Clubland: Time stops in Grant Wick’s Easthampton music studio
Grant Wicks works in his recording studio in the Eastworks building in Easthampton. “I can be here for 14 hours and be so happy, not even burned out at the end of the day,” says Wicks.
Grant Wicks sits in a weathered swivel chair, deep in Easthampton’s Eastworks building, surrounded by warm recording equipment. A comfy blue blanket hangs from swirl-painted burnt orange walls, strings of paper lanterns lift toward the ceiling, an oft-used Nerf basketball hoop sags over a door frame.
This comfortable workplace is where Wicks, 25, has his own recording business, Famous Shut-In Studio. Its name is a nod of sorts to genius musical hermits like Brian Wilson and Todd Rundgren, but also to the otherworldly time-stoppage that happens when artists get lost in creating, when everything outside falls away.
“This is a place where you can really hole up and work, really focus,” he said, adding with visible joy, “I can be here for 14 hours and be so happy, not even burned out at the end of the day.” This month marks the studio’s one-year anniversary. Wicks has completed at least 20 projects in that time, including full-length records for Goat Boy, The Original Cowards, Mountain Interval and others; singles for Big Nils, The Novels and more; backing tracks for a student’s Berklee College of Music audition; and demos for proposed soundtrack music for an AMC television show. He’s worked with singer-songwriters, hip-hop artists, screaming punk rock bands.
Before he opened Famous Shut-In, Wicks said he was living a “triple-life” — “I barely ever slept,” he said, laughing. He was a full-time student (an English major in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Honors College program), a full-time employee at a coffeehouse and a member of two local bands, including the one he’s still with now, Walking Ghosts.
Wicks never went to school for audio engineering. The closest he came was when, at 17, he and a songwriting buddy asked for recording lessons from the only person they personally knew with some experience — a mutual friend who lived all the way out in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“He kind of knew how to do this stuff, so we gave him gas money to drive to Massachusetts to teach us the little he knew about recording,” Wicks said. The three friends worked together (using cassette tape and Garageband) for one week, which ended up being Wicks’ crash course in the very basics. Ever since he’s been “immersing myself and learning as I go.” Wicks is a lifelong music fan.
“Listening to records for me is like going to church,” he said, adding that the albums of the ’60s and ’70s — a huge era for audio engineering’s growth and creativity — are particularly inspiring.
He reads up on records’ technical details and lore when available, but sometimes ears are the best tools for figuring out how studio magic might have been made; Wicks loves listening to and studying the grooves of his favorite LPs by The Beatles, Beach Boys, Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Motown artists and others. He calls it “sonic detective work.” “You make educated guesses [about how they made certain sounds],” he said, “and half the time you could be totally off, but even then you could be stumbling on a great combination that you try and it’s your own thing now.” Wicks is originally from Scranton, Pa., but has lived in the area for well over a decade.
“I love it in the Valley,” he said. “It’s a great music community. And there are a lot of engineers and studios. It’s made me even more motivated to improve my own skills and offer something that’s unique. As much as I’m offering my skills, I also want to offer my enthusiasm and help.” Wicks’ unflagging energy and curiosity has led him on some adventures, like when he put one of his old reel-to-reel tape machines on Craigslist — and was contacted by an engineer at Third Man Records in Nashville, the independent label started by Jack White of the White Stripes.
They wanted Wicks to ship the machine, but he offered to drive it there personally in exchange for a tour of the building; they agreed. Soon Wicks and his Walking Ghosts bandmate, drummer Thom Lopes, found themselves on an inspirational trip, visiting various Nashville studios and their engineers.
“Everyone I met was super-friendly and generous with their knowledge and time,” Wicks said. “There’s an amazing sense of community and history down there, and I learned a lot — from what makes good BBQ, to old-school minimalist drum miking techniques. One engineer, who has a really nice studio set up in his East Nashville home, will sometimes have bands live in his guest rooms while they make a record together. Those records all sound incredible, and part of it has to do with the communal atmosphere/setting. Even classic studios like Abbey Road or Motown had that ‘clubhouse’ feel to them.”
“That’s the kind of vibe that I like to bring to the recording process,” Wicks said. “I want the studio to be the home away from home, where the songs/sounds/record you imagined comes to life.”
Information about Wicks’ Famous Shut-In Studio, as well as “Sonic Sampler Vol. 1,” an 11-song selection of some of the recordings he’s done for clients, can be found at his website, http://grantwicksrecording.bandcamp.com.