Encore: Recording studio serves youth and clients
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - A few years back, Webster University launched a somewhat-aggressive marketing campaign, the ads essentially saying that students at the Webster Groves campus weren’t to be pigeonholed. If 17 years of teaching at the school of communications there has taught me anything, it’s that every-other kid studying that field is a musician of some sort, or a DJ, or otherwise involved in music. It’s downright striking, really, how many players in local indie bands, record store managers, KDHX interns and hip-hop DJs are grads of Webster’s School of Comm.
Plenty of folks are doing what those ads suggested: mixing professional work with their avocations. And a select few don’t have to make the choice, blending art and commerce by landing jobs in the exact career position they’d hoped to find.
Luke Arens is 23. He’s a recent graduate of Webster and interned at Shock City Studios, a top-tier audio facility on the city’s south side. When the studio’s longtime production head, Tony Esterly, moved to Nashville, Arens slid into the chief engineer’s role, a critical position in a company that has an impressive space, client roster and list of credits. In essence, he replaced the man that had brought him on as an intern, not so very long before.
Asked what he’s learned in the “real world,” Arens is diplomatic and measured, per his custom.
“It’s a little different than what I’d heard from professors at Webster,” he admits. “Times have changed in the music industry, a lot. One of the cool things is that we’re a very versatile studio. As a large-format studio, we’ve been brought into a lot of roles not seen 20, or 30 years ago. We’ll have a local rapper who is in the studio for the first time to touring acts dropping by. We have pop artists of any genre. And we cross the musical lines and score feature films, or record ads for clients. It’s a pretty cool environment. It’s not just a studio that’s recording the local metal bands 24/7.
“I might work with a rapper in the morning,” Arens continues, “and in the afternoon with a folk band. Or they might come in for a 9 p.m.-4 a.m. session. It’s a crazy mix, but I’m kinda glad I get to do it this way. You get a feel for everything and it keeps the week fresh.”
On the day we meet, it’s mid-morning and the schedule’s a light one. A dropout allows Arens to offer an unhurried tour of Shock City, which is part of a large complex, a gut rehab that housed an ice factory a century ago. Mixed into the warren of hallways and floors and building segments are condos, a circus aerialist school, a record label and, soon, a barbecue restaurant. All the other activities, though, somewhat fan out from the energy created in the studio, which can be a round-the-clock affair.
“Sometimes, I get to be here at 7 or 8 a.m., for a session starting at 10 a.m.,” he says. “Depending on the schedule, we can be fully booked ‘til 2 or 3 a.m., at least. Or we could be scheduled to end 10 p.m. and they’ll want to go four more hours and have to ask if I can stay awake for this, or not. That can make for a long day, 17 hours or more.”
Luckily, Arens is 23. It’s an age built for max recovery abilities.
Youth is served
Arens is aware that he might be judged by his age, at least initially, though it has not been an issue yet, he says. In fact, if anything, it helped get him the job.
Doug Firley’s a founder of Shock City, which he owns with Chris Loesch and Dee Coleman. For local rock fans of a certain vintage, Firley’s well remembered as the energetic keyboardist of the pop-industrial group Gravity Kills. Writing and recording a track for 105.7 The Point’s Pointessential CD series, Gravity Kills scored a local hit with “Guilty,” which catapulted them into a deal with TVT Records, several licensings of the song for major soundtracks, and a trio of records.
The band’s run also launched musical projects not related to stagework. Shock City, for example, began, in large part, as the recording arm of Gravity Kills, with Firley eventually moving the operation from its origins in the tight confines of a nearby Soulard apartment into its current, expansive home on Gravois. There, GK drummer and studio architect Kurt Kerns designed the space, part of his lengthy run of developing high-end recording venues.
Firley’s office sits above his studio spaces. In what could accurately be called a “lair,” Firley oversees business operations from a darkly appointed office. A satellite radio station adds to the ambiance, playing cuts from The Cure, Depeche Mode, Joy Division and other groups that coalesced nicely with Gravity Kills’ sound from the day. Talking to Firley for the first time in probably a decade, I’m amused and convinced that Firley doesn’t remember me , as we chat about Arens’ past, present and future with Shock City.
“Here at the studio,” the uber-upbeat Firley says, “the policy is to let the engineers really determine who to hire next. … Tony was my head engineer before he went to Nashville and when he first met Luke he was like, ‘He’s the real deal. He’s good now, if not great. He’s so good, he scares me.’ These guys know other top engineers when they run into them. And we don’t want average engineers, we want to develop superstars. We’re a non-traditional studio, three studios in one. We opened in 2008, during the big recession and we were scrambling, like an eight-armed octopus. I found that the best way was to find engineers who were accomplished musicians, who can play an instrument, if not several.
“And they have to be composers,” Firley continues. “I don’t need a button pusher, I need intent listeners. Luke fits that bill. When Tony decided to move to Nashville, it wasn’t a hard decision to go with Luke, even as young as he is. He’s done great. All my guys are young, for sure, and I’ve never had, in five years, a client come in with a question about our abilities. I think a young engineer brings fresh ideas to the table. Experience is important, but talent is even more important. They have to have a good bedside manner. And you have to, have to have patience. You have to be able to work on music that you don’t like. And you have to be personable and disciplined to go along with everything else. When you find a good one, you never want them to go anywhere else.”
Button pushing plus...
Asked how much he enjoys being a part of the creative process, Arens says, “I think it can go both ways. A lot of times, I just want to be here to give them what they want, to press record. Other people, I get to be a part of the creative process. Maybe I get to be on 5 percent of the album, but I get to suggest ideas, because it’s a group that’s not been in the studio before. Or they’re older musicians and 20 years later, there are all these forms of technology that hopefully make them sound better, or be more creative.
“I’m involved in the career of a 14-year-old country artist, Ashley Lusk; she’s been working here since age 12. Tony and I fully produced her, doing songwriting, mixing, shooting a video, watching her compete in a big competition. That was another eye-opening situation. We got hooked up after she came in for two hours to record a cover song. But we’ve grown over these two years that we’ve worked with her. That’s the whole other end of just pushing ‘play.’”
Bouncing back to the notion of what was learned in school, Arens recalls that “one thing I heard a lot of them say was that there aren’t a lot of jobs in St. Louis. From the beginning, you may feel that the market’s oversaturated, or that you have to go to Nashville, or Los Angeles, or a city where is everything is happening musically. I wouldn’t call it false information, but it’s something that I didn’t know would be possible, hearing from my professors about the St. Louis market.”
As it’s turned out, a second Webster grad, Sam Maul, has also landed an engineering and producing job with Shock City, another feather in the audio program’s cap.
“The cool thing is that all of the people I graduated with have done it,” Arens says. “They’re moving to Nashville, or LA. They’ve found jobs that they enjoy doing, which is even cooler. That’s pretty awesome to see from my graduating class. The other cool part is that we’re requested to stay involved and connected to these people. I want to offer the same things that I was given, whether or not they can find work at this studio. I can peel it back and tell them what to expect when they’re hired.”
Arens knows he fell into a pretty remarkable situation. His studio has lamp-dampening windows, tens of thousands of dollars in just microphones, creature comforts like a fully stocked, studio-endorsed Monster Energy drink machine. It’s a good gig; and not every student, no matter how talented, is going to fall into a situation that allowed Arens to gain a foothold in the studio, then the plum lead gig.
“That’s why I almost hate to tell my story,” Arens admits. “If they come in to intern, I almost don’t want them to think that it’s a possibility (that they’ll be hired on here). I would consider it magical, to the point where I don’t know what did it.”
No matter the ultimate reason for his hiring, Arens feels as if he’s right where he wants to be: “I love being around all this stuff. It’s a part of my lifestyle. Sam and I enjoy working as a team. We’re trying to leave our stamp, using what we can use to make cool things happen, in a place where we feel confident.”
About this series
For the past two-decades-and-change, Thomas Crone has covered alternative music and culture in St. Louis for the St. Louis Beacon, Riverfront Times, Post-Dispatch and St. Louis magazine, along with a host of smaller, deceased titles like Jet Lag, 15 Minutes and his own zines Silver Tray and 52nd City. He's co-produced the music documentaries "Old Dog, New Trick" and "The Pride of St. Louis," along with several shorts. He's currently pre-producing the web series "Half Order Fried Rice," while teaching media writing at Webster University. And a lot of his memorabilia is available to the public at www.silvertrayonline.com/
The "Second Set" series highlights known and unknown stories of St. Louis musicians, deejays, promoters and gadflies. Each week's edition will showcase artists, albums and songs that collectively make up a fascinating Midwestern musical culture, one filled with both major successes and vexing could-have-beens. Combining personal recollections with interviews of the principals, these articles will put into context the people, recordings and venues that have informed St. Louis' recent rock'n'roll and pop music.
"Encores" follow in the spirit of the earlier series as Crone and The Beacon roll out an ebook that developed from Second Set. Read Second Set columns.