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Pete Monohan is Pachyderm Studio's live-in custodian. He keeps watch over the Granite Room, which houses panels of polished stone as black as obsidian and flecked with flashing silver cinders. Inside this secondary sound chamber of Pachyderm's Studio A, his speech has a deadened timbre, as if the lathed wooden rafters 20 feet above him steal his voice before he can speak.
He walks into Studio A's live room, which is vast and empty save a five-piece drum kit. His footsteps reverberate with an audible echo. Great bay windows look out on the pastured hill that leads toward the trout stream and stands of old-growth firs.
Behind the studio glass, a resident engineer fiddles at a console that stretches 10 feet in either direction. It's the Neve 8068, Monohan explains, the central nervous system for the recording studio, and it's acting up. Its needles lay limp, its knobs twisted to zero. It is elegant, almost feminine in its craftsmanship, with scooped wooden cubbyholes in which a miscellany of recording decks is tidily laid. It came from Electric Ladyland Studios, this very model, Monohan says. Jimi Hendrix may have used it, maybe not. John Lennon certainly did, on the day he was shot and killed.
Monohan goes out into the snow and lights a Marlboro, punctuating it with a deep bronchial hack. He's thinking of the stream. You can ford it on a log, he says, and go out into the forest, and see the old dam and maybe a clearing some ways up the incline if you've got the time for the hike.
Across the stream, the wilderness is nearly untrodden, except for the prints of grazing deer leading away into the woods. Monohan says the studio is going green. They're going to build a dam on the stream, sell power back to the grid. They only harvest felled timber to heat the house, offsetting the burdensome propane prices.
"It's spiritual," reflects Monohan. "It's magical. When I come out to chop our wood, I can find my center and become a better person."
He stands for a moment in silence at a footbridge that crosses the stream at the point where it pools under blades of melting ice, descends some 15 feet, pools again, and bends to the south and west. The wheels of an old watermill sit in a mossy heap on the opposing shore.
"Well," he says. "Let me show you Kurt Cobain's bedroom."
AS A DOMESTIC PROPERTY, Pachyderm stands on a modest plot of six pastoral acres in Cannon Falls in a northern arm of Goodhue County, a 45-minute drive south of the Twin Cities. Its main house is a two-story rambler in the Lloyd Wright style. Beneath its wide eaves, a den sits sunken into the hill. A gazebo, sustained by a promontory, blooms in broad-paned glass atop a spiral staircase, like the crow's nest of a pirate ship.
As a cultural institution, Pachyderm occupies a hallowed volume in the narrative of American music. Here, a young PJ Harvey covered Dylan's "Highway 61," the band Live went platinum eight times with Throwing Copper, and Nirvana recorded In Utero, their final studio album before Kurt Cobain's suicide in 1996. In the live room, the clatter and smack of Dave Grohl's drum kit was captured by an opulent array of 30 microphones, and at night Cobain slept in a California king beneath a vaulted, mirrored canopy.
As a work of sonic design, Pachyderm is a one-of-a-kind acoustic masterpiece. Producer Steve Albini spent five years on some of Pachyderm's most revered projects, from his first recording with the Wedding Present in 1991 to his engineering apex with In Utero. "The live room is fantastic," Albini says. "World class. I had good luck there. Most of my sessions there were successful. Things sounded good, and bands got what they expected and wanted."
Brent Sigmeth was Pachyderm's resident engineer for its most storied decade, from 1993 to his departure in 2001, and his awe at the ease of managing the live room is still palpable. "With a lot of recording rooms of that size, you usually have to choose microphones carefully," says Sigmeth. "But in this room, you put a microphone up anywhere, it sounds even and balanced, ambient. Push up the room mics, and it's just magic."
But Pachyderm also lies at a dangerous juncture, where its troubled past and its uncertain future meet. The steward of its heyday, former owner Jim Nickel, is out of the picture. Rates for Studio A have plummeted from $1,700 per day to $600 or less, and the overhead climbs by the day. The monthly mortgage payments exceed $10,000. To heat the house for a single winter costs almost as much. And as the traffic of interested parties has slowed to a trickle, the gold and platinum albums that the studio once produced now hang like dusted, funereal monuments on the studio wall.
"Most studios go broke," says Albini. "Most studios go broke very quickly. The problem, of course, is that building a nice studio is never enough. It needs a track record. It needs word of mouth. It needs to compete financially. And there was never a time when Pachyderm was booked to the capacity they expected."