Pachyderm Studio wants to save the world, but can it keep the lights on?
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."
Pachyderm has struggled mightily to stop the bleeding. A secondary recording room, Studio B, has been set up in the house itself, offering budget rates to bands unable to meet Studio A's sticker price, and Pachyderm as a whole has switched to an à la carte billing method, where consoles, components, and instruments are painstakingly itemized in an attempt to help bands trim unwanted costs.
Yet Pachyderm's musical output continues its slide into silence, and though the studio still commands respect on the strength of its mythology, big-name producers like Albini have all sought warmer climes, leaving Pachyderm facing an endless winter.
By 2005, the Neve console, the temperamental centerpiece of Studio A, was mouse-eaten and out of commission. By winter 2006, the property was two weeks from foreclosure. Pachyderm needed more than money. Pachyderm needed a savior.
MATT MUELLER IS A MAN of slight, stern musculature in a black collared shirt flourished with glinting pinstripes. He is a mortgage broker, talent agent, and real estate magnate. He owns a resort in Jamaica and a nightclub in Madison called the Cardinal Bar. He collects and deals traditional African hand drums called djembes, and manages Les Ballets Africains, a dance troupe that has toured the world since the 1960s. Since 2006, he has also been Pachyderm Studio's owner, coordinator, and spiritual steward. He is 39 years old.
His head is shaved, his eyes fierce and deeply socketed, and he sits in a turquoise chair, his chin perched on his palm. In a downtown Minneapolis law office, two of his recent musical acquisitions are talking about Pachyderm Studio. But they aren't talking live rooms and Neve Consoles. Cobain's name is scarcely raised. In fact, they seem to find Pachyderm's past unsavory. It hardly comes up at all.
Instead, they're talking divinities and the bliss of the spiritual plane. They're talking spectral way lines, sacred names, distant futures, and the fissured state of modern mankind. The talk is lofty and rooted in the future tense. Mueller listens on in a pose of perfect beatitude, all but mute.
"His prayers brought us to Pachyderm," says Acyuta Das. Acyuta is a Krishna, as is his bandmate Jagadeesh, with whom he shares a spiritual surname, and is one-third of the trance-mantra music group Zap Maya. He sits atop a nearby table, his hair pinned back by a blue kerchief, and he speaks of Mueller in the sober, reverent tones of a supplicant. "We believe in the science of spiritual telepathy, where your thoughts bring things into your life. It's a fact. If you close your eyes and you meditate on your favorite place, instantaneously you're there. The speed of the mind is faster than any material calculation. Matt, in his thoughts and prayers, brought us here. He had us change airline tickets telepathically."
Mueller offers a placid chuckle, and doesn't dispute the claim.
Acyuta talks of a spiritual journey, one which brought him from Maui, where he and his bandmate Jagadeesh planned to record chants in a small studio on a pineapple plantation, to Yamanashi and the foot of Mount Fuji, and then westward through India, their spiritual motherland. He talks of an instant kinship with Mueller. He calls him "the missing link." He talks of a future where man is united under music that is spiritually substantive and free. He says he isn't the day-job type. He says that if he needs to eat, he sells his CDs.
"It's a mission, not a business deal," says Acyuta. "All the other subtleties fall into place. Next thing you know, you're living at Pachyderm Studio with one of the coolest studio owners on the planet. We didn't come to Pachyderm; Pachyderm came to us."
"Love at first sight," says Jagadeesh, smiling from beneath a thatch of sandy hair.
Acyuta refines his statement: "We didn't come to Pachyderm," he says. "We came to Matt."
For the first time, Mueller speaks. His optimism is quietly insistent and deferential, and his speech is mannered and temperate, a serene and stately third-person. "These guys are all talking about this person Matt," he says. "It's all cool and groovy. But Matt has nothing to do with this. Matt just gets to be the guy that gets to be there. It has nothing to do with me personally. All I've proven to be is a good pawn at best."
He defers to Zap Maya. "I can pick anybody in this damn city to come give an interview," he says in a concussive burst of resolution. "What you're looking at right now is the foundation of the future. I can promise you that, brother." His composure returns. "Matt is not doing this," he says softly. "Matt isn't going to own this."
WHEN ZAP MAYA LEAVES the law office to return to Pachyderm, Mueller's demeanor changes. Where he once sat straight as a martinet, he now slumps. His head cocks, his cheek nearly touching his shoulder. The soft-spoken Mueller who tiptoed around curse words and sat serene as a Buddha is replaced by a fierce-eyed, mercurial orator, whose thinking is frenzied and spiked with resentment.
"Everybody's fucking each other every chance they get," he says. "From the lawyers to the managers to the artists. They're physically screwing each other. It's a big fuck rally. This industry sucks, and I've been fucked every way from Sunday in this industry. I know why it's on its knees."
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."
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.
"She's been here forever," he says, "and no one knows how she got here."
Here, he says, people hold prayer services during Pachyderm's occasional summer festivals. Candle wax is visible on a small stone enclave, an emptied shrine and a talisman of Pachyderm's lingering magic.
For the next month, Studio A's weekends are booked. With Zap Maya on an indefinite residency, there's activity in the house. It's hardly enough to meet the studio's immediate financial demands, but looking at the trout stream, sheathed in blankets of white snow, it's easy to imagine the mystique on the lips of the studio's residents.
Inside the house, Zap Maya tinkers with synth lines, crafting an impromptu beat and padding around the lushly carpeted den. Mousetrap, the resident stray cat, pounces through the labyrinthine rooms. The indoor swimming pool, now drained, is lined with Mueller's djembes. A drum kit sits at the curb of the pool beside the diving board. Monohan stomps its kick pedal, and the report is like the buck of a cannon. In the floor of the pool, an arcane symbol is emblazoned in flaked indigo paint.
"Pachyderm is a magical place," says Sigmeth, Pachyderm's departed engineer, "and it deserves to have funding and management that meets its 20-year reputation. It's not getting that now. But it's nearly impossible to meet all the property tax and multiple building mortgage payments without having something else beyond the booking fees to fund its existence. I wish I knew the answer. If I did, I'd buy it myself. But I'm not that stupid."
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