A couple miles northeast of where Interstate 24 circles off onto Spring Street, lies a small, salmon-colored house known around the world as The Bomb Shelter. It’s one of Nashville’s most equipped analog studios, packed with a glut of vintage instruments, tape machines, and enough effects units to make anything sound like anything. At the helm of it all is producer/owner Andrija Tokic, who — since his move to Nashville in 2004 — has acquired a worldwide clientele looking to vitalize their sound with his raw, signature approach to producing music in a comfortable, creative environment.
Inside, the studio is true to its name. With boarded up windows, stone and cedar walls, warm-colored rugs, and well-loved outboard gear, it feels like a bunker created to protect its inhabitants from the nonmusical, outside world. The lighting is dim and the aesthetic is cabin-like, creating a sense of bucolic serenity throughout.
“We’ve got a great scenery, but that doesn’t change how emotionally draining projects can be,” Tokic says. “Making a record here is the equivalent of going on an extremely long road trip where you’re driving straight to your destination. There are small corridors and people in each other’s faces, and one part of my job is keeping people in the right headspace.”
Inside The Shelter, Tokic is known for his conviviality and his speed on the board. Outside, he’s arguably best known for his production work on 2012’s biggest rock breakout album: Alabama Shakes’ Boys and Girls.
“While that was going on, I never thought of it being commercially successful in the major radio sense, just because that’s never where my head’s at,” Tokic says. “I was like, ‘I’m going to do everything I can and ask everyone I know to help push this as far as possible, because it’s a small band, and it deserves to be in every household,’ but I thought it would be more like a subculture hit.”
Tokic points out the album won him some extra clout in “different parts of the industry” and a busier schedule, but that was never part of his agenda while producing it. He’d already been doing well enough to put his solo production work above his contract work, which was his main source of income when he first moved to Music City.
“I worked my way pretty far into that whole mainstream scene in different studios, and it just wasn’t right for me,” he recalls. “I was used to bands writing their own songs, producers playing instruments, and engineers being producers and producers being engineers. Coming into this big Nashville scene where sometimes the band has never heard the singer and someone has decided that union players are playing certain parts, I just wasn’t into that. It’s an amazing thing, but it’s not where I came from.”
Where 33-year-old Tokic came from is Takoma Park, Md. — a suburb of Washington, D.C., which was a hub for America’s incipient punk movement during the ’80s and ’90s. Raised by his mother, a middle school music teacher, and his father, a carpenter and home renovator, his early years were filled with all kinds of music. At age 5, his mother signed him up for guitar lessons with a “rock & roll teacher,” so that he’d be drawn to music in
The plan worked out in a sense — he decided he was going to pursue music, but as soon as he started hanging out with his musician neighbors in their basement studio, he put down the guitar in favor of the 4-track.
“When I got into recording, I found it far more interesting than playing an instrument,” Tokic says. “Throwing mics up and recording was just a lot of fun. At that age I was too young to have many people to play music with, so I could either play it by myself or layer tracks on a 4-track and play along to it. I’d rather do that than scales.”
In fourth grade, his neighbors sold him his first 4-track, and by age 13, he was interning at Avalon Studios in Bethesda, Md. It was there he first laid hands on the MCI JH-636 console that now resides in The Shelter’s A Room and the JH-24 2-inch tape machine in the B Room, both of which he acquired in 2006 when Avalon switched to an all-digital format.
Over the next few years, he divided his time between school and tracking local rock, Hip-Hop, and jazz musicians at the studio until finally, at age 17, he started working at Avalon full-time as the assistant to the chief engineer. Tokic had everything he needed to graduate from high school except hours, and the last two years of his education were a narrow curriculum of pottery and music classes, after which he’d leave and work at the studio for the rest of the day.
“I was pretty deep into it at that point,” Tokic says. “I just had too much going on to pull the plug.”
Instead of going to college, he became the operations manager at Avalon. Under his leadership, it doubled in size and took in more and more clients. One of those clients was a jazz band whose leader encouraged Tokic to check out studio work opportunities in Nashville, where the pickings were large for ambitious producers looking for new challenges.
At 21, he bolted to Nashville with a computer, a small console, a tape machine, some microphones, and some guitars, and he immediately started working out of his house on the East Side when he wasn’t reluctantly shaking hands and turning knobs on Music Row. Three years into the game, East Nashville band The Outlaw Lovers came to his house to cut their first album — a 10-song record on indie label Spat! Records. It was the first official release out of Tokic’s house (under The Bomb Shelter name), and it led to more work via the Lovers’ drummer and background singer, Dillon Napier, who was involved in other local bands. Tokic’s basement was dubbed The Bomb Shelter because it was underground and stacked with equipment.
“We went over to his house, and he had his basement rocking with that big MCI board and tape machine,” Napier recalls during a phone interview while on tour with Margo Price. “We knew immediately we could do it there and wouldn’t have to go to a big studio. Andrija has this positive energy that sets him apart from other producers. Plus, he’s the quickest on the board, which really counts when you’re on the clock. Anything that might go wrong with the tape machine, he can fix it within moments.”
Napier helped spread Tokic’s reputation across town, bringing in acts like Caitlin Rose, Buffalo Clover (Price’s first band), and Fly Golden Eagle.
“I didn’t really need to advertise,” Tokic says. “When you put a lot of work and care into the quality of a product, and into giving your client a good time, then they’ll tell someone who tells someone.”
Word spread as far as Athens, Ala., where the burgeoning Alabama Shakes were just getting their feet on the ground with some original songs. They called Tokic in early 2011 to set up some time in his home studio.
“The album was recorded extremely fast,” Tokic says. “It was really just two sessions to do the record with a huge space between them, and it was done like a year before it came out. It was released on Bandcamp for free, and then suddenly there was all this attention on it, so they took it down and rereleased it officially.”
That same year (2012), Tokic set up shop in the studio’s current location. Not wanting to record in his home anymore, he moved his immense collection of equipment to a new, all-hours commercial facility in order to expand The Shelter’s horizons with a dedicated space. Since then, it’s attracted clients of every status and caliber, from Luke Bell and Hurray for the Riff Raff to Josephine Foster and East Nashville’s own Los Colognes.
All the while, Tokic has continuously expanded his collection of gear: a vintage Orban Spring Reverb and an EMT plate reverb — a piano-sized plywood chamber he keeps under a red curtain in the Studio A’s live room; vintage Neve modules; a UA 175 (one of Universal Audio’s rarest, most sought after, and beefiest analog compressors); a ’30s-era Hammond organ, as well as Wurlitzers, Leslies, and a Farfisa; a Baldwin grand piano and a Steinway upright; heaps of old basses, drums, and amps including a ’59 Danelectro Challenger; and plenty of vintage guitars hanging on the walls.
He finished constructing the second studio, which is detached from and behind the main building, in late 2014, so that multiple projects could be going on at once. His “partners in crime,” John Estes and Ed DuQuesne (hoping to fill the role played by Billy Bennett — who recently had to bow out due to personal reasons) and Ben Trimble (of ATO Records’ Fly Golden Eagle), keep The Shelter buzzing while Tokic is away on business, which is now pretty frequent.
“The majority of the projects coming to me are from out of the country,” Tokic says. “You attract similar things with your work, so people who like the sound we have here will fly me out to have it on their records. We’re trying to smake the people, the music, the projects, and the industry better. Wherever I am, I pour my heart and soul into records because this is all about being able to share art with one another. I just want to put as much positivity out into the world as possible.”
Sharing art and giving his clients the best possible recording experience is top priority for Tokic. He spent a large amount of the summer in Canada working with various bands and expanding his network of tape-loving artists and producers.
When it comes to the future of The Bomb Shelter, he’s more grateful than ambitious. “Man, I’ll just let it run its course,” he says. “It isn’t the final incarnation. It’s a cool thing, and it’ll stick around for a minute, but we’ll always be working on something else along with it. I appreciate studios where you can feel that things are continuously evolving, those studios where you can feel the blood, sweat, and tears in the walls and floors. Those are the kinds of studios that speak to me, and I think they speak to a lot of artists, too.”