If you set the stage just right, something magical happens…
Really, you thought you saw Dave Matthews at the table next to you at Onieals? Or the singer from a hot, new band beside you at the bar at DC’s Tavern? Your eyes may not have been deceiving you after all. Of course, Maxwell’s remains a must-play venue on the East Coast, but for nearly thirty years, Water Music Recorders has been quietly drawing artists from all over the globe to come and create music here on the west side of town.
Back in the early 80’s, though, Rob Grenoble wasn’t dreaming of owning a recording studio. He just wanted to play with his band, CRIES, and write music. Call it randomness – or call it destiny, if your philosophy tends that way – but through a series of events, synergies, and synchronicities, he wound up at the helm of Water Music, today one of the most respected and prestigious recording studios in the country. “Since Frank Sinatra left Hoboken,” notes Grenoble, “every gold and platinum record from here has come from Water Music.”
The accidental recorder
You might say it was the crazy end to a night after CRIES played at CBGB’s that started it all when the giant yellow truck that the band was travelling in on was struck by a drunken driver on Willow Avenue.
Grenoble initially toyed with the idea of using the money from the insurance settlement to purchase a brownstone here in town, but bandmate Rob Miller persuaded Grenoble to build what was supposed to be simply a private recording studio for their band at 2ndand Grand streets.
But in 1983, before the dry wall had even been attached to the studs, Steve Fallon – then the owner of Maxwell’s – called. Fallon, who was also owner of Coyote Records, was about to do an album by Chris Stamey of the dB’s and needed somewhere to record. They didn’t even own a tape machine yet, Grenoble points out, but adds that Fallon pleaded “just do it for me” and so with borrowed equipment, they made the record. “That album, Instant Excitement, made almost every Top Ten list,” says Grenoble. “And then, everybody and their mother started calling.”
“Steve Fallon from Maxwell’s was entirely responsible for this entire debacle,” Grenoble laughs. Call him the reluctant recorder: “I only did it out of loyalty,” he says, crediting Fallon and Miller as the true lynchpins.
“Demand drove it,” Grenoble adds. “It was created by the musicians of Hoboken, not us – I wanted nothing to do with it. I just wanted to stay home and write songs!” But when did that change? “It never did,” he laughs again. “I never wanted to own a recording studio. I got dragged into it!”
Secrets to success
So despite this seeming reticence, how has Water Music become such an international success, with clients including Dave Matthews, Beyonce, the Allman Brothers, Cass McCombs, The Living End, Sonic Youth, Turbonegro, Shudder to Think, and The Feelies, as well as local legends Yo La Tengo?
“What’s involved isn’t what people think,” Grenoble explains. “People understandably think that recording is about knobs and technology, but that’s only a small part. Making records is knowing how to create an environment for an artist that is comfortable and inspiring. When an artist feels good, they’ll go for it. That’s when magic happens. We set the stage for magic to happen. The tape machine is always in record.”
It’s 99% social skills and only 1% technical skills, he adds. “You’ve got to get the artists into the right head space – and they don’t come in in that head space.”
Still, there is so much uncertainty to it all. “You can never know what’s actually going to be a hit,” he admits. “There’s a huge amount of randomness in what we do.”
And while for the fans, every baseball player is only as good as their last at-bat or every artist is only as good as their last album, for Grenoble’s clients, the focus is all on what’s next. “Their entire career hangs on their next record – that’s the reality of it, so there’s zero partying.”
While the media may try to create the opposite image, he insists, that’s just not the way it is when musicians are in the studio. Whatever may happen on the road, here, time is money. “The intensity of their focus would stun someone who’s outside of the industry.” Although there are exceptions, he says, “They couldn’t get to this level if they weren’t disciplined.”
The true professionals get that. He notes that after a day-long session, Shakira walked around the room and personally thanked each and every member of the team. Esperanza Spalding, who recorded both of her albums at Water Music, recently won the Grammy for Best New Artist and left the awards ceremony to fly to Tokyo for a performance.
Residences, road cases, & reminiscences
In their early days downtown, the Water Music team lived on food from neighboring Leo’s Grandezvous; “Leo kept us alive for the first couple of years,” Grenoble says. “We bought all of our beer from Leo’s – and sausage sandwiches from Verducci’s.” Back then, he notes, Maxwell’s, the Beaten Path (now the Whiskey Bar), and Court Street were the only venues for live music, and early on, even Maxwell’s borrowed their PA system from Water Music.
It was a move uptown to larger quarters in a former pillow factory on upper Madison Street in 1993 that allowed for a change that has had a major impact on the studio – the addition of residences for artists to stay onsite while recording. Today, Water Music is the only residential studio in the metropolitan area.
This residential aspect creates a tremendous sense of closeness with the artists, with staff seeing artists in their underwear with their toothbrushes. “You really get to know your artists,” says Grenoble, who notes that it happens all the time: the artists generally start out by saying that they don’t need the residences. But with days averaging 14 hours, maybe the bass player doesn’t want to go back to the hotel after a very long session. “By the end of the week,” he says, “the entire band will have moved in with their families, their dogs, their plants – whatever they’re doing. Grandma’s here by the end of the week.” It also yields some very funny anecdotes.
Dogs have always had a place at the studio; Jones, a Lab/German Shepherd mix, oversaw the construction of their current space, which Field Lab Telah patrols today. But it was a Chocolate Lab named Lance that got the attention of Cyndi Lauper. Lance’s relentless panting concerned Lauper, despite Grenoble’s assurance that dogs do that, they pant when it’s hot. Still, she insisted on bringing Lance into the studio, much to the dog’s delight.
The studio’s service policy is modeled after the classic English butler. But Fred Schneider, frontman of the B-52’s, Grenoble recalls, just may have out-butlered the butlers! Arriving two hours ahead of schedule, Schneider contentedly kept himself busy: he did the dishes, hoovered the entire space, and even reorganized the coffee area by the time the rest of the band showed up.
While the studio isn’t a place for partying, long hours and tight deadlines do necessitate creature comforts. The size of the road cases that transport a band’s gear is always an indication of just how “big” the band is. Cases too large would never be able to load into a smaller venue, so when French band Noir Desir’s giant cases arrived, the Water Music team knew these guys were major. Once the band themselves showed up, they immediately rushed to check on the cases. Grenoble was surprised; such concern for one’s equipment is rare, he notes – but, in fact, the road cases were filled with French wine because the band simply refused to drink wine from California!
Over the years, Grenoble explains, artists learn to carry everything with them that they need to feel comfortable. The Allman Brothers road cases, just as huge, are filled with drawers that contain everything the band could possibly need, Grenoble adds, from rubber bands to Band-Aids to a can of Pledge. “They’re totally self-contained. It’s staggering.”
Grenoble isn’t phased by being surrounded by all these celebrities. Signed to RCA in 1988, his band played extensively. And today, by his own accounts, he could have photos of himself with 932 rock stars – or more! So what awed and amazed him? The opportunity to play the upright bass that belonged to Charlie Mingus, an instrument that has been passed selectively from musician to musician since the jazz legend’s passing. “To hold Mingus’s bass in my hands was earth-shattering. That was the one time my hands shook – it just blew my mind!”
Although Grenoble emphasizes that the Hoboken music scene is still very much the same as it was back then, he points out that the music industry has changed greatly, as well as the business of recording it – particularly the shift from analog to digital recording and the ease of DIY recording. “Studios are a vanishing species,” he says. But today, even though Water Music records in both formats, he notes that many big acts go for analog because the sound is so much richer. And their vintage Neve 8088 console is one of only 11 that were ever made. It wowed one British producer, but the comfy sofas in the control room did not. The producer even asked the staff to block the sofas with road cases so that the band wouldn’t get too comfortable in there!
The neighborhood has also transformed around them. Back when they were building the studio in 1991, there was a “waste management” business next door that even left a dumpster blocking their door in lieu of a calling card because the owner “didn’t have a business card.” A large residential complex now occupies that space. There was no Shop Rite across the street then, and Grenoble still misses the gun range where they once bought all of their earplugs.
“Everything’s different around here except us,” says Grenoble. But now even Water Music has tremendous plans for the future with a planned Arts Center on their present site. Private and reclusive by his own admission, Grenoble adds, “The Arts Center plan is what flushed me out of my cave. I’ve had to put on a suit and go shake hands. I’ve enjoyed seeing the sun, but I have no doubt that when the Arts Center is built, I will return to my cave, rarely to be seen again.”
For more information on those plans, read our h Now story at http://www.hmag.com/2011/03/water-music-a-lincoln-center-for-hoboken/ or visit hobokenartscenter.org.
Water Music is located at 931 Madison Street. Go to www.watermusic.net to learn more.