Riding the Sound Wave 

How Al Lucchesi built the biggest incubator in Bay Area music.

Page 3 of 5

Behind the front desk is a door leading to a large rehearsal space with a stage, and a second floor where Lucchesi is constructing his new office. The walls lining the stairwell have gold-framed gold cassettes by Too $hort and Tony! Toni! Toné!, and a black-and-white photograph of Lucchesi's mother leading the San Francisco Symphony at a school assembly somewhere in the Bay Area.

It's an environment that many find contagious. Back downstairs, an older man from the neighborhood shuffles through the halls, sometimes dragging a trash can or a piece of equipment. His name is Freddy. He came the first day Lucchesi moved in to help clean up a load of bricks, and has stayed for fifteen years.

For a fledgling rock star like Lopez, working at Soundwave — even if the pay was minimum wage — was tantamount to an aspiring stand-up comedian who gets to push a broom at the Punchline or Tommy T's. For years he had begged Lucchesi for a job and finally landed one at Jackson Street in 1989, when someone flaked on a shift. "He said, 'All right Dave, this is your chance,'" Lopez remembered. He worked the desk at Wood Street, renting out rooms to bands and playing his guitar for hours on end. Lopez's position helped him form Flipsyde, because he met guitarist Steve Knight and emcee Jinho "Piper" Ferreira while filling in on his day off.

Though Flipsyde's sudden rise to fame was the reason Lopez ultimately had to leave Soundwave, he still prefers the studio's unique sense of community. "I still go there all the time," he said. "I've been to these fancy studios with Flipsyde in LA. Bunk. Hella Bunk. People working at the front? No one's even in bands." Lopez said that after quitting his desk job in 2005, he would occasionally do three- or four-hour shifts at Soundwave, just to help out. "When I started doing that some younger kids would recognize me and say, 'You look just like the dude from Flipsyde.'"

By the turn of the new millenium, the Bay Area music scene wasn't nearly as active as it was in the early '90s, but Lucchesi's decision to set up shop in industrial neighborhoods ultimately paid off. San Francisco city officials had cracked down on recording studios in the city to make way for the dot-com boom, so by 2002 a lot of Lucchesi's competition had been squelched. "I had this crazy waiting list," he recalled.

More importantly, he had name recognition. The Wood Street location had been operating for nearly a decade by then; its predecessor, Jackson Street Studios, was legendary. By his fourth go-around, Lucchesi had a clear idea of how to make everything work.

In 2002, Lucchesi sold Jackson Street and started leasing the current iteration of Soundwave, a giant building on 21st and Union streets where hundreds of Bay Area bands coexist, each running its own small enterprise within the larger structure. Suddenly, he went from being the guy with twenty rooms to being the guy with 186 rooms, (166 at 21st Street, plus the ones at Wood Street, which he operates to this day). To make that leap, he had to lease the building from a developer who bankrolled several million dollars in renovations, which Lucchesi is now trying to pay back. He remains reticent to discuss the financial logistics, only saying that right now, he's not exactly at baller status.

He built sound-absorbent walls and created storage lockers for people to stow their gear. He allowed bands to have free reign within the rooms, building their own storage lofts or sound booths, adding layers of dry wall, or installing heavy instruments such as an electric organ or an upright piano. Bold graffiti murals decorate the vestibule walls: "Oakland" written in huge, chunky letters; a cemetery with skulls and ghosts crawling out of tombstones; a cartoon of Lucchesi's two kids (ages four and six) riding through the halls of Soundwave on their Big Wheels. The new location rented out rooms by the month, as opposed to the hourly spots at Wood Street, and even allowed several bands to split the rent for each room. Rooms at Soundwave go for $600 to $1200 a month, or $15 to $20 at the hourly location.

It's a world within a world. Producer Damion Gallegos, formerly the lead singer of the funk group Fungo Mungo, runs a large studio downstairs that abuts the loading dock. A third-floor reggae studio called "the Lion's Den" is decorated with red and yellow marijuana leaf flags, and appears to be run by affiliates of the roots-rock-reggae group Jahmana. Tavahn Ghazi runs his own publishing company out of Soundwave and licenses music to spectator sports (hip-hop for Oakland Warriors and Raiders games; salsa mixes for the San Jose Earthquakes soccer team).

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