The Closing of Uranus Recording Marks End of Era for a Gin Blossom
Robin Wilson of Gin Blossoms
Robin Wilson of the Gin Blossoms takes a look around the live room at Uranus Recording and sighs.
There are a few guitars still hanging on the walls, some scattered furniture, gold and platinum records in a corner, and framed pictures of Lynda Carter and Julie Newmar, Wilson's favorite Catwoman. Wilson points out a signed portrait of Ladmo of The Wallace and Ladmo Show near the isolation booth, but mostly the room's cleared out. After more than 20 years, Wilson's decided to close Uranus and concede the space to Four Peaks Brewery, which plans to convert it into a lobby. Wilson's mood is bittersweet.
"I'm so full of nostalgia right now," Wilson, who turns 50 this year, says. He says he's never managed to quite break even with the studio, but nevertheless, "It's been such a big part of my identity to say, 'I run a small recording studio in Tempe. It's next to the biggest brewery in the Southwest.' Not having that is going to be a big, vacant hole in my world," Wilson says.
The mixing board has been moved out of the control room, but Wilson still has some skateboards up on the wall — including a JFA board and promotional Gin Blossoms deck. He brings out some pictures that he plans to give to Four Peaks after packing up: photos of him at Mount Everest base camp and at Kilimanjaro, holding cans of Kilt Lifter.
"That gives you a sense of the depth of my relationship with the brewery," he says.
The Gin Blossoms moved into the historical space on Eighth Street in Tempe in December 1994. Coming off a streak of hits from their 1992 album, New Miserable Experience, and still processing the suicide of founding member Doug Hopkins, the band needed a space to demo songs that would form its next album, Congratulations I'm Sorry. With its pyramid-block construction, the building was heavy with Tempe history, originally serving as the office of the Pacific Creamery Company, a 1915 addition to the main building built in 1892. Four Peaks Brewery moved in next door shortly after Wilson moved into his space, beginning the brewery's rapid growth.
Christened Mayberry Studios at first and Uranus later, the studio bloomed beyond its practice-pad origins, outfitted with wood paneling and taking on Wilson's vision of an "Atomic Age Vegas" décor. Following the Gin Blossoms' breakup in 1997, Wilson funneled the signing bonus A&M Records granted his band the Gas Giants into refining the studio.
"We got right to work," Wilson says. "We put our engineer on salary, we put a satellite on the roof, and we started building the place out."
Over the years, Uranus has hosted notable guests: Stevie Nicks came by to rehearse an appearance with the Gin Blossoms (the Phoenix-born songwriter "brought her own bong," Wilson proclaims); Pat DiNizio of power-poppers the Smithereens made an album there; Lee Hazlewood and Wrecking Crew guitarist Al Casey cut demos for Hazlewood's final album, Cake or Death.
"They were these weird cocktail songs, kind of like Tom Waits meet Confederacy of Dunces," Wilson says of Hazlewood's time at Uranus. "Lee recorded Duane Eddy [in the '50s] in Phoenix, and that was the start of the Phoenix recording scene, so to have him in my studio, with me on the other side of the glass, it was a big deal for me."
Mostly, the studio has served as the go-to studio for Tempe rock heroes like Roger Clyne, the Pistoleros, and Pollen. Wilson is particularly proud of Dead Hot Workshop's Karma Covered Apple, which was recorded at the studio and released in 1998. "That was a landmark recording, not only for my studio but for Arizona," Wilson says. "That's one of the great Arizona rock albums of all time."
Uranus served as an incubator for local production and engineering talent. In the early days, Billy Siegle helped build and manage the studio. He went on to work as artists relations manager for Fender Musical Instruments.
"He helped us recording the demos for the Empire Records soundtrack and Congratulations I'm Sorry," Wilson says.
Then Chris Widmer — a friend from the band's Long Wong's days — took over as head engineer.
"He worked for us full time, running the studio and recording us," Wilson says.
In the early 2000s, he worked with Josh Kennedy and his band, the Black Moods.
"They had the run of the place," Wilson says. "Then shit got kind of out of control," he says with a dismissive grin.
Engineer George Keller then took over, before Wilson began to rent out the studio to freelance producers.
"For a few years, a handful of producers had the key to the place. It was basically like a turnkey studio." Producers like Jamie Woolford, Robb Vallier, and Jeremy Parker spent time behind the board. "Those three guys made a bunch of records in there."
For the past five years, Jon Weil has overseen the studio and helped shepherd Wilson's biggest idea for Uranus: a series of live in-studio concerts broadcast on Trending Radio 97.5/103.9 FM.
"Right out of the box, it was shit like Phoenix, Switchfoot, Social Distortion," Wilson says of the radio shows, which included performances by Foster the People, Barenaked Ladies, Frank Turner, Chvrches, and hometown boy done good Nate Ruess' band fun. (Ruess' previous project, the Format, worked at the studio, too.) Most performers signed the wall in the bathroom, scrawling their names alongside Tempe rockers, creating a makeshift time capsule out of the small commode.
Wistfully, Wilson says that the studio's godfather was John Hampton, the Grammy-winning engineer of Ardent Studios in Memphis. Hampton worked extensively with the Gin Blossoms at Ardent, as well as working with the White Stripes, the Replacements, the Cramps, Alex Chilton, and dozens more. Wilson says he and Hampton developed a rapport in the studio — "[We had] unspoken communication. Just eye contact or a gesture could speak volumes and save five minutes of conversation," Wilson says — and he drew on Hampton's knowledge while setting up Uranus. "At one point, we jokingly called it 'Ardent West,'" Wilson laughs.
"I used Ardent as a model," he says. "When I was there at Ardent mixing the Gas Giants record, I went around with a notepad and a camera taking pictures of how they did the wiring, how they hung the cables, where they kept the mic stands. Stuff like that. I had this incredible resource in John."
Hampton passed away in December 2014, and the Gin Blossoms headed to Memphis to pay tribute to him and another late Ardent producer, John Fry, alongside the surviving members of Big Star. In the back of his mind, Wilson was considering closing Uranus. After years of losing money on the venture, it seemed like the right time to let go. Four Peaks had ideas for the space, and the Gin Blossoms, reunited since 2001, are constantly on the road. Wilson spends his time in New York with his son Grey, and when he's home in Arizona, he likes to spend his time on his boat on Canyon Lake.
So without much fanfare, Uranus Recording of Tempe is done.
Wilson laughs, noting that the studio always felt "kind of secret." The quiet end fits its history — relatively quiet, anyway. Wilson had one last party to throw, catered by Four Peaks. He invited Tempe rock lifers like Sara Cina, Paul "PC" Cardone, and Lawrence Zubia of the Pistoleros to celebrate the studio and hosted performances by Honeygirl, Patrick Sedillo of the Piersons, and the Rembrandts. The evening closed with Gin Blossoms, performing hits like "Hey Jealousy," "Til I Hear It From You," and "Follow You Down." Then cake, to commemorate the end of Uranus Recording of Tempe and Wilson's imminent birthday. In frosting, an image of the icy planet and a message: "Uranus is always there . . . just look up."
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