The music industry is a close community with far reaching ties. Where to play, who to work with, and where to record is valuable information that is traded like currency. In Hoboken, it is even more concentrated as the music industry has gone through tremendous shifts in the last decade.
One studio with a storied history is the Pigeon Club. This unassuming building on Newark Street was once home for members who raced pigeons. While some members still meet a few times a year, it has new life as a recording studio.
The co-founder is none other than James Mastro, who also runs the Guitar Bars in town. Mastro, a seasoned performer and producer has played with countless bands, but is probably best known for work with the Bongos, The Health and Happiness Show, and recently as guitarist for Megan Reilly. The club’s client list includes many well-known performers including Yo La Tengo, Hello Radio, Amy Speace, and Val Emmich.
The man behind the magic is co-founder Wayne Dorell. His combined talents as an engineer, producer and musician forged a reputation with many well-known locals, including Val Emmich, The Milwaukees, 7Mornings, and Hey Tiger, to name a few. Wayne recalls bringing in equipment into the raw space and transforming it into a studio in 1999.
Dylan Clark, lead vocalist and guitarist for the Milwaukees, heard about the club when he first got signed to the label Childlike. The Milwaukees recorded several albums with Wayne, including the much talked about “Missile Command” and albums “American Anthems Vol. 1 and 2.”
Dylan has worked with other studios, but gravitates back to Wayne:
“We really like working with Wayne because he demands the best out of you,” said Dylan. “We really like Wayne’s brutal honesty. If he doesn’t like it he will tell you the song needs to be reworked.”
One of Wayne’s guiding principles is creating a product that sounds finished. Sometimes that means rescheduling a session so the band can rehearse more and often it means editing long hours after a band is gone. Wayne says that he does push bands to get the best out of them.
“A lot of bands come in and they want to play the songs a couple of times and then record it. But when you are recording, the mistakes don’t go away,” said Wayne. “That is the difference between playing live and playing in the studio. Live, it’s a little mistake people will forget about, recording, it’s there forever.”
Val Emmich, who is well-known for his music and acting chops (Ugly Betty, 30 Rock), has known Wayne personally for years and their relationship has blossomed into one of mutual respect. Val met him early in his career and recorded “Slow Down Kid,” among others at the club.
“I don’t think I would be the musician I am today if I hadn’t met him when I did,” said Val.
He says his favorite times are working alone in the studio with Wayne. “We jive well together,” said Val. “When we are working together, we work very fast together. We share the same philosophy about recording – whatever is best for the song. There is a tremendous freedom in that.”
He considers Wayne a member of the team. “I always feel like he is a member of a project. He’s invested.” While recording “Slow Down Kid” they worked many hours. “We worked all night long. We finished one recording and it was 4 a.m. on Christmas Eve,” said Val. “You really felt like, you are in this together.”
Val says the appeal also comes from the comfortable, homey atmosphere, which makes it easy to create. “It’s like slipping into your grandmother’s basement if she was a hoarder,” said Val with a laugh. Part of the charm is the club’s history, he says. “People think they can call and get help with pigeons. It’s very unique and special,” he said.
One project they worked on was an unreleased album of Emmich’s titled “Scent,” which Val believes led him to the path he is on now. “On that album we could do whatever we wanted,” says Val.
Wayne agrees that they work well together and says Val has “high standards.” “If you like being in the studio, you take something from scratch and keep adding flavors until you get it right,” says Wayne.
He recalls moments where the recording process ran smoothly, including “Missile Command” for the Milwaukees and “Slow Down Kid” for Emmich. Recently, in December, Curtis & Reinhard tracked a whole album titled “At the Pigeon Club” in a week, which he says is an “amazing achievement.” He also worked with drummer Steve Holley (Wings) on the Retroliners’ last two albums. “They were great albums to work on,” said Wayne.
When asked if he has any rules about recording, like no more than 10 songs, he agrees that that is a good number. But perhaps more important is putting the hit first as the market is so single oriented now, says Wayne.
Knowing which songs are hits and selecting the proper tracks is something Adam McDonough says Wayne has a feel for. Adam, well-known guitarist and singer/songwriter for the band 7Mornings, moved to Hoboken in 2007. Wayne recorded the band’s much lauded EP “Hurry Up and Wait.” The band has recently taken a break to pursue solo work, but the experience was such that Adam is working with Wayne now on his solo material.
“Wayne has the essence of what a good producer should be,” said Adam. “He’s amazing. Right from the start I didn’t know much about him, but he produced an amazing record for us.” Adam says the difference is marked between Wayne and other studios. “Some guys will hear a singer and just record it. Not Wayne. He’s going to work it until it’s as good as he can get it.”
“He knows a good song. If you give him a choice as a producer, he will say, ‘I love this song and this is why’ – even if it’s harder to record,” said Adam.
Adam also sees Wayne as a good connector. He says he excels at getting people to work together, whether it is for a gig or a recording. And musicians are grateful. There is perhaps no better example of that than the December fundraiser held at Maxwell’s to help repair damages left from the flooding following Tropical Storm Irene. The event included performances by many local bands like The Milwaukees, singer/songwriter Christina Alessi and others.
Think Tank Studio
Another studio with deep ties is Think Tank Studios on Newark Street. The client list reads like a who’s who in the industry and includes Sonic Youth, Nancy Sinatra, Jesse Malin, Don Fleming, Pete Yorn, Wendy James, Peter and Bjorn, Skanatra, The Fave, among others.
Co-founders of the studio include Matt and Fran Azzarto, Chris Gefken, and Chris Mehos. Matt Azzarto (Gefkens, Skanatra, Matt Madly) says they aim to give the studio space a “clubhouse feel.”
“We try to keep it loose,” says Matt. “We try to keep a rehearsal studio vibe. However long it takes for those magical moments to happen.”
Matt says that since many musicians coming to the studio are experienced, most know what they want. They aim to create an atmosphere so the band plays how they would live.
“We have it set up and ready to go when they come in,” he said, adding that sometimes they invite people to the studio to help create a live performance atmosphere. While they band plays, they do a multi-track recording. “We give it to them and they can build on that with Pro Tools and come back in and do the mix,” he says.
Azzarto is humble about his skills as an engineer and explains that his approach to recording is from a musician’s standpoint. While many who work in recording label themselves a producer, Matt believes that is a higher level of craft that you evolve to. “ I still love to work with producers for that reason,” he said.
With his years of experience as a musician, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he explains it is important to respect the song:
“If you understand the music first, and the live energy of a show, you understand the emotion,” he said, adding that key and tempo are important components . “If you slow a song down too much , it can ruin a song. It can take away the emotion.”
While he recalls many great sessions, he says working with Jesse Malin has allowed him to do a lot:
“We would start with demos and take it to another level,” he said.
Bill Emmons, who is also a Think Tank engineer, has done some incredible work with Sonic Youth and Snow Patrol, he said.
A band that needs no introduction in Hoboken is The Fave, who recorded their wildly popular album “Tomorrow’s June” at the studio. Dominick Della Fave, guitarist for the Fave, says the experience was “amazing” and not just because of the great selection of equipment.
“We went to tape, which gives [the music] a really warm sound,” he said. “It was great. Between Matt Azzarto, Bill Emmons, and Sal Mormando, we got a lot out of it. They have a lot of high quality equipment there.”
Dominick says it’s important to work with an engineer who has patience.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to work with some great engineers. Matt was really helpful. He’s great at mixing and engineering,” he said.
Dominick is familiar with several local studios. He says good equipment is important, but it’s also important to know the room: “A place like Think Tank, Matt knows the room, just like Wayne knows his room. It’s a process. We’ve done songs quickly like that because Matt knows where to place the instruments to get the best sound.”
“Good equipment is only as good as the people operating it,” says Chris “Gibby” Gibson, owner of Upstart Studios. If an engineer working the board doesn’t know how to give instruction, it doesn’t matter how expensive the equipment is, he explained.
Ten years ago, Gibby recalls a show at legendary club CBGB. A band had just finished and Green Day showed up and asked to play. “They had just finished a show and played another hour on someone else’s stuff and they still sounded like Green Day. It’s the people working the equipment,” he said.
Gibby has worked in the industry for over 20 years, and is known to many by his reputation.
When he works with a band, he is a firm believer in telling the truth. Sometimes that means the singer needs to go to a vocal coach, he says. In all the years that he’s been working, there were only a few occasions he wasn’t able to help someone.
“Sometimes, they’ve never heard the truth. A lot of times you suck when you are recording. There is no shame in that,” he said.
His goal is getting the best sound possible. There are some sounds that you just wouldn’t hear unless you are recording, he says.
Gibby is known for his “good ears.” Dave Calamoneri, lead singer and guitarist for Davey and the Trainwreck, jokes there might be a high pitched dog whistle that Gibby can’t hear, but not much else.
Dave’s band recorded, mixed and mastered the album “Last Stop Hoboken” at Upstart Studios. Dave recalls that Gibby stopped while they were recording the drums and the bass on a song and said he heard “orphan bass notes.”
“Any doubts I had were gone,” said Dave. “It makes a huge difference when you have someone who knows what they are doing.”
Dave calls Gibby a mainstay in the Hoboken scene. “It’s nice to work with him. It’s like keeping it in the family,” Dave said. “He brings a lot of experience to the table. It’s interesting. He gets it as an engineer, a producer, and a musician.”
Until his recent album, Dave used to record everything himself. But he had reached the point where he needed a professional recording to play on the radio.
“When I heard “The World Keeps Spinnin” on WFMU, there was no change in the sound quality between my song and another song that had just played,” says Dave.
Dan McLoughlin, who has decades of experience, has run the Vault for over seven years. He explains that as the music industry has changed, so has recording.
“In the old days, the labels paid for everything. It was over the top,” he said.
With all the shifts, it really comes down to passion for music and love for the craft.
“I have a returning clientele list. I do it because I love it,” he said. Because hi s studio is successful, he can afford to pick what projects he works on. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t looking out for artists:
“I tell bands, you can do a lot of this stuff at home – not the drums, but everything else. You also need someone to tell you if a song is good or not,” he explained.
While his formal training is engineering, he considers himself a producer. That job entails giving good advice, like telling bands to be prepared. And sometimes you have to let go of things. While he was working with singer-songwriter Mary Jennings, she was working to get the vocals “right.” Dan told her to “just sing it.”
“She sits on the couch and she’s singing it live. After it was over she’s curled up on the couch bawling. She got the meaning of the song – it was about her mom passing. Sometimes you have to let go of what you think will work technically in order for something to work,” he said.
His guiding principles for artists are simple: Have fun, but take yourself seriously –and that means taking care of your instrument.
“I never let a project go unless they are happy with it,” he says.
Photos courtesy of James Notaro, Think Tank, Dave Entwistle, Patrick McCarthy, Steve Berrebi, Krista Kelly.