My great grandmother used to roast her own coffee beans in the oven, on a small farm in northern Iceland.
I have a feeling this coffee obsession was passed on to me, from both my grandparents and parents. There was coffee at breakfast and lunch, mid-day at 4pm, after dinner and then one final sit-down at 10pm, with some cookies or pastries. It was always strong, most of the time black (perhaps a lump of sugar on the side) and always about people coming together.
A lot of my great grandmother’s neighbors had the same story to tell: “If you have anything to do in the morning, don’t go for her coffee…. it’s totally NC-17 (or rated R, at least) and you won’t sleep for three days.”
When I was 14 I moved into a new room in our basement. My parents had built a house, and the basement was the last section to get finished. If fact, my room was the only one furnished down there, for quite a while. I’d saved up all my summer-money, I did the walls, I chose the carpet, I picked out the light fixtures and lamps, and made it into the perfect den. It quickly became the place to meet, since most of my friends had very small rooms (standard for Iceland at the time) and certainly none of them had a separate entrance
We’d meet there after school or work, listen to music, drink coffee, have some good chocolate or snacks (#studiosnacks) and some great friendships were quickly cemented – many still going strong today.
So, that was the groundwork.The home-roasted coffee beans – or at least the need for something better than the norm – the room in the basement with the separate entrance, and the friends coming over. The idea of the hang: listening to music, sharing and bonding. And a big part of all that, was the right environment (good coffee, good snacks, good music).
Fast forward a couple of years, and I’m in Los Angeles studying Recording Engineering at UCLA. We’re starting to go on field trips, getting to go see “actual studios” and I’m all ears (and eyes). We went to a post production facility in Pasadena, a scoring stage at Warner Bros. and a mastering facility in Hollywood.
And, of course, I’m thinking: “These places must have some sort of world class coffee situations. I mean, if my great grandmother could find and roast her own beans on a farm in Iceland in the 40’s, these guys would surely have it together.”
This was remarkable to me. At Warner Bros. and the Pasadena facility the coffee maker was a Bunn 1.8 Liter single brew. With a thin cone filter, crap coffee and no one to look after it. There was a “dedicated person” sitting in the tape room all day, to load/unload reels of 2” tape while they were mixing the movie (every 4 hrs or so), but no one to look after the coffee.
So here was this facility doing mixes for Batman (the Tim Burton movie) – the engineers showing us the technology behind the first Dolby Digital Surround release (did you know they put the 1’s and 0’s on the plastic squares BETWEEN the sprocket holes on the actual filmstrip??!!) – but with a $39 drip coffee maker in the lobby, sans supervision.
Out of all the places we went to, the only facility that had decent coffee was Bernie Grundman’s mastering studio in Hollywood. As a matter of fact, he had a proper espresso machine in the lobby and he took as much time showing that to us as he did talking about the gear and the tech side of things. Or at least that’s how I remember it.
Socking it to the Studio
Right out of school, I got a job in a studio in North Hollywood. They’d just finished recording Metallica’s Black album, and were on a bit of a roll. I got in there as a runner (tea boy, if I were in England) and quickly saw the coffee operation needed some attention.
I easily made my ins with the clients: Steve Perry was in, and after him Paul Rodgers. And then Terry Date (with the mighty Fishbone) and it became clear that “If Husky didn’t make the coffee, it was pretty useless”. “When is he in??” they’d ask. “Because we’re fucked… until he gets here”. The other runners didn’t know the trick of using two filters at a time, for a slower pour-through.
I moved on from there to become a staff engineer at a studio in Hollywood, and the first project I worked on was a band called The Grays, with Jack Joseph Puig producing. We quickly abandoned the Bunn coffee situation, and Puig bought a proper coffee maker for the band – which I set up in the tracking room. We would take turns bringing in beans, and I was made in charge of the coffee every morning, leaving the staff and runners to the Bunn/Folgers experience in the lobby.
[Sidenote: after the Grays record, I got married. And of course I rented out a coffee shop for the day, and the whole band and Puig were there… Amazed, that there were “bottomless” espressos and latte’s for the guests, for the duration.]
After that, I got hired at the Sound Factory, where I would stay until I went freelance. As soon as i started, the coffee became an “issue”. More Folgers, and that same fucking industrial Bunn brewing machine. I asked for better coffee but couldn’t convince the bean counters (pun) to go for the extra expense. So I started bringing in my own beans and grinder and I trained the runners to make “a proper cup of coffee” for me and my sessions – and to put it in our own private thermos, labelled “NC-17.”
It didn’t take the management long to take note. And eventually, through shaming and other shenanigans, i got them to switch over to real beans and real coffee, and from that point on, the big 3 lb tins of Folgers were history.
The Grays – as they were forming – had one of their first meetings at a coffee shop in West Hollywood called King’s Road Cafe. I soon started going there regularly. They made fantastic coffee (one of very few “proper” coffee shops in LA back then) and for years after the Grays record I’d invite my engineer and producer friends there on Friday mornings, for coffee and a chat. Sort of a recreation of the basement den, I suppose.
I’ve kept this going, in various iterations and at various coffee shops, ever since. Close to 25 years now.
Personal Studio, Personal Brewing Rig
When I built my first studio, 15 years ago, the coffee culture was still in its infancy here in LA, and I started out with a simple filter/pour over system and a small assortment of beans from Victor’s Deli on Beachwood Cyn. They were one of very few places that actually roasted their own beans and I’d been going there since the Grays/Puig days. The two expats from Greenblatt’s Deli, who ran the place, were intrigued by the Icelander who came in and bought 5 lbs of coffee beans and one biscotti, each week. No wine, no sandwiches, no cheese, no pickles.