Derek Phillips: The Underground Sound

DerekPhillipsSmDerek Phillips and Bella. Photo by Sander Roscoe Wolff.

The Federal Bar opened in 2013, breathing new life into the massive bank building located on the northeast corner of Pine Avenue and First Street. The parent company, Knitting Factory Entertainment, is known for creating sophisticated dining and entertainment environments. In the basement, they transformed what was the bank vault into a world class music venue.

On most nights, if you’re enjoying live music in The Federal Underground, it will be in no small part due to Derek Phillips, the chief sound engineer and audio & visual technician for the venue. He learned about the opportunity from his friend, the late Markus Manley, when they were working together at the rebooted Blue Cafe.

Phillips was born in Louisiana and, soon after, moved with his parents to Huntington Beach.

Long Beach Post: What role did music making play in your home, when you were young?

Derek Phillips: I used to listen to a lot of cassette tapes as a kid, and remember distinctly the distorted guitar sounds, such as the lead from Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” I did not start playing until I was 13. I really got into metal Metallica, Iron Maiden, Anthrax, Slayer. I was also into Hendrix and Zeppelin but, at that time there was only so much available, and I LOVE new music! My parents bought me an acoustic guitar which sat in my closet for a year. I saved up that summer and bought my first electric guitar and I haven’t stopped since.

At first I learned as many of my favorite songs as possible, but I got bored with that rather quickly. I found that playing with better musicians was a lot more fun and satisfying, which led to playing in bands and writing and recording.

When did you begin to recognize the behind the scenes process of studio recording?

The first time I was in the studio was not a pleasant experience. I had no idea what to expect, or do. I was so nervous and our engineer was all coked out! Then, I did a demo for Time Bomb Records with Cameron Webb. He changed my whole outlook on being in the studio. Cameron was so laid back and into my feedback. He answered all my questions and was such a cool dude. Had me pull up a chair and sit and watch him mix. I have been hooked ever since.

How did you develop your skills so you could work at a professional level?

A lot of trial and error. School was never my strong point. I`m a hands-on kind of guy. I got a job working as a rehearsal studio in H.B. called GriffDog Records. The owner eventually converted half of the building into a recording studio. We had a ton of bands coming through, plus all the lock-outs and his other studio, Back Stage. I started recording for free. The first year that’s all I did, all day and night. Eventually, I got good at it and started getting paid. My focus became to be the best sound engineer possible at that point. I am still a musician but my music takes a back seat to my clients.

What are the differences between studio and live work?

For me, live is a lot more hectic. You have to be on point and be able to troubleshoot problems quickly without drawing too much attention to yourself. I love the studio! I love the process. I love the gear! In the studio you can take your time. I have more control over what happens, sonically. If problems arise you can tell the artist to take five and figure it out. Also, in the studio you get to know you clients better. Most of them I have become very good friends with. My wife was a client at first. [laughs]

Do you have your own studio?

I have a small mixing and mastering studio in San Pedro. During the tail end of last year I did singles for Tall Walls (Oil & Gas), Via Leaves, and Bootleg Orchestra (Feels Like Whoa). Bootleg Orchestra released their single on Valentine’s Day. I just finished up a full length for Albatross Overdrive and will be in the studio with Scott Reeder (Kyuss, Sun & Sail Club) to do a record with Anglo Jackson. Also, I did a country rock album here a few years back with Damon Daggers Rock & Roll Revue. That was fun!

For our readers who don’t understand what mastering is, can you explain it briefly and share your approach?

My wife uses this one a lot: Mastering is the clear coat you put on your nails to give it that polished finish. My approach is less is more. Eq, compression, maybe some tape saturation for fun. Get it up to proper levels and make sure it sounds good on all media sources. No phasing!

As you said before, you were doing the band thing for a while. Are you still playing?

Yes. When I got hired at the Federal Bar I stopped playing for a few years. I wanted to concentrate on the club and my studio but, recently, I have started to play guitar again in Albatross Overdrive. My wife and I still write from time to time and will probably release some new tunes later this year.

Is she in the band, too?

No. She is currently managing us. Albatross Overdrive is planning a small West Coast tour in April. Got a nice 40 foot tour bus. Gunna bring the dog, and go play some places I have never been. I am really looking forward to it! We are still planning the tour, but we will be going up to Washington and Oregon the back to Cali.

You mentioned that your wife was a client, first. How did that go?

About 10 years ago or so I had seen a flyer, in the studio I was managing, for The Dirty Girls. They were all tattooed and looking mean, so we had to go check them out. [They were a] three-piece band [that played] loud rock & roll! There were not a lot of cool hard rock girl bands out, so I hit them up to do some recording. We did an EP, then a full length album. They changed the name to Havannah Brown. Like most good bands they eventually broke up, but the drummer and bass player continued to play music.

Fast forward a few years and the bass player, Vanessa, walks into the club I was doing sound for at the time (Blue Cafe). Vanessa soon asked me to do her solo project and, after that, I asked her to check out some songs I was working on. She wrote lyrics for three right off the bat. We started a band, and recorded a full length blues album called Third Fret Blues under Derek Phillips & Vanessa Kaylor. In the process, we started dating. I popped the question a year later. It is very amazing to have a companion in life who understand my drive to be involved with music. I love her so much for her love and support.

To learn more about Phillips’ studio services, visit To learn more about upcoming events at Federal Underground, visit 3rd Fret Blues is available from

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