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Weekend music

Behind the buttons: A guide to recording your band in Tucson

Plus, Jean Caffeine redux and a guide to summer lineups

Congratulations, you're written some songs. But songs, like any other children, need tending to. And a place to go when they grow up. 

Tucson musicians are lucky in that sense: there are a ton of great recording studios big and small in our humble desert valley. But much like putting together your project or your band in the first place, it's a matter of finding the right fit.

Here's a taste of just a few to get you started. 

Midtown Island

One upon a time, there was a lady with a song, gifted from whatever realm fantastic songs come from. Maybe the lingering embers of Gram Parsons' long ago funeral pyre? It's hard to say. The important thing is just that there was a song...

Louise Le Hir had been playing in singing in duos and bands around Tucson for a couple of years, but the thought of being a frontperson or a band leader was a bit out of her ken. But she'd written a song. Or maybe channeled it, as she'd tell you. Because the real songs, the really good songs aren't written. We pull them forth from whence they came from and write them down and record them if we have the chance. 

And so "Weezy" set out to record that single song, gathering courage and fortitude by turning the recording session into a party. The night before the studio session was sort of a bohemian slumber party for a cadre of talented and well wishing musician friends and the next morning the crew showed up at Matt Rendon's Midtown Island studios to get it all on tape.

And then a curious thing happened. The talented but shy Le Hir found a kindred soul in Midtown's Matt Rendon and the two struck up a rapport that made the heavens open up and rain down more fantastic songs. A band grew around the songs and Louise found a creative home at Midtown Island - a place not just to record, but to write and brainstorm and take musical risks. 

Matt Rendon: "Louise rang me up and booked a session to record 'Cosmic Love Song #23' three years ago and we found ourselves on the same page with just about every aspect of song structure, influences and the recording process. Based on that, Louise started bringing in songs every week and little by little the guest musicians started dropping off to the point where we found we could get the sound with only Louise, Annie and me. I think Louise comes here to relax primarily, and finds the surroundings conducive to songwriting and focusing on ideas."

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"Normally Louise shows up late with some beer and we play guitars and mess around until the song starts taking shape - then we go in the studio and start bashing it out - drums, then rhythm guitar, then vocals, which always takes up most of the day, then overdubs and were done. We've also had sessions where we drink beers and listen to records all day."

Tucson Sentinel.com: You've been at this for a while now, but how did you get started in the recording biz and what gave you the chutzpah to turn it into your main gig?

MR: "My parents gave me a Fostex X-15 4-track for high school graduation so I've been doing this for over 30 years. As far as the 'chutzpah' (and by the way, thanks for using that word as there's a large amount of people who believe I'm Jewish!),  I got canned (or quit, depends on who you ask) from my thrift-store truck-driving job and had no options but to try to make the studio a thing. Louise played a huge part in this as well because she was an advocate for Midtown early on and many bands came in upon her suggestion."

TS: How much of what you do has been shaped and passed down by flesh and blood mentors? On the flip side of that, how much has been learned through soaking up info like a sponge - reading and listening and learning about how classic (and should have been classic) albums were made and how certain sounds were achieved?

MR: "Jim Waters and Patrick Haight are the only two engineers with whom I've worked. I constantly harass them with dumb questions, most pertaining to compression and EQ, which I've learned is a lifelong battle. From Jim I've learned how to treat musicians, when to be loose, when to be stern, and how to keep them focused. Poor Pat - he gets the really stupid questions, like 'how do I hook up this reverb unit?' I've also learned quite a bit from Wyatt Blair and Robert Cifuentes. They're both excellent engineers and have had their hands on my mixing board - to see their approach towards EQ was a great lesson to learn."

"On the flip side - I'll listen to and study any record made between the post-war era and the late 1960s. I'm not interested in recording technology past that point. With the exception of what I've learned from the gentlemen mentioned before, everything I know is from listening to and reading about records from that time. To me - once close-micing, 16-plus track machines and isolation booths became the norm  I feel that the basic energy level was sapped, and that recording became more about the engineers than the musicians and the songs. Ron Malo, Glyn Johns, Tom Dowd, Norman Smith, Al Schmitt, Geoff Emerick, Norman Petty, Chuck Britz - those are the cats I've learned from the most."

TS: When bands/musicians choose to record at Midtown Island, what can they expect in terms of the recording environment and the over all spirit and sound? What is it about the space that keeps certain bands (both local and from beyond) coming back to the studio time after time? 

MR: "Well - Weezy has been known to say 'fuck Disneyland, Midtown is the happiest place on Earth' - I don't really know because it's my home where I live my hum-drum life. I would surmise that players feel relaxed because there's no pressure, there's dogs running around, a chill shaded porch area, a heavy bag to punch out either frustration or joy. As far as the sound - bands know they have to be on point - there's no cutting and pasting, no click tracks, no spending an entire day on a snare sound or coming back a week later and asking 'can I sing that one line over again'. Decisions are made on the fly and every player needs to be all in."

TS: If you didn't have a studio of your own, what questions would you be asking before choosing one? 

MR: "I would always test the historical knowledge of the engineer, that's it. If a studio/engineer doesn't have an encyclopedic knowledge of what went before him, you need to run."

TS: What's in the pipeline from Midtown Island (and its various greater family of artists) in the near future?

MR: "New records by Weekend Lovers, the Rifle , Exbats, Free Machines, Hannah Yeun, Rebel Set, Get A Grip, Louise's third record, a single from the UK band Thee MVP's, Elegant Rabies, Shovel. Wyatt Blair and TWGS are recording in June. The second volume of Midtown Island Recordings is coming out on Burger Records this month featuring a host of local bands along with out-of-towners FEELS, Rudy DeAnda, Broken Hearts, Dustin Lovelis and more."

TS: There is a very welcome, family vibe at Midtown and more often than not there are various musician folks gathered around the porch drinking beer, listening to records and canoodling with the studio doggies. Care to share any tales of the Midtown Island archives?

MR: "Everybody is on pretty good behavior when they're here. The same can not be said when the party moves to the Home Plate Bar around the corner!"

Waterworks Recording 

Jim Waters has been recording Tucson bands for over 20 years but hasn't changed his basic philosophy. Waters tries to put bands and musicians at ease and coaxes out stellar performances with gentle patience and a sly deadpan wit. No one seems to know what the deal is with the creepy black velvet clown painting on the studio wall. But it's kind of Tucson musical tradition to not ask about the clown. So we didn't.

TucsonSentinel.com: How did you get into the recording field in the first place? And why?

Jim Waters: "Music has always played a big part of my life. I remember  laying in my crib and hearing the records that my mother played. She had great taste in music. Porgy and Bess. Oklahoma. Benny Goodman. Fats Waller. Carlos Montoya. Music was so magical and I could not help but listen and be swept away by it. There was always music in our house and older siblings had bands that rehearsed in our basement. One day, one of the bands members brought over a little Sony reel to reel tape recorder with a primitive 6 input mixer and a few microphones and I was immediately intrigued."

TS: Tell us a little bit about your early days behind the console: who did you learn from and who did you record? Who and what made lasting impressions on you as a recording engineer?

JW: "When I was a teenager, living in Madison, Wisc., I started buying my own recording equipment. My first was a Tascam quarter-inch 4-track reel-to-reel. I started picking up microphones where I could. I found some used Sony condenser mics and some Shure dynamic mics. I would record anything and anyone. I mainly just taught myself but I also did some reading about recording and took some courses in acoustics later in college. My favorite records, as a teenager, were by the Beatles. Their records explored so many sonic possibilities. Each song had so many new sounds and they continued to push the boundaries of what was possible versus what was acceptable in the field of popular music. After college, I moved to New York City where I worked at numerous recording studios. It was like heaven. There were studios and opportunities everywhere, and tons of diversity as far as types of music to hear and record. Eventually, I opened my own little studio in the West Village on West 14th Street. I called it Waterworks Recording."

TS: You eventually made the move from NYC to our tiny little sleepy desert town. How did you begin translating what you learned in the past to apply to a small laid-back college town full of musicians with day jobs? What are the pros and cons of doing what you do here vs. elsewhere?

JW: "New York City began to lose it’s luster after a while. Trying to raise a family there was just too much, so Pat and I loaded up our stuff into our little non-airconditioned Volkswagen, and, with our daughter Emma in her baby seat, drove to Tucson in the heat of July 1993. I had no intention of ever owning a studio again, in fact, I had no clear idea what I was going to do when I got here. We just wanted to be able to breathe and see the sky once in a while. In the meantime, many of my New York bands had expressed interest in coming out to Tucson to record, providing I find a good studio to work in. I found a copy of the Tucson Weekly and tracked down some local bands and found where the recording action was happening. I checked out a studio called the Sound Factory, owned by a fella named Steve English. Seemed like a nice place. A few days later I got a call from a real estate person asking if I might be interested in buying the Sound Factory." 

TS: You've had a lot of repeat customers over the years and seem to get to know a lot of bands and musicians really well as they return year after year. Do you find that working with artists again and again make a you a little more intuitive about what sound and mood they're going for and how best to capture that on tape?

JW: "I have worked with some artists for many, many years. It’s like a conversation that ends for awhile and then picks back up again whenever we begin a new recording project. The more I work with people, the more I get to understand what they are looking for in a recording. That comfort level gets better and better because you develop a trust and a respect for each others opinions. The challenge, for me, is to continue to make the recordings interesting, to try to not exactly repeat ourselves, yet maintaining an identifiable personality. I am not a big fan of trying to recreate music from the past. Those recordings are great and awesome, but they are done, now let’s have new conversation."

TS: What's your general recording style/philosophy? Influences or inspirations as a sound engineer? What does it take to get the best out of a band in the studio?

JW: "My general philosophy, when it comes to recording, is make everyone comfortable. I try to make the recording process as similar to a band rehearsal as I can. Bands, generally, are used to rehearsing in a particular way, and I try to recreate that environment as much as I possibly can. Many musicians can get very nervous whenever they come into a recording environment, and I feel like my most important job is to get them to relax and enjoy themselves."

TS:  We hear that you might secretly be a bass player. Is there truth to this rumor?

JW: "Secretly, I wish I was a bass player. I did attempt it for awhile but find that I really don’t have time for such stuff and have never been particularly talented at it. There are so many great bassists out there. The world does not need another half-assed bass player." 

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(Aside: Ironically enough, the writer of this column is herself in fact something of a half-assed bass player.)

TS:  If you didn't run a studio and instead had to choose one to record at, what questions would you ask?

JW: "When I go to check out other studios, the most important questions are pretty much strictly relevant to the particular project I am working on. I am not much of a gear snob. New stuff, old stuff. Tubes vs. solid state. I don’t really care. The most important questions deal with whether this particular space has enough room for the number of people in the band."

TS: Any interesting news from Watetworks there days? Recordings to look out for, bands you want to give a shout out to, etc?

JW: "If I shout out to one it will butt-hurt someone else. I love everybody, everywhere, always and forever!"

Baby Gas Mask Records

Isn't it sad when you have to choose between spending the day collecting vinyl or recording your band? What if I told you you could do both? What if I told you you could do both in a warm, wood walled studio space with a powerful sound board and a lean but savvy team of music nerds who want to sell you records while you're making records and can maybe even give your band a space to practice? You've got the picture. Now meet the folks at Baby Gas Mask. 

TucsonSentinel.com: Baby Gas Mask wears a lot of different hats: record label, practice space, record store, studio. Tell us a little bit about how that works and the kind of musical/creative space musicians will find here. 

Seth Mauzy (co-owner): "The Baby Gas Mask imprint does have many irons in many fires, but since we have moved into the new studio space on 17th Street, the focus, at least in that location, is definitely on the recording studio. We aim for a casual, low-pressure environment where musicians can feel comfortable and relaxed about whatever they want to accomplish, be it rehearsing a new project, demoing new tunes or tracking a full-length release. We offer rehearsal time at hourly rates, which we've found top be an attractive option for folks who want to try rehearsing up a new band/project without investing in a monthly practice space."

TS: Tell us a bit about the studio itself!

SM: "We record digitally, but our approach to tracking a song tends to be more like an analog studio might; i.e. basic rhythm tracks (drums, bass, rhythm guitars etc) tracked live in the studio, then go back and overdub vocals, solos, extra percussion etc. But since we are digital we can run a session with all elements recorded in isolation if that is how the artist wants to track.  I'd say our overarching philosophy of recording is that we want our recordings to sound like the band sounds, as opposed to creating a signature studio sound."

"Our biggest secret weapon, gear-wise, I'd say is our mixing console; a 40-channel Soundcraft Venue II board that was purchased at surplus auction from the UA. It used to be in Centennial Hall! It's a live board, but the pre-amps sound SOOOOO good it would be a shame not to use it. Plus it's kinda cool to think that Bob Dylan or Buena Vista Social Club might have played live through it."

TS: From a music nerd perspective, what records from the past (or present!) most inspire you all in terms of studio work it took to make them? Who are your producer/engineer "idols?"

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SM: "I'm always the most impressed with recordings that required the ingenuity of the engineers to create and capture sounds that weren't thought possible before. Like how Les Paul and Paul Buff both independently came up with multi-track recording and overdubbing to get beyond the 'live in the room' sound, or Frank Zappa and Dick Kunc creating a home-made 16-track recorder for the Hot Rats LP in 1968."

TS: Tell us a bit about the history of Baby Gas Mask. Who does what around these parts and how did it all come together? 

SM: "It's a long story, but the nutshell version is that my wife Melissa Mauzy, my longtime friend Chris Levesque and I started the imprint in 2010 after a family tragedy left me in a position to turn our hobbies into a business. Chris and I were long-time home-recording enthusiasts, so when I knew I wanted to make records we both agreed that we should try to record music, not just release it. Chris is our chief recording engineer, Melissa handles artwork, layout, design, etc. and I tend to focus on getting records through manufacturing, shipping and merchandise fulfillment, and some studio engineering as well."

TS: Any great stories or favorite moments to share in the time you've been up and running? 

SM: "We've only been in the new space since February, but we have had several great sessions since we made the move. And the years we ran the bedroom studio had a ton of fun sessions before that. Recording a Hermanitos EP on Lana Rebel's birthday a few years back was really fun day" 

TS: Like a lot of folks who run studios, you're musicians yourselves. How has listening to and working with so many bands affected your own projects?

SM: Sadly we have recorded very little of our own music since opening the studio. It's a combination of factors, but the old adage about the cobbler's kids having no shoes definitely applies here. But we hope to change this trend in the near future."

TS: Any upcoming releases or exciting stuff to share?

SM: "The final West Foot Forward single, featuring Foxx Bodies & Lando Chill, is still in production and we hope to have it pressed up before the end of the year. Local ska band Sucker for the Sour tracked their EP with us that is coming out this summer, and Chris recently helmed a session with local musician Bryan Thomas Parker that sounds amazing! The result was a New-Orleans-inspired sound complete with horns that is just fantastic and made me hear Bryan's music in a whole new light."

Stay tuned to this column for more upcoming forays into the realms of recording your music, promoting it, booking gigs and other adventures in local musician-hood. Meanwhile, here's what's up in local music this week. 

Peach Kelli Pop

 Imagine the razor blades in cotton-candy edgy sweetness of Japanese punk legends Shonen Knife. Now multiply it by early L.A. punk pop like the Plimsouls and the Go Gos. Give it a punk poet education from the "godmother" Patti Smith. You're not quite there just yet but you're headed in the right direction.

Peach Kelli Pop's founder Allie Hanlon crafts exquisite pop garage punk gems and her band knows just how to deliver them. Pull on your Doc Martens and your best Hello Kitty t-shirt and head out to Club Congress to catch them on May 31 at 7 p.m. Phoenix's Nanami Ozone opens the show.

Jean Caffeine

When your friendly neighborhood music columnist was but a wee young rock and roll nerd, she had some interesting ideas of what "punk" looked like, gleaned from the pages of Creem Magazine, confusing portrayals on network television and a handful of iconic movies, including Susan Seidelman's quirky ode to the '80s art and postpunk underground Desperately Seeking Susan. So when given the chance to meet a genuine veteran of the '80s NYC  underground, she had but pressing question. Did art punk imitate life?

Folk punk troubador Jean Caffeine assures us that the spirit of that film and the places it portrayed are a pretty spot on reflection of the New York City of yore where she and her friends once lived and played, though, for what it's worth, no one she knew ever actually hung out with Madonna. 

Growing up in the Bay Area, Caffeine cut her teeth going to arena rock shows in the '70s until the dawn of punk rock led her to the epiphany that music was not just the realm of rock gods like the Who and Pink Floyd but something anyone could do. First came friendship with San Francisco punk scene friends such as Alejandro Escovedo's band, the Nuns. Not long after that, this teenage scene queen in training taught herself to play the drums, leading to a life in indie and underground music, including a stint as the drummer in Ann Magnuson's all-girl percussion group Pulsallama. 

These days, Jean Caffeine calls Austin, Texas, home and makes music about making music. Her latest album "Sadie Saturday Night" recounts impressionistic, "watercolor" memories of growing up in the underground with dreams of a rock and roll future. The songs are simple, catchy and as rebelliously quirky cool as the girl she once was and kind of always will be.

Check her out on her encore Tucson stop this Saturday night at Saint Charles Tavern, part of the Summer Singers and Songwriters also featuring locals Carmina Robles and Dal Hodges. 

It's a great time to be a townie...

It's that magical time of year again... the students are gone and Tucson is back in the hands of the locals. The weather is warm, but not yet punishing. And local venues both in Downtown and beyond it are crammed with talented bands and stellar line ups all week long. Here are some of the highlights:

The dreamy modern psych pop of Mute Swan at 4th Avenue's newest venue, Can's Deli, and a punk and funk energized "Local Love" showcase at Surly Wench are the cherries on your Friday night sundae, with equally intriguing choices including "lizard-flavored folk and roll" from Bryan Thomas Parker at Borderlands, well honed alt-country songcraft from the Jim Howell Band at Flycatcher and the fabulous funk jazz improv weirdness of Mik & Scott at Saint Charles.

Saturday night Midtown Island's finest, The Resonars, grace one of their fave local spots - the window of Che's lounge, Jacob Acosta band promotes their newest album at Club Congress with a little help from Jillian and the Giants, and the Rogue Theatre's resident music director Jake Sorgen is also celebrating an album release, the solo album "a.m.erican/English."

Later in the week, check out sets by June West at Club Congress, Juju Fontaine at Sky Bar, Sur Block and Cool Funeral at 191 Toole and Texas Trash at Owl's Club and then get some rest before it all begins again next week. It looks like the start of a beautiful summer.

Check your local listings...

Each week this column compiles a choice selection of live gigs in and around Tucson with the help of great venue and band event announcements from the web and social media and other resources, including local musician Chris Black's site www.whoplayswhere.com. 

Friday, May 25

  • Mute Swan, Shallow - 7 p.m. Can's Deli (Downtown)
  • Bryan Thomas Parker - 7:30 p.m. Borderland(Downtown)
  • The Devon Allman Project with Special Guest Duane Betts - 7:30 p.m. The Fox Theatre(Downtown)
  • Gaza Strip, Shooda Shook It - 8 p.m. at Surly Wench (Downtown)
  • Leigh Lesho & The Night Lights, The Jim Howell Band, Oscar Fuentes - 9 p.m. at Flycatcher (Downtown)
  • Mik and Scott - 9 p.m. at Saint Charles Tavern (Downtown)
  • Hiroshima DFX, M-Goblin, DJ DJon, & Natalie - 10 p.m. at Owls Club (Downtown)

Saturday, May 26

  • Jake Sorgen "a.m.erican/English" Album Release - 6 p.m. at Cans Deli  (Downtown)
  • Jacob Acosta Band, Jillian and The Giants, Leila Lopez - 7 p.m. at Club Congress (Downtown)
  • French Quarter - 7 p.m. at La Cocina (Downtown)
  • Carmina Robles, Jean Caffeine, Dal Hodges - 8 p.m. at Saint Charles Tavern (S of Downtown)
  • Resonars - 10 p.m. at Che's Lounge (Downtown)
  • Sacred Groove, Mr. Wiley, Harlette - 9 p.m. at The Edge Bar (North)
  • Brokedown Palace - 6 p.m. at Hop Shop (Central)

Sunday, May 27

  • Hot Club of Tucson - 10:30 a.m. at Hotel Congress (Downtown)
  • Mik and the Funky Brunch - 12:30 p.m. at La Cocina (Downtown) 
  • Sunday Sessions w/ Kevin Pakulis - 2:30 p.m. at Borderlands (Downtown)
  • Loveland - 7 p.m. at Che's Lounge (Downtown)
  • Brian Culbertson - 7 p.m. at The Rialto Theatre (Downtown)
  • Slim Jeff, Jansport J, Talk2Strangers, June West - 8 p.m. at Club Congress (Downtown)
  • Puzzlehead - 9 p.m. at Owls Club (Downtown)
  • The Exbats, TWGS, No Volcano, The Rifle - at The Ervice aka  2011 E 12th St (E of Downtown)

Tuesday, May 29

  • Tom Walbank - 6:30 p.m. at Sky Bar (Downtown)
  • Richard Buckner - 8 p.m. at Club Congress (Downtown)
  • Full Moon Party with JuJu Fontaine - 9 p.m. at Sky Bar (Downtown)
  • For Love or Absinthe - 7 p.m. at Royal Sun (Downtown)

Wednesday, May 30

  • Miss Lana Rebel & Kevin Michael Mayfield - 6 p.m. at La Cocina (Downtown)
  • Matt and Rebekah Rolland - 7 p.m. at Public Brewhouse (Downtown)
  • Sur Block, Cool Funeral, Citrus Clouds - 8:30 p.m. at 191 Toole (Downtown)

Thursday, May 31

  • Peach Kelli Pop, Nanami Ozone - 7 p.m. at Club Congress
  • Calexico, Julia Jacklin - 7 p.m. at The Rialto Theatre  (Downtown)
  • Creed Bratton - 8 p.m. at  191 Toole (Downtown)
  • Mik and Scott. - 8 p.m at Sky Bar (Downtown)
  • Hotel Ten Eyes and Texas Trash - 9 p.m. at Owls Club (Downtown)
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Midtown Island Studios

Louise Le Hir with guitarist Annie Dolan at Midtown Island Studios

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