By Alison Babka
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"I like it when we're recording and the signal from the guitar cuts out. I mean, I pull my hair out trying to figure out what the problem is, but sometimes that makes it better. I like the surprise." These are probably not words most musicians would want to hear from a producer/engineer, especially when they're paying him for studio time. But Chris Deckard is not a typical record producer, and his base of operations, Penny Studios, is not exactly a run-of-the-mill recording studio. How many studios charge by the project and not by the hour? How many engineers would freely admit that they are both good and bad at what they do and that the results of their production work depend on their level of interest in the project?
Penny Studios is proof that music, with its foundation in mathematics and order and structure, is just as much a product of chaos, disorder and collapse. Deckard understands that music is not merely notes and sounds strung together in series like Christmas lights; that may account for the body of the music, but the heart of music is intangible stray moments that pop, flicker and fade and are either captured magnetically to be experienced over and over or disappear forever. As a producer, Deckard wants to gather as many of those moments as he can for the bands he records, even if it means he sometimes makes little or no money from the project. He believes in art over commerce, even though, he says, "calling yourself an artist in St. Louis is not the most popular thing to do. I still won't call myself a musician, but I will say I'm an artist."
The impetus for Deckard's work came from an unlikely pairing of events. "I started Penny Studios to record my own stuff (he records and performs as Featherly Decadence). That changed because of two things: No. 1, I went to New York and saw the collaboration between artists. I wanted to get people involved with each other like that here. And the second thing was, the Emphysema Kings sent me a tape they recorded on a karaoke machine. I knew them, but I never thought of them seriously until I listened to that tape. It was a bad tape, but it made me pay attention to their songs, which were great. I called them up and told 'em to come over to my apartment and record for free."
The combination of wanting to facilitate and record collaboration by local musicians eventually led him out of his apartment and into Warehouse No. 2 in the old Globe-Democrat Building downtown. There, surrounded by aging secondhand recording equipment, Chris started Radio Penny with his business partner, Jason Rook. "Originally we wanted Radio Penny to be a (record) label, but the money/time/ energy investment was prohibitive, and for whatever reasons, bands weren't enthusiastic about Radio Penny as a label. So we put it together as a collective that puts together shows and showcases (for bands). We're trying to achieve a sound and reputation that will identify us."
Penny Studios plays the largest role in forging that identity, and Deckard, in the role of producer and engineer, has struggled with deciding which way to go. "I want the studio to operate as a business but still be accessible to creative people. Creative people can't always pay that much, but the boring paying stuff wants a slick, professional environment. I'd need to take out loans to upgrade the studio, which would require more boring paying work to support the loans. I like my malfunctioning equipment and I don't want to change, so I've pretty much decided to stay with recording cool stuff.
"The doors to the studio are open, yes, but not just to anyone. It's not too often that I see somebody doing something that I want to be a part of. What makes a scene vital is when people get involved with each other, with other people. The most fun projects allow me to take part in them, not just record them."
Penny Studios' list of "cool stuff" includes the aforementioned Emphysema Kings, the gritty punk of the Conformists, the sonic rock of the Patsies and the unclassifiable music of A Morning's Work.
It is the last group, Deckard says, that "really illustrates my vision for the studio." A Morning's Work is a group of musicians who have composed music to accompany a book of old medical photos. For the past six months, they have been recording at Penny Studios on weekends, crafting music that is not wholly rock, or jazz, or pop, or surf, or classical, but a little bit of each. They have brought in outside musicians to play with them, including a children's choir, and hope to get permission from the copyright holder of the photographs to post both the images and their music on the Internet.
Deckard's interest in the group has allowed the group to keep working and recording long after most other studios would have given them the boot. He readily admits that they're working for free at this point, but what Deckard is getting out of the project is something other than financial. "I wanted to be involved with Morning's Work because they believed in what they were doing but also because it was cool. I mean, I'm a good engineer and a bad engineer: A good engineer can do the math and understands the technical aspects of recording. I like that stuff. But I'm not very good at communicating with people, which is the other side. If someone asks, 'Can you make my guitar sound like this?' -- well, no, not really. It all depends on chemistry. Not to sound too mystical, but if the band and I are on the same page, if there's some sort of connection, it works."
The selection of tracks Deckard plays from the latest Radio Penny sampler backs him up. The Emphysema Kings' hooky power-pop is raucous and almost sloppy, seemingly held together with handclaps and guitar buzz; they stagger through verse-chorus-verse pop-smear debauchery like heirs to both the Replacements and mid-'70s Lou Reed. Heather Gracie's big ol' voice powers the guitar rock of the Patsies, rolling and swelling majestically through their slower numbers and stripping paint off walls when she opens up full-throttle. A Morning's Work instrumental piece evokes a Fellini-esque dance hall where the amusements run to absinthe and other sinister hobbies. There is no real similarity in their styles of music, but even in their rough, unmixed state the bands share a certain quality. They sound crisp and alive; they have the spark that distinguishes music from notes. It is the sound of an artist using technology to reveal the essence of another artist. It is the sound Deckard is working to make Penny Studios' trademark. It is the art of sound.
Unfortunately, some people aren't as interested in art as they are in money, so for various reasons, Penny Studios will be moving to a new location in the Lemp complex. "I want to finish all studio projects by the end of April so I can move. Hopefully in May I'll have the studio set up so I can take a month off and work on my own stuff." Then it's back to working on other people's stuff. The headaches and hassles of trying to run a studio while working a paying job and still making his own music are not greater than the rewards Deckard gets from doing what he loves. "I couldn't tell you the names of the Rolling Stones. I don't have a TV. I don't buy CDs. I've seen the new Beck album, but I haven't heard it. I don't really listen to music. I'm so much more interested in producing it than listening to it."