Basically, Jason Meagher of Black Dirt Studio is doing it right. A fellow fighter against the evils of pale pop music. He’s a sympathetic audio engineer by all accounts and it seems to me his time with No Neck Blues Band provides a unique window into the world of free-form improvisation.
Meagher’s track record is admirable. He’s made records for the Black Twig Pickers, Blues Control, Charalambides, Eleven Twenty-Nine, Expo 70, GHQ, Steve Gunn / John Truscinski, D. Charles Speer & the Helix, Stellar OM Source.
I got in touch with Jason to ask him questions about the fairly new and ongoing NATCH series.
Jason makes each NATCH session conducted at his studio available for free download on NATCH website. You can also stream and get them on Free Music Archive. Or even more simply, at the bottom of this post.
Play these while reading the interview :
Aaron Moore & Carter Thornton – Josef Ituk
Dave Nuss, Rahdunes, Stellar Om Source & Aswara – Consolamentum
Pat Murano & Tom Carter – Prophets And Martyrs Are My Witness
Zachary Cale, Mighty Moon & Ethan Schmid – Trees Don’t Sleep
Dave Shuford, Margot Bianca & Pigeons – Dickel’s Dream
Black Twig Pickers & Steve Gunn – Sally In The Garden Sifting Sand
What prompted the move upstate?
City living was something I’d done my whole life. My wife and I talked a lot over the years about moving up north and there were some circumstances that came about that allowed us to do that, so we did.
So the move wasn’t to start the studio. How did Black Dirt come about?
I’d been recording for years on a 4 track, but never with any real investment in it as a process. In the years leading up to the move I was involved in recording The Suntanama up at the Hint House on a Korg digital machine and I totally got the bug, bad. There would be weeknight sessions where everyone would split and I’d stay until the early morning hours, killing a bottle of rum, dicking around on the machine with little to no idea what I was doing, trying to make things sound good. There were mic sims on the machine that were named 57, 421, 87, etc and I had no idea what those numbers meant! Didn’t know the difference between an insert effect and a master effect… Of course, the great thing about recording is you can approach it from a very caveman perspective. What is this thing, what does it do if I put it here, move it here, turn this knob, etc. Eventually you get a feel for making things sound ok. And once you’re there, it is an easy jump to “I think I’ll start recording other people.” Which lead to Black Dirt. The timing was perfect. The bug had evolved to a full blown disease and there was nothing else I wanted to do than record music.
Black Dirt is situated in a rural area only 60 miles away from New York City. Are you saying the shift in geography wasn’t intended to influence these potential recordings?
Well, it would be nice to say something like being in a rural area in a basement creates a vibe somewhere between Big Pink and Nellcôte, but I don’t think that is the case. From my perspective there’s not much of a difference between recording here and recording in a city, except there are less adult distractions in spitting distance. Most sessions start in the daylight and end deep into the nighttime darkness, there are few to no windows, not much fresh air in the lungs, etc. That’s kind of the same everywhere. I have heard from artists that being isolated is a great thing; that it is nice to get away from their lives, the routine, and focus on the music. For city dwellers I would imagine that seeing so many stars at night, or wild animals in the daytime, can be a nice feeling on a break, rather than a bodega or a delivery truck. That said, I have had people book time here based on the seasons – the strangling heat of August, the long nights of February, etc. Artists have utilized field recordings here as well – insects and frogs in summer, air pressure drops in late winter, rain, birds, etc.
I wanted to model the experience artists would have at Black Dirt on some of my own as a musician. One was to include a sense of hospitality that I learned from staying at Byron Coley‘s places in Western Mass over the years as a young man on tour. We built an apartment for the artists to stay in while they’re here and on long sessions (and even sometimes on weekend sessions, time permitting) we’ll cook a meal for the band, take a nice break, drink some wine, get away from the pressure for a few hours. The other was the laid back, not on the clock, homespun feeling I experienced recording at Paul Oldham’s Rove Studio in his farmhouse in KY and Jerry Yester’s place in AK. All of those places had a profound effect on me and so by virtue of transference, perhaps Black Dirt can have a similar effect on others, and perhaps wouldn’t have been possible in a city setting.
So, tell me what is NATCH all about.
NATCH is about recording people without focusing on the fact that people are being recorded. It is like an anti recording session. Get some talented people together, hang out, play some music. Music comes naturally. Without the concept of success or failure lurking in the corner of the room, if you give anyone an instrument, they’re going to make some noise on it. These sessions hopefully kinda get back to that feeling, even if the people coming here are really good players.
How did the series come about? How has it evolved after the initial release?
It got to the point here that when I wasn’t working, I wasn’t recording and I never started recording with the express idea that it would be a j-o-b type job. In the early days of the studio, Dave Nuss (NNCK, Sabbath Assembly, etc) would book these one off sessions where he’d get people together up here and just make music. He did one with the Family Underground that became the Christian Family Underground LP on Woodsist. Another with Jakob Olausson. One that became the band Amolvacy. The last one he did was with Rahdunes, Stellar Om Source and Aswara and nothing ever came of it. I had fond memories of the music they recorded and one night I decided to just start a mix and see what came of it. I was reminded of those sessions and how much fun they were. I was aware of the Daytrotter series and had recently been hipped to the Shaking Through series in Philly and it all just clicked. Why not set up some sessions that could be done fast, free and fun?
The first couple of sessions I booked were with people who had been to the studio before. Along with the artists, I had no idea what was going to happen at first. One thing that has changed is that I’ve begun inviting up artists who have never been here before, which has been amazing. Also, the sessions have begun to take on an internal rhythm – whether that is because there is a document of what has already happened, a watermark, and therefore a bit of an expectation on the artist’s part as to what they want to accomplish in the short time here, or if the walls are just vibrating a certain way when that energy of the first couple of hours of each session unfolds.
Collaboration is obviously a very important element to the series, could you elaborate as to why?
The main reason was to try and keep the sessions away from feeling like a demo process. If NATCH was a series of one artist or group coming up to do their thing, there’s a good chance it could become a testing ground for their next release. Or simply a promotional tool. With recording technology the way it is, what would distinguish a NATCH session from a recording done at home to a laptop or digital 2 track? By putting people together who have never played with each other before, the hope is to keep it in the moment, maybe find some middle ground between the artists that they might not go to on their own. There’s been a nice side effect of the series, in that some of the artists have continued to work with each other after their session.
What do you look for when pairing artists?
First and foremost, people who I hope will get along, socially and musically. I’m still waiting for the uncomfortable “clunker” session, but thankfully that hasn’t happened yet. Also, the artists should share some kind of intangible thing musically, an aesthetic, a particular nuance to the way they approach sound, where they are in their personal arc in their relationship to sound. And I’m thinking about the pairings like a sonic jigsaw puzzle – what instrumentation might work in a traditional way, or non-traditional way. Lately I’ve been inviting larger numbers of people to a single session with an ear towards a kind of one off band experience rather than a pairing of two single artists. We’ll see how those sessions turn out.
What kind of hang ups do you see when a band comes in to record with a record deal already in place?
Well, there’s an obvious focus on getting it right, for better or worse. You know, someone is paying for the time and the artists want to maximize it and make it perfect. “Are we nailing it?” “Does it sound as good as the demo / rehearsal / live show?” etc. That is all important, but there is a lot of amazing music to be found in the cracks between those questions as well as in happy accidents. Most contemporary budgets don’t allow for much experimentation in the studio. I’m not talking about writing, but trying a different approach from the one that has been hammered out in rehearsals. Another common situation is the “Come and get me when it’s my turn” scenario. During a session, it is impossible for everyone to be committed to focusing on every sound the entire time, but a lot of doors are closed when half the band thinks that they’re done with their contributions and partially check out for the remainder of a session.
I also do a large amount of artist funded projects, where the goal is to shop around the recording after it is done. That brings along a more intense dose of maximizing in a different way as well as the specter of “Will anyone be interested in producing this?” hanging out over the artist’s head the whole time.
What is your most prized piece of equipment at this point?
The default snarky engineer answer to this question is always, “My ears!” The piece of gear I love the most right now is actually something I have on semi-permanent loan from Jimy Seitang, an Alembic Superfilter. It has really changed the way I balance across the frequency spectrum over the last couple of years.
Is there a pinnacle collaboration for NATCH? Any artist, any band (past or present), who would you choose?
What’s in store for the future of Black Dirt? Any specifics on tap?
Well my advice to anyone considering starting their own studio is, don’t do it! At least not alone. The biggest drawback of being isolated is the lack of community around the studio. It would be great to host listening parties, summer cookouts, NATCH style jams, etc, here, but it is just not feasible without a local scene. I’d love to be able to move out of the basement in the near future to have some more flexibility with mic placement and live off the floor recording, natural reverb and ambiance, as well as having some more space to incorporate a machine room to get some of the noisier gear out of the control room and bring in a 24 track tape machine. There seems to be a scene percolating on both sides of the river between Beacon & Hudson including Rosendale, Kingston, etc, so maybe a move a little northeast might be in the future. Any readers out there looking for a similar setup and a partner, get in touch!
There are some exciting NATCH sessions coming up including Dave Nuss and Michael Evans, Michael Chapman with Steve Gunn, Jimy Seitang, Nathan Bowles & Marc Orleans (tentatively calling themselves The Woodpiles), Ben Chasny & Hiss Golden Messenger, maybe something with Betsy Nichols, Dan Melchior, Jon Lam, and the Helix rhythm section – Ted Robinson & Steve McGuirl. I’ve been talking to some other folks as well, tho’ nothing is written in stone, they are equally exciting!
You now deserve to download :
Adam of Northern Spy, responsible for this stimulating interview, also gave us his label’s plans for 2012 :
“. In August, the first Diamond Terrifier (Sam Hillmer of Zs) full-length drops.
. In September, we’re dropping a box set. It’s four discs of material compiling the complete sextet works by the band Zs.
. Also, we’re putting out a new record by Dan Melchior called ‘The Backward Path’ which features overdubs by C. Spencer Yeh, Ela Orleans, Sam Hillmer, and Haley Fohr (Circuit Des Yeux)
. October, we’ve got a recording by John Butcher made at the new Issue Project Room space (110 Livingston). It’s a solo performance in the empty room.
. And we’ve got the epic follow up to Infinite Ease / Good God. The record is called COL and it completes the Colin L. Orchestra trilogy. This is Colin Langenus’ band. Colin was in USA is a Monster. Now, he’s got the Colin L. Orchestra, CSC Funk Band, and Alien Whale.
In November, we’re putting out a collaboration between the duo of Loren Connors & Suzanne Langille with the painter MP Landis. This will be the first record by this duo in about 2 decades. The record was made in one day, live in the studio, with no overdubs. We projected paintings by MP Landis. Suzanne and Loren were seeing them for the first time. They played to the paintings. This will be out on CD later in the year. Two tracks from the session are getting pressed on a limited 7″ which will be available this week with original art by MP Landis.”
Learn more here.