Feeling Strangely Done

Dave Fick

Cables are splayed across the wooden floors. There are stacks of guitars, amps and reel-to-reel tapes scattered about the rooms, and a studio console is in the midst of being dismantled so that it can be placed in storage. On the floor in a corner of the office sits a plaque commemorating the gold-record status of Semisonic's Feeling Strangely Fine.

John Kuker spent two years painstakingly constructing the Seedy Underbelly recording studio in Minneapolis. He now has less than two weeks to finish dismantling it.

As of next month, the studio that Kuker began assembling from scratch in late 1995 (or early 1996, depending on when you ask him) must be off the premises. The building is slated to be transformed into apartments. "This is it," Kuker laments. "I'm done. We put a half-million dollars in build-out into this place, so it's a shame that we're going away." The 29-year-old musician is dressed in a red Mötley Crüe "Girls, Girls, Girls" T-shirt, fluorescent green Puma sneakers (sans socks), and glasses with thick, black plastic frames. He has a scraggly head of curly hair and an accidental beard.

Feeling Strangely Fine was one of the first albums to be recorded at Seedy Underbelly. That album produced the ubiquitous hit "Closing Time" and sold more than a million copies. Various other big names have logged time in the studio over the last six years as well: Jonny Lang, Steve Lillywhite (of U2 fame), even Tuck & Patti. ("They walked in and I was like, 'What the hell is going on here?'" Kuker recalls. "They were very nice.")

But the recording studio will primarily be missed as a resource for local bands whose albums are unlikely to ever receive a platinum makeover. Idle Hands, Lifter Puller, the Beatifics, and the Soviettes are among the better-known Twin Cities acts that have laid down tracks at the studio in recent years. Tulip Sweet and Her Trail of Tears rented the studio for just $100 a day (compared to the normal rate of roughly $1,500) to record their most recent album, Cry "The studio's kind of been the philanthropic one in town," says Kuker. "If bands were cool but didn't have cash, we'd just do it anyway."

As of next week, local bands will have to find a different sugar daddy. In April Kuker discovered a handwritten note on the front door of the studio alerting him that the company's lease was being terminated. Seedy Underbelly initially attempted to halt the eviction by filing a lawsuit in Hennepin County District Court, arguing that it had been promised the option to continue renting through 2008. Kuker ultimately decided to drop the suit, however. "We realized we had a long many months ahead of us and it wasn't worth the legal fees," he shrugs.

On a tour of the lame-duck recording studio, Kuker points out a tiny room with a pressed-tin ceiling and railroad ties suspended below where all the drum tracks for Girls Against Boys' Freak*on*ica were laid down. Across the hall, in the bathroom, is a faux-vintage poster memorializing "Sinatra's Seedy Sessions." Frank might not have actually recorded in the space, but Jonny Lang did supposedly utilize the room to lay down a vocal track.

October 1 will not entirely spell the demise of Seedy Underbelly, however. Kuker is in the midst of relocating to California. He and Eric Olsen, a frequent collaborator, have secured a new recording space, just outside of Hollywood, formerly owned by the lateToto drummer Jeff Porcaro. "It's time to teach those studio walls a lesson," Kuker laughs. Jacques Wait, who has produced many of the albums recorded at the Washington Avenue space, plans to spend considerable time in the new studio as well.

Kuker insists that Seedy Underbelly's commitment to recording Minnesota acts will not flag. They'll simply have to schlep out to southern California to record--a prospect that surely will not inspire dread in local musicians. The studio even has a swimming pool. "The biggest loss for Minneapolis is we're gonna have to be selective," Kuker maintains. "We're looking for talent to bring with us. Just come and we will provide." They've already booked their first client: local hero Har Mar Superstar is slated to begin recording his follow-up to You Can Feel Me in the new studio in November.

Even with such grand plans on the horizon, Kuker is not without nostalgia for the ill-fated Minneapolis studio. "I think Jacques and I really grew up in this space," he says. "We learned how to make some kick-ass records." And as he stands in the control room, surveying the soon-to-be dismantled wood and stone edifice and rehashing the Minneapolis portion of Seedy Underbelly's brief history, it becomes clear that the seven-year experiment has served as his extended musical education, but now he's ready to move on.

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