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When is an icehouse really a sauna?
When it's mid-June in downtown Phoenix and a newly installed air-conditioning system breaks down on a Friday afternoon. That's exactly what happened at the Icehouse Recording Studio last year right smack in the middle of a Trunk Federation session. Though the Trunksters were able to lay down tracks in the cool third floor, the studio's engineer was stuck in the oppressively sweltering second-floor control room, getting crankier with every song, and feeling like Joe Frazier in the 14th round at Manila. It must have resulted in the fastest, most frenzied mixing session of all time.
Well, all the snafus have since been ironed out, and the Icehouse has emerged as one of the best-kept secrets in the Valley music scene. Though the cavernous old building is well-known to ravers and art gadflys, many people don't even realize that it also houses a 24-track digital laboratory for some of the quirkiest, most original sounds coming out of the local scene.
Basically, the studio reflects the biases of its head honcho, Dan Nelson. Unlike many engineers, who were aspiring musicians who happened to stumble into studio work as a practical alternative to rock stardom, the 32-year-old Nelson is into recording for its own sake. He's a nonmusician--save for some squandered drum lessons in his 20s--who just likes to get interesting sounds on tape.
He got his start as a sound man for David Therrien and Helen Hestenes' "Crash" art space in the mid-'80s, working the board for shows by then-obscure industrial bands like Skinny Puppy and Ministry. Live work led him to recording sessions.
"I was getting to the point where I was recording things remotely," Nelson says from his Icehouse control room. "We'd load everything in a truck, go to wherever we were recording an album and leave it there for a few months."
When "Crash" closed down, Nelson continued his engineering, without ever finding a permanent home for his mobile studio. As his gear expanded, the logistics became trickier. Faced with the prospect of stuffing a bunch of recording machines in his small bedroom, Nelson got a lucky break.
"I hadn't talked to David and Helen for years, then David told me he had some performance-art things he was working on and wanted to know if I wanted to help," Nelson says. "Originally, my intention was just to mix down stuff here and maybe continue doing remote recording and bring everything back here, but then I realized I didn't like hauling equipment around anymore."
By now, Therrien and Hestenes had purchased a new space, and it was the funkiest possible locale for a studio. Built in 1922, this building actually was an icehouse for five decades, with 18 cold-storage rooms spread across three floors. With a few exceptions, the building maintains the spartan look of its past, with thick white concrete walls, freight elevators, and handles in place of doorknobs. The large cathedral room--commonly a lobby for raves--has been without a roof for a couple of years.
Nelson ripped out the walls' wooden shell and raised the eight-foot ceiling, constructing a small high-tech island in a concrete sea. For the first time in his recording career, he could actually work on more than one project at a time. He's now also able to develop an identifiable sound, rather than relying on the acoustics of various remote locations.
His first big Icehouse project was a session for Trunk Federation, a band signed to Nelson's old Primary label. When national indie Alias Records got interested in the band, the members scrapped the album they were working on and used the Icehouse sessions for preproduction demos. The band members returned a couple of weeks ago to lay down demos for their second Alias album, which they'll soon record in Los Angeles.
The Icehouse has since become the recording headquarters for the wonderfully twisted Les Payne Product--who recently borrowed one of Nelson's DAT machines for home recording--as well as underground heroes Box Champions, Sam the Butcher, and Half String, a band affiliated with the Sedona indie-rock label IPR Records. Either because of his quirky musical tastes, his avant-garde background with "Crash," or his studio's otherworldly environs, Nelson avoids the one-sound-fits-all processing of most studios.
"I tend to end up in the more underground or esoteric things," he says. "We record punk bands, ska bands and various things like that. Some bands have gone to other studios, and people didn't approach it the way they wanted. They didn't understand the band's musical references. A lot of engineers get stuck in a rut, too. They do the same things the same way over and over. They don't think about the best way to approach it, 'cause it takes more time. But if it's something for release, you should take that extra time."
Hay Fever: Sugar-punk quintet Pollen recently went through a tough weekend of decision-making, with a tempting offer from Interscope Records on the table. After much deliberation, the band decided to put its Love Bug in park and stick with indie Wind-Up Records, because the band is currently the top priority at that label. The names of some big-name producers are being bandied about for Pollen's next album, but nothing is confirmed yet.