Thursday, May 6

The last outpost of old-school SF music could only exist in the Bayview


Light Rail Studios is like a time capsule to a different San Francisco, one where the reels on the Grateful Dead’s vintage tape recording machines still spin and dozens of local bands rehearse in partitioned practice spaces under a watchful eyeball sculpture created by ‘70s musical pranksters The Residents.

The massive warehouse is split into a world-class recording studio and 56 rehearsal rooms rented by the month. It’s the type of place where any conversation is easily derailed with anecdotes about Neil Young’s session musicians and debates over the sound qualities of their vintage ‘70s Trident A Range mixing board (one of 13 ever built). The unassuming industrial pocket of the Bayview is one of the last places such a space could exist, with similar San Francisco practice spaces such as Lennon Studios being sold for millions.

“We’ve been a part of the Bayview for 30 years,” says Elton Cunniffe, an owner of the studio who began recording bands in the basement of a Lower Haight Victorian during the 1990s. The operation then moved to a warehouse at 215 Napoleon Street, spent an eight year stint at 18th and Minnesota streets until being pushed out by UCSF development and in 2010 returned to the Bayview at their current location on Toland Place.

“It’s the last fully commercial neighborhood. We got kicked out of the old studio because it was live and work, and lofts started going up, and they were like ‘get the industry out,'” says China Tamblyn, owner and production manager. “But here I think it’s going to stay a commercial zone, which artists and small businesses need.”

Nick Dumitriu, a producer at Light Rail Studios.

Robby Durler/Special to SFGATE

“What’s really cool about this neighborhood is that it’s such a little gem,” says Parker T. Gibbs, a producer and host of the studio’s live sessions. “You are minutes from downtown, if you’re a touring band, you’re minutes from the airport. There’s plenty of parking, you don’t have that in San Francisco.” Those rare parking spaces have been utilized by Light Rail for everything from kids’ band camps to record swaps.

Given their long tenure in San Francisco, Light Rail’s legacy stems from vintage rock sounds. Their Trident mixing board, which at one point was on sale for half a million dollars and is the size of a small bedroom, is worthy of a feature-length documentary about its journey from Johannesburg in the ‘70s to a Church of Scientology and then Metallica’s studio in Richmond. To show off the Meyer Audio studio speakers, producer Nick Dumitriu cues up a Rush song, which was actually recorded on a Trident. Despite their rock roots, over the years the studio has adapted to changing musical trends. They still host the Doobie Brothers on occasion, but also rappers like Lil’ Wayne.

“It’s interesting the ways the cold calls have changed over the years. It used to be, ‘hey man, I’ve got my band,’ and now it’s all emcees,” says Dumitriu. “And most of them are right down the street… It’s certainly not a financially tenable thing to do to record little up-and-comers, but I’m like, ‘drop me a link, if I like it you can come on down.’”

Light Rail Studios, a warehouse in the Bayview, offers dozens of practice spaces for musicians rentable by the month.

Light Rail Studios, a warehouse in the Bayview, offers dozens of practice spaces for musicians rentable by the month.

Robby Durler/Special to SFGATE

In addition to adapting to the changing music landscape, the operation has had to evolve with the pandemic. They had already started to invest in video production in early 2020 with a project dubbed Light Rail Station, a large production studio capable of producing 4K resolution, TV-quality video on a stage meant to invoke a police station from the classic sci-fi film “Blade Runner.” They initially hoped to serve a similar function to radio stations like KCRW in Los Angeles and KEXP in Seattle, where touring bands drop by for live sets. That idea was derailed at the beginning of the pandemic, but since broadcast stations qualify as essential services, Light Rail was able to continue operating.


“We were able to really quickly set up our COVID protocols, stop having a live audience, have a stripped-down crew, and focus more on solo acts. We did a whole literary series with Red Light Lit,” says Tamblyn. They also hosted iconic film director John Waters on his most recent virtual book tour, alongside fellow director Jim Jarmusch. The event featured a live Q&A that’s become a staple of their broadcasts.

“We’re here to tell stories. People don’t want to just watch a band, they want some interaction,” says Gibbs. “We started having people calling in or writing questions, that while I was hosting, I’d start commenting on. You get the band engaged, and it’s a totally different dynamic.” That interaction was particularly vibrant once they got Grateful Dead alums like Melvin Seals and Dennis McNally involved (shocker, Deadheads like to ask questions).

The streaming sessions have helped bring music to people from around the globe, with Italian residents particularly active viewers in the earliest days of their broadcasts, but Light Rail’s most essential service during the pandemic may have been their rehearsal space operation. Renting at a surprisingly reasonable $600-1,200 per month gives Light Rail a steady income while recording has slowed, and offers musicians a safe place to practice until live music venues reopen.

Light Rail Studios, a warehouse in the Bayview, offers dozens of practice spaces for musicians rentable by the month.

Light Rail Studios, a warehouse in the Bayview, offers dozens of practice spaces for musicians rentable by the month.

Robby Durler/Special to SFGATE

“You can’t play in your house in San Francisco, it’s not like the suburbs where you can play in your garage. This is like your garage,” says Tamblyn.

“Condos reign supreme. The more condos that go up, and there’s no place for spaces like this,” says Gibbs.

Talk of condo development brings the conversation back to the original days of Light Rail. In the ‘90s, it was located in a Victorian full of musicians at Webster and Haight, when the neighborhood was what Dumitriu described as “a spicy meatball” and Fillmore Street was something of a cultural dividing line between the projects across the street.

The roundtable of old school San Franciscans start to reminisce about dancing all night long at Nickie’s and bemoan the jerks who’d park their motorcycles in front of Armadillo’s (Cunniffe was one of them). Dumitriu tells the story of the Les Paul guitar he bought in the ‘80s for a few hundred dollars, and Cunniffe describes a violent altercation at an old Mission bar called Chatterbox that involved a Kiss pinball machine.

It’s the type of conversation that’s relatively rare in today’s San Francisco, and basically an endangered species during an era where spontaneous banter with an old friend at a music venue is non-existent. Right now, there’s not a lot of other places you’ll find this type of old-school counter-culture banter than in a sleepy, but very noisy industrial pocket of the Bayview.

It’s Bayview Month at SFGATE. We’ll be diving deep into the neighborhood for the entirety of March as part of a new series where we’ll be highlighting a different corner of San Francisco every month this year.





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