In an isolated glass booth in the middle of London's Air Studios, Ryan "Shmed" Maynes sat playing the piano surrounded by a gospel choir and 100 members of the London Symphony Orchestra. His bandmate from the L.A. group Holliston Stops, Jamie "Soup" Carpenter, leaned into the booth's mic and crooned the words to the band's rock song, "October Dream": "I have this dream where we meet the same time every year, on this Halloween eve. And when the evening is over it doesn't matter to me, I can still have my dream, strollin' around under the moonlight." As he sang, the choir voices rang out in "Ahhs" and the strings welled up in dramatic orchestral waves. It was a breathtaking moment, Shmed recalls: a whole cathedral's worth of musicians playing his song.
"It was surreal to see pages of music in front of the London Symphony that we had written 10 years earlier and recorded on a four-track high on ecstasy," says Shmed.
It was March 2007, and the two musicians had recently reunited temporarily to re-record "October Dream." Soup had shopped the song around to music companies and it wound up in the hands of Cornerstone Cues, a company that often produces music at Air Studios for film scores and previews. Cornerstone was looking for a chance to combine a rock band with the London Symphony, and decided to fly Shmed and Soup to England for the $300,000 gig and the possibility that the music could make it onto the silver screen.
"At the moment, when I was sitting in the middle of that room, it was so incredible," says Shmed. "It felt like the pinnacle, like this is as big as it gets."
But after walking out of Air Studios, reality set in. For more than 15 years, Shmed had worked as a musician trying to get a big break in the L.A. scene, and by all accounts he'd been successful in getting work. But he was always just clutching at the fringes of fame: Record deals would fall through, studio projects were never his own. The competition for recognition seemed to always require reaching higher and higher without any promise of satisfaction. He was tired of the big promises followed by dead ends and disappointments.
"I realized if I had my own studio and my own little band and I lived in a small town and cranked out albums, I'd be happier," he says. "I wanted to try to be the big fish in the small pond."
So Shmed set out to do the opposite of what most of his fellow L.A. musicians were doing. Two months after the recording at Air Studios, he packed up his life and moved to Missoula to build a studio.
"Everybody told me I was crazy," he says. "They told me that I was blowing my big chance in L.A."
Since he put down roots in Missoula three years ago, Shmed has made a huge impact on the local music scene. His studio has become the most popular place to record in town, cutting close to 50 albums by local groups from every imaginable genre, including bluegrass, rock, rap and country. His band, Secret Powers, is currently recording its fourth album, and plays consistently packed gigs at the Palace and headliner slots at festivals like Garden City BrewFest. Shmed's services are in demand to the point that he's often seen sitting in on keyboard with various other bands at live shows or during recording sessions.
After aspiring to be successful in the L.A. scene, Shmed has discovered the glories of making a big impression in a small town. And, in the process of building up his Missoula studio, he's realized that his own lofty dreams of "making it" can be achieved simply by giving other musicians a record of their own.
When Shmed was a child, he played piano to escape his father.
"My father beat me up and brushed my teeth with Comet," he says. "His whole theory was you break a child's spirit and beat them physically so that if they start to act up you just point at them and they stop. He'd beat me up enough times to where I was a robot."
To avoid the abuse, Shmed would spend long hours in his room at his piano writing songs and experimenting with chords. In a way, he says, fear of his father ended up making him a disciplined musician. When Shmed's mother—a piano player herself—realized he had the talent and desire to play music, she arranged guitar and piano lessons for him. He recalls one influential teacher who taught him Billy Joel, Elton John and jazz. Eventually, Shmed's mother sent him off to a music boarding school in ninth grade.
"Everybody just partied," he says. "It was a rich kids' school—way too expensive. I was a 14-year-old playing in a Grateful Dead cover band with a bunch of 18-year-olds. After that I went to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts where I started learning music theory."
When he was in 10th grade his friend acquired a cassette tape with a recording made on a four-track by another kid's father. It was a song called "She's So Far Away," and it was low quality, but the two kids couldn't get enough of it.
"We loved it," Shmed says. And he sings a few bars of it in a dreamy voice: "When I think of you, doo, da, doo."
"It was this amazing song that we used to listen to every day," he continues, "and I realized some guy who was not famous and who probably didn't ever sell any records had recorded it himself. And that stuck with me."
After high school, Shmed and his friends skipped college to tour in their rock band, Date With Dizzy, in the hopes of becoming rock stars. ("Big mistake," he says.) In 1995, Date With Dizzy scored a record deal with Interscope, a label that had signed popular alt-rock bands like Bush and No Doubt. It seemed like a promising step, but after recording the album, the label never released it.
"Right when it was done the head guy at Interscope said, 'Oh, I don't like this,'" Shmed recalls. "And I found out later that what they'll do is they'll sign 10 bands and pay for albums to be made and then they'll just pick one and only promote that album. So getting signed meant nothing."
It was a depressing lesson learned.
But Shmed's luck changed when he started getting work as a session musician, sitting in with bands when they needed a keyboardist and, in the process, learning about studio mixing and mastering.
He soon quit Date With Dizzy and joined Arlo, a pop band that already had secured a record deal with Sub Pop—a deal where the albums were actually released. He played bass, wrote Beatles-influenced songs for the band and toured across the United States several times, at one point hitting Jay's Upstairs, Missoula's former punk rock haven. At Jay's, Arlo shared the bill with local band Volumen, and the two groups became fast friends.
Off tour, Arlo played weekly gigs in L.A.'s nightly music scene. The non-stop schedule meant the band partied all night, every night, fueled with alcohol and pot, then cocaine and pills.
"It was fun for a while," says Shmed. "When you're playing with bands there's no other job in the world where you show up and they say, 'Here's your drink ticket.'"
While playing with Arlo, Shmed got a call that seemed to herald his big break. Indie rock favorite Weezer was enjoying a surge of popularity after a two-year hiatus—the band's songs were in heavy rotation on the radio and MTV, and the eponymous album dubbed by fans as "The Green Album" was a raging success. Weezer needed a keyboardist for some new songs, and Shmed got the job. He spent weeks recording on their 2002 demos, playing piano on tracks that never made it onto the band's 2005 release, Make Believe.
"They said I was going to be in Weezer," Shmed says. "I was going to tour with them. I was going to be the new guy."
And, momentarily, he was famous—at least in the Weezer community.
"I looked at the Internet," he says. "About 70 percent of people hated me. They're like, 'Shmed should die. He's ruining Weezer.' Because these kids, they don't think you're a real person. I'm reading it and going, 'Oh my god,' but I'm thinking, 'I'm going to be in Weezer. I finally made it. I'm gonna be a rock star.'"
The whole time he was recording Shmed dreamed of playing stadiums and having enough money to rent his own apartment in the city. Then, after just three weeks, it all came to an end.
"All of a sudden they were done with me and it was over," he says. "It was totally crushing. I cried."
Around the same time, during a tour with Arlo, Shmed found out that one of his bandmates from Date with Dizzy had committed suicide. Adding salt to the wound, the 2002 release of Arlo's second album, Stab the Unstoppable Hero, received a scathing review from the influential online media site Pitchfork, which accused the band of parroting more popular acts—like Weezer. Arlo split up.
Shmed continued to get work as a session musician and he did a stint touring Europe with recently reunited 1960s garage legends The Seeds. His longtime friend and mentor Ben Vaughn, who had produced Ween's cult album 12 Golden Country Greats, hooked Shmed up working on music projects for television shows like "3rd Rock From the Sun," "That '70s Show," the short-lived "That '80s Show" and "Weeds."
"When I first met Ben I was really kind of lost, not making a lot of money, with lots of drug problems," says Shmed. "He hired me but he also took care of me. He was the guy who I could talk to about drugs and problems with drinking and girls. So he was as much like a father as he was like a mentor. And he taught me how to produce."
But the television gigs, which he often got through subcontracting with friends, didn't last and the session work didn't bring him any closer to doing projects that were meaningful to him—projects that he could call his own. He spent his money on partying and going out to eat, and the lifestyle was starting to catch up to him.
"During my heaviest party times I was still writing songs, playing gigs and recording," he says. "But once my friends and I found out that you could go downtown and get whatever you wanted—crack, heroin, anything—24 hours a day, everything escalated. It wasn't a social event anymore. Instead of getting together to party, people were hiding in their rooms not wanting to share anything."
Finally, Shmed says, he began to see that if he wanted to take seriously his dreams of making music, he needed to take a different road. When he got paid $5,000 for scoring a video game, he bought a computer and his first Pro Tools software.
"It was the smartest thing I ever did," he says.
In 2005 he reconnected with an old friend from his arts high school, a teacher who had a kid and a house. They hit it off.
"Carrie's life was together," he says. "I decided it was time to grow up, and I moved in with her."
Within a year they were married and pregnant, and Shmed had gotten himself cleaned up. He built a small place to record music in the couple's apartment and began collecting recording equipment. And then he had another revelation. Rather than eke out an existence in L.A., barely making it on projects he didn't care about, why not go somewhere new? He knew he wanted his own real studio, but he couldn't afford a place to create one in the city.
"We were looking for a place for the kids to grow up slower, too," says Carrie. "Shmed was really adamant about Missoula after going on tour there. He thought it was magical. He was always enamored by it."
So, by the time Shmed found himself in front of the London Symphony Orchestra, a year later, he'd already made up his mind.
"I did think this thing with the London Symphony Orchestra could be big," he admits, "but I'd already had so many times when I'd thought I'd made it. It's depressing to watch nothing happen. I decided I wasn't going to stick around and watch this fail, too. So I walked away."
He was right. The London recording went nowhere, but by that time, Shmed and his family had packed up their belongings and moved to Missoula.
When Shmed arrived in Missoula in July 2007, Secret Powers was waiting for him. The band had heard through members of Volumen that a keyboardist (from Arlo, no less) was looking to put down roots and set up a recording studio.
"We knew he was coming to town," says Secret Powers' bassist John Fleming, "and we wanted a keyboard player. We wanted to snag him before anyone else did."
The members of Secret Powers were already established musicians. Fleming, drummer Dan Strachan and guitarist Stu Simonson (who has since left the band) all played with former stalwart Missoula rock band Oblio Joes. Singer/guitarist Troy Warling hailed from the wild dirty rock band Fireballs of Freedom, and Ryan Farley from Boycott the Circus. The new group had practiced a couple of months already with Warling at the reins, but when Shmed arrived, he took over as bandleader with immediate enthusiasm. Since everyone else had busy professional day jobs, there was no resistance.
"I had to find out if they were cool with me and not threatened," Shmed says. "And then I find out that everyone in the band is awesome and they want to do my songs. I was lucky. I got grandfathered in and stood on the shoulders of giants with their reputations."
Finally, he says, he felt like he had a band of his own.
While Shmed built his studio in the garage of the new Missoula home, Secret Powers worked on pop songs influenced by the shiny harmonies of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The band recorded its first album, Explorers of the Polar Eclipse, and the sleek, glossy sound created a local buzz. When Club Shmed Studios opened in the fall as a full-on business, musicians started filtering in. Black Velvet Elvis recorded an album (though it was never released) and metal band Blessiddoom followed. Local promoter and anti-folk musician Tyson Ballew heard the Secret Powers recording and, impressed, decided he would talk to Shmed about a solo album.
"I told him I didn't want it to sound overproduced," says Ballew. "And he said, 'We can make it sound like anything.'"
From the beginning, Shmed had help from a young engineer named Charlie Allin who had some recording experience and offered to bring in a mixing board and mics. He wanted to work there to expand his recording skills and be part of the studio from the ground up. When Shmed told him, "But we're not making any money yet," Allin recalls saying, "I don't care. We will make money."
Shmed wasn't as sure. Though he'd had steady, successful work in L.A., the constant competition and letdowns there made him gun-shy. He was obsessed with the process of making albums but once each album was finished he suffered a sort of postpartum depression. Recording and mixing was the feel-good part, but he often raised the bar so high for himself with albums that he was prone to feeling empty at the end.
"When I was recording albums the world was full of possibilities," he says. "When I released albums it was full of disappointments. That's because your disappointment is the distance between your expectations and your talent. When I released the last Secret Powers album I was like, 'Ta da!' And I did pull things off, but never what I imagined. And two weeks later I got started working on the next album, and the world was full of possibilities again."
Adding to his anxiety was the fact that business at the studio was slow. Carrie had just had their second baby (making them a family of five) and even though they had some savings, Shmed wasn't confident that the studio would get more clients. He found himself working at Denny's as a waiter just to ease his worries.
"I think he had more anxiety than I did," says Carrie. "Shmed makes good records—he always has. I remember encouraging him to spend more time in the studio. I just felt like it would work. And I've seen him working places where he wasn't happy and this is such a contrast, seeing him doing what he's supposed to be doing."
Shmed says he had a tough time: 15 years of only doing music, plus all the partying, had taken a toll and he often didn't get the restaurant orders straight. After Denny's fired him, he took other restaurant jobs and finally settled at Food For Thought, where he could comfortably wash dishes with his headphones on. For a while, he says, he resigned himself to the idea that even if no one else came to his studio to record, he could be a dishwasher and just use the studio for Secret Powers and his own personal projects.
But in spring 2009, the Club Shmed Studios hit a tipping point.
Tom Catmull recalls the tattered scrap of paper with "Shmed" scrawled on it next to a phone number. The popular local Americana musician was about ready to record a new album with his band, and he was looking for a studio. Through several hands, the scrap of paper ended up in his possession.
"I was thinking, 'Okay. Someone named Shmed. Huh,'" Catmull says. He called the number anyway and ended up at Club Shmed Studios in March 2009.
"I expected a garage with some gear in it," says Catmull, "but it was a really nice studio."
The building at the back of Carrie and Shmed's home off South Russell Street does appear to be like any other backyard garage. But inside, it has a professional, yet hip air. The walls are painted in periwinkles, oranges and apple greens, and are illuminated by warm lights. Instruments and mics line the larger recording room, and the smaller room hosts mixers, two computer screens and a soundproof booth. Guitars hang from the ceilings and walls, as do some random things: a Day of the Dead skeleton, a couple of ventriloquist dolls and African masks.
Tom Catmull and the Clerics ended up recording Glamour Puss there, and though the album might not have been the instigator for a snowball effect, it definitely led the pack in local releases that would be recorded and produced at Club Shmed that year. Popular Missoula bands like Rooster Sauce, Vera and Volumen followed Catmull, and the number of studio albums he recorded passed 40.
Shmed started getting calls from musicians, sometime a dozen at a time, wanting to record within a week. Fearing that if he said no they'd go away, he started cramming people in for sessions. If they couldn't afford the $35–$40 per hour fee, he'd often make them a deal. Keith Moore from Bird's Mile Home helped remodel part of the Maynes' bathroom. Deny the Dinosaur painted the house, Mason Jar String Band tore out the basement stairs and Streetlight People built the family a wooden deck—all in exchange for albums.
In one three-week period Shmed had musicians in from 10 a.m. to midnight without much of a break almost every day. The hours he wasn't dishwashing, he was in the studio. He'd spend late night recording sessions working with a diverse group of musicians—country jam bands like Miller Creek and anthemic pop rock bands like The Racquet. The next morning he'd clean up the studio to prepare for several hours of lessons with the 10 or so young music students to whom he taught a combined curriculum of piano, guitar, drums and bass.
"I started not sleeping," he says, "and I started feeling what it would be like to have a nervous breakdown, feeling trippy and psychotic and weird. And my heart started beating fast and I was like, 'That's it.'"
It was time to take the plunge. Shmed quit his job as a dishwasher and, delighted to find out that the musicians were willing to wait a few weeks or a month to record, he started spacing out his studio time so that he wasn't burning out. Sometimes his studio calendar would appear empty and Shmed would feel the dread well up, certain that he'd have to go back to Denny's or somewhere else and scrape dishes. But month after month—and often at the last minute—the recording slots filled up.
"Record sales and live music aren't doing as well as they used to," says Shmed, "but the amazing thing I realized is that people are still recording. Bands need good sounding music for their MySpace pages because as soon as you put your music on the Internet it's like a lottery ticket: You never know who might listen. I feel like if I record bands long enough, one of them is going to hit it big."
Shmed, now 37, also began to rethink how to define success for himself. His earlier years in L.A. often made him think that being the frontman of a famous band was the only doorway to happiness. But he's changed his tune.
"The guys behind the scenes—the mixers and engineers and producers and songwriters—those guys work forever," he says. "As a studio owner, you can be over 40 and still be cool and hang out with the next generation of bands."
And even though he likes to imagine that somewhere down the line Secret Powers will enjoy a cult following, fame seems increasingly less important to him.
"I want Secret Powers to be kind of like The Grateful Dead where we can still play shows when we're older," he says. "The last show we played at the Palace I looked out at the audience and pretty much everyone in the crowd was in a band that I recorded. And that's fine with me."
Two months ago, in March, Shmed got a surprise phone call. Charles Nichols, associate professor of music at the University of Montana, asked if he could set up eight microphones in Club Shmed for Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The internationally acclaimed South African singers, famous for their collaboration on Paul Simon's Graceland and the soundtrack for The Lion King, had performed at UM the night before as part of a nationwide tour and were looking to record on their only day off. Shmed didn't have enough mics, but he called up another studio owner in town, Jim Rogers, to bring in more equipment. Ladysmith brought in their own engineer and recorded a song using the vocals from the now-deceased wife of one of its singers.
"They told me that the woman singing was one of their wives who was murdered in South Africa and they were flying in her vocal so they could sing with her one last time," says Shmed.
It was an experience that he wouldn't forget, like the moment he recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. Only this time, it all took place in his studio.
While business has been brisk, and Shmed's certainly established a level of success, the studio still presents challenges. At a recent Secret Powers practice, for instance, Shmed explains that there will be no recording. His computer has crashed and after trying to revive it he's decided he has to empty his bank account to buy a new one.
"What else could I do?" he says. "The studio has to work to keep going."
But he's in good spirits. He sits at his double-screened monitors, always bouncing his leg in excess energy, dominating the attention in the room with his mile-a-minute gravelly voice, telling story after story. The other members of Secret Powers listen, laugh and crack open cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon they get from the studio's vending machine. At this moment, Shmed's talking about visiting his grandmother and the creepy deformed guy who lurked down the hall of the nursing home, about being on the "Tom Green Show" and about once, back in the old days, accidentally smoking rat poop. Nobody can stop laughing.
Despite the computer crash, Shmed's relaxed because the studio's schedule is filling up for the next few weeks. Local country great Russ Nassett is in the middle of an album. Butter, the dark folk band that's now a mainstay at the Top Hat, will be in the next weekend. Bacon & Egg (a hip-hop offshoot from Volumen) and songwriter John Brownell are also in the mix. Even though Shmed still has his moments of anxiety, these days even he admits the future of the studio looks bright.
"I always feel like its all going to fall apart," says Shmed. "When I was working at Denny's scraping off plates and dealing with mean customers I was scared. I thought I'd made a mistake. But someone told me, 'The more you give, the more you get back.' That's like the end of Abbey Road."
Shmed still dreams sometimes of getting that call from New York or L.A. for a big music project that will be his big break. But he's not sure he'll ever go back to L.A. for good.
"First of all, I've realized there's more money to be made off other people's dreams than my own," he says. "But also, for instance, yesterday was one of the best days of my life. I woke up in the morning and did some recording. Then Wartime Blues called me and they said they wanted to record a song here. I'm so excited because I've always wanted to record them. I'm here with my family, got the kids in the backyard, Carrie's happy. And I'm thinking it just doesn't get any better than this."