San Francisco, 1968: Patrick Gleeson was not fitting in well at his new job. He was the fresh-faced English professor at SF State—a Berkeley-educated, long-haired, bearded young whip who spent his spare time writing poetry and creating sculpture art. Gleeson was regarded with disdain by the college’s hard-drinking, conservative old guard—not least of all his new officemate, the school’s soon-to-be president S.I. Hayakawa. When Gleeson was arrested for participating in the famous Third World Liberation Front and Black Panther strikes, it was the final straw. The faculty gave Gleeson an ultimatum, which he declined. He walked out the door mid-semester and never returned.
But even before leaving academia, Gleeson was starting to develop an expensive habit: synthesizers. A classically trained pianist, he spent his evenings trekking out to Mills College in Oakland to get his hands on Dan Buchla’s earliest modular synths. Gleeson also struck up a friendship with John Vieira, a local synth enthusiast who’d quit his career to pursue music. In a triplex on South Van Ness Avenue, the two began experimenting with Vieira’s Moog 3. The pair picked up gigs scoring amateur films and commercials, learning on the job and lugging the Moog back and forth around the Bay Area to record in professional studios whenever possible. To make ends meet, they cut a hole in Vieira’s closet door, set up an 8-track inside, and began renting out time in the bedroom for $5/hour.
As the 70s quickly approached, demand for synthesizer sounds went wild. Their gear was starting to pile up, too, so Gleeson and Vieira started scouting for a new space. They settled on a warehouse at 3470 19th Street, which was later purchased in a generous rent-to-own arrangement—literally a handshake deal. They packed up their things and invited a handful of artists to come along with them.
Gleeson had started engineering records by that point, but the idea of a real studio didn’t seem viable until his breakup with academia was cemented. It took on a name one evening, standing in his kitchen drinking coffee with the great beat poet Michael McClure. Gleeson had just finished recording a set of McClure’s poems for a college textbook, and he confessed to the esteemed wordsmith that, with his academic career down the drain, he hoped (and feared) that a studio might be his big chance. McClure asked what it would be called.
Gleeson loved it. Though the “Really” was nixed by popular demand, the idea of Different Fur stuck.
In its early years, Different Fur was run as an artists’ commune, housing Gleeson, Vieira, a Stanford harpsichordist, a jazz saxophonist, and their various families and collaborators. Their kids occupied the second floor room that is now Studio B. As the years went on, it became less of a residence and more of a studio. Gleeson liked bucking trends, shunning the beaded curtains and hippie kitsch of the era’s competing local studios and staying with a clean and straightforward industrial workspace. The early studio was self-designed, a humble synth emporium and experimental musical space, and Different Fur became more than just a name as Gleeson began honing his synth expertise.
In 1971, Gleeson was enlisted to set up a Moog synth for Herbie Hancock. When Hancock saw Gleeson’s facility with the instrument, he not only allowed him to sit in, but asked him to join the great Mwandishi band. The next few years were a whirlwind of touring and sessions that would lead to Hancock’s classic albums Crossings, Sextant, and Head Hunters, much of which were recorded at Different Fur. “Most of that stuff was written in the studio or the night before,” Gleeson recalled. The time was a boom not only for Gleeson but for the reputation of Different Fur itself. The deeply innovative, improvisational ethos of Mwandishi is chronicled in Bob Gluck’s book, You’ll Know It When You Get There.
It was an era of freedom and artsiness for Different Fur. Early clients included Confunkshun, Taj Mahal, Bennie Maupin, Eddie Henderson, Van Morrison, and others. New artists such as Sly Stone bassist Larry Graham would come to Gleeson, eager to see what synth sounds could do for their music. Simultaneously, famed beat-era artist and director Bruce Conner was a fixture, literally plastering the walls with invaluable collages and imbuing the studio with his own unique and passionate manner. Conner tapped Gleeson to collaborate with Terry Riley on the score of his 1976 film Crossroads. The studio also hosted the hijinks and early recordings of Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! and even some of the wild scenes that appeared in Neil Young’s 1982 film Human Highway. It was also this mid-seventies whirlwind when Gleeson was tapped as the master synthesist for Francis Ford Coppola’s film, Apocalypse Now.
Propelled by such success, the building was leaving behind its days as a commune and coming into its own as a studio. With steady equipment sponsorship and, at times, hundreds of unopened ARP Odysseys stacked against the wall, Different Fur also became known as the cheapest and best place to buy synthesizers, a fact which aggravated local retailers. Gleeson said he had little interest in profiting, though. Rather, he viewed the sales as benefitting the arts community.
Toward the end of the 70s, it was decided that Different Fur needed an upgrade. Gleeson called renowned studio architect John Storyk to consult on the project, though they could hardly afford a full-scale blueprint. As the story goes, Gleeson spent a few days and one long night in the studio with Storyk, drinking and talking about design. They emerged with a small drawing—no more than 8.5 x 11 inches—the schema for the new room. The studio closed briefly and carpentry began. It was during this time that Howard Johnston, who would later become Different Fur’s co-owner, joined the studio as a carpenter, staffer and assistant engineer.
When the studio reopened, a new group of respected artists were drawn to its facilities. David Byrne took a break between Talking Heads albums to join forces with Brian Eno and begin work on the vastly influential album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Both Gleeson and Johnston, who engineered, celebrate these sessions as not only a jaw-dropping case study in inspired collaboration, but as an example one of the first sampled records. Johnston would work with Byrne to spool out massive, feet-long tape loops across the studio, help Brian Eno record symphonic harmonies on their five-stack cassette copier, jerry-rig Byrne’s guitar with tin foil, and watch as the two, still relatively obscure faces at that time, sat on the sidewalk of 19th Street, leaning against the building, killing time staring at passersby.
When Gleeson got deeper into film scoring, composing and touring, Johnston and others began to take on the engineering duties at Different Fur, sitting at the boards with the likes of Gene Clark, David Grisman, Stevie Wonder with B.B. King, Huey Lewis, Bobby Brown, The Residents, Phil Collins, Pablo Cruise, Jonathan Richman, Too $hort, Kronos Quartet, Earth Wind & Fire, and many others. The advent of home recording loomed, but Johnston said it actually had an interesting, positive effect: they’d now get an artist’s “best time,” as opposed to spending days tracking basics or tuning drums. Replete with vintage preamps, reverbs, and a Yamaha C7 grand piano, the professional studio retained all of its appeal. Different Fur also became home for the beloved Peanuts soundtracks. During a session one evening, creator Charles Schultz even provided a rare, Different Fur-themed Snoopy sketch. In 1985, Gleeson was overwhelmed with offers to buy the studio, but instead decided
to offer Johnston the studio for a good price. Johnston re-recruited Susan Skaggs, a sharp, efficient, and well-loved Bay Area studio manager, and the two came on as co-owners. Skaggs became well-loved as the studio’s GM, keeping up a strong tradition of serving clients needs while still keeping everyone’s schedule booked solid. Gleeson continued to live upstairs for a few more years as he constructed a new home in Potrero Hill.
In addition to an emphasis on client loyalty, Johnston and Skaggs also made sure the studio was looking toward the future with an eye on state-of-the-art equipment. They became the first Bay Area studio to buy the SSL console that is still used today, and oversaw the early integration of digital technology alongside analog. In 1987, Johnston remembers, he was invited up to Novato, CA about half an hour north of San Francisco to take a look at what the nerds at Lucasfilm were up to. Post-Star Wars, George Lucas’ engineers had spent several years on the cutting-edge “Droidworks” multimedia innovation project, and they finally had a digital audio editing platform to show for it. This is where Johnston was introduced to the Soundroid, one of the earliest digital audio workstations with the ability to both record and cut “tape,” no razorblades required. Though the Soundroid never went to market, Johnston was an early adopter of the technology, which evolved to become the mastering standard known as SoundBlade. The nineties brought in artists as diverse as Bill Frisell, John Zorn, Charlie Hunter, Primus, and Mr. Bungle. Johnston and Skaggs left a nearly 25-year legacy which carried Different Fur gracefully through its adolescence, into the refined, multi-faceted, professional studio that it is today.
Current owner Patrick Brown started working at Different Fur in the early 00s as an intern, gradually booking more and more of his own sessions and often sleeping at the studio, eventually taking the reigns as an engineer much like those before him. Brown purchased Different Fur at the low-point of 2008’s Great Recession and turned it into one of the San Francisco’s busiest modern studios. Largely, Different Fur’s new verve is a product of embracing and harnessing new technology. In 2009, Brown began collaborating with the brilliant photographic minds of the live-video blog Yours Truly, providing a venue for live performance videos from within Different Fur. In an inaugural shoot with The Morning Benders, a local pop band who recorded their standout debut album Talking Through Tin Cans at Different Fur, crammed dozens of musicians into the studio to produce a rollicking, wall-of-sound rendition of their standout track “Excuses.” It was the first in a continuing line of powerfully intimate, cinematic video postcards from the heart of the studio, showcasing artists like Wavves, Chromeo, Big K.R.I.T., Freddie Gibbs, Little Dragon, Girls, and dozens more.
Today, Different Fur is among the strongest bastions of San Francisco’s music scene. The studio regularly participates in events, giveaways, and sponsorships all geared toward benefitting local artists, strengthening the community, and ensuring the upkeep of the historic Mission District as a major cultural hub. Much like its founder Gleeson in the sixties, Patrick Brown lives upstairs, in his own apartment on the building’s top floor. Brown runs the studio as head engineer and has engineered records for Toro Y Moi, K. Flay, Psychic Twin and GRMLN. In recent years, Different Fur has hosted names like Bob Mould, How To Dress Well, The Black Lips, A B & The Sea, Beat Connection, The Mother Hips, Tegan and Sara, Main Attrakionz, Nick Waterhouse, Darondo, STS9, and Michael Franti & Spearhead—with many more to come. - Words by Will Butler