Unless you’ve been sequestered at summer camp, you know that Detroit bands have put out some stellar records of late. For those of us in Washtenaw County, it’s sweet to see Ann Arbor keeping pace.
“I’ve been here seventeen years and what’s been going on just in the last two years is the real thing.” So says recording engineer Jim Roll about the current state of music west of I-275. And we’re not going to argue. From his Ann Arbor-based studio, Roll has had a front-row seat, recording many of the best local releases over the past year. Several more are on deck for the fall. His studio is booked solid for months purely on word of mouth, mutual interest and a crop of record-ready acts. “I think I would go nuts if I had to record bad bands, but I’ve just got one after another coming through that are amazing.” Over the past year, Roll recorded projects from Chris Bathgate, Matt Jones, Misty Lynn & the Big Beautiful, Frontier Ruckus, Breathe Owl Breathe, Black Jake & the Carnies, Siksik Nation and Greg McIntosh (of Great Lakes Myth Society).
Roll’s penchant for unearthing dark, acoustic textures appears to sync perfectly with the story-spinning, traditionalist-cribbing, indie-folkers (for lack of a better term as much as irritation by subgenres).
For years, Roll released and toured behind his own critically acclaimed albums (including Amazon.com’s #5 rock record of 2002), but for now, this singer-songwriter is happy as a studio rat. Without gear-geeking-out too badly, we talked to Jim about his studio, the bands coming through and his philosophy for not totally fucking up a session. — Scott Sellwood
You’ve recently worked with several great local bands, how did this all start?
In 1997 I did a ton of records and had a studio on State Street. That definitely was the point when I became a recording engineer. But I feel like the beginning of this current wave would be the Bathgate record [A Cork Tale Wake]. I had recorded several records over the past five years, but I feel like when he walked in, it just kicked everything up a notch. I got more serious about the scene. And other people I think respect Chris and they heard the sounds that we had got together.
Is there is an overarching style of music coming out of your studio?
Yeah, if I thought about those bands, I guess all are artfully acoustic bands. They’ve got a rock sensibility, but they’re using ambience and acoustic instruments. I think that’s what ties them all together. And they’re all pretty well grounded in roots music.
How would you sum up your recording philosophy?
I try to walk the line between doing things right and doing things fast. My main goal is to not somehow block whatever momentum this creative force has when they come in here. You’re wasting your presence as a studio if you spend too much time tweaking something when the band’s ready to go. I feel like the performance will completely dictate whether or not people identify with the song or band and the gear won’t and I certainly won’t.
[WARNING gear nerd query] What piece of gear couldn’t you live without?
Well, even though I’ve recorded at home for years, I would say the room, for one. I’ve been in this studio space for about a year, but the space has been here for ten years. I think Electric Six recorded in here and Ted Nugent made a record here, which is just hilarious. Tech-wise, I’d say my API preamps. I got four preamps from the early 70s and I wired them into this console. It’s kind of a clean, cool, seventies sound.
What’s your biggest studio disaster?
These are going to be boring. I’ve had no real disasters, which is just freakish. I deleted an entire guitar track across a bunch of songs once, but somehow it wasn’t even that important.
Sorry if we just jinxed you. How about a studio triumph?
Frontier Ruckus recorded their entire record live in that room, live vocals, and they brought piano players and all kinds of shit. And I don’t really have good separation. I had pianos next to drums and not a single electric instrument. They basically made a record that shouldn’t have worked in there. On a smaller scale, another group came in recently to record a twelve-minute song. They were getting drunk really fast, but they thought they were “rehearsing.” I knew that at the rate they were drinking, if I didn’t capture the rehearsal, the real version was going to suck. So I basically tricked them into recording while rehearsing and it turned out great. And sure enough, the real take was a drunk, sloppy mess.
What current band would you love to walk in and say, “let’s do a seven-inch?”
Well I think the perfect match for this studio would be Bon Iver. Would be absolutely perfect. It would be fun to record Silver Jews or Stephen Malkmus here too. If I dreamed big, I’d go there.