The trailer for Dave Grohl’s documentary on the Sound City studio where Nirvana recorded Nevermind has just emerged. I enjoy the snippet where Brad Wilks, drummer of Rage Against the Machine chuckles “we chose Sound City because Nevermind was recorded there,” as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world that less than a year after Nevermind’s recording it had already set such a standard that RATM should want to work there.
The trailer dwells briefly on the death of the studio in 2011 as newer facilities took over and digital became the way of the future — it also implies that the decline of the music industry and the spread of low-cost recording technology has put paid to the recording budgets that allowed dedicated studios to thrive. Yet this isn’t an uncommon piece of the Nirvana story. As well as Sound City, Reciprocal Recording, Nirvana’s key locale, had already closed by mid-1991. It then became Word of Mouth Production and saw one Nirvana session in 1992 until it too closed in 1993. The list goes on; Butch Vig’s Smart Studios (Nirvana, April 1990) went out of business in 2010; The Music Source in Seattle which Nirvana recorded at in Autumn 1989 then again in January 1991 survived from 1969 to 1996 before owner Jim Wolfe closed it down. Viewing the history of Nirvana studio visits means looking over a clutch of tombstones.
It isn’t all gloom of course; Robert Lang Studios (Nirvana’s home for the fleeting January 1994 visit) remains a fully functioning facility, meanwhile Pachyderm Studios (In Utero sessions, February 1993) rolls on happily. Yet, following the trail, means coming across not just the ‘dead’ studios, but the lost. I can’t even find present day evidence of the BMG Ariola Ltda studio where Nirvana recorded in January 1993. BMG Ariola no longer exists as a distinct entity, the facilities themselves are now hidden somewhere inside the Sony identity. The name has gone, the location may or may not still exist, the owners have moved on — until someone furnishes me with the evidence it’s no more than a spectre.
There’s already, however, a sense in which studios were something more than a physical space. By the time Nirvana hit Barrett Jones’ Laundry Room Studios in 1992 it had already moved through four locations in Arlington, Virginia before settling in Seattle. The history page of the official website then shows it shifting through a further four locations from 1993 to present day. The point being that with the studio gear changing, with the location shifting so fundamentally, it’s unclear whether the studio is more than a name. Yet, actually, the name itself has significance. Instead of marking the physical presence of bands in a defined location, Laundry Room Studios remains as a marker of Barrett Jones’ first efforts in his parents’ basement laundry room. So, again, there’s a personal history, this time of the producer and owner, inscribed into the existence of the studio making it (for want of a better phrase) a mind-space floating free of present day location; tethered somewhere in the past.
That’s the wider point hinted at by interviewees in the trailer; there’s a spell in which they sit reciting lists of bands and artists who made use of Sound City. While focused on a single location, the studio’s significance within the trailer is as a haunted house. The past presence of an artist shouldn’t have any relevance to someone recording there but that link back to their predecessors seems to spark smiles on a host of places (“That’s what I’m talking about!” says Dave Grohl to emphasize the significance of studio ghosts.) Past residents act as a mark of taste, a source of inspiration, a reassurance that one has made it; music tourists walking through the phantoms. The studio is decorated to ensure this particular point is unmissable; the cameras trail down walls loaded with memorabilia indicating the people who haunt the hallways and the past records that acted as ancestors — in the sense of being previous Sound City recordings — to whichever album was being made in the present. Pachyderm Studios takes this to a further extreme given it houses a Neve Mixing Console that previously saw service in Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland studio and the Record Plant where John Lennon among others recorded. Even the equipment in the studio is haunted by those who came before.
It’s often hard to separate a celebration from a lament; there are few tributes until the life of something is passing — memory and remembrance imply a look back at what has gone. When interviewing Miti Adhikari about his involvement in Nirvana’s penultimate radio session, I asked (long-windedly) “the studio in which these songs were recorded, some producers seem to work hard to minimise or eliminate room noise, to what extent did the studio in which the songs were recorded matter to the music created?” I was just meaning the physical conditions.
His answer reinforced the sense that the value of a studio isn’t so much about the technical facts of recording or its physical realities. He replied; “these songs were recorded in Studio 4, Maida Vale. The studio is legendary, as it is easier to name the artists who haven’t recorded there than the artists who have. The place reeks of history and music and anyone who records there is acutely aware of this and wants to play their part in creating yet another bit of history. The sound of the room is the USP and has been loved by musicians through the ages.”
Again, Dave Grohl refers in the trailer to “the social” in music; it seems that a lot of that communion isn’t with those who are present; it’s with the ghosts in the machines, in the walls, with the echoes rolling through the building.
Well, anyways, here’s the breakdown of Nirvana’s time in studio by number of days spent and songs recorded.
While Sound City was the longest committed length of time Nirvana spent in studio in one go, Reciprocal Recording was the place where a core chunk of Nirvana songs were made. I sometimes wonder if the flitting between studios in 1992-1994 was a physical manifestation of Kurt Cobain’s discomfort with making music…