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Home Truth

For most people, this space in the '60s-style condo in downtown Phoenix would serve as a small bedroom, the kind your teenage sister would complain about before she packed up her things and moved into the garage. But to Brian Talenti, guitarist, singer and primary songwriter for the local rock band Haggis, it's worth at least $30 an hour.

That's because this room is Talenti's recording studio, where Haggis recorded its self-produced debut CD, What's Up Haircut?, and a Christmas CD, The Short Leg. The band also plans to record a follow-up to Haircut in the shoebox room sometime in April.

"This room has got everything I want," Talenti says like a proud father, showing off the eight-track recorder, the compressor, the digital audio tape recorder. "I don't really want any more."

Talenti's part of a growing movement of living-room musicians who are tired of going home with an unsatisfactory CD or seven-inch after dealing with the hassles and expense of studio recording. Instead, they've retreated to the haven of their homes to make records at their own pace.

And a lot of those records are surprisingly good. Some of the most original music is being made in Phoenix, and the average radio listener probably will never hear it. They'll be having their Cake and their Garbage, while record companies eat up the former and spit the latter right back out.

Talenti retreated to his home studio in early 1995, while still playing in a band called 100 Iced Animals. That band, ironically, broke up just after breaking in the studio with its first demos.

"I used a four-track for a long time," Talenti says of his penchant for home recording. "I always have recorded. That was my biggest goal, to get a studio going, and as soon as I did, I wrote a full album of songs. The funny thing is now with Haggis, probably half of our newer songs are ones I wrote and recorded up to four years ago."

Along with his Haggis endeavors, Talenti also harbors some skeletons in his closet--a box full of what he says are about 100 tapes he's recorded over the years. If Talenti were married to Yoko Ono, these would probably surface one day in CD form. Since he's not, he'll settle for leaving his friends some audio mementos.

"It's like a legacy," he says with a laugh. "When I'm gone, my friends will be able to dig in there and be like, 'Oh, this is what he was making in 1989.'"

Rest assured those tapes will reveal a few flaws, since home recording is hardly a perfect science. But then, occasional mistakes are "the beauty of it," as Talenti says. And besides, going into the studio invites even more room for error.

"We recorded at Livinghead Studios three times, and what I found is that--either people are nervous or whatever--we wouldn't get the performance there," he says. "I mean, the sound is huge, and it just wasn't the same."

To hear Corbett Upton and Larry Hicks tell it, you'd think recording studios are agents of Satan, today's music industry is purely a mechanism to milk fans for every last dime they have. Their answer? The four-track.

"Tons of people would agree that incredible and very numerous albums came out between 1967 to '72," says Hicks, a local musician who first played in clubs nine years ago at 15 as front man for Aquanaut Drinks Coffee. "What was the recording technology they had back then? And we have supposedly awesome technology today and ease of use, but where are the good albums?"

"They're all on four-track!" interjects Upton, who earned his stripes as drummer for Swamp Cooler in the early '90s, and later as guitarist for well-received indie-rock band Slugger.

"Record companies, especially producers, need to change their attitude toward the whole thing, and the four-track can be instrumental in that," Upton adds, "instead of aiming for this record contract and when you record all the songs they're owned by someone else. You have no control. But if everybody changes their minds--like John Lennon says, 'Power to the people.' It's basically like musicians putting their power in their own hands."

Though Talenti's worn his share of soles on local stages, as part of a group, he still has faith in the band as institution. For the most part, Haggis records and releases with some hope of attracting a record deal, while at the same time having a good time and sharing music with their friends.

Not so with Upton and Hicks. These guys are as jaded as you get, and have had enough of the band thing--at least for now. Though both have released records with their respective bands in the past, these days they don't seem to care who hears their music, as long as they can prattle away in their living rooms late at night without causing their neighbors too much consternation.  

At one time, home recording was primarily the province of the rich rock star, a vehicle for people like Pete Townshend to demo their material before going into the studio. During the past two decades, home-recording gear has not only gotten more affordable, it's made steady technological advances. As a result, with good mikes and a little ingenuity, you can get surprisingly powerful results. For that matter, you can now burn your own CDs at home, and market them on the Internet. More than ever, the potential is there to take the DIY spirit of punk to its logical conclusion.

Since just about anybody with at least $300 can buy a four-track, you don't have to be major-label material to be a rock star in your own mind. If you're not into sports and can't endure the minutiae of putting ships in a bottle, you might just find yourself a new pastime.

"It can be a hobby," Upton says cheerfully. "Instead of model building, it's song building."

And the two agree that home is the perfect place to practice your hobby. It's comfortable, there's no pressure and if you screw up your songs, it didn't cost you anything.

"All of these people who work in studios and stuff, they're not geniuses, they're not a Phil Spector or a George Martin," Hicks says. "The majority of studio guys, even if they don't try to do it consciously, they don't care about what sound you want. It's their equipment, they're used to getting a certain sound out of it."

Upton agrees. "And you're not listening to some asshole who's like, 'Well, I just bought this $8,000 processor and I want to use it on your stuff!' And they have all of these little things [in the studio]--like mikes that have hearing 10 times better than the human ear. What's the point? I'm making music for humans."

Far from four-track groupies just being disgruntled musicians who can't catch a break, there is precedence for doing it yourself. There's even an entire "lo-fi" style of music based on it. Indie and former indie acts like Sebadoh, Ida, Portastatic and Tucson's Giant Sand have paid the bills because of four-track recordings; Howe Gelb of Giant Sand even called his latest four-track-recorded solo release Hisser for that high-end tape hiss that's an occupational hazard of analog recording.

Of course, the patron saint of success-by-four-track is Guided by Voices' leader Robert Pollard, for whom Upton and Hicks admittedly express hero worship. In various incarnations since the mid-'70s, GBV, as cult enthusiasts fondly call the band, has been propelled by schoolteacher turned rocker Pollard and whoever he decides to play with.

For years the Dayton, Ohio-born band drank Budweiser and recorded some of the best pop since The Beatles to four-track tape in its members' homes, until one day Matador Records took notice and released it all. Now they're indie legends and, although Pollard continues to record his own weird solo records, behind the board of GBV's next album will be Ric Ocasek of The Cars.

Like the Grateful Dead, GBV also has inspired cover bands--and there's even a Phoenix version called the Secret Fox. It performs sparingly and is the baby of John Hoffman, former guitarist for Pine Wyatt, a strong presence on the local scene from 1994 until its demise in 1997.

Though Hoffman recently finished a degree at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Tempe, he's a dedicated home recorder, too. In fact, Jim Adkins, himself guitarist for the Capitol-signed Jimmy Eat World, named Hoffman's album Ghost in the Polaroid one of his top 10 for 1998 when interviewed by Mean Street, a Southern California zine.

Hoffman says he plans to release Ghost, which he recorded and performed himself with his modest setup at home, as a double-CD with another album, Calculate the Distance, sometime in the next few months.

Hoffman's approach falls somewhere between Talenti and Haggis' home-studio efforts and the closet recordings of Upton and Hicks. Nursing a bad tequila hangover on a Sunday afternoon, he fumbles for words while, true to his trained producer's mettle, he explains the value of each venue.

"I think both studio and four-tracking have their place," he says. "I think the four-track or eight-track is really good for bands that don't have a lot of money and they just want to get their music out. It's really a good medium.

"But if you're putting out a record for mass consumption, it makes sense to go to a studio. But then a four-track or an eight-track makes sense for preproduction."  

Hoffman admits it wasn't anything special that inspired him to buy a four-track after he graduated from high school in 1992--he just wanted to remember songs he was writing in his head. And although he prefers to work at home and says all his favorite records were recorded using analog sound, it's more a lack of funds than artistic integrity that keeps him true to home recordings.

"If I had enough money, I'd rather just go in a recording studio and have a heyday," he says, perking up. "I'd go in there and do the same thing I do at home, but with really good mike preamps, and I'd use perfect tube compressors and I'd get a great sound. But I'm never going to have that much money."

Money is an issue for most young bands. You can record in one of the more affordable local studios for about $30 an hour, which can really add up if you want to come out with a solid, 10-song CD. Perhaps speaking from experience, Hoffman warns against any fledgling band recording until they've really got their songs and their sound nailed.

"You have to watch out when you're a young band and you go in the studio and you don't know what you're doing," he says. "The next thing you know, you come out with this record that sounds like Pearl Jam--all slick, totally produced, and it's worse than if it sounded like shit. Bad songs that sound good suck worse than good songs that sound bad.

"If you're a new band, you shouldn't go in a studio and record," he adds firmly. "You should not. Get a four-track, record your songs, show it to your friends, see what they say."

Despite Hoffman's insistence that he could be coaxed out of his living room for the right price, there's something wistful in his voice that says even if he were offered a record deal, he'd still hole up for days on end and make four-track records.

"There's things you can do in the studio that you can't do at home, and there's things you can do at home that you can't do in the studio," he says. "But it's the songs that matter. It doesn't really matter how it sounds, unless it's inaudible and there's so much fucked-up hiss that you can't even hear the melody. That's a problem. But if the song gets across and the people hear the melody, they hear the words, they get the spirit, the vibe of the song, then it doesn't matter how it sounds.


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