Showers of Sound
In the Studio With the Bubble Brothers
"Hang on, I'll be done in a minute."
Chris "Frenchie" Smith is working a mop around the scuffed linoleum floor of the (new) Bubble, the Austin recording studio he co-owns with friend and bandmate Steven Hall, and the rarely glimpsed, possibly mythological Tyler Van Aken. His brow is furrowed with effort, and with his thick sideburns, thinning brown hair, and stocky working man's build, he looks like one of Elvis' bastard sons on the wrong side of rock & roll. He mops, and the accumulated grit of several South by Southwest parties has no choice but to give up. Smith brooks no argument. This is a familiar scene
At the Bubble's former location in deepest South Austin, Smith was always scurrying around emptying overflowing ashtrays even as random musicians' ash dangled above. Picking up empty beer cans and bottles, studiously emptying them, and then piling them in the trash and/or recycling bin -- Smith does this all the time. There's a prominent sign posted by the front door of the Bubble's new midtown location, which reads, "Remember: Trash pick up is Tuesday morning. Make sure to put trash by curb Monday night." It's the only authoritative sign in the building, if you discount the "Beware of Dog" posted on the door. No dog has ever been seen.
"Almost done," he calls. Seems there's plenty of beery, smeary marks left over from a certain music conference. "There's so many rock & roll germs in this studio."
And that's it, the unvarnished truth, plainspoken and unavoidable. The Bubble, both at its old location off Slaughter Lane and the new, smaller incarnation on East Seventh Street, is one big rock & roll infestation. It's a viral situation metastasized far beyond containment. It teems with sonic infections bearing names like Li'l Cap'n Travis, Dumptruck, the Applicators, Young Heart Attack, Orange Mothers, Barkers, Society of Friends, My Education, Teen Cool, Explosions in the Sky, Converters, Power Squid, Casino, Astroblast, Pocket Symphonies, and the long-ago alpha strain, Sixteen Deluxe. There ought to be a legend across the threshold: "The Bubble. We Mutate."
Austin, self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World, has an inordinately large number of recording studios. They run the gamut from expensive and expensive-sounding to expensive and cheap-sounding, with every conceivable permutation between. As befits a town with as eclectic a music scene as Austin, there are studios that cater to rock, punk rock, industrial, electronic, country and western, jazz, possibly Balinese chant-singing, perhaps nude yodeling. There's something for everyone, no matter how arcane your taste or modest your budget.
Freak Flag Factory
In fact, while recording costs at major studios can run as high as thousands of dollars a day, or as little as, say, $100 an hour, the Bubble, according to Smith, is entirely negotiable. "I know it's not very businesslike, but it's really up to what the band wants and how much they have to spend. We're flexible that way." Suffice it to say, bands that are light on cash but loaded with potential have nothing to worry about. Even with such financial freedoms, though, the Bubble is different. Everybody says so.
For one thing, most recording studios aren't formed from the ashes of a cataclysmic band implosion, but that's more or less what happened with the Bubble and Sixteen Deluxe. A little history. It's 1998, and wall of sound-via-effects-pedals local groundbreakers Sixteen Deluxe are in San Francisco recording their Warner Bros. debut, Emits Showers of Sparks, with ex-Reiver John Croslin producing. Late one night, guitarist Smith and drummer Steven Hall are holed up in the studio while everyone else -- their engineer included -- is safe in bed. All good people are asleep and dreaming. Not these two: Ideas are sparking, but there's no one there to help record them, and the massive recording console is a bewildering array of knobs and switches and very much off-limits to them. Smith and Hall are like artists with plenty of paint but no brushes.
"If we had known how to operate a tape machine -- or had been allowed to," says Smith, "we could have really thrown out some cool production ideas until 3-4am and maximized the use of this $1,200-a-day studio. But because we didn't really know how to do that, we'd just sit there. That freedom to open yourself up to chance is one of the best things you can have on a record.
"I remember I had bought this Colin Bloomstone solo record -- the guy from the Zombies -- and we'd listen to some string arrangement from his record and say, 'Let's try that out on guitar right now,' but there wouldn't be anybody there to record it. When it was time for myself to be recorded, the next shift, I had more prudent things to be doing, like working on vocals, or actual guitar parts."
When the band returned to Austin, Smith and Hall hadn't forgotten the idea they'd had in SF -- that maybe it wasn't such a bad idea to learn how to do this recording stuff themselves. Smith had paid close attention to John Croslin's behind-the-board abilities to the point of being a pest, and he had come away from the experience a budding engineer, passing on what he learned to Hall along the way.
"Steven and I had a bonding moment there," explains Smith, "where we said, 'One day we need to be able to let the freak flag fly at any moment. We need to have more control.' And it manifested itself in such a way that any time he and I saw money, instead of going to a titty bar or buying fancy cars, we'd go in on a microphone together, or we'd go in on a reel-to-reel, or another guitar or an effects pedal -- real modest stuff. It was the birth of the Bubble. The proto-Bubble, I call it."
Smith eventually found a 3,000-sq.-foot warren of rooms next to the band's rehearsal space in far South Austin. Sixteen Deluxe took their Warner Bros. payoff and made the move in November 1998, recording themselves and close friends/locals like Trail of Dead, Bunny Stockhausen, and Morningwood's Kathy Ziegler, using the space like Andy Warhol used the Factory. It was one big party half the time, but some genuinely amazing music was being made there on the studio's quarter-inch 8-track tape machine. It was, finally, the Bubble.
"I came up with [the name]," explains Smith, "because I wanted to create a recording atmosphere that, once you were inside it, inside 'the Bubble,' the outside world would sort of stand still and all that would matter would be the art. That was the dream, anyway."
Sixteen Deluxe, meanwhile, was hemorrhaging. The old "creative differences" line was tossed out, but when the fractious internal differences led to first bassist Jeff Copas and finally guitarist/vocalist Carrie Clark leaving the band, it was one of the more acrimonious splits in Austin music scene history. The mutual vitriol is undimmed to this day.
When Sixteen Deluxe finally succumbed, Hall and Smith were left holding the reins to the Bubble more or less by default. Realizing they had both a valuable creative asset, and suddenly, a whole lot of free time, they redoubled their efforts to turn the scruffy complex into a viable recording outlet. Thus, they spent all incoming monies on new (used, actually) equipment and a 16-track board and professional reel-to-reel tape deck that could compete sonically with the larger studios in town. In the beginning, both men served time in an engineering capacity, calling themselves the GodEar on producing credits and learning as they went. Bands enjoyed the Bubble's loose, whatever-you-want ethos, and soon the pair -- who'd begun doing demos for Taco Bell and beer -- had a genuine phenomenon on their hands. One band after another came in to record, had a blast accomplishing their goals, and told another band about this great new recording space they'd discovered.
The birth of the Bubble was an almost entirely word of mouth affair, and the word spread through the Texas music scene like a virus, replicating itself in the form of new release after new release. To this day, the Bubble has never had a professional engineer, though most bands (and John Croslin) will tell you that Frenchie is now the only pro the Bubble will ever want or need.
"I thought for a brief while that I was going to be an engineer for my profession" says Hall, "and Frenchie may say that sometimes even now, but I know that secretly he just wants to be a rock star."
From a band's perspective, a studio and its engineer/producer are often one and the same. With the Bubble, that person is "Frenchie" Smith, the studio's public face. Hall, active behind the console in the early days, now devotes his time to Seventies-style rockers Young Heart Attack, which not coincidentally also features pal and partner Smith.
The Frenchman Cometh
"We were never looking to be known as 'the punk rock studio,' or 'the psychedelic studio,'" claims Hall. "So many types of bands have been through the Bubble. At one point, I remixed some Las Vegas lounge act from 1972 doing the absolute worst Carpenters covers."
It's difficult to isolate "the Bubble sound," mainly because so many varied styles of music have been recorded there. And although Smith has handled board duties on what he estimates to be close to 100 different bands from across the state, "the Frenchie sound" is equally difficult to dissect.
"I don't think there's really a Bubble 'sound' so much as a Bubble vibe," says Dumptruck's Seth Tiven. "A lot of albums you can really hear the producer's hand at work, say with Eno or Todd Rundgren, who have very distinct production styles. That can be on okay thing, but to me a lot of times that's more of a liability than an asset. You don't have that with Frenchie, unless you ask for it. He's more interested in coming up with trippy effects you might not have thought of."
The last two years have seen the Bubble hit its creativity peak. For a while, local movers and shakers such as Pong, Brown Whörnet, and the Barkers all but moved into the studio, using it not only as a place to record, but as a rehearsal space, crash pad, and fortress of (semi-)solitude.
"We used to write out our lyrics on the sheetrock walls," chuckles Pong's Gary Chester.
There were few rules, per se, Smith and Hall always up to something, while rotating a steady stream of musicians lined up to record, rehearse, or simply hang out and wait for Frenchie to sit down at the board.
"I think the main thing about Frenchie is that he's amazingly passionate about music," ventures the Orange Mothers' Ethan Azarian. "I mean, he would bore me to tears sometimes with this, 'You've got to hear this album! By Donovan!' And I'd be like, 'Okay, okay, okay.' Then he'd whip out other albums! He's like a walking encyclopedia of music that guy. I'm like, 'Hey. Let's do my song already,' you know? But it was great. I love working with him."
Tony Scalzo, who's recorded a fair share of material with his Young Heart Attack bandmate behind the boards, notes that the Bubble is a far cry from the studio-sanctioned recording facilities that Fastball found itself booked into during their major-label heyday.
"The thing about the Bubble is that it's one of those rare places where a band can make an album for themselves, by themselves," asserts Scalzo. "Most major labels aren't going to want a place like that, because they don't feel it costs enough, you know? They like to have things going on that they can monitor. That's why major label records are made in either Nashville or on the West or East coast.
"I gauge a lot of the stuff I do around the way people work and whether or not it's a compatible relationship. With Frenchie, I get a good vibe because he still has that young-guy enthusiasm. That goes away from a lot of people and the jade moves in, and Frenchie is anything but jaded. He still gets fired up and excited -- his passion for what he does is very evident."
Li'l Cap'n Travis' Matt Kinsey concurs and points to Smith's love of backward masking, oddball drum miking, and similar studio hoodoo that most engineers scoff at, much less attempt, as evidence of his unique creative abilities.
"He's always willing to flip the tape over and do some backwards masking or something," reveals Kinsey. "Or old-style tape delays, those kinds of little studio tricks that some engineers think are a pain. He'll not only do it, he'll be enthusiastic about it, which makes us have more fun doing it, too. It might sound crappy, but at least he's willing to give it a try."
In December 2001, Smith and Hall, along with new and semi-silent partner Von Aken, closed the Bubble's deep south location and reopened in a far more convenient (and far smaller) shopfront on East Seventh, directly across from the state cemetery and within spitting distance of Sixth Street.
Days of the New (Bubble)
Prompted by the need for a better financial arrangement lease-wise and a space that was more suited to the actual business of rock & roll recording, as opposed to the lifestyle, the move also netted the Bubble's new soundboard, an analog (with digital programming) MCI 636 24-track that originally lived in NYC's famed Hit Factory. The current tape machine -- an MCI J16, 24-track two-incher -- comes from Miami's Criteria Studio. It's the same deck Hotel California and Saturday Night Fever were recorded on. A mixed pedigree, but a totally Bubble background if you think about it.
These days, Smith and Hall divide their time between the studio and Young Heart Attack, which thanks to a demo recorded on the fly at the Bubble, has become something of a cause célèbre in the UK. There's always been something vaguely Brit about the studio, and more specifically, about the way Smith runs things. If the Bubble were a record label, it'd be Alan McGee's late, lamented Creation, former home to Sixteen Deluxe-y dronesters like My Bloody Valentine and Ride. Speaking on the Brit connection, Smith sums it up handily.
"I speak bloke," he winks.
Future plans for the Bubble (apart from some light dusting and vacuuming the rear parking lot) include the recording of Young Heart Attack's full-length debut (there's a deal in the works, but we're not allowed to say what), and the continuation of what began as an idea in a dead-of-night San Francisco pro studio. The Bubble, no matter where it is on the map, no matter what mad style of band is currently recording there, continues to mutate, regularly releasing tendrils of rock & roll contagion into the cultural stream.
"Ideology is key," states Hall, "in that it's the vibe that you get when you go to the Bubble. There's no stress. There's no pressure. You go in there and you can be yourself and create to the best of your ability without worrying about the clock ticking, or the studio manager bugging you about how loud your friends are getting or whatever. There's no concern about any of that stuff. It's a place for people to go to make as interesting a record as they can for an affordable price. It's where art happens."