An oral history of 89.3 the Current's in-studio performances
Photo by Nate Ryan, courtesy of MPR
One oft-overlooked aspect of 89.3 the Current is that it has access to one of the best recording studios in the region. Since the station began in 2005, Minnesota Public Radio's Studio M and Studio P (technical specs here) have hosted between 1,400 and 1,500 sessions with local and national talent like Phoenix, Lana Del Rey, Adele, Miguel, Broken Social Scene, and so many more that can be found in the in-studio archives.
With the insights of technical director Michael DeMark, who oversees most of them, and the stories of other present and past staff, here's an oral history of the in-studios at the Current.
See Also: 89.3 the Current: An Oral History
Michael DeMark, technical director: I've worked in public radio since the early '80s. If you're gonna do music in public radio it's classical, folk, and jazz primarily. My heart has always been in rock 'n' roll. I was doing mainly classical here, and then when the Current started, I said to Thorn and to Steve Nelson, "Pick me, pick me! I'm ready to engineer." At first there was not a position for a staff engineer for the Current. I was committed to the classical show St. Paul Sunday, which was a weekly nationally syndicated live performance. So I didn't get to do as many sessions as I would have liked for the first probably two years on the Current.
At first, the Current usually used the much-smaller Studio P room because Studio M was prioritized for classical use.
Lindsay Kimball, assistant program director: When we first launched there was a lot of difficulty trying to convince bands to come in, and even convince the company to be like, yeah, rock 'n' roll can be in this fancy studio. So we were always in the other studio.
Sarah Lutman, former senior vice president of content and media at MPR: There were some things that nobody had thought through very well. One of them was how many bands would want to be in the studio, and how often it would be. That takes engineers, that takes studio space. Other guests, when they say they'll be here at 3 p.m. would be here at 3 p.m. -- whereas Current guests maybe 3 p.m. or thereabouts. There was this whole figuring out, how is this actually going to work if people are ten hours late because the bus from Chicago broke down or whatever. There were some cultural shifts that were needed. We did have to figure out how we were going to do it all with the studios we had.
Derrick Stevens, production manager: A lot of them were live. And we started pre-recording more just to keep things a little bit tighter. We were trying to figure out how we could get those listeners to stay tuned for that, because that was something that we thought was original, and it was something that other radio stations in the market weren't doing. We thought that could be our niche.
DeMark: Studio P is the less well-equipped studio. I mean, by radio station standards, it's a great studio, but we're spoiled here, you know, so its kind of like, "Oh no, Studio P!" People are kind of thrilled to actually see that studio if they don't see Studio M. Many, many of the early sessions were done in that room.
One of the more disastrous ones I've had, unfortunately, was Patti Smith, which was in Studio P. The headphone mix was screwed up, and I just couldn't figure out why. She kept saying, "I need more of my voice." She got really impatient, and I just couldn't figure it out. It was very frustrating, and I think I blasted her with feedback at one point. That was years ago. She was here a few months ago and I wouldn't even go. Everybody was hanging out and getting pictures taken, and I was like, "I'm not going over there, she might remember me."
Michael DeMark, with music assistant Jon Schober
Photo by Nate Ryan, courtesy of MPR
As time passed and the Live Current albums proved popular, Studio M became the standard spot for in-studio sessions.
Ali Lozoff, marketing director for the Current, now for MPR: Studio M, just having access to that board and the space and the sound that is created when bands play, is like a dream come true. When bands walked in, and especially when we were just getting started, we were competing with Cities 97 and other stations. We were convincing bands to come over here, and we'd say, "But you can play in this studio, where this was recorded," and they'd be like, "Oh, okay, we do know who you are."
DeMark: Most radio stations have a very small performance space, or they just put people in their on-air studio, so bands are a little stunned when they come in here and see this space. It's a great-sounding room, it's a great-looking room, it's huge by any recording studio standards -- except for the huge rooms in L.A. or New York. The studio was built for classical music, in the '80s, and I guess the goal was to make a room that was big enough to put the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra -- just barely -- but it is big enough for that. Classical music really needs space and air for the sound to develop and to breathe. Rock musicians can spread out a little bit.
Jim McGuinn, program director: DeMark's great, and he connects really well with the bands. And what I love is that we can enable listeners to connect with the bands too. I'm bummed out that sometimes it's just us five feet from that artist.
DeMark: I call a manager or an engineer and find out what the set-up is, what we're gonna do. I try to be at least 90 percent set up when they arrive. We do things professionally here and people really appreciate that. Typically for a full band session, they'll arrive at a given time, load them in, set it up, sound check, record three songs, two interview segments, maybe a retake if they need it, and pack them up and get them out in less than two hours, usually.
Most of them click pretty well, you know? They'll come in and listen and say it sounds great. By and large we do a pretty good job, and stuff sounds the way they want it to. The Avett Brothers worked really well.
McGuinn: If Yo Yo Ma is going to come in to do a national radio show, you've got to have a tuned Steinway in the 'hood. When an indie rock band comes in they're like, "Whoa you've got a tuned Steinway." Most radio stations cant afford that, so we're very fortunate as far as I'm concerned.
David Safar, music director: It has a new 88 RS. It's like the same mixing board that they have at the Capitol Records building.
DeMark: We have back line gear, guitar amps, bass amp, piano and drum kit, so especially for touring bands, it makes it pretty easy for them to come in and not have to unload their whole truck, just bring their instruments. If they want to bring their amps, they're welcome to, but we just kind of make it easy. Local bands will tend to want to bring their own gear more often because for many of them its their big chance to record in a nice studio and they have more time. The touring bands are a little road-weary and they usually have to get to a sound check and they're just happy to not have to schlep their stuff up here.
Over the years, these sessions have gone in several different directions.
DeMark: One of the most complicated setups I've had to do is Hot Chip. They had tons and tons of gear. It was hours just to load it in. They're kind of old-school, they use old analog synthesizers and everything's wired together. Instead of having everything sequenced, like most electronic groups do, they play every part live, for the most part, you know, and so it was a very big, complicated setup.
Kimball: Do you remember Joshua James? During load-in their tour manager spray painted a picture of Jack Kerouac on the electrical box out here, and it said, "Read More Books." Well someone saw him and called the cops on him, and the tour manager got arrested as we're doing this session. They called me two days later, because their tour manager's in jail, and they're like, "Can you pick up our tour manager from jail and take him to the airport so we can go to our gig in Denver?" And I'm like, "Uh, I'm in a meeting." I actually called Matt Perkins. He was like, "Can we take the company vehicle for this?"
Matt Perkins, marketing manager: I remember getting an interesting call from Lindsay. I had a free afternoon. That happened. You took a picture of it, didn't you? It was the most harmless thing ever.
Kimball: If an MPR person was going to stencil something or vandalize anything, it would be that. Read more books. Listen to the radio. Vote.
DeMark: The National have been in a bunch of times, and they're always trying to do something different. One time it was just two violas and piano or something. I think they're just really creative and "Let's do something in the moment." One time they came in with horns and guitar, and they played piano, no drums though. Mary Lucia came in and said, "Oh, could you do 'Bloodbuzz Ohio,' 'cause I love that song," which had just come out, and they said "Oh, we can't do that without our drummer, its a really drum heavy song." Eventually, they said "Well, we could try it, maybe." So they did it, and basically the piano played the drum part, and it came out great. It's on one of the Live Currents, and they actually released it as a bonus track on a special edition of that album.
Stevens: The most interesting session for me was Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and this was in 2009 when they came here to perform. We had a guest engineer, and they were kind of giving him a hard time and I remember thinking, you know, this guy doesn't even work for us. So I was trying to talk to Sharon, and the rest of the crew, and get them to calm down a little bit, and I remember just like sweating profusely, like "What the hell is going on with me?" I had to keep going outside, and this was in September so it was just starting to get a little chilly. I'd come back in and I started sweating again. I thought that this band was just like stressing me out. Come to find out two days later, I wasn't feeling good, I went to the doctor, and I was diagnosed with diabetes. The sweating and all of that stuff, that's part of having the diabetes, but it didn't happen until this band was like completely stressed us out. They're great, I love Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, but I will never forget the fact that after I dealt with these guys, two days later I was diagnosed with diabetes!
DeMark: We were a little on edge about Public Image Ltd. They got in, we're kind of starting the sound check, and so I went out to just introduce myself to Johnny [Rotten]. We were just chatting a little bit, I was showing him the console, 'cause this is one of the greatest recording consoles ever made. We're kind of talking about the old gear, and tape machines, and stuff like that. He said, "How old are you?" And I told him, and he just kind of nodded and poked my stomach, 'cause we're just about the same age. We both kind of have a paunch. He poked my stomach and I poked him back. We sort of bonded over our paunches, I guess.
Safar: So, the format for an in-studio session isn't a new thing. It's something that most public radio stations do. But, I think it's about bringing authenticity to the airwaves through music. When we play something on the air, and when an artist comes to town, it connects the artist with all those people who can't go to the show, or are wondering what the artist sounds like, and what they have to say. It's not just this thing that we decided sounds good enough on the radio to keep you listening, it's a real thing.
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