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When The Music Stops

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."

Soul Asylum guitarist Dan Murphy also recalls early forays to Cannon Falls with fondness. "At first, they had a cook out there and a maid would come out every two days," he notes. "They really tried to make it, excuse my French, big pimpin' out there."

Murphy has spent a lot of time at Pachyderm over the years. Two Soul Asylum albums were partially recorded there and so was a pair by Golden Smog. But undoubtedly his most peculiar stint was as a cook. Shortly after the release of And the Horse They Rode in On, Soul Asylum was slated to go on tour with Jane's Addiction. When that fell through, Murphy was left scrambling for cash. "Literally I needed money to pay my rent," he says. Murphy ran into producer Steve Albini in Minneapolis, and Albini offered him a temp job at Pachyderm cooking for the Brit-pop band the Wedding Present. Every day he drove down to Cannon Falls and fixed dinner for the band. "Albini was fine," Murphy laughs. "He liked big fat steaks and stuff. But the band, they were all vegetarians."

The studio itself was thriving, but the youthful partnership that created Pachyderm was becoming mired in acrimony. Nickel got married in 1990, which caused tension. "The three of us discovered the place," says Anderson, who now lives in Chicago. "The three of us made it what it was. Then Jim got married, and you know the whole Yoko Ono thing." As time passed, Anderson and Walk become increasingly disgruntled. They wanted out and sued Nickel, his wife, and the corporation, Pachyderm Discs, in Goodhue County District Court seeking compensation for their labors. The two were paid before the cases ever went to trial.

"It just seemed like a better thing for everybody involved to go our separate ways," says Walk, who resides in Los Angeles. "Obviously, I'd worked a long time there and so had Eric and basically what we were working for was a part of the company."

 

On his own now and propelled by the success of the studio, Nickel set about starting the record label he'd dreamed of so many years earlier. He experienced a few false starts before partnering with Mason Munoz, a music industry veteran and onetime Columbia executive. Their initial signing was of the blues-rock band Indigenous, a quartet of twenty-something American Indian siblings from Yankton, South Dakota. The band's debut album, Things We Do, released in 1998, garnered nationwide media attention, with guitarist Mato Nanji being likened to Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The first single, "Now That You're Gone," peaked at number 22 on Billboard's mainstream rock chart. "It was working," says Nickel. "Sales were going up every week."

But then, out of the blue, just as the year-end shopping season was about to start in earnest, sales plummeted. For some reason the album was no longer being delivered to retailers. "We're calling our distributor: 'What the hell's going on?'" exclaims Nickel. "They're not answering the phones. They're going out of business." He estimates that his fledgling label lost $400,000 when the Chicago-based distributor went belly up. "It basically slammed the brakes on the album," adds Munoz. "The music business follows the laws of physics. When you have momentum going you have to keep feeding that." Pachyderm eventually landed a new distributor and Things We Do managed to sell more than 100,000 copies, an impressive feat for an upstart independent label.

Based on those numbers, Pachyderm secured additional investment capital from local retail chain Musicland. In late 1999, it released former Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart's Good News for Modern Man. Despite receiving critical accolades, the album sold poorly, just 5,000 copies by Nickel's estimation. "We couldn't get it on radio," he laments. "We had great press all across the country. It was really a learning experience because the press didn't sell the record."  

Two more Indigenous records followed, but Nickel says the label was struck by more bad luck. Soon after Circle was released in 2000, peaking at number three on Billboard's blues chart, Musicland was bought by retailing behemoth Best Buy. The company's partnership with Pachyderm quickly ended. "We had these two [Indigenous] records both peaking in their existence when we kind of had the rug pulled out from under us both times," says Nickel.

With Musicland out of the picture, the record label ground to a halt. The next slated release, by local popsters Rex Daisy, never even made it to stores. And according to Steve Price, Rex Daisy's bassist, the band had no recourse because their agreement with Pachyderm was based solely on a handshake. "We were idiots," he says. "The fact is we were just happier than shit to be hanging out at Pachyderm rock 'n' roll summer camp."

Not everyone agrees that Nickel's record label foundered because of bad luck. Mike Catain, chief executive officer of Minnetonka-based Liquid 8 records, says he helped broker the original deal with Music*land, but then he became leery of Nickel's fiscal management. "I gave up," says Catain. "He wanted a whole bunch more money. Unless we had somebody with [more] business sense in there it didn't make sense to give him any more money." He blames the label's problems on sloppy management. "No one watched what was going out," he claims. "It's easy to say we sold 200,000 records, but at what expense?"

The failure of the record label took its toll on the recording studio. Dan Murphy was out at Pachyderm a few months ago to work on some demos Soul Asylum is currently shopping to labels. He says the place looks worn around the edges. Among other things, the prized Neve recording console was showing signs of wear. "That's the thing with old boards like that," says Murphy. "They just need constant maintenance. You've still got great mics and it's a great-sounding room. It's just not like it was when we first went out there."

 

Jim Nickel's fortunes have not improved since the label went under. Early last year, he was divorced from his wife of 13 years. The proceedings hindered his ability--both economically and emotionally--to get any real work done. "It slowed [things] down because I had to spend a lot of money on it," Nickel says. "And it slowed [things] down because it emotionally crippled me for the better part of a year and it took up all my time. It drained me financially just battling to keep my kids, to keep a reasonable amount of time with my kids. It was a drag. I don't suggest it to anyone."

According to court records, Nickel is required to pay his ex-wife, Lori Williams, $1,275 a month in spousal support through July of 2008, and an additional $1,600 monthly to support their three children. To make matters worse, he was also sued by Williams's father, who sought to recover money he loaned to the company. Nickel agreed to pay him $113,725. He takes on these financial burdens while facing an economic climate that's seen a decline in CD sales overall and the advent of software allowing musicians to complete much of the recording process on their home computers.

Albini argues that the latter trend is merely a temporary blip on the music landscape. He compares it to the rush of poorly produced, low-budget movies made in the wake of The Blair Witch Project. "We're in that phase right now, sort of the Blair Witch phase of making records where everyone assumes you can do it all with a camcorder, or in this case with a laptop and Pro Tools," Albini argues. "Neophytes who are making records now are drunk with power. They can do so much manipulation to the sound so easily that that's all they do."

Nickel agrees, noting that computers can never emulate the sound quality of a studio like Pachyderm. Booking has been slow in recent months--a Christian act was in recently and jam band the Big Wu has reserved time this month--but Nickel says that's only because he hasn't been doing much marketing. "The main focus here since the slow fizzle out of the last label has been to restart a label," he says. "If somebody took a marketing budget and really marketed the studio, I'm sure you could fill this place and make a nice living, and that might be what we have to do."

Nickel notes that plenty of suitors have sought to buy the 40-plus acre Pachyderm property, especially as more people make the commute from Cannon Falls to the Twin Cities for work. But he has no intention of selling. "I could walk away with a lot of money, but I don't want to," he says. "I have a very strong connection to this property. It's like a little wildlife sanctuary. If it all gets developed, it's fucked. It would be like plowing over a park. It's just something you don't want to do."


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