Kathy Nichols
Bands of Future Past

Smart Studios & Milwaukee

By - Mar 31st, 2010 11:27 pm
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Photo of Smart Studio A courtesy the studio’s MySpace

Madison’s Smart Studios has recorded its last album. Having worked with a span of artists as predominant as Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins all the way to regional acts such as Hey Mercedes and Milwaukee’s Testa Rosa, Smart will enjoy a noteworthy page in Wisconsin’s musical memory book.

Smart Studios was officially established in 1983 by two University of Wisconsin students, Butch Vig and Steve Marker (although it was unofficially started in Steve’s basement with a 4-track tape recorder in the mid-1970s).  If their names sound familiar, it may be because Marker and Vig achieved some degree of fame with their band Garbage, which is fronted by Scottish vocalist Shirley Manson (you may recall the catchy tune “Stupid Girl” from their 1995 self-titled debut album).

Smart is being immortalized by Madison-based filmmaker and musician Wendy Schneiderby way of a documentary film. Schneider worked as an engineer at the studio in the 1990s prior to starting her own operation, Coney Island Studios, in 1993, which specializes in independent and underground music and film recording.

I was invited to observe a taping session for the documentary that took place in March at Hanson Dodge Creative, a commercial art/graphic design company in Milwaukee.  Positioning myself near the snack table (because, I figured, even rock stars gotta eat…they’d all come over by me at one point and maybe I could get some good quotes), surrounded by musicians I’ve seen many times on stage, and seated across from the very cordial Mike Zirkel (an engineer/manager who‘d been with Smart since starting as an intern in 1994), I was both a little unnerved and excited at the same time.  Or maybe I’d just had too much coffee that morning

Wendy, dedicated filmmaker that she is, chatted with her interview subjects both on and off-camera.  She asked them to recount any experiences with Smart that stood out in their heads, and the telling of some amusing anecdotes ensued.

A few of the more memorable stories were the ones told by Bill Backes, current drummer in Testa Rosa, whose band Little Blue Crunchy Things played a memorable show at Shank Hall that was recorded and used (along with material from a few other live shows) for LBCT’s second album, Owner’s Manual, by people from Smart in 1996.  The two technicians from Smart set up a makeshift studio created exclusively to record that album in a 25-foot Ryder truck outside in an effort to keep their gear separate from both the craziness and the noise inside the club. They monitored the tape‘s status from inside the venue, with a red light bulb positioned above the stage that went on when the tape needed to be changed, the cord of which was strung from the truck.  Several times the tape ran out and songs needed to be re-started from the beginning.“The thing was, you might be halfway into a tune, and the light would come on and we’d have to say ‘I’m sorry, we have to start this song all over because we ran out of tape,'” said Bill.Interestingly, this summertime show was one at which crowd-surfing (by the patrons, not the band) resulted in a number of tiles from the venue’s drop ceiling falling or being pulled out. Bill also recounted another story that occurred at Shank–a Thanksgiving-time Wild Kingdom performance (members of which later became Citizen King) reminiscent of a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special gone bad. The band took a 5 gallon vat of mashed potatoes, gravy, and turkey and threw it out into the crowd.  “A big, gigantic food fight with hundreds of people you didn’t know,” said Bill with a smile.

Damian Strigens (formerly of the Nerve Twins) and his wife Betty Blexrud-Strigens, both from Testa Rosa, discussed Smart’s role in the Milwaukee music scene, including its work with Die Kreuzen. Chris Tishler from Mother’s Room discussed two records his band completed at the studios; Ken Hanson, bassist from Longacre (and one of the founders of Hanson Dodge Creative, where the filming took place), talked about two albums his band recorded at Smart in the last 3 years; and Jim Warchol from Sometime Sweet Susan discussed his experiences. Keith Brammer, basist from Die Kreuzen, and Terry Hackbarth, best known for his work with Britishesque power-pop bands Trolley and The Nice Outfit, were also at the taping I attended.

As of a few weeks ago, when I contacted Wendy for an update on the progress, she reported that she’d “so far completed about 50 interviews… (and is in the process of) gathering additional footage from the bands and projects to be worked into the story – which is unfolding.” Smart’s official final closing date, after having been changed twice, is now set for the 13th of April.

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