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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Q&A: Wild Belle on familial dynamics, schmoozing, and using loss as inspiration

Wild Belle: IslesWild Belle: Isles (Columbia, 3/12/13)

“Keep You”

Wild Belle: “Keep You”

Though eight years apart in age, siblings Natalie and Elliot Bergman have a long musical history. Whether playing together in church in their youth, hearing James Brown and Neil Young records from their parents, or soaking up influences on trips abroad, the two have a shared musical heritage that has manifested itself in Wild Belle, a multi-cultural pop project that was born from Natalie’s demos and rounded by Elliot’s professional experience in Nomo.

Isles, the group’s debut full-length, is a blend of pre-1980s reggae and rocksteady, dub, R&B, rock, and African influences, all held together by Natalie’s airy vocals and lovelorn lyrics. Here she speaks about familial dynamics, quickly signing to a major, and using loss as inspiration.

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ALARM’s 50 (+5) Favorite Songs of 2012

Last month ALARM presented its 50 favorite albums of 2012, an eclectic, rock-heavy selection of discs that were in steady rotation in our downtown-Chicago premises. Now, to give some love to tunes that were left out but that hold major water on their own, we have our 50 (+5) favorite songs of last year — singles, B-sides, EP standouts, soundtrack cuts, and more.

(Text by the ALARM crew. Presented in chronological order.)

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Concert Photos: In Tall Buildings @ Metro (Chicago, IL)

The solo project of NOMO multi-instrumentalist Erik Hall, pop-folk band In Tall Buildings played a hometown show recently at Metro in Chicago. Its most recent album, the self-titled In Tall Buildings, was released early last year on Whistler Records, and features layers of of dreamy bedroom pop, folk-guitar fingerpicking, and plenty of harmonizing. Contributing photographer Mandy Dempsey captured these images of the band.

In Tall Buildings

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This Week’s Best Single: NOMO & Shawn Lee’s Upside Down

NOMO & Shawn Lee: Upside Down tour seven-inch (Ubiquity, 1/18/11)

Instrumental collective NOMO combines funk, Afrobeat, electronica, jazz, and more for a unique fusion of good-time jams.  Unclassifiable producer/multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee, a label-mate on Ubiquity, has tackled dozens (perhaps hundreds?) of styles over his dynamic career.

Together, the two sides have collaborated to create “Upside Down,” the A-side of a tour-exclusive seven-inch that NOMO officially released today.  Featuring guest vocals by Natalie Bergman, the sister of NOMO bandleader Elliot Bergman, the tune builds its groove with loops of an electric kalimba, a funky bass line, steel drums, and a flanged synthesizer.

The seven-inch is limited to 300 copies, and it also features NOMO’s “Nocturne” on side B.  It originally was available on the band’s fall tour with Iron and Wine; it’s now available at Amazon.com and through iTunes.

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Concert Photos: NOMO, In Tall Buildings @ Schubas

NOMO: “Invisible Cities” (Invisible Cities, Ubiquity, 5/5/10)

NOMO: “Invisible Cities”

Contributing photographer David Sampson shot these photos at the recent NOMO show at Schubas. NOMO’s inventive Afro-jazz-rock sound spans so many styles and eras that it belies its contemporary Ann Arbor, MI origins. Meanwhile, opener In Tall Buildings (Chicago’s Erik Hall, also a member of NOMO) warmed the crowd up with his brand of stripped-down folk rock.

In Tall Buildings

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50 Unheralded Albums from 2009

Egyptian, Indian, and Arabic styles in Western structures. Absurdist progressive neoclassical. Playful orchestrations with big-band swing and foreboding soundtrack cues. Blood-curdling horror scores and reflective, introspective rhymes.

ALARM leaves no genre unloved in our round-up of 50 albums that didn’t receive enough attention in 2009.

Presented in chronological order.

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Weekly Music News Roundup

Garage a Trois

Garage a Trois

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez announces a new solo album for Stones Throw; Saul Williams speaks about the aftermath of The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust; Garage a Trois announces tour dates and posts an album preview; Don Caballero returns to the Northeast, and much more.

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