To call Smokin' Baby -- the studio owned and operated by Jason Hutto of the band Warm Jets USA -- a rock & roll kind of place is to somewhat understate the case. Located just north of Cherokee on Compton, the basement recording space is lean, mean and filthy. Cut the smoke with a knife and it will bleed PBR; follow the trail of cables around the ceiling and upstairs and you'll never come back; pass out on the couch and you won't have been the first; ride the faders on the old Mackie 24-track board and they'll let the music talk. It's dark, covered in grime and ash, and it sounds pretty good.
Last Sunday I spent a few hours in the company of Hutto, Anne Tkach, Adam Hesed and Duane Perry as they guided a parade of bands, up to thirteen or fourteen by the end of the third day of recording, through tracking for the Tower Groove Records sampler. It's an ambitious project, with 21 St. Louis bands each cutting an original song (with one exception) in three hours. Originally, the collective had planned to do seven sessions in a day; sanity dictated a more luxurious pace of four or five in a day.
As I sipped on a pumpkin ale -- one of the bands on the sampler is made up of Schlafly employees, so the beer never ran out -- Hutto clicked through the hard disks and spun up some mixes: Sleepy Kitty covering Pavement (the aforementioned exception), the Hot Liquors getting their punk bar band rocks off, the Ransom Note getting sexy, Fred Friction sounding astonishingly tuneful and Theodore raging through its hardest rocker to date. If the roughs are any indication, the sampler is set to be as good a single document of the current state of St. Louis rock & roll as one could desire. It's oriented towards the south side, to be sure, but the geography matters less than the sound: punk, twang, noise, blues and a whole lot of Cherokee District basement.
And living room and bedrooms, as Hutto has the upstairs of his building wired for sound - if you call drilling holes through the floor and dropping cables wiring - allowing him to isolate an arsenal of guitar amps and crank them hard. The abandoned residences next door haven't complained. He's a patient and precise engineer, chain-smoking through a 20-minute-long sound check for one Tone Rodent guitar. The sound finally goes from ghastly to golden jangle. The band sets up in the 18x24 tracking room, runs half way through the song twice, and then cuts it, effectively in a single take. It's a good groove, heavy but catchy in that spacey way Tone Rodent can be. The band ditches its headphones, listens back and smokes as one. Everyone airs criticism, but looking at Hutto's face I know he knows he captured the band as it should be: fresh, relaxed, inspired and in its element. They do another take, but I'd wager that was the one. The Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra (who effectively make up the 22nd band on the compilation) will be in later to add horns and strings.
Most of the bands visiting Smokin' Baby have been clocking in well under their three-hour allotment, and if the recording continues at its current pace, tracking and overdubbing will be finished by end of October and final mixes by end of November. Hutto will oversee those mixes, getting band input as necessary, and the final double LP should be ready by Spring 2011.
In the backyard, Hesed explains that there's no grand scheme to the band selection for the compilation. "Some bands are going to wonder, 'Why weren't we included?'" he says. "The answer is pretty simple. We just had to have a cutoff. We can't include every band."
The Tower Groove Records Compilation Lineup
Warm Jets USA Bunnygrunt The Hot Liquors Rats and People Theodore Magic City Doomtown Bug Chaser Ransom Note Tone Rodent Sleepy Kitty Fred Friction and The Awful Good This City of Takers The Feed Death of Yeti Catholic Guilt Peck of Dirt Old Lights Beth Bombara The Skekses Accelerando Maximum Effort