The Brian Speaker Chronicles, Part I

Posted on: July 23rd, 2013 by Jon Berger No Comments

Brian Speaker has been an important part of the AntiFolk community for some time now. I’d tell you more about that, but you’re about to read all about it once this introduction is done, so why don’t we get to it?

How long have you been involved in the Sidewalk scene? How have you been involved?

My first visit to Sidewalk Cafe was with Brian Wurschum of the Voyces back in 1999. He and I were in duo’s playing a regular night at the BMW bar close to FIT. I went to the Monday Night Antihoot and ran into Lach like a brick wall. Lach was often hard on new people to see if they would stick it out, or maybe he just didn’t like your attitude, ego, or your music. At any case, I was a tourist there for a little while till I decided, at the time, it wasn’t for me. It was many years later, after befriending the likes of Debe Dalton, Jonathan Berger, Erin Regan and Amy Hills, that I was reintroduced to the Sidewalk scene. Amy was running a sweet open mic at DTUT and she had asked me about it and I told her my “Lach story”, one she had heard a million times from others like me. Debe asked me about Sidewalk, Jon asked me about it as well. Eventually, Jon Berger told me that Lach was in need of a new sound tech at Sidewalk. Someone to fix the cables, asses the PA problems, etc. It was a way for me to come into Lach’s good graces without being subjected to the rigmarole that had kept me away for so long. And, I truly enjoy audio nerd stuff, like fixing cables, testing speakers, and equalizing the sound system for the room. In late 2006, Lach and I had a meeting, where he told me the great and wondrous story of Lach (cue the heavy down stroke guitars). He asked me if I could do the job, I said yes, and that was that. I started working the next day fixing a mile high pile of broken down equipment and cables. Eventually it led me into the position of running sound regularly with Dan Costello, Somer Bingham and Ben Godwin. —I turned around the sonic aesthetic of that place. When I went to Sidewalk early on, it was hard for me to sit in that room with the harsh sound of the PA trashing out your ears. A rude, loud, brash cannon of frequencies, I don’t know how people wanted to play there when it sounded like that.— Lach and I became quite good friends after a while and he welcomed me into his life and the Antifolk scene like so many others. I felt like I had new musical home at Sidewalk Cafe. Not long after, as Lach was leaving the place and Ben Krieger had signed on as another sound maven, he asked us both about the position as his replacement. Krieger was right for the job and I was very recording studio minded.

Later, once the renovations came to pass, Krieger was the booker and head of the backroom operations and I took charge of redesigning, buying and installing the new sound system. I retired my position from running sound in 2012, but I still come in to check out the system or service any problems or issues Nick, Somer, Alex or Ben might have with the sound. And of course I love playing the festivals and popping in for the open stage from time to time. Krieger and I are, and will always be buds in music and zaniness.

Why would you use such an obviously fake name?

Brian Andrew Speaker, born of Mr. Thomas Benton Speaker & Rosemary Anne Speaker. True as a turnip truck. My father is currently writing a book on the history of our family and our name. Just like you, Jonathan Ham Berger, the name fits.

For the last year, you’ve been the default choice to record AntiFolk acts. How’d that happen? What have you done with the competition?  

Word of mouth. Back in ‘06 – ‘07, I began recording many folks for free. John Houx, Adam Bricks, Jeff Jacobson, Paul Alexander, Alexa Woodward, to name a few. I was already into recording my second album when I got bit by the bug to record other people. What a wonderful challenge to help others find a sound they are looking for. As things went, Sidewalk was a way to let people hear what I was capable of. I would run their sound, record their sets, and after they heard my version of things, people started coming to me. M Lamar was one of the first and is still a long time friend and client. We’ve worked together since 2007. Amy Hills sent Dan Penta my way around the same time. I started noticing Penta coming around when I was working and staying late night to have a beer and talk about music. Amy gave him my second album, and he liked the way it sounded. Word of mouth led to me recording a bunch of folks over the last six years, but once I moved into BTP, I had the room to really put a shine on.

I owe much of the SpeakerSonic sound to that one big room where so much music has been written, worked out, performed, flopped or jumped. Once I had that room, and the calling card of some already super sounding recordings under my belt, people started coming to me. I’ve recorded incredible things there. More recently, Crazy and the Brains, Hamell on Trial, Kung Fu Crimewave, Pinelawn Empire, Bird to Prey, Brook Pridemore, The Telethons, and many more. Word of mouth is how it all started. The first The Everybody Knows album, with Dan Penta, was quite a departure from other DIY studio sounds. Ed Hamell came to me from Sarah Turk (Bird to Prey). The Kung Fu Crimewave single, Forgot About Rock and Roll, led a lot of folks my way, as well as the Thomas Patrick Maguire album Temper Tantrums Cause Delays. Joe Yoga of Downward Dogs called me one day and asked to come by to check out the place and next thing you know, we’ve recorded an E.P. together. Then his drummer, Ryan Roger O’Toole had me record the drums and mix his latest record. I think maybe Brook mentioned my name to Joe? Ryan and I will be starting another project soon.

As far as competition, hmm… I know Major Matt leaving for Kansas led people to consider other recording venues. With Olive Juice Music, he was a major loss to the recording and music scene in NYC. He’s worked with some of my favorite Antifolk acts, including Jeff Lewis, Diane Cluck and The Wowz. Alex P (Basement Floods Records) has a nice client list with folks like Gina Mobilio, Morgan Heringer & Cal Folger Day. But I really feel like we’re very different in style and approach. Alex works strictly with analog tape, and though I also have an analog option, I think his expertise and purist style attract a lot of folks. Casey Holford (Golden Rule Studio) is doing pretty well working with the likes of Erin Regan and Phoebe Novak, both of which I would love to work with in the future. His approach is also very different from mine. He pursues a more pop sound, in my opinion. Loud and lush.

My sound at SpeakerSonic is based on an artists live performance. Especially with singer/songwriters. I tell everyone the same thing, “lets capture a high quality, well performed version of what you do live, first. Then we can consider what the songs want or need.” Keep the roots live and any production is grown from that foundation. The room adds a lot to the depth of the recordings as well. Just strumming a guitar in that big room adds a new feel to the sound, its like automatic vibe. It feels great to sing in there too.

I also have a background in voice. I studied in school and privately with a pro for most of a year. So I hope to bring out the best in the artist vocal performance. I think it also helps to be honest, let the artist know when you think they’re off, as well as praising them when they’re on and giving them direction as how to potentially be even better. Chances are, they’re thinking the same thing and having someone there in tune with them can only lead to better performances. Being able to trust is important in any working relationship. I also offer a lot in the way of production ideas. I’m an idea guy, I can’t help it. But I’m also not in anyway married to my ideas. Though, Ed Hamell pretty much lets me run with most anything I have brewing and we either use it or lose it later. Those make for fun sessions, but also lead to very cool conclusions.

The choice of where to record is also controlled by an artist’s budget. Being realistic, it’s hard to make a record for next to nothing. Thus far, I’ve been a place to go to make a pro sounding record on a modest budget. As things go, my prices are now higher than those I’ve mentioned because I’ve been constantly upgrading my system. From high end preamps to vintage instruments, I put everything I make back into my studio. I have just recently acquired a vintage mixing console that was the centerpiece for the EMI Studio Nashville for more than 20 years. Its a 32 channel Trident analog mixing desk. This desk has worked with the likes of Willie Nelson and a huge list of country artist so vast, I’m kinda freaking out about it. I’ve also upgraded to Pro Tools 11 HD and a Genelec monitoring system. In layman’s terms, this is some pretty badass next level shit! I had to get a hefty loan to make it all happen. But this is the business I’ve chosen. I’m all in, committed to making great records for first timers and lifers alike. Now if I only had the budget and space for that 9’ grand piano Stephen Stavola keeps asking about. Ah, someday, Steve, someday.

(to be continued tomorrow)

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