The Bomb Shelter’s Andrija Tokic on Home Recording and Upcoming Projects

Music Features

Nestled along the Cumberland River, just a few miles from the neon lights of Nashville’s Broadway teeming with the city’s honky tonks is East Nashville. One of the neighborhood’s nondescript, renovated shotgun houses is home to the “analog studio wonderland” known as The Bomb Shelter. At the helm of the studio’s controls is Andrija Tokic, whose credits include blues rocker Benjamin Booker’s self-titled debut, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s critically acclaimed Small Town Heroes and the Alabama Shakes’ Boys & Girls. We caught up with the 31-year-old Tokic in-between sessions and spoke to him about his start, the birth of The Bomb Shelter and what he’s working on these days.

Paste: I’ve read you were a musical prodigy.
Andrija Tokic: [laughing] I don’t know about that.

Paste: Putting modesty aside, can you tell me about your musical beginnings?
Tokic: I started in Suzuki lessons when I was a little kid and played violin for a very short time. Then my mom, who is a piano teacher, tried to give me piano lessons and realized I probably wouldn’t listen to her and practice. So she got me a guitar when I was in first grade for Christmas along with some music lessons from a dude who looked like he was in like Guns N’ Roses.

Paste: You started working in studios when you were 13. How did that happen?
Tokic: We had some neighbors that were in a band in our town, and they had a home studio that they would take me to and let me hang out in while they did little recording sessions. And I got really fascinated. They gave me an old four-track, and I started recording at home on that. Then, whenever they went to the studio in town to start making their bigger production record, they brought me to the studio. I already kind of knew the principles of punching in and out and tape operations because it’s the same thing on a four-track as it is on a big 24-track. It fascinated me, so I just started doing that anytime and on weekends. I’d go and hang out in studio and try and run the tape machine, or get my hands on any mic, or anything I could.

Paste: Is this the only job you’ve ever had?
Tokic: Yeah, pretty much I guess. I mean, maybe the occasional odd job here and there, helping as a kid, helping an adult do something. Maybe helping dad at the construction site, once in a while, or like family friends with chore stuff, but never really had a job job, ever. In high school, I was valuable enough in the studio to start engineering for pay.

Paste: So I guess you feel like you’ve missed out on having a cubicle and a nine-to-five?
Tokic: [laughing] Yeah. Totally, man. That’s what I miss the most. The security of a cubicle.

Paste: You’re originally from Maryland. How did you end up in Nashville?
Tokic: I was recording a big band jazz album in D.C. The band leader was so stoked with the sounds I got, recording a big live jazz band, and he was just pumping me up and said, “You need to go somewhere else where there are more musicians playing in studios.” A lot of what was happening in D.C. was half electronic or all electronic. You know, it wasn’t nearly as often there, at least in the market we were in, that you would get an entire band of musicians playing instruments. And he was like, “man, you got to go down there,” and I don’t know whether or not he actually thought I was listening to him or taking him seriously, but I imagined this thing down here where there would be a million bands and everyone played instruments and recorded live together. And I just went for it, not really knowing anything about Nashville.

Paste: How long ago did you move to the South?
Tokic: It would’ve been 10 years ago.

Paste: Where were you recording when you first moved to Nashville?
Tokic: Well, really, out of my house, for the most part. You know, in bedrooms recording on very minimal stuff, and then, at one point, I got into a bigger studio and saw how that end works and was introduced to the bigger industry kind of recording process, which was a lot different than what I really imagined. In my naïve, younger mind, I imagined everyone wrote their own songs and recorded with their live bands and everyone worked together. I wound up in the world of where songs were played for the artist in the studio for the first time and there are these incredible musicians that can nail radio-ready versions of songs in one take. It was a very different process from what I was used to. I was used to working with a band’s musicians. Maybe somebody can’t get this thing they’re trying to get to, and you help them through it, and then, they do something they didn’t know they could do. Or people wrote their own songs, and it might be like, “Hey, this song is totally cool, but man, what do you think about it if we shorten the bridge, or maybe, let’s toss a bridge in there, or it’d be really cool if the drums were more dynamic here,” you know? All that interaction between all the people in the studio is what I was used to and what I’d seen in professional studios, but I hadn’t really done this big of industry stuff that I was getting into, and it kind of threw me for a loop a little bit. I wasn’t too sure that the reasons that I got into music and what I liked about recording music was really what I was going to be doing anymore, and I just had to get out of that and just go back to recording bands out of the house only.

Paste: What happened after that experience?
Tokic: At that point, I picked up a lot more equipment, like the board that I used at a young age had come up for sale. At this point, my house was becoming a full-on studio. Every room had all kinds of big analog pieces of gear and lots of guitars, drums and amps that I had been accumulating. Getting back into the home recording world, I was armed with way more equipment and a lot more know-how too. From intern to assistant to engineering, I learned a whole lot about better techniques and faster process, and I came back with a much higher education in recording with hands on experience with some really incredible musicians. It made more sense that I could, now, start doing something much better out of my house.

Paste: When Bomb Shelter Studio launched from your living room, what was that experience like?
Tokic: It was terrifying at first because I never knew when I had a gig or not, but pretty quickly I found a lot of camaraderie with bands that were inspired by music that was performed live during recoding. And that was kind of the only option too. In a house there’s really only so much isolation you’re really gonna get. So out of necessity, we had to record things in a pretty stereotypical old-fashioned way. That attracted more people that felt like that’s how they wanted to make music, and I really started building alliances with really good musicians who were not necessarily on the mainstream radar. Great players who were inspired by something a little different, more into the arts and music and creating unique sounds, and capturing takes that have a lot of energy, and just interplay between musicians, and it just kind of snowballed out of control pretty quick. It just kept growing and growing.

Paste: How did the limitations of recording in your house shape what you do today?
Tokic: It made me very interested in abnormal acoustics spaces. Actually, I shouldn’t say abnormal. It made me really interested in recording in ordinary acoustic situations. When somebody writes a song on their acoustic guitar in a drywall room that’s like eight by 10, it sounds a certain way, and then, if you put them in like a studio that’s been designed, from the ground up, by an acoustician, that song sounds totally different than it did to the artist when they sang it the first time, when they were writing it, which is usually the thing that everybody thinks about when they are recording a song, is what was the feeling they had when it came out. That was a big thing for me going from a really small bedroom recording to really nice studios, and back into my house. Having such little space had me recoding things in any spare part of the house, even the bathroom, I was like, dang, know this thing sounds great in bathroom, like in the shower. Vocal sounds great there, or this drum set sounds awesome in a tiny, tiny little plaster room, and that being said, too, I also learned a lot via trial and error, like where I had problems that weren’t cool in home recording. It shaped what I look for in a space and what I think sounds good in a room. It became, to me, very normal to get a band together and play a song together and record it that way, where some people take a song apart and go instrument by instrument and stack it up.

Paste: How did recording the Alabama Shakes album come about?
Tokic: They just found me online, I think. They were kind of interested and they had heard a couple things that I had done, and I met up with Heath [Fogg], the guitar player. He came out to my house and checked out the studio, and we just put down a couple dates to record.

Paste: So what was it like to be involved with arguably the biggest breakthrough rock act of 2012?
Tokic: I don’t even know how to answer that. It’s really hard to imagine what it was because I was working with as many cool bands as I could, and I still am. There were certain things I wasn’t used to, like a different kind of exposure, or a different demographic of people I reached. I saw more of the industry outside of my neighborhood. It’s really kind of hard to say. I don’t know. I guess it might be a few years until I can really zoom out and tell you, because I’ve just been in it, and in the moment, for so long before and after that album. I’m just like always looking forward. I don’t do much looking back. At some point, I’ll probably have a very clear image of what that was like, but right now, it feels like it was just yesterday that we were recording some songs.

Paste: It has to be crazy to think that such a big album was recorded in your living room.
Tokic: [laughing] Yeah.

Paste: You recently moved the studio from your home. What was the reason for that?
Tokic: Well, I had always wanted to do that, just to have a little more space. And I’m kind of a neat freak at work, and it’s hard living in your work spot all the time. You know if you have some friends over and things get messy and you have a band coming in at 10 a.m., it’s a lot to deal with. I kind of always wanted to separate the spaces. I got another house that I put the studio into, and it’s been completely remodeled. It was gutted whenever I got into it, and it’s still a house, so I still have this pretty relaxed vibe. It never feels like you’re in a clinical space, but it’s more conducive to recording, because you know it’s not like there are tiny holes in the wall where I may have stuck a small piece of glass. I have like nice big windows and just enough space to spread your instruments out, not have to go around something to plug your guitar into your amp. You can walk straight to your amp and plug in. It got pretty intense at the house, and eventually there was no room at all to move between several tape machines, and tons and tons of amps and drums and pianos. It worked out that I found a place that somebody had already dealt with gutting it and I could walk in and have the home vibe of a studio, but have a little more work-efficient environment.

Paste: Why did you name the studio The Bomb Shelter?
Tokic: You know, I didn’t. Other people did. I didn’t really have a name for it when I started recording. I had a short dugout basement that was maybe like five or six feet tall. When I first started recording out of my house, I had like roommates in the bedrooms, so I had to put the whole band down in the basement area, and I had built some walls to cover the dirt up, and laid down carpets on the dirt floor. It was this tiny thing, and I guess people were calling it the bomb shelter. You climb down a tiny staircase that you have to duck to get down into the little basement.

Paste: How would you describe what you try and achieve when recording?
Tokic: I think it’s really based off the band, but I like to believe what I’m hearing. I like whenever you listen to something you immediately feel pulled into the band performing the song. You are imagining yourself there. When things are larger than life in production, I’m not interested. It’s something that’s supposed to sound natural—just a believable-ness to it. People always say over-produced. I don’t really like that term, but if people are talking about things on the radio that sound too tuned or something like that, I imagine a computer screen and a bunch of editing versus a band performing. I want to put it on and get pulled into it and then feel like I’m inside of the music.

Paste: Several of the artists you’ve worked with are on ATO records. Is that just a coincidence or somehow by design?
Tokic: I think it’s pretty coincidental really. When I worked with Caitlin Rose, she wasn’t on any label. I’ve never done a full-length for her. I did her very first independent 10-inch, and then I did one seven-inch that came with her first album that came out on ATO. That was also before the Shakes were on ATO. But particularly the Shakes, Caitlin and Benjamin Booker—I don’t really think there was too much connecting all that, but I also could be totally wrong. Maybe there was a conversation I wasn’t around for in an office or something, but I don’t really think there was much connection there. I guess maybe for [Hurray for the] Riff Raff that probably was because they were a part of the family with the Shakes, so that probably got them connected to them.

Paste: We recently profiled Benjamin Booker in a Best of What’s Next feature. How did recording his debut album, Benjamin Booker, come about?
Tokic: I think maybe when he moved to New Orleans, or sometime when he was in New Orleans, he had met one of The Deslondes as well as the Riff Raff. He met Alynda [Lee Segarra] and Sam [Doores], and they were talking about recording and were recommending me. I think maybe he had listened to some of the stuff I’d done for them and was like “man, he seems like a dude who’s doing stuff in a way that I think would be cool.” He just shot me an email one day, and we got on the phone and had a great time talking.

Paste: You also produced Luke Bell’s new album, Don’t Mind if I Do. I’m a huge fan of that album. It’s great.
Tokic: Oh, right on. Thanks.

Paste: How did he find you, and is that the first country album you’ve recorded?
Tokic: Also through The Deslondes. I’ve been working with The Deslondes for years. They’re in a similar vein of very classic sounding country. I think years ago [Luke] stumbled upon them and just became friends with them—Internet friends and putting them up as they were going through Wyoming. They spoke highly of me, and so we met through The Deslondes. But no, that wasn’t the first country thing. There have been plenty of bands that even if they’re a rock band, they have a track that’s just full-on Hank Sr. country sound.

Paste: Musicians always talk about their influences. As a producer, are there certain artists or producers who you consider as influences?
Tokic: I don’t think of one band typically as a band that influences me in their entirety. There are some bands that, man, I’m absolutely in love with some of their albums and not with others. It is the same with producers. I’m really bad about reading the producer and engineer credits on the back of albums. When I listen to music, it’s like I want to be in the music. The last thing I want to think about is how it was engineered. It’s like I love a sound or something, and then I just listen to it and try and imagine what happened to get there. It’s really hard to say, and it’s also really random. I love Lee “Scratch” Perry’s production, but I don’t listen to reggae, really. I have his solo album. I don’t have other albums that he produced. I love how dirty and honest the Velvet Underground is. I love how many mistakes are in everything and how much you believe every word they sing. But then there are plenty of Velvet Underground tracks that I probably couldn’t really sit through because they’re just like long and unfocused, and there are also some of their albums that are masterpieces. Same with The Beatles. Some of Sgt. Pepper to me is just unbelievable, and some of it I kind of skip over. It’s like certain things just grab me. It’s so all over the place. There are pop sounds that I love. XTC has a few albums that I think are incredible engineering feats that I probably would never really want to go through the work to make an album that sounds like it.

Paste: You’re currently working on a Clear Plastic Masks album. How’s that going?
Tokic: It’s going awesome. It’s just so much fun, and everybody’s working so hard on it.

Paste: What else are you working on?
Tokic: I’m trying to picture my calendar, and I’m drawing a blank because there’s so many dates stacked up in it. Honestly, a bunch of stuff that’s in the books right now is bands we’ve actually just been talking about. I’m wrapping up a Deslondes album. I’m going to be doing some more work with Luke Bell in the near future. We have some more dates coming up. And then a few things that I don’t even know what they would be online yet.

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