From left: studio manager Mike Paragone; Paul Franklin, steel guitar; Al Sutton, engineer; Kid Rock; producer Rob Cavallo; assistant engineer Heather Sturm
Let's start with the news. East Iris Studios is now House of Blues Studios, Nashville, joining in name its sister facilities in Los Angeles and Memphis. There's been no major facelift, no change in the Tom Hidley design or the artwork on the walls. The vibe — which has attracted the likes of 3 Doors Down, Faith Hill, Yusuf Islam and countless others over the past 11 years — is intact. There's just about to be a lot more of it.
In this age of branding, community building and viral marketing, you couldn't have a more recognizable name in the greater music industry than House of Blues. Studio owner Gary Belz knows this; he is one of the founders of the worldwide entertainment/venue company and has run studios under the licensed name since the early 1990s. Though he's owned facilities in Nashville for nearly 15 years, and operated them under the larger HOB Studios umbrella, Belz has never felt the pull to add the moniker. Now, the Memphis native says, the time feels right, and he's going to bring a little bit of the Delta with him.
“We in Memphis have always had a little bit of jealousy toward Nashville,” he says with a chuckle. “It's only 200 miles away but a completely different world. Billy Gibbons likes to say that every now and then a cloud comes over Memphis and sprinkles this magical rain and we change music, and then it moves on. It happened with Sun, with Stax. And we tried it with House of Blues Records at one time. But Nashville is the center. We lost Elvis to Nashville, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash. I've done business here for a long time, and I've always enjoyed Music Row and my relationships here with people like Tony Brown and Norbert Putnam. I guess you could say I'm following a long trail of Memphians.”
Belz is one of the truly unique characters in an industry that is filled with characters. He is a partner with his long time friend Isaac Tigrett, who is co-founder of the Hard Rock and one of the founders of the House of Blues. He and Isaac continue to build hospitals and water systems through the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust for the poor in India. He is a businessman with interests in food, hotels and entertainment, and he has devoted much of his life to a deeper understanding of our true role in this world through his longtime relationship with a spiritual adviser. He knows to the line item the studio equipment package he might broker, and he is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative. He thinks worldwide, but he seems so local, equally at home at a water summit or behind the bench as his beloved Memphis Tigers lost in the Sweet 16. He moved to Encino, near Los Angeles, in 1990, but he hasn't lost his Southern gentleman charm.
“I'm really just a trustee of these businesses I'm in,” Belz says. “When we renovated the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, I considered myself the trustee of George Peabody. And it's the same in the studios. I don't sit down and engineer. I'm more comfortable on the hospitality side, and I've always just wanted to provide the best rooms, with the right vibe, for people to make music in.”
Belz purchased East Iris from Chuck and Randy Allen in 1998, but it's not the first time he's toyed with the idea of establishing an HOB Studios in Nashville. He and partner Allen Sides bought a church on the Row in 1994 but settled on the name Ocean Way Nashville instead. It would later be sold to Belmont University.
The Allens built East Iris in 1997, and Belz sold them the SSL 9000J that now sits in the Hidley-designed Studio A, pictured on this month's cover. Belz in fact sold them much of the gear the studio is known for and bought the whole place soon after. While A is a true A room, the first moves to expand East Iris really began around 2002 with the remodel of Studio B.
L to R: Michael Rhodes (session bass player), Gary Belz (owner, House of Blues Studios), Kenny Greenburg (session guitar player), Darrell Brown (producer/songwriter)
“Studio B is where I got my start,” says studio manager Mike Paragone, who joined East Iris in January 2002 out of MTSU and was running the place by the end of the year. “We expanded the room by about 400 square feet for the 4000 E Series, and we brought in Michael Cronin to do a proper acoustic treatment. I'm pretty proud of this room because of its success and the way it sounds.” B was the site of a recent Golden Globe-nominated Trina Shoemaker mix of John Travolta and Miley Cyrus for the recently released Disney movie Bolt. It's a noted favorite spot for Shoemaker and producer/engineer David Leonard.
The Studio B remodel was soon followed by the addition of a house next door, now home to rooms for Mitch Dane and Vance Powell. The buildout continues, meanwhile, on a house across the street that will become Studio C, a Pro Tools production room with two iso booths that is expected to open this month. But the big move is coming in June/July of this year, when the Berry Hill neighborhood will be shut down for the oversized trucks to roll up and drop in Studio D from House of Blues Memphis — lock, stock and barrel — on the newly poured foundation right behind Studio C across the street.
“I'm really doing it,” Belz says. “We hired this guy, JC, who does this kind of thing all the time. We can't drive it up the interstate; we have to take the back roads and we have to take the roof off to get under a couple of places. But it's such a great room. And we'll take care of Ralph Sutton there in Memphis because he doesn't want to move and that's his room. But I believe in the synergies of things working together, and that will complete the House of Blues picture. We have variety and segmentation, and we can offer something for everyone, no matter how they want to work.”
“The next couple of months are going to be crazy,” adds Paragone, citing the beyond-the-call-of-duty contributions of assistant engineer Heather Sturm and chief tech Ted Wheeler in the whole process. “Studio C will be positioned as something more than you can get at home, with more choices in mic pre's, mics or outboard gear. But I don't want to compete with myself, so it will be more focused on production. And then the historic Studio D will be getting the API that Gary used to have in House of Blues Encino before he put in the Neve. It's classic '70s API, one of the first built, with that vintage 550A EQ, transformers, wires, the famous 2520 op amp. Real, real simple, and it sounds amazing. We get calls all the time for an API room. Now I'm going to have one.”
The API, built originally for a remote truck and said to be a favorite of T Bone Burnett, David Leonard and others, was given to Belz by Dan Aykroyd. “Danny came over right after I moved [to Los Angeles] in 1990,” Belz recalls. “He's always loved music, of course, and at the time I was using the control room as a meditation center and the studio as my office! He said, ‘Gary, you need to put music in this studio.’ And he brought over the console. That was after we'd started Memphis, and it got me going in Los Angeles. And now that console is going to Nashville.”
The fact that Memphis Studio D and the vintage L.A. API are meeting in Nashville seems a fitting manifestation for a man whose life, professional and spiritual, has had its own fill of circuitous and synchronous moments. As he says repeatedly, he's not a businessman; he just takes all his friends' best ideas and tries to make special places. He certainly has one in Nashville.