Calling The Complex a new establishment would be a misnomer. In fact, the Rosenthal family would most likely cringe at the word "establishment" being used at all to describe the space. The building has been in the family for decades, serving as a private gallery of alternative art, a costume design studio, and a home. Commercial recording studio has just recently been added to this list of functions, although plenty of recordings have been made there in the past. Delightfully artistic, outrageously eclectic, and fiercely unique, The Complex destroys the mold of the typical studio and laughs over the broken pieces.
The building is a six story glorified warehouse in SOMA, situated in an alleyway that is much more a remnant of Brooklyn than San Francisco. "I believe they shot part of the Rent movie on this street," George Rosenthal throws in off-handedly during my recent visit. George is the proprietor of this up-and-coming studio, which is loaded with professional gear deposited amongst trinkets of every sort. It's truly a monument to the strange and fantastic.
George's father, Henry Rosenthal, is a well-known indie film producer, having such credits as The Devil and Daniel Johnston to his name. "Growing up I was exposed to him working on his movies," George explains in the second floor control room of the studio. "I have several childhood memories of going on set and learning the process of filmmaking." While his father focused more on the business side of the industry, what really interested George was the technical aspect of these films. He diverged slightly from his heritage to become an unabashed tech-geek.
George was always encouraged while growing up to learn an instrument, but nothing stuck for him until he began playing guitar in conjunction with learning GarageBand. He cites that the interplay between playing and recording was always central to his music appreciation. "Early on I acknowledged the fact that the production of a song plays in massively to the audience's appreciation," he recalls.
As George continued stacking the stones of recording knowledge, he began to understand the two-sided coin that is home recording. He informs me, "GarageBand shows you that it's not hard to record yourself, but it's hard to record yourself well." George spent his high school years digging around the Internet, learning about how to trick a home recording into sounding more professional.
From Corporate America to Small Business Owner
During George's senior year of high school at San Francisco's School Of The Arts, he was required to intern at a local film and media company. His father had recently been introduced to Travis Threlkel, Chief Creative Officer of Obscura Digital (and an "insane video concept wizard," according to George), who lived a few doors down from The Complex.
The talented and eccentric Threlkel gave George an internship that year, and promptly hired him as a paid employee upon his graduation. "Soon after, I discovered everyone at the company was either a musician or audio engineer," reflects George. "It was a really family oriented company, and everyone was super happy to teach me more of the technical aspects."
George was employed at Obscura Digital for seven years, working on numerous extraordinary projects and using his corporate paycheck to stockpile the recording gear that would eventually become The Complex. Last April, he came to the conclusion that, if he wanted to, he could make the studio a business that could support him and anyone else that wants to work with him to build its brand. He left Obscura Digital to focus full time on what has always been his ultimate passion.
The Draw Of The Complex
The space between a project studio and a professional studio can be enigmatic, but George hopes The Complex can make a home for itself in this buffer zone. "I noticed really early on that the cost of recording is prohibitive," he points out. "My perception from the beginning was that if I could figure out how to do a really good home recording it would open up possibilities to a lot of people."
The Complex is much more than a home recording studio, but it maintains the charm and comfort that such a space tends to exude. With obscure -- even homemade -- instruments and amplifiers, an inflatable raft turned lounging area, a cherry-red Oldsmobile in the corner, and a disco ball overhead, the space is seeping with creativity. For just a little while, at least, a musician can take his or her mind off professional hassles and focus on a project.
The real value-add is that artists can emerge from a session at The Complex with a completed record and high quality video documenting the process, which can be used as promotional material. The photogenic surroundings provide for visually appealing video content, and the relaxed and creative environment leads to inspired performances. At a cost well below the industry standard, what more can a band ask for?
What The Future Holds
"I don't want to be trapped in San Francisco the rest of my life," George confesses. He has no qualms about dreaming big. "I think it'd be super cool to have a series of studios that all have this basic core concept of providing affordable and fun recording." With more and more bands being forced to finance their own albums, an army of studios providing low cost recording plus video content doesn't seem that far-fetched.
For more information about The Complex, visit the thecomplex-sf.com.
All images by T.J. Mimbs.