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"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.