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An Artist's Engineer

An Artist's Engineer image
Parent Issue
Month
February
Year
1998
Copyright
Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
Rights Held By
Agenda Publications
OCR Text

"A lot of kids, a lot of people in bands in this town, from Ohio, the outskirts of Michigan . . . people drove to this town who would not have been able to record . . . and he provided this experience that is so enriching for a musician. He knew his passion for music and he wanted to do something with it, he just took it front a hobby and started his own business ... but mostly he really believed in providing something for us ... aside front being self-motivated to do what he wanted to do ...he did this for us ... I mean, what would the music scene in Ann Arbor be if it wasn't for him? "

The recent arrival of the New Year was met with heavy reckoning and somber reflection by Ann Arbor' s music community as word spread of the tragic death of prolific recording engineer and multi-instrumentalist Geoff Streadwick. Along with his mother, Leslee Ward, and her longtime boyfriend Michael Bischoff, Geoff died in his sleep on the evening of December 27, a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty furnace in his mother's Harrison, Michigan, home. He was a week away from his 27th birthday.

A gathering the following Sunday at his 40 oz. Sound studio on Jackson Rd. brought together over 50 local musicians who each considered Geoff not just a creative compatriot, but a friend, and perhaps even more importantly, a rock missionary whose get-it-done attitude affïrmed that their creative aspirations were not only valuable, but possible. Geoffs legacy begs the question: In these cynically mass-mediated hyper-commercialized times, what is worth more than the dreams of a local community? How can one measure the impact of such a short-lived life?

Confined by the limited cultural landscape of small-town North-Central Michigan life, at an early age Geoff's ears were turned to the liberatory message of mid-'80s underground American rock. Bands like the Minutemen and Black Flag on the SST label combined an ethos of hard work and determination - constant no-frills recording backed by constant no-frills touring - with an anti-corporate political consciousness rooted in an empathetic dissatisfaction with suburban materialism. Like many of his peers, Geoff began his career as a musician in high school, playing loud, aggressive rock-n-roll, but he stood out with his equally passionate interest in sound recording. Not long after settling into his first band, he bought his first 4track tape machine.

In 1991 he moved with his Mt. Pleasant-based band, Crackerbox, to Ypsilanti, and began playing around a then re-energizing Ann Arbor/Ypsi rock scene. Though there weren't many opportunities for a new band to gig in those days, there was a surprisingly large number of bands beginning to organize with jarringly innovative ideas. While clubs like the Blind Pig couldn't spot what was going on, basement shows flourished (most notoriously at the LAB on Hill St.), giving hope and a reason to exist for this new wave. The Maitries, Jaks, the Monarchs, Couch, Barbed Wire Playpen, Tiger 100, Undermined, Chore, Zug Island Quartet, Scheme and Morsel, to name a few, were all exploring ideas that had little or nothing to do with the so-called "grunge explosion" happening at the time. Ann Arbor in the early-to-mid '90s was much more about abstract sound texturing, ecstatic improvisation, and structure (and anti-structure) than putting distortion to Beatlesesque chord changes.

But while gigs slowly came around, there was a problem. There was nowhere to record that was sympathetic to the sounds or affordable to those not supported by a label. It was an era that for the large part went undocumented on tape (at least to any one' s satisfaction), but it was from this context that Geoff s presence slowly emerged on the scene.

In the fall of 1993, after the break - up of Crackerbox and some short - lived projects, Geoff moved in with the band Morsel at their house on John St. in Ann Arbor. Collaborating with bassist Brian Hussey, Geoff's first makeshift studio was fashioned in a tiny storage room off from the already cramped and damp basement practice space. "It was nasty"recalls vocalist/flutist Miriam Cabrera, "full of cobwebs and wet, but he and Brian completely cleaned it out, started wrapping and hanging cords, and suddenly it was like he was playing 'recording studio.' Everyone was into it."

A few months later, in the Spring of '94, Geoff made two decisions that set the course for the community for years to come. First, sensing he had reached the end of his apprenticeship on the home 4-track, he invested in a 16-track mixing board and a one-inch tape-recording machine, the cornerstone of a real, working, low-budget independent studio. And second, he agreed to join Morsel as their new guitarist, keeping their professional momentum going and ensuring their presence on the scene. Geoff jumped at two dreams simultaneously: to establish his own full-time recording studio, and to live the life of a full-time working touring musician. So he, with Brian and Miriam, moved the band and the gear into a large empty space at the Technology Center on W. Washington St. Morsel finally had a comfortable, roomy place to rehearse, and for Geoff, 40 oz. Sound was born.

However, it proved to be a difficult balance. Joining Morsel was no small turn. They had a large and complex repertoire to learn, and with the release of their debut CD, a heavy tour schedule to keep up (sometimes up to two months at a time). And while he loved playing, he saw his future more and more at 40 oz. His reputation was beginning to spread, and on word of mouth alone his studio-time was booked up solid by the Winter of '95. In addition to a full-time job at Nalli music, something had to go, so he gave word to Morsel that he would leave by the end of summer so he could fully devote himself to engineering, and they could continue their existence without restraint.

To understand and appreciate Geoff s contribution to Ann Arbor music in the past three years, one must get to know his character because Geoff was just different. For a guy with so much self-determination to amass tape gear and sound processors, a collection of microphones, and handmade headphones, he had an enormous generosity - unsolicited remixes, and frequent unbilled overtime were not uncommon.

And for a guy so personally committed to rocking hard, in a serious way , as he would continue to do with the band Gondolier, he possessed a disarming sweetness . . . like, all of a sudden the man could get so silly on you, a shining light on a possibly cuter world. He was a Zen master of poker-faced ridiculousness. Steady, no bullshit, never brooding, unhesitatingly forward and patiënt, traits essential to his work, for much of his time was booked by people who had no experience in the studio - often with naive expectations about what his studio could do. But he'd work with you, and work on you, with the only expectation being that you not waste time.

For Geoff never lost sight of the first principles that led him out of Harrison. And these principles were reflected in the way he recorded and the way he ran his business: with honesty and always for the community. Longtime friend and co-engineer Chris Goosman described Geoff as "a 'documentarian,' in that a band would come in and he'd capture what they did, but at the same time he realized the power of the studio to help shape a band's sound." In finding that power, though, Geoff was very much a conservative. Rather than relying on processing during the mix, he focused on using (i.e. experimenting to find) the right microphones to achieve the sound the band was looking for. So, instead of keeping his eye on the market for the latest sound effects, he would seek out more and different mics, with a bias toward what was historically proven in the field over new models. Thus, his philosophy for obtaining new sounds was to use the same mics in different ways. Since used microphones are cheaper than new sound processers, it also helped keep costs down for himself and his clients.

But what really set Geoff apart as an engineer was his own musicianship. Long regarded as one of the area's best guitarists, he was equally impressive as he shifted to bass in the band Gondolier, giving their epic structures drive and clarity. He was one of those rare people who could just pick up any instrument and be able to play it at a fundamental level, understanding how the tonal qualities of various instruments could synergize to sculpt a composition.

"In a lot of studios at the end of the day the tape just comes off the reel," Goosman recalls, "but what a lot of these bands will never realize is the scrutiny Geoff put into his work. After they would leave, for the next six hours, unbilled, Geoff would play along with their mixes with different instruments, trying things out to find what would work and what wouldn't, and if he heard a part that wasn't there he'd go ahead and record it." Filling out arrangements in ways the songwriters themselves had not envisioned, or merely adding tones and textures to what was already there, Geoff almost always became a part of every major project he was involved with - to the point that people came to him not just for his engineering skills, but for what he may contribute to the music itself: guitar, bass, drums, mandolin, accordion, organ, vocals, and who knows what else. Concludes Goosman: "He had an amazing ability to hear sounds in his head and get them on tape, and he wouldn't let any thing sit until he was happy with it."

And that went for his studio-space as well. Faced with the sonic limitations of the Technology Center, Geoff formed an official partnership with Chris Goosman and Getaway Cruiser guitarist Drew Peters and moved the operation (and his living quarters) out to a converted warehouse on Jackson Road in early 1997. As the primary day-to-day engineer, with the liberty to record around the clock in a comfortable environment, Geoff, at 26, achieved the rarest of accomplishments: His passion became his livelihood. He was getting the sounds he wanted, he was keeping his prices affordable, and he was getting to play music all the time. And because of his singular drive Ann Arbor evolved from a place with no opportunity for an up-and-coming artist to record a demo, to a town where a musician with a modest day job could afford to make an uncompromised full-length recording with professional-level session work.

And by the latter half of '97 the results were coming in, with a flood of releases that were the most personally satisfying of his career. CDs by the Buzzrats, Brian Lillie and the Squirrel Mountain Orchestra, and Morsel, along with the soon-to-be released Flashpaper sessions, hint at the breadth of sensibilities he was capable of capturing. But as significantly, these releases pointed to a new level of creative excellence at the local level. No longer just an outlet of abstract sonic experimentalism, Ann Arbor music developed a weird "pop" sensibility because of this new opportunity to bring ideas into a studio and work them out over time, until they reached a more concretized level of perfection. Listen to his mix of Gondolier's "Drone Dub" on the Compositions from the Hand Vol. II compilation (Treacle), or I'm a Wreck (Small Stone) by Morsel (especially compared with their Steve Albini-produced Noisefloor), and the point will be evident: An environment in which artists have the time - and sympathy - to give relaxed performances brings a resolution to the ideas, giving the music soul.

"But I think what Geoff really enjoyed most was the band that would come in and record 10 songs in one day and mix them the next," Brian Hussey maintains, "no matter what the level of talent." Foremost, Geoff wanted to be the guy a local punk band who couldn't afford anything else could book time with. And because of that Geoff resisted taking the "next step" for his professional studio which would have been to upgrade to a 24-track board and 2 inch tape machine, the medium of the radio hit. He seemingly had no interest in such a move for it would've categorically put him out of reach from the grassroots. "He knew there were people who could afford $10 per hour, but couldn't afford $15, or the same up to $20," Chris Goosman reflects. "He always thought about it long and hard, about who it was going to affect. He was happy in Ann Arbor. There was always interesting stuff to record and he learned something from everyone who came in."

Geoff s ambition was to go deeper, not higher. He was here for the long run, and though he is no longer with us, his work will continue. Guided by the blessing of Geoff s father, Chris Goosman and Drew Peters have committed themselves to keep 40 oz. Sound in operation, working around their schedules for those that need it, and hopefully, creating the opportunity for others to develop engineering skills as well. For the life, love and legacy of Geoff Streadwick, our dear friend, who we can only thank by never ceasing our attempt to express passionate honesty in music, and to whom we can only pay tribute by never forgetting where we're from and why we do what we do.

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