Studio Visit: Key Club Recording Company

Nestled near the St. Joseph River off the southeastern shores of Lake Michigan, Benton Harbor isn’t the first town that comes to mind for music recording—it’s better known for Whirlpool appliances, the House of David religious commune, and golf. Yet the small Michigan community is home to Key Club Recording Company, one of the best and most beautiful studios in the Midwest, founded by producer/engineer duo Bill Skibbe and Jessica Ruffins.

In the 1880s, Key Club’s building was a boarding house for sailors. It changed hands and became a lumberyard in the 1920s, and in the ’60s, the building was repurposed yet again and began its life as a rock and folk venue called the Unicorn Key Club.

Key Club Recording Company

“You had to buy a key [to attend] because there were zoning laws about cover charges,” says Skibbe, the founder of Skibbe Electronics and a former employee of Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio. “So they just made it a private club. Question Mark and the Mysterians played here. Tommy James [and the Shondells], The Association, Neil Young—the place had some real history of being a venue and being a place to play.”

Key Club Recording Company

Now Key Club is decked with custom and vintage gear lining the walls of the control room, with tree-bark paneling and even more equipment in the recording rooms (which have housed the likes of The Kills, Franz Ferdinand, Adult, The Fiery Furnaces, The Sea and Cake, Nomo, Pit Er Pat, Six Organs of Admittance, Tristeza, and Chicago Underground Trio). The studio’s Flickinger console, however, could be considered its foundation. Not only is it the first piece of equipment that Key Club acquired, but it’s also a piece of rock history, once owned and operated by Sly Stone. Skibbe recalls finding the dusty relic at Paragon Studios in Chicago before Key Club existed.

“Question Mark and the Mysterians played here. Tommy James [and the Shondells], The Association, Neil Young—the place had some real history of being a venue and being a place to play.”

“I was leaning on this thing—it was under a shipping blanket, and I looked under the blanket and was shocked,” he says. “I knew the brand, but I didn’t know it was Sly’s. I casually asked how much for ‘this old mixing console.’ He said he would sell it for seven grand, but I didn’t have it. I had two thousand bucks, and I gave it to him to hold it for me.

“Then I panicked and had to go out and try to find the money. That’s how we ended up out here, actually.”

Key Club Recording Company

Within a couple of weeks, Skibbe and Ruffins secured a loan to build their dream studio and buy gear, the latter of which has been just as essential to Key Club’s sound and success. (With Skibbe’s custom shop in the building, Key Club is a gear-head’s paradise.) And, conveniently, the former sailor hotel also is where Skibbe and Ruffins call home, meaning that the couple can be productive at any hour.

“An odd thing about our arrangement,” Ruffins says, “is that this is our record collection; this is our personal life. So when people come to work with us, they are living with us too. It’s worth it, though. The record is worth it.”

“Record-wise, it’s really fun,” Skibbe adds. “You get to be creative whenever you want. There aren’t any boundaries. One of the reasons we built the studio and came out here is because when we worked at the studios in Chicago, it was always a struggle. You had to go home at the end of the night.”

Key Club Recording Company

Key Club Recording Company

Key Club Recording Company

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Moses Supposes: Major labels brace themselves for loss of their most popular catalog in 2013

Moses Avalon is one of the nation’s leading music-business consultants and artists’-rights advocates and is the author of a top-selling music business reference, Confessions of a Record Producer. More of his articles can be found at www.mosesavalon.com.

The Mayan calendar claims that the world will come to an abrupt end in 2012. We have all heard the hype and suffered through the movies. But even if that prediction falls flat, the pop-music business may still experience its own armageddon shortly thereafter. Are these just the ravings of another music-industry expert flying off the rails? Let’s see.

In 2013, many classic recordings are scheduled to slip out of the control of their major labels. No, I’m not referring to odd recordings that no one actually collects. This list of records includes some of the top-selling albums of all time (abbreviated list below)!

Even though music-business insiders have been dreading this for years, the New York Times finally decided that it was a newsworthy enough subject and published a piece a few weeks ago about this issue (called “termination of masters”). Unfortunately, the reporter they assigned seemed to a have limited understanding of how the music business really works, as well as of copyright in general. In his article, he kept interchanging the word “songs” with “master recordings,” which littered his post with inaccurate statements like, “artists can claim their songs in 2013.”

Though this New York Times piece may be new info to outsiders, it is a subject that has long been on the minds of those concerned with the recording industry and artist rights. I reported about the subject in a 2008 Moses Supposes article. Here’s the reprint for your perusal:

Mayan meltdown at majors

The hot topic for the American Bar Association conference in 2008 was “termination of masters,” a little raison d’etre in the copyright act that supposedly levels the playing field for authors who are often at a disadvantage to the big, bad publisher (or record company, in this case). The copyright act states that after 35 years, the license or transfer of a work must “terminate” and revert back to the original author.

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Guest Playlist: Alela Diane’s songs to pack a suitcase to

Alela Diane: Wild DivineAlela Diane: Alela Diane & Wild Divine (Rough Trade, 4/5/11)

Alela Diane: “To Begin”

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On “Pieces of String,” a track from Alela Diane‘s 2004 record, The Pirate’s Gospel, she sings, “If I had one, I’d play this on piano.” Consider it wishful thinking. Whereas her first few albums, including the self-released Gospel and Forest Parade, are characterized by spare, plucked guitar and airy harmonies about simpler times, Alela Diane‘s newest, Alela Diane & Wild Divine, stretches its legs with a greater sonic palette and higher production value. Despite the warmth and homeliness of her folk tunes, Diane’s a troubadour, and she’s got the playlist to prove it.

Songs to Pack a Suitcase to, with Anticipation for the Highway
by Alela Diane

1.  Fairport Convention: “Farewell, Farewell”

A song of goodbye.

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Record Review: Horseback’s The Gorgon Tongue: Impale Golden Horn + Forbidden Planet

Horseback: The Gorgon Tongue: Impale Golden Horn + Forbidden PlanetHorseback: The Gorgon Tongue: Impale Golden Horn + Forbidden Planet (Relapse, 5/10/11)

Horseback: “The Golden Horn”

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Jenks Miller is the sole constant in avant-metal outfit Horseback. Miller’s output — occasionally under his own name, often as Horseback, and recently with the Americana group Mount Moriah — has been a steady trickle over the past three years, with each release offering a new glimpse of the artist’s capabilities. To consider Miller’s art only in terms of his 2010 breakout, The Invisible Mountain, is like considering an iceberg only in terms of its tip.

Such an assumption is also likely to leave you confused upon hearing The Gorgon Tongue, which compiles Impale Golden Horn (Miller’s 2007 debut as Horseback) and last year’s ultra-limited Forbidden Planet cassette. Each is radically different from the other and also from the lumbering kraut-metal/Americana hybrid upon which Horseback built its reputation.

But that reputation came after more than two years of output, slowly revealing the character of the project and the Chapel Hill musician behind it all. Horseback began as a method for Miller to focus his concentration, to help manage his obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Impale Golden Horn — which Miller spent three years recording and reworking before its 2008 release — introduces Horseback as a patient, meticulous sculptor of sound. “Laughing Celestial Architect,” at 17 seconds past the 15-minute mark, is Impale’s second-longest track (behind the 17-minute opener, “Finale”). It’s a slow, smoldering rise, not unlike waking up as sunlight slowly fills the room. This mixture of ascendant dynamics, meditative repetition, and calming timbres is indicative of the collection. It’s a bluff belying all of Miller’s work to follow. It makes the improvisatory follow-up seem almost ironically relaxed.

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Behind the Counter: Rhino Records & The Mad Platter (Claremont, CA)

Each week, Behind the Counter speaks to an independent record store to ask about its recent favorites, best sellers, and noteworthy trends.

ALARM recently spoke with Dennis Callaci, general manager of the Inland Empire-based Rhino Records and The Mad Platter, about the sisterly record stores and the potential correlation between UFOs, Jim Morrison, and Vietnam (hint: he’s not interested). To kick off the Q&A, here’s a photo of Mad Platter employee Jonny holding his favorite record.

The Mad Platter

Jonny holds The Cure's Disintegration

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Behind the Counter: The Corner Record Shop (Grandville, MI)

Each week, Behind the Counter speaks to an independent record store to ask about its recent favorites, best sellers, and noteworthy trends.

The Corner Record Shop in Grandville, Michigan started out in a tiny corner room behind an old Dutch bakery.  Eleven years later, owner Steve Williamson and his “no judgment” staff cater to young and old alike, offering their talents in the two-room spot with an audio-repair shop, stereo showroom, and venue (still in the works). Employee Brian Beckwith shares some thoughts with us.

The Corner Record Shop

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The Top 10 Cover Songs by The Bad Plus

Hard-hitting jazz trio The Bad Plus knows how to pen pieces of proprietary gold. But its three members are also known for their genre-leaping renditions of rock songs, propelled by the chops of pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer David King. Here are the group’s ten best covers.
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Prefuse 73 Breaks It Down

Though few self-respecting artists would admit to making music for the sole purpose of pleasing their fans, it’s certainly a rare musician who makes an album that he doesn’t expect will connect with his audience. From Neil Young dropping an electronic album in the middle of a series of folk and rock records or Lou Reed terrorizing his listeners with an album of guitar feedback, artists have made albums that seem designed to shake less resilient listeners off their bandwagons. A similar path has now been taken by Guillermo Scott Herren, also known as Prefuse 73, for his new full-length album Preparations (reviewed in ALARM #29 – read it here!). In addition to his usual dose of experimental glitch-hop, Herren crafted an album of avant-garde classical music to go alongside. He wasn’t just following his creative intuition—

he was making an album that could alienate his normally open-minded listeners. Some might even call it daring.

“Daring?” Herren asks incredulously. “No. Maybe dumb. Suicidal. It’s like jumping off a cliff. You don’t know what to expect. I think Warp [Records] are smart in the way that they’re marketing the record,” he continues, discussing his label’s decision to add the orchestral compositions as a fifteen-track bonus album, entitled Interregnums, that comes with the physical purchase of Preparations. “The beat-heads and the cats who are into Prefuse as Prefuse is can get this shit however they want, but if you really want the other disc, you can buy that too. Because I’m sure that there are lots of people who have absolutely no interest whatsoever in the other disc, and that’s fine.”
Pieced together over the span of a year and completed during time off from tours and various projects, Prefuse 73’s unusual double album breaks new creative ground for the man who almost singlehandedly reinvented instrumental hip hop. Herren took the genre by storm in 2003 with One Word Extinguisher, his sophomore full-length for Warp; the album’s stuttering samples and crackling electronics were unlike much else heard over hip-hop beats.

The last two Prefuse albums—Surrounded by Silence (2005) and Security Screenings (2006)—brought a variety of guest musicians and MCs that resulted in disjointed releases. Now four years since his breakthrough, he is returning to the insular, deeply personal heart of his craft.

“This is the sixth record, so I just wanted to do something other than ‘Prefuse is on his MPC again,’” he says, mentioning the beat-making equipment he has used to craft his idiosyncratic sound. “I left the sounds alone instead of editing, chopping, and sampling so much. I was more into arrangement and form and the construction instead of editing and splicing and deconstruction. It was sort of the opposite way around. I implemented more live playing on the beats instead of sampling. That’s why it gets really dense with live playing and live sounds. I just wanted to take that direction, because I never have before. I’ve always put a restriction on my level of live playing. But this time I went crazy and did it all.”
Doing it all included playing cello, piano, flutes, clarinets, and percussion for Interregnums, the orchestral material that laid the foundation for much of Preparations.

“Making the beat part—the actual beat side—was very natural, and it was exactly what I wanted as I was making it,” he says of Preparations. “The hard part came with side two. That was more of a challenge, like, ‘How am I going to do this without it being incredibly corny or over-the-top stupid?’ I didn’t want to hire other people to do it either. That was the hard part, doing things that I’m inexperienced in doing. That’s what made it fun and interesting for me.”
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