Legends may never die, but they do haunt.
In 2011, when sound engineer John Kuker purchased Pachyderm Recording Studio, the place was dilapidated to the point where it felt more like a flophouse than the storied environment where Babes in Toyland, P.J. Harvey, and Nirvana tracked albums in the ’90s. Squatters had taken up residence in the once-Kubrickian halls of the Cannon Falls property, and trees had grown into the picture windows and through the ceiling.
The three-acre estate where Pachyderm sits boasts a scenic view of an old-growth forest and a trickling stream. On it are two buildings — a 6,300-square-foot, five-bedroom house built as a vacation stop for the Mensing family in 1964, and a separate 2,500-square-foot recording studio built by second owner Jim Nickel in 1988. The third owner, a mortgage broker named Matt Mueller, stopped looking after the buildings sometime after he sprung for Los Angeles in the 2000s.
Eventually, Pachyderm was abandoned, sitting idly in the artistic wilderness for years.
Kuker’s longtime protégé Nick Tveitbakk oversaw the three-year remodel, working to channel his confidant’s painstaking vision while Kuker worked at his other studio, Seedy Underbelly in Los Angeles. Tveitbakk had a set of photos from the house’s original opening in the 1960s and a mandate to make sure the work was done right.
“It was a lot of really nice design features that need a lot of attention,” Tveitbakk says. “A lot of the work was really inspired by that original design but also how John saw things. Now it’s a nice hybrid of his vision and the way the house was when it was originally built.”
The work on Pachyderm was nearly complete in early 2015. The atrium and bedrooms had been redecorated with vintage furniture Kuker collected from eBay and secondhand shops, and he had a plush blue-and-navy retro-style rug installed. Other than that rug, almost none of the decor was new. Contemporary stuff didn’t vibe with the spirits Kuker hoped to evoke.
“When you walk into the house, you walk into a time machine,” says Kuker’s brother, Matt. “It feels you’re walking into the 1970s.”
Though some repairs — like the landscaping and driveway — had to be triaged, Pachyderm was scheduled to reopen in June of last year. Tveitbakk was already in the studio tracking bands like Trampled by Turtles and Norma Jean while Kuker worked in L.A., and the pair were eager to show off their revitalized sanctum. Tragically, Kuker never made it back to Minnesota to see through that plan.
On February 2, 2015, Kuker was found dead at his California home, having succumbed to a heart condition in his sleep. He was 40 years old, and though his passion project was close to finished, his calling was far from realized.
“It was hard, but we’re getting through it,” Matt Kuker says, his voice weakening. “You always wanna watch after your little brother. As time goes, things are easier. We don’t forget about him, but accepting it is a little bit easier as time goes on.”
After John Kuker’s death, stewardship over Pachyderm passed to Matt and his parents. Once the family sorted the legality of the estate, they decided the best way to memorialize John was to finish Pachyderm down to every exacting detail. They finally hit John Kuker’s standard of completeness this fall, and the Kukers and Tveitbakk celebrated on October 15 with an open house at the complex.
“It felt like the right thing to do,” says Matt Kuker, who now serves as president of Pachyderm. “We knew we had to keep it going because this was his dream. This place was his love.”
Walking in the door, you instantly feel the level of care. The tile countertops. The chartreuse velvet sofas. The globular lamps aside each bed. These details scream John Kuker.
“One of the things that drives me is doing things to make him proud in the way he’d want them to be done,” adds Tveitbakk, who works as general manager and in-house engineer. “The last couple of months have been really difficult moving forward without him, but I feel so grateful for having been able to know someone like that. Just to be able to have that and carry it on, it feels really good.”
John Kuker was a man who believed in the spiritual side of recording. He strove to create atmospheres, summoning energy from the ghosts of the room around him. That’s why he never invested in new furniture or equipment — he wanted pieces that contributed stories.
“If someone is comfortable, it’ll be that much easier for them to get that good take or make that amazing record,” Tveitbakk explains. “Maintaining a positive atmosphere so people can be creative. That’s the biggest lesson he ever taught me.”
Twin Cities drummer JT Bates has recorded at Pachyderm several times through the years. He became close friends with John Kuker over their mutual love of jazz. He’s spent plenty of days gazing across the grounds and divining inspiration.
“It just has the most beautiful vibe,” says Bates, who led the house band during Pachyderm’s open house. “The thing about art and music that’s a little mystical is that collective energy. That energy doesn’t all go away. Some of it stays there and adds to the overall vibe.”
Pachyderm doesn’t feel like it’s been renovated. There are new details, including the stone retaining wall and the trio of gilded elephants in the yard, but they integrate elementally with the throwback surroundings. Pachyderm, in fact, doesn’t feel reopened at all. It feels like it never closed.
More than that, the studio is in better shape than it’s ever been. John Kuker’s two studios in New York and L.A. have been closed, and all the gear, including an awe-inspiring array of microphones, was moved to Pachyderm. The new sound board — a vintage 1980s API that John Kuker scored in Europe — is live, and Tveitbakk has been happily at work. If you sense a warm presence on Haley Bonar’s latest album, August’s critically lauded Impossible Dream, it’s Pachyderm seeping into the record.
It’s inescapable. Pachyderm is a studio that engrosses. It is made of both wood and energies. A place whose influence is incorporeal and supernatural. As Bates puts it: “That place is just magical.”
Outside the studio door, tacked up on the pastel ultra-shag on the wall, hangs a portrait of John Kuker. He sits on a gaudy sofa blissfully strumming a guitar. His presence emanates from that image to all corners of Pachyderm, the house and the studio. It’s in the fibers of the armchairs and the paint on the rafters. Were you to pick up one of the guitars and strum a chord, you could almost feel him there leaning in to listen.