It's a problem that most bands will face at some point: Finding space to record that's affordable in an area that tolerates noise, and lots of it. What most musicians probably don't realize is that a port city like Long Beach is actually full of them. Shipping containers, though commonly used as dwellings in countries across Europe, are a relatively new thing in the U.S. We already know they're sturdy, airtight, and best of all, cheap. Buying a shipping container "as is" usually costs about $2,000. What better material to build a recording studio out of?
That's exactly what blues guitarist Lefty Phillips thought when he came across an empty parcel of city-owned land, a vacant RDA lot on 4th St. and Pacific, begging to be used.
"The first thing I thought when I saw it was 'that would be a perfect spot to build a place out of shipping containers," he says on a recent afternoon, sitting at Hot Java coffeehouse in Long Beach. He raises his hands raised up, thumbs squared into an imaginary picture frame. Not only is he picturing the recording studio of his dreams, he also imagines the parcel as the perfect place to finally have a real home to call his own. Since 2013, Phillips has lived out of his truck, working odd jobs by day, playing blues gigs by night. We first met him last year when we wrote about him in our Locals Only column. Recently, the firey-fingered frontman of the Lefty Phillips Trio has devoted himself to coming up with a creative way to build an environmentally friendly living structure and give he and his fellow local musicians a free place to record made entirely of shipping containers.
"Container houses have been going on for a while in Europe, they're good for low income housing because they're cheap to build," Phillips says. "A 20 foot container costs you about $1,500-2,000 dollars to live in. Then you spend another $2,000 building it out on the inside and you're done. Of course, I'm doing something a little more complex than that."
What Phillips is talking about is a two-story, ranch style home with a full recording studio on the first floor and an apartment above. The lot itself is only about 25 feet wide and 50 feet long, which he says is plenty of room to complete a fully functional, sound-proof drum room with plenty of space for any essential recording equipment.
Examples of these shipping container studios are surprisingly spacious and in some cases just as plush and impressive as a normal studio. Here's a video of the construction of a shipping container studio from start to finish.
Once constructed, Phillips says he would offer studio time to local musicians free of charge. Typically, most recording sessions can run about $250 and hour just to lay down drums. Because many musicians and local bands aren't able to afford that, artists are forced to record drums in less ideal conditions, or in some cases rely on drum loops instead of a live kit. In an effort to drum up some funds for his project (which will end up costing around $25,000 to complete, including the price of the land and the shipping containers) Phillips started a Go Fund Me campaign to get the word out. He's taken up more part time work to hopefully pay for the live-in studio mostly on his own. But as a community project, he says, every little bit helps.
"This isn't even a business," Phillips says. "Whoever needs to use it can use it. Because one of the things I've learned from performing with the Trio is the importance of recording online for promotion online. In order to promote your act, you need to have songs recorded and if you're spending all of your money on recording drums, how are you paying for that? I'd like to see bands who are using live drums use this and get their music out there."
As an experienced carpenter, miller, welder and boatwright, Phillips says he's fully capable of building the studio dwelling with some help from his son, also an experienced welder. The structure would draw electrical power from solar panels and include essentials like plumbing, heat and ventilation systems. And of course the drum room will be sound proof as not to disturb the neighbors. Beyond just getting a roof over his head and giving bands a place to record, Phillips says it would be nice to finally settle down in a city and a music scene he's grown to love.
"I've never had that feeling in any place I've ever lived before. It's never even crossed my mind. But I love it here so I wanted to put down some roots."