When The Music Stops

Life and strife at the beloved Pachyderm Recording Studio

In early 1993, producer Steve Albini booked three weeks of recording time at the Pachyderm Recording Studio for a band called the Simon Ritchie Bluegrass Ensemble. Albini was a frequent customer at the remote studio in Cannon Falls, 35 miles southeast of the Twin Cities. He had brought in such redoubtable acts as P.J. Harvey and the Wedding Present. But this particular booking left Pachyderm owner Jim Nickel befuddled.

"We're like, 'What the fuck is this?'" Nickel recalls. "Nobody had ever heard of it. We're like, okay, it's just one of those bands Steve found. So then this big semi pulls in. We open up the back and there's this whole shitload of gear and it all says Nirvana."

Simon Ritchie, unbeknownst to Nickel at the time, was the birth name of Sid Vicious.

Nirvana may be the most famous band ever to have their gear unloaded in bucolic Cannon Falls (population 3,795) but they're far from the only one. Since opening its doors in fall 1989, Pachyderm has become, outside of Prince's Paisley Park Studio, the most storied recording venue in Minnesota. Dozens of notable albums have been crafted there, from nationally famous acts such as Superchunk and Kelly Willis to local heroes like Trip Shakespeare and the Honeydogs. The recording of Nirvana's In Utero--the band's much anticipated follow-up to Nevermind and Kurt Cobain's final album--simply cemented the studio's permanent place in pop-culture lore.

In recent years, however, the number of semis loaded down with amps and guitars pulling into Pachyderm's 40-plus acre spread off County Road 17 has diminished considerably. In fact, the last high-profile project to be recorded there was Mudvayne's The End of All Things to Come, in the summer of 2002. Like many recording studios, Pachyderm has struggled to book clients as the economics of the industry have soured. With CD sales plummeting, and the advent of technology that allows entire albums to be recorded and mixed in a bedroom or basement, few labels are willing to shell out big money to rent a recording studio for weeks at a time.

The company's fortunes have also dwindled owing to circumstances unique to Pachyderm. Nickel's attempts to establish an independent record label over the last decade have repeatedly encountered financial problems, stemming both from bad luck and what some would call questionable decision-making. And in recent years, Nickel's personal life--most notably a contentious and expensive divorce--has contributed to the company's decline. As a sign of just how bad things have gotten, in October, Brent Sigmeth, Pachyderm's beloved in-house engineer for a decade, walked away.

 

What the hell's Cannon Falls?

That was Jim Nickel's reaction in the spring of 1988 when an acquaintance suggested that he and his would-be business partners, Eric Anderson and Mark Walk, check out a piece of property in Goodhue County. At the time, the three twenty-something musicians had been scouring the Twin Cities in search of a suitable location on which to build a recording studio. They'd traipsed through dilapidated homes in south Minneapolis and wooded lots in the northern environs of the Twin Cities, but nothing seemed right.

Then, despite Nickel's initial reservations, they drove down to check out Cannon Falls. It was a beautiful spring day as they pulled into the unpaved driveway. A trout stream flowed through the middle of the sprawling property. The land was thick with vegetation.

Since they hadn't bothered to contact the assigned real estate agent, Nickel and company contented themselves with peering through the windows of the house. The two-story, 6,000-square-foot home, which was built in 1963 by a local malt magnate, had stood vacant for more than a year and was somewhat run-down. The roof was in poor shape and the walls needed painting and papering.

But even in this woebegone state, the structure was stunning. A veranda, with floor-to-ceiling windows, jutted into the woods. Four bedrooms surrounded a massive, sunken living room dominated by an exposed stone fireplace. There was even a pool and sauna. "We freaked out," remembers Nickel. "It was so perfect. It was better than our ideal. And it was cheap."

Nickel's father had recently died and he used his inheritance to purchase the property. The three fledgling entrepreneurs immediately moved in, bunking on the floor in sleeping bags; they began construction of a recording studio on the adjacent land. The ultimate plan was to book enough bands into the studio to pay the bills and also to record their own music and eventually start a record label. "We wanted to create essentially the Playboy mansion of recording studios," laughs Anderson.

One of the best investments the trio made was to buy a Neve 8068 recording console, the very same board supposedly used at Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studio. It was a huge draw. "Any studio that has one of those is going to get a significant amount of business," says Albini. "It's a really good recording console. No frills, nothing fancy, but you get what you're paying for."

None of the principals recalls anymore the first significant recording session to take place at Pachyderm. But it was either Soul Asylum's And the Horse They Rode in On or the Gear Daddies' Billy's Live Bait. Either way, it's clear the studio was in demand the minute it opened its doors. "It's about as great a setup as you can imagine," says Tom Herbers, who worked with the Gear Daddies and numerous other bands at Pachyderm prior to opening his own space, Third Ear Recording Studio in Minneapolis. "I like the ruralness, the privacy. The clock kind of becomes irrelevant when you're out in the woods."

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