Twelve years ago, Kid Andersen was a twenty-five year old guitar player in Charlie Musselwhite’s band. He also recorded his third solo project, released as Greaseland. Once Andersen started doing recording projects in his home, he decided that the name Greaseland Studios was indicative of the kinds of sounds he was striving for on every project.
In slightly more than a decade under Andersen’s direction, Greaseland has become the go-to studio for artists and bands in search of a great sounding recording with plenty of authentic feeling. The studio has been utilized for more than one hundred thirty recordings, with a substantial number of titles receiving, and winning, various blues awards. Andersen produced and recorded Groovin’ At Greaseland for his current band, Rick Estrin & the Night Cats, nominated for a Blues Blast Music Award in the Traditional Blues Album category as well as Blues Band of the year. Other recent releases recorded at Greaseland include titles by the Nick Moss Band featuring Dennis Gruenling, Billy Price, Chris Cain, Whitney Shay, Keesha Pratt Band – awarded the top prize at this year’s International Blues Challenge in the Band category – Big Harp George Bisharat, Rockin’ Johnny Burgin, Aki Kumar, and the Lucky Losers.
So what is it about the Greaseland recording experience that has pushed it into the top tire of recording studios? Andersen offers a simple explanation. “We have gotten a lot of accolades. I have been able to make a living mostly by doing shit I feel like doing. That is the best measure of success that I can think of! People contact me because they like what I do, and they think it will work with what they do. I’ve never had to do any advertising, our business has been through word-of-mouth. If I don’t think it is a good fit, I will turn down some opportunities. We do a full production package, so if you want to get the full value of working here, it should be a collaboration all the way through the process, including mixing the tracks. I can do anything a regular studio can, but if you think of it that way, you would be missing out on what I can offer. And I don’t believe in wasting anyone’s time, particularly my own!”.
“Now I find myself working on projects that mean something to me. That is when music is good, when everyone is involved, no one is phoning it in. I have witnessed so many moments in the studio where it was a struggle between the artist and, say, the engineer in the studio, who says we can’t record everybody at the same time, there might be bleed. Most of the disagreements were over stupid shit like that. Whatever creates the best vibe for recording, that is what I want to do. If there is a little bit of snare drum in the vocal microphone, I don’t care. That’s not something that will translate into decreasing the emotional or musical impact”.
Andersen is the key to Greaseland’s success. His instincts and musical tastes have been honed to a fine edge by listening to classic recordings, making music with some of the best blues musicians in the US and back in his native Norway, and his various experiences in other recording studios. Asked about his role in the studio, he had a quick answer.
“I got involved in recording first as a musician. As I became interested and starting learning about the process, it looked like it would be difficult to learn to handle the complicated mix of cables, mixing boards, and computers. I didn’t have a drivers license – and I still don’t! It is easy for me to learn anything I am really interested in. As soon as I tipped my toe into the water of engineering, it became very attractive to me, the technical aspects of setting up the microphones and plugging them in properly, or the guitar and amplifier. When I started producing, I was the one telling the engineer what to do. That was my final step, to get rid of that guy and do it myself”.
“Now it is all one thing, I don’t differentiate between playing a instrument, choosing & placing a microphone, or adjusting a fader. I work pretty much on instinct these days. Half the time I can’t tell you why I want to use a Shure SM57 microphone instead of something else. I have this sound in my head, and that comes first. All the other stuff is just a means to an end to take that sound from your head and put into actual existence. I have a fairly high success rate of that now”.
“That sound has always been there. It was put in my head by all of the records I listened to and the music I love. So I would try recording and I wouldn’t get the sound I was hearing in my head. So you start investigating to determine what you are doing wrong, what is missing. But 90% of it is the person playing the instrument, and how they are playing. Later, during mixing, you determine where to put the instrument in the soundscape. It all goes together. Recently, I was talking to someone who recorded at Fantasy Studios. They described having a hundred tracks to work with, three mics on each horn, and thirty different mics on the drums. They were excited about the options that gave them during the mixing process. To me, that is complete bullshit! It tells me they didn’t have a sound in their head. If they did, they wouldn’t need thirty mics”.
“It is always time to mix. Mixing isn’t about twiddling some knobs after the musicians have gone home. Any time you pick up an instrument, you are listening to everybody else and producing your sound. That is what mixing is, putting sounds together. I love the sound and feel of old analog records, so I am old school, but also very modern. I record digitally, use Pro Tools, which gives me a lot of flexibility to work remotely with people, send files through Dropbox, and do edits. Rick Estrin and I are working on a project with Fillmore Slim, who will sing a song until something causes him to stop. So he often makes up verse after verse for twelve minutes for what is supposed to be a four minute song. So something has to be cut! In the old days, you could do it with a razor blade and the tape. You only had one shot. Today we have “Command Z,” the undo button!”
“I embrace the new technology. It has made it possible to generate the high level of production at the studio and keep the costs down. There are studios that charge top dollar for productions. I don’t want to rip myself off. But the pricing needs to be realistic so that the artist has a chance to recoup their investment. I really wanted to work with Billy Price. I have always loved his voice, which has a distinctive tone. He contacted me to ask what it would cost, so I sent him a budget. He basically talked me into taking more money for his Reckoning project.! I’m a hustler – but a different type of hustler. I don’t ever want to talk somebody into spending more money than they can afford on a product that they won’t be able to make money on just because I want the money. I’m not going to go down that road”.
“You used to be able to make real good money in the music business. As an independent artist, I sold over 4,000 to 5,000 copies of my CD in the early 2000’s. Nowadays, that is a really good sales for even a household name. It is a bummer that nobody is going to make a pile of money selling discs any more. If we were, I could charge more. But I want Greaseland customers to get realistic pricing so that they have the chance to get their money back. Then we all win”.
Most of us have seen pictures of a recording studio with large recording consoles, gleaming wood paneling, and glass enclosed recording booths. Greaseland Studios is the antithesis of that model. With the exception of one bedroom, the rest of Andersen’s home is where all of the magic happens. “I have been renting a three bedroom duplex for quite some time, and am about to start start renting the other half for the storage of people!. It started out in the living room, then we set up the control booth in the garage. The laundry room became the vocal booth. When I acquired a grand piano, that went in the kitchen. It has expanded to where 75% of the house is used as the studio full-time. Closets have been used if we need to isolate amplifiers. We also have been known to put an amp or two in the bathroom. I try not to do that any more, because if somebody is in there peacefully going about their business and suddenly Little Charlie decides to hit a really big E chord on his guitar plugged into an amp in the bathroom set on level 10, well…..which actually might aid them in what they were doing!”
The project that Andersen did with Chris Cain has been nominated for various awards, and brought the noted guitarist a burst of well-deserved attention. Cain has stated that he loved recording at Greaseland, having so much fun that he said he would still be there if he hadn’t been kicked out. Andersen replied, “Chris Cain – I think he still lives here! That is one guy I was very excited to work with, which is a weird term. We did something for each other. The way he plays makes me happy, and I knew I could help him make an old school blues record that Chris’s father would have approved of. He transcends the boundaries between traditional and modern blues artists. He gets total respect from both camps. No one can deny his talents. I’d record Chris every day and be totally happy”.
Andersen is also proud of the project he and Rick Estrin did with soul singer Wee Willie Walker. “The whole reason I got into having my own studio was to have the freedom to do a project like Willie’s if it came along. Nobody does that kind of music better than Willie. Rick and I decided to make it happen. We brought Willie out here. The musicians played for nothing. I did some trades with people that if they played on Willie’s sessions, I would owe them two days of studio time. It didn’t matter that no one was getting paid. That is the most rewarding shit in the world, hearing him sing and be there during the creation of music like that, which spiritually is the greatest thing you can imagine. As fate would have it, Jim Pugh was getting his Little Village Foundation label set up around the same time. He ended up releasing the If Nothing Ever Changes album, which got Willie started again and got Little Village an established. That is why I work hard, so I can do those things”. Another artist that Andersen has helped is vocalist John “Blues” Boyd. “He is another guy like that. Me and Rick got him started writing songs. He’d call and say, hey, I wrote eight more songs on the ride down. We are way behind, because he has written about a hundred & thirty songs and we have only gotten around to recording seventy-nine of them. You feel like you are doing something with your life when you can make a difference for artists like that”.
Another aspect of the Greaseland experience is the wide array of instruments that are available for use on the sessions. “We probably have about fifty guitars for use. I don’t have like six different Gibson Les Paul sunburst models trying to tell myself that they all sound different. I have one of each type of guitar or instruments. I do have a couple of 60s Fender Precision bass guitars because I ran across them and decided I couldn’t live without either one. I end up playing bass more than guitar, which I often enjoy more, especially on recordings. When you play bass, you are directing the movement of the music, which is a powerful feeling. To me, a good bass line makes a track. If you have a good song with a good singer, and a good bass line, that should be a hit record. It least that is how it used to work. Oh yeah, add a couple million worth of PR push. That’s the part I have been missing out on!”
“I also have two or three Fender Jazz bass guitars plus several Gibson’s too. We have some old bass amps, like an Ampeg B15, but most of the time we go direct to the board for the best sound. Having all the instruments is similar to a painter having all of the colors on their palette. You don’t need ninety shades of blue when you can mix and match them yourself. Having all of the instruments does set us apart from other studios. There are plenty of good studios with nice rooms and great gear but they don’t have instruments, even a piano, Hammond organ or Wurlitzer piano. These are physically big things that are hard to bring to a session. So I have a grand piano, a Hammond B3 organ, an old upright saloon-style piano, several Fender Rhodes keyboards, Wurlitzer units, plus a Hohner clavinet for the funk stuff, and even old synthesizers from the 70s. If you heard a sound on a record, I can make it here”.
“Once I was just a guitar player who loved to buy vintage guitars. Now that I own a studio, I have an excuse to buy every piece of equipment possible. I am a total nerd for vintage cymbals, with more of them and drums than most drummers in the world do. The only thing rarely available is cash! Every time I make a dollar, I seem to spend two on another piece of equipment. Last year, I got an old Nuemann U 67 tube microphone that once belonged to Sam Phillips of Sun Records. It cost more than everything I owned put together when I was twenty-two years old. Really, it sounds about 15-20% different than a $100 microphone but I’d rather have that than the money”.
Andersen’s wife, Lisa, is a singer who often adds backing vocals on the sessions. And she can be a big factor in decisions on the studio’s instrument inventory. “ She doesn’t complain, except for the sign that said, “Please put the toilet seat down”. That has been about it. One time I scored this really beautiful Hammond organ for three hundred bucks. And I already had one that needed repairs, as did the new one. I thought it was ridiculous, even to me, to have two Hammond B3 organs. So I was ready to choose between them. I asked Lisa to come into the living room, which is now an even tighter fit with two Hammonds in the middle, I asked Lisa to pick one. She said the old one has so many memories, can’t we keep both? When we were first getting together, my computer broke. If I don’t have a working computer, I am out of business. I told Lisa I needed to buy a new computer immediately, so I needed to sell something quick. It was going to be a 1968 Fender Telecaster bass, but when I told Lisa, she screamed no, that bass is awesome! That was when I knew this just might work. We both are extremely irresponsible, but somehow we always make it somehow”.
“What started out as a home studio is now a studio home. We could sell all the equipment and probably buy a house. But I’m passionate about sounds and music. When you work with me at Greaseland, I do the work of five people but only charge for one. I can play multiple instruments, and have the ability to communicate with musicians about what to play on other instruments. Then I can handle the mixing and mastering processes. There are a couple of discs coming out that I am very excited about on Little Village – Aki Kumar, Whitney Shay, and Marcel Smith, which is soul and gospel. That part of black music doesn’t connect with the regular blues audience today. To me, gospel quartet music is the greatest music in the world. It is much closer to my heart than all of the guitar-centric stuff that dominates the blues charts these days. That great African-American singing from groups like the Swan Silvertones, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Dixie Hummingbirds, or the Sons of Soul Revivers is the most moving music for me, from the living, breathing tradition of old school gospel. There is at least as much outstanding music in that genre as there is in the blues tradition”.
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!