Pachyderm Studio wants to save the world, but can it keep the lights on?

The beleaguered music-maker's Mecca has become the Temple of the White Elephant

He is obsessed with the future. He talks about the inexorable decline of civilization, and of his plans to start sustainable farming and green energy on the Pachyderm property. "If the really bad shit goes down with the Mayan calendar in 2012, we'll be able to sustain life at Pachyderm," he says. "I'm going to have electricity. I'm going to have food and water. We can unify the planet. We can make it."

He despises the past. He refuses to say the names of associates with whom he has had fallings-out. He is paranoid about the IRS. "Did you know," he says, "that the two biggest fears in America are death and being audited? And this is freedom?!" He mentions an enterprise of his, a financial planning service that pays him top dollar to help people avoid the jackboot of the IRS, called Empowerment not Employment.

At times he speaks in confidence, and has lapses of clarity and candor. At others, he is intractably confrontational. "I'll give you a chance to fuck me, dude," he says. "But only one. You won't get two."

Shaunna Peterson
The woodsman: Pete Monohan, Pachyderm's live-in custodian, keeps the fire burning
Nick Vlcek
The woodsman: Pete Monohan, Pachyderm's live-in custodian, keeps the fire burning

Gesturing to the door through which Zap Maya exited only minutes before, he bemoans a class of unaccountable artists. People who don't follow through on phone calls, who don't make production meetings. As he speaks, he visibly blanches. "I didn't realize what a huge job it was going to be to sort it out," he says with fatigue and frustration. "That's the healing of the planet. Having word. We only come with one thing in this world, and we only leave with one thing. Our word. What are we worried about the rest? It's all window dressing, man. Have some fucking word in your day."

He offers up a beaten three-ring binder. A strip of masking tape stuck to its spine reads, "Artist Profile." Inside lies a press packet for Amber Love, a singer/songwriter from Forest Lake currently under his tutelage. Song lyrics and a mission statement, printed on loose-leaf paper, fill its pockets. In a violet plastic jewel case is her three-song demo, recorded only days earlier at Pachyderm and burned onto a CD-R. Its label is a blurred ink-jet screen shot of Love kneeling beside a brook.

The Pachyderm website is a similarly slapdash affair. Its testimonials section is a skeleton of faint praise. The most prominent accolade is from June 2008, and it's just a thumb's-up from a local band. The next most recent blurb is from 2001. Beyond that lies a link to a Spin magazine article on Nirvana's time there, and the rest is a dark age of prehistory. The recording schedule is a blank for months and months, both past and future.

As for Mueller's other enterprises, the website for his Jamaican resort hasn't been updated since 2007. The domain for Empowerment not Employment links to a simple "Coming soon" message. And the band on which Mueller casts his hopes for Pachyderm's financial and spiritual survival, Zap Maya, has yet to record a note; their previous incarnation, Dust of Vraj, has but a single website full of empty links. No photographs, no tour dates, no audio samples, no reviews—everything, promises the site, is "coming soon."

At the studio, the analog tapes for which Pachyderm was once famous are now relics of a bygone age. The Neve console is patched into a Pro Tools setup, and the old reels line the walls in rows of dense metal canisters. Beneath their weight, the shelf decks bow mournfully. Even the studio gear itself exists under constant fear of seizure from the studio's previous directors, who still dispute their ownership.

As of February 25, Pachyderm Studio once again faces foreclosure. Mueller found himself beneath a suffocating debt. He openly rails against Jim Nickel, the previous owner, who, Mueller claims, dug a hole too deep to climb out of (Nickel refused to speak to City Pages).

"Pachyderm as an organization is a viable enterprise," Mueller insists. "Pachyderm as a recording studio is not. Nobody's making any money. Our customers don't have money. They don't make money. Our customers are bands and musicians and creative people, and no one's teaching them how to be businessmen. If they don't know how to make money, how am I going to make money?"

In some ways, Pachyderm is a victim of an especially bad economy for the music industry. Studios across the nation are foundering on the shoals as the $.99 single usurps the $9.99 album. But while the smaller studios maintain forward motion on borrowed time, the great behemoths, like Pachyderm, are poised to tip and fall under outmoded systems of existence.

Mueller has tried plans B and C to keep the property afloat. He holds festivals at Pachyderm, but can't open them to the general public due to liability and zoning restrictions. He sells merchandise at festivals, and still manages the career of Les Ballets Africains. But the truth is so immutable and flat that even Mueller can't mask it.

"The economy is desperate," he says, "and no one is making money."

    

"LET ME SHOW YOU Mother Mary," says Pete Monohan. He's like a priest at a cathedral, standing vigil against a low-hung branch and trudging around Pachyderm's glassed gazebo. From inside, Dust of Vraj booms in lilting chants through hi-fi speakers, bounding off the stone embankment that towers over the eastern shore. In a tidy alcove, set before a white folding chair, is a stone statue of the Virgin Mary. It's aged and weather-beaten, and its head has been severed by some forgotten trauma; it lulls on her shoulders, the neck gaping like a garrote wound.

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