L.A. Grapevine, March 2008Talking about gear in L.A. is like being at a muscle-car convention, quips Thom Monahan. A friend of mine once commented that there are more tape machines 3/01/2008 7:00 AM Eastern
“Talking about gear in L.A. is like being at a muscle-car convention,” quips Thom Monahan. “A friend of mine once commented that there are more tape machines per capita here than anywhere else on the planet. It seems like every dude in L.A. has got a home studio.” Monahan now counts himself as one of this horde of dudes, having become a prime P/E/M go-to guy for the Cali indie-band contingent since relocating from Brooklyn three years ago. He's also a major player in the freak-folk sector, where he's worked with Vetiver, Bright Black Morning Light and Devendra Barnhart.
Monahan, who has been compared to a player/coach, is prized not only for his considerable skills, but also for his magnanimous presence in the studio. This past fall, after he'd co-produced the first solo LP from Gary Louris, the former Jayhawks leader said of him, “Thom was willing to experiment a bit, and he's such a positive person — it was really nice coming to the studio every day.”
After hitting the indie-rock radar as a member of Monsterland, based out of his hometown of Danbury, Conn., Monahan moved to Northampton, Mass., where he gained wider recognition as producer of Joe Pernice's Scud Mountain Boys, who morphed into guitar-pop darlings the Pernice Brothers, while also finding time to play with The Lilys (for which both bands he played bass). But in 2005, Monahan and his wife, Entertainment Weekly staff writer and author Shirley Halperin, acted on their long-standing desire to head West. “I was down with L.A. from the moment I got here,” he says. “I like the community of musicians in Los Angeles a lot.”
Monahan and Halperin initially gravitated to Silver Lake, renting a place near Spaceland, and the hospitable couple welcomed a steady stream of touring musicians, who'd hang out in their kitchen between soundcheck and the set. Although they loved the close-knit Silver Lake scene, they started house-hunting out of a need for more space to accommodate guests and Monahan's extensive array of gear. They settled on a house in Sherman Oaks that had an already-converted two-car garage and an attached storage room with no parallel walls.
The Monahan/Halperin residence now doubles as a home studio and a sort of indie-rock bed-and-breakfast. Recently taking advantage of the facilities were Peter Bjorn & John, who were in L.A. for four days to write for the follow-up to Writer's Block. “I'm friends with their manager,” Monahan explains, “and I'd met Bjorn a bunch of times. He was like, ‘We could just do a rehearsal-space thing, but that would suck.’ So I said, ‘Why don't you guys just come over here and park in my space? I have drums and instruments set up, so you could just hang out and do your thing in someplace that's homey.”
Homey but functional. “I don't have a room full of insane, esoteric gear,” Monahan points out. “I've tried to make good choices and pick up a few solid things every year.” One key component of his setup, built around a Pro Tools LE rig with external converters and “decent” clocking, is a Dangerous D-BOX featuring an 8-channel summing amp through which he mixes. The box also comes in handy for D/A conversion and monitor switching between his ADAMs, Yamaha NS-10s and Auratones.
“My garage — my ‘studio,’ I should say,” he says with a quick laugh, “is part tracking and performance space, part composition space for me and part mixing space. More than anything, I've tried to make a space where the sweet spot for the speakers is large enough that a lot of people can hang out and listen to what's going on, 'cause my core constituency is bands.”
As much as he likes to work at home, during the past two years Monahan has made the drive up to Sacramento numerous times to record and/or mix at The Hangar, his car loaded up with a bag of cymbals, another bag of stomp boxes, his trusty '72 P bass and a Universal Audio mic preamp loaded with vintage tubes and modified compressors. He uses the studio because it offers top-notch, old-school gear at a rate that accommodates tight indie budgets. “It's great to be able to spend time getting sounds and not feel like you're under the gun every moment,” he says. “The Hangar has absolutely amazing gear, a really great live room, tons of instruments and two consoles side by side — a Neve Melbourne and a Daking A-Range custom-built board.”
Monahan takes me through the projects he's worked on in recent months, and it's obvious he's not hurting for gigs these days. He used The Hangar to mix the first solo album from Jonathan Wilson, whose profile in the musicians' community has been raised considerably by the Wednesday night jams he hosts in his Laurel Canyon pad. The guitarist/singer tracked it himself to 2-inch tape using the vintage MCI board in his house.
“For the mix,” says Monahan, “we had Studer and Atari quarter-inch machines running for two different tape delays, along with an AKG BX-10, a BX-20 and an EMT, so it was just a massive amount of reverb and tape delay, and it was fantastic because a lot of his stuff is really psychedelic. That record isn't just kinda good, it's insanely great, totally beautiful, with amazing players.”
Also in Sacramento, Monahan P/E/D'd an EP and a full-length of cover songs with his homies Vetiver. “I used no condenser mics on the whole record,” he says. “It was all ribbons and dynamic microphones, a lot of Shures.”
Back home in his garage, um, studio, Monahan tracked (live, of course) and mixed an album from Tussle, another San Francisco-based band, which boasts two drummers and specializes in heavily manipulated dance music. At press time, he was back in Sacramento tracking the second album from L.A. buzz band the Broken West. “I have two drum kits set up on either side of the room so we can flip-flop back and forth,” he says. “I have guitar amps satellited all over the place so we can try different things. I've got pianos miked, keyboard amps, electric pianos. There's a lot of stuff up so that I can grab things quickly. The great thing about The Hangar is they have an absurd amount of outboard gear and hardware. I almost don't wanna tell people about this place.”
Closer to home, Monahan also likes to track at Stagg Street in nearby Van Nuys, another well-appointed, extremely affordable facility. For the most part, he stays away from the high-end studios, “because $1,000 a day doesn't make any sense on the budgets I'm working with,” he points out. “I've been doing this for a while and the budgets are small, but I don't have a problem with that. I just want to work with people that I feel some real connection to, on records that I feel like I can bring something to.”
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