansion has felt like a refuge from not only the rapid surges of the tech boom, but also the grind of working day jobs to keep up with it (Baird at an environmental non-profit, Saufley as an editor at Premier Guitar) then recording late into the night, night after night, for months. The pair would meet downtown at quitting time, push their way through the sea of suits piling out of the office towers, and walk through the still-sketchy remains of the old, weird Frisco, past the displaced and the homeless, and into the liminal space between App City and North Beach and Chinatown.

“You go down into this basement, and suddenly you breathe easy and can start creating,” Saufley says. “But it’s a weird preface to creating.”

Baird says that grind was embodied in a fatigue that she consciously left on the record. “You can get vain about that,” she says. “It was a decision to let it stay.”

Howlin Rain’s Mansion Songs, for which Miller tapped his Heron Oblivion mates as well as other cohorts, has that weariness, too, expressed even more literally in the lyrics. The characters on Mansion are down, if not out, and trying to claw their way back up. The closing track, “Ceiling Fan,” is a Beat poem whispered by a bisexual art dandy, a cocaine flâneur. Every image bears the name of a painter, writer, singer, poet, filmmaker, dropped as allusion. Miller’s singular guitar, subdued across much of the record, comes squealing out into the foreground, the counterpoint to a rattled out paean to the rapidly shifting San Francisco:

All the romantic junkies, the hippies, the lost souls, the beautiful young, the beat cops pounding Market and 6th, the poets, the high tech gadget pioneers… they all came here for gold and got lost in a dream/We, too, may be lost…in a dream

“Eric has a little different way of working than most studios,” Miller writes from England, where he was touring with a new Howlin Rain. “In contemporary indie recording environments, usually the clock is ticking very loudly against the budget, and for most bands with small budgets, every step of the way is, ‘Well, that’s good enough or that will do, let’s keep moving— we have to.’ Having moments or days with Eric where you or he presents spaces where anything can happen, and he allows and provides for that to extend—in ideas, in tracking, in overdubs, in mixing—to get lost in a flow of unknown, that’s a very exciting and creative space for me to be in, and not all studios are philosophically (or physically) designed to make you comfortable in that environment.”

Bauer says that’s the point.

“I try to make it inviting and make people want to feel safe in getting out their ideas,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Come on, dude, I’ll do anything! The weirder, the better! That’s what we’re here for!’ I usually try not to book more than a couple weeks a month, because shit will go longer. I don’t want to put pressure on these people. Like, ‘Dude, don’t worry about it, don’t worry about the budget, don’t worry about time. Let’s just make this the way you want to make it, and let’s get it done right. Then we’ll put it out.’ And yeah, in that way, it’s conscious, you know? I know I’m not going to make any money doing this. I might as well make good fucking records.”

The musicians give great credit to Marshall, too.

“Bob’s the secret weapon,” Segall says. “Whenever he drops a tip on how you’re recording something, it’s always the most righteous and correct. He’s like this guru secret weapon, man. The silent secret weapon, Bob. But you ask anyone that’s recorded there post-2008, and they’ll say the same thing about Bob. He’s just as important as Bauer. In a different way, but he’s the shit.”

The result is blistering, hot tone, lo-fi rock, like the Fuzz records, a sort of heavymetal grunge, multidimensional sonic pastiche or montage-like on The Oh Sees’ Castlemania, a satirical garage-psych doo-wop, or, increasingly, high fidelity and even delicate balladry. If there’s a “Mansion sound,” then it’s deep, thick bass, rhythm guitars humming in the mids, a lead flying high above it all, and the voices of artists, recorded with clarity—the rich, warm sound of the 388, even when it’s recreated on more complex gear.

“That’s what my goal is—to make art,” Bauer says. “Not the flavor of the month. We’re not trying to cash in on whatever’s hip. We’re just trying to do whatever—whoever comes here, what they envision. My goal is to make that happen. Maybe even steer things in a weirder direction. We’re just trying to make honest records. We’re just trying to get what’s in people’s heads onto the vinyl. And it’s not because that’s what’s cool. That’s what we want to do. This is what’s in our heads, and we think this sounds right, just because.”

Heron Oblivion was born from a concept that Miller and Von Harmonson hatched, in which they would create some basic song structures and improvise through them with a succession of lineups. The original, Wicked Mace, debuted in 2011 at the non-profit psych fest Frisco Freakout. (Ed Note: The event was produced by author Richard B. Simon.)

For Wicked Mace II, they invited Baird and Saufley to jam, and because they were all close and old friends, their rapport was easy and organic. Saufley was coping with the dissolution of Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound. Baird had recently migrated to San Francisco, and her beloved Philly still cast a long shadow. Von Harmonson had been swept up in the wave of evictions. Miller was reconstructing himself after the grueling, five-year Russian Wilds cycle disintegrated Howlin Rain.

They found that they were unknowingly listening to the same obscure, old records at the same time—Japanese psych from the P.S.F. (Psychedelic Speed Freaks) label, the English folk-rock outfit Steeleye Span and the Swedish psych band Träd, Gräs & Stenar. They would get together, chat for a while, then improvise for a few hours and record everything. They recognized that they had something special—and started recording at the Mansion. They were shocked when, after all sorts of other struggles pushing other projects, this one, that fell together with almost accidental ease, brought a string of offers, and then the Sub Pop deal.

Live and on their self-titled first album, Heron Oblivion’s sound is expansive and dynamic. It’s a band of frontpersons without a frontperson. Baird is the lead singer, but she’s back there behind the drum kit. Miller is typically the wild man, way up front; here, he’s on bass, steering in a subtler way. Von Harmonson is on guitar rather than echo-electronics. Saufley, lead singer for Assemble Head, doesn’t sing at all. The guitarists see themselves as one amoebic entity. Asked for some clarification via email on who is playing what, they demur at first. Then they compliment each other.

Von Harmonson: “Charlie has a really graceful touch and can play more delicate arpeggios than I would ever even attempt. He can also roar like a bear. I tend to lean more toward style than precision (read: skill level) and try to incorporate a good amount of chaos, struggle and, oftentimes, a dose of nihilism. Though that sounds pretty lofty, oftentimes, I’ll strum chords or play rhythm while Charlie vaporizes the paint off the walls.”

Saufley: “Noel is too self-effacing here. He’s got rare/superb melodic ideas and instincts as a lead player. Also, the lead in ‘Rama’ is one of my favorite guitar moments ever.”

Von Harmonson: “There are a few moments where we have decided that the right move is for the guitars to blast in and basically melt the legs out from under the tune, knocking it off its course and burning it down. But I think we’re trying to be careful most of the time to incorporate a lot of space and mood into these songs, and hopefully that has become part of the signature sound of the band.”

The jams have a lot of open space. “Your Hollows” opens with a basic groove and very spare drums, then Baird’s voice cuts startlingly through; the guitars blaze in and merge with Baird’s vocals to crescendo into a moment of noise bliss. Baird writes most of the lyrics. She wants them to feel found, unearthed, “like they’ve always been there.” “17 Landscapes” was inspired by The Journal of Audio Ecology articles on how the soundscape in Fukushima, Japan, was changing after 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami caused the nuclear disaster there.

You were my own special island
So famous for your flowers
Getting so unwell, so unwell
Living at your feet, so unwell
You still look the same, but you don’t sound it

The Mansion was an essential safe space for these projects, a bulwark against the storm of life on street level. A collective antithesis to the me-first-ism that has overwhelmed San Francisco. A refuge, a fallout shelter, where the walls could collapse, the shells could crumble, new musical possibilities could be born, musicians reborn.

Miller, characteristically, strikes a counter-narrative.

“San Francisco was different before the 1906 earthquake and Paris was different before the boulevards. Let’s see what happens here. No sense in standing around in the final shadows of the old, bitching about what the new rich kids and real estate greed mongers are doing to the place. Hey, when Alan Forbes and I go get ramped up on expensive bourgeois espresso with the tech kids on Valencia, then walk down Market and up through the bottom of the ‘loin to the Great American [Music Hall], there’s really no city on earth I’d rather be.”