Sound design 

Scaring up big names at Whitefish’s Snowghost studio

On the evening of May 10, it’s quieter than usual at Snowghost. Two weeks ago, Stephen Malkmus—the founder, lead singer and guitarist of Pavement—visited the Whitefish recording studio with his band The Jicks, to put together their newest album.

Things promise to be busy again soon. Matmos, an avant-garde electronica duo from San Francisco who worked with Björk on 2001’s Vespertine and 2004’s Medulla as well as touring with her twice, arrives in Whitefish next week.

Snowghost owner Brett Allen’s path to opening a recording studio—let alone one that could attract Malkmus and Matmos—has been meandering but long oriented toward music.

“I’ve always been a musician, my whole family are musicians,” he says. “My dad was actually a guitar builder, and then got into computers. I grew up playing guitar, got into recording to record myself playing songs. I guess I was the kid on the block that had some kind of recording equipment, so I just got pinned as that guy.”

Allen eventually studied music and sound engineering at the University of California Santa Cruz. After college he worked under Tom Paddock, the live webcast engineer for The Dead (aka the Jerry Garcia-less Grateful Dead) from 2002 to 2004.

Five years ago, his family decided to include a recording studio as part of the Whitefish home they were building. “It was going to originally be a family project studio,” says Allen, who planned the studio himself with the oversight of a professional studio designer.

But when it was finished, Allen’s family had a state-of-the-art recording studio. For a while, they considered trying to rent it to rock stars as a destination studio. “We toyed around with it and it seemed like a hassle,” says Allen. So two years ago, he came up with the idea to bring in smaller independent bands he felt had a promising future.

“What [artist representitive]Keith [Gardner] and I get to work on is calling up bands that are…working their ass off,” says Allen. “They can’t buy a break, and we get to say, ‘Hey, you want to come chill out in Montana for a few days?’ And they’re like, ‘oh, thank god, we were just in Minneapolis, where it was freezing cold and we slept in our car.’”

Of course, wanting to attract quality musicians and doing it are two different things, which is where the studio comes in. At its entrance is a large living area furnished with couches, a pool table, a fireplace and instruments. Lots of instruments. Sitars, drums, pianos, organs, electric guitars, acoustics guitars, didgeridoos and plenty of other gear clutter the room.

The studio itself has a “floating floor”—a collection of two-by-fours that form boxes underneath the studio’s apparent floor. Each compartment is filled with varying amounts of sand, giving different portions of the floor different densities and ensuring the floor does not favor a particular tone. Fiber optic cables were even used to provide light to the studio without any electrical interference.

Industry pros like Whitefish resident (and Bruce Springsteen’s recording engineer) Toby Scott, agree the Snowghost equipment is top-notch. “[Snowghost’s studio] is a state-of-the-art, hi-fidelity recording studio,” says Scott. “It’s in a class with any major studio in major cities anywhere.”

The studio’s nice, of course, but what really makes Snowghost’s operation attractive for bands is the price: it’s free. And while this may be great for the bands involved, it doesn’t seem like much of a business plan. Allen and Gardner say, however, that use of the studio is not what they’re selling. Instead, it’s all about the content. Snowghost is building a library of music, which they eventually hope to sell on their website, either by subscription or download. Besides Malkmus, most bands recording with Snowghost don’t cut full-length albums, but instead come in to do a handful of songs, also allowing the Snowghost crew to interview, videotape and photograph them.

“Records are a more premeditated process,” says Allen. “You get in here and you toil over things, sometimes for months at a time. We’re more interested in working with lots of bands and getting unique performances out of them. That way, we’re not competing with record labels; we’re allies with them.”

“These are all musicians in the truest form,” continues Allen. “They can play anything. If you put the instruments in front of them, they’re going to make something that’s different from what they normally do. And that’s what we’re encouraging them to do.”

Matmos has recorded with Snowghost before, in August 2006, a visit during which they made Allen take the duo to Whitefish’s Army/Navy store, where the musicians picked up several elk calls, to incorporate into their Snowghost session.

Matmos is known for using unusual field recordings to create their music, which is part of what they did for Björk. “She wanted to work with ‘tiny, tiny little sounds,’” says Matmos’ M.C. Schmidt. “One of the first things she asked us was ‘Can you record the sounds of flowers popping open?’”

For his part, Schmidt says besides the price, it’s Allen himself and the location that piqued his interest in Snowghost.

“[Allen] has an enthusiasm that one rarely runs into,” says Schmidt. “And when he described his facility, we were enthusiastic about playing with him.”

The bands get 50 percent of whatever profit Snowghost can make from what’s recorded in the studio. (The Jicks have a separate arrangement.) Allen plans to generate revenue by putting music on the Snowghost website this fall as well as beginning to license it for films and other media soon.

Until then, Snowghost continues to build its catalogue while aiming to get some music out to the public with old-fashioned live performances—bands working at the studio are asked to play publicly during their stay. In June, that means Snowghost plans to bring The End of the World, Adam Arcuragi, and Dan Deacon with the Video Hippos to record and perform in Whitefish. And, next week, when Matmos is in town, they’ll be recording and performing with Brooklyn-based percussion ensemble So Percussion.

The pairing aims to put both bands in atypical creative situations, something Allen hopes will be typical of Snowghost sessions. In the case of Matmos, they’ll be using synthetic sounds rather than their usual field recordings and matching them with So Percussion’s analog rhythms.

One song they’ll work on, says Schmidt, has an aluminum theme, on which So Percussion will play several different-sized beer cans. “It is,” says Schmidt, “like a little beer xylophone.”

See Matmos and So Percussion together at The Loft in Whitefish, upstairs at 124 Central Ave., on Wednesday, May 23 at 9 PM. $9.
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