Rebecca Marx Photo Credit Tony Nelson
There is no mistake, you are in the right place. Pachyderm beckons. The studio once still and silent is awash with people inside and out. The drive up to the 1963 built Frank Lloyd Wright inspired house is ringed with gates festooned with majestic elephants, and in the planted bed in front of the prairie style rambler there lives a trio of Pachyderms, trunks joyously raised in greeting.
The overwhelming feeling that permeated the studio’s grand reopening celebration was one of family. John Kuker’s parents, his brother, his son and many more close family and friends made the journey on Saturday to celebrate the man and his vision, giving it the feel of a family reunion. They came together to honor the vision of a man who tragically did not live long enough to see it come to life. John Kuker’s family have proudly carried his torch, and his dream of a restored world class Pachyderm Recording Studio has been actualized. Kuker’s family was gracious with their time, and in sharing stories that illustrated just how much he would have enjoyed seeing Pachyderm filled with his loved ones.
John Kuker truly was a visionary, he opened the Minneapolis based studio Seedy Underbelly in the mid 1990’s, but relocated it to Los Angeles in the early 2000’s. The Soviettes, Johnny Lang and Semisonic all recorded with Kuker in Minneapolis, while Nick Cave, Arcade Fire and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs recorded with him in Los Angeles.
During those same years the studio in Cannon Falls had its share of ups and downs. The late 1990’s and early 2000’s saw Pachyderm reach its zenith as it hosted bands like Nirvana, who recorded In Utero at the famed studio with Steve Albini. Soul Asylum, PJ Harvey, The Jayhawks, Superchunk, The Breeders and many more made the trek to the secluded six acre spot 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities that is nestled in the woods near a babbling stream to record. If ever there was a spot to get away from it all and really immerse oneself in the creative process, Pachyderm was, and is it.
Brent Sigmeth was the resident Engineer at Pachyderm during that time, and still works freelance for the studio. Sigmeth told me that on his very first day of work it was his task to pick up a band at the airport that was named the Simon Ritchie Bluegrass Ensemble. Of course when he arrived, he saw that the equipment was all marked with the name NIRVANA. WHAT a first day! Nirvana recorded their third and final album In Utero at Pachyderm while living in the house, enjoying the grounds, pool and sauna. While there, Dave Grohl reportedly doused his cap with Isopropyl Alcohol and set it on fire. It was a harmonious process until Courtney Love arrived…Overall the band spent 2 weeks there recording at a reported cost of about $25,000.
Nirvana utilized the different areas of the studio, at times putting Grohl’s drum set in the front entry to achieve a more raw sound on the album that is famous for having a split personality. The record label found the record to be not up to par as a follow up to Nevermind, and this led to a lot of tension for all involved, leading to a remix of both “All Apologies” and “Heart Shaped Box.” The album was released that way save some remastering, and went on to sell more than 15 million copies.
After its hey day, Pachyderm fell into a downward spiral facing foreclosure in 2006. Matt Mueller bought the studio and at that time it reportedly became a strange place, described by Brent Sigmeth as the “Juggaloo Era”. That time thankfully passed, though sadly once again the property would find itself facing foreclosure.
This time the property was in a bad state, with windows broken by vandals and saplings growing inside of the bedrooms. Times were dire for the struggling studio that had last made a record in 2010. The famed and much lamented Neve 8068 console that had once dominated Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland Studio in New York would not survive.
Pachyderm’s long-term resident Engineer Brent Sigmeth was instrumental in its rescue, sharing photos of the property with Seedy Underbelly Studio owner John Kuker, who in 2011 bought it for the price of $370,000. Kuker was a passionate man obsessed with getting it right. He was always on the hunt for the right lamps, or the right carpets that were period correct. His search for the right carpets brought him to Georgia where they were bound in a retro process. The ceiling in the pool room was specially painted to fool perspective, the shadows remain static as the sun’s position changes.
Pachyderm was 90% restored by John Kuker when he passed away unexpectedly at the young age of 40. His family rallied and finished the restoration in his honor. So much of the property retains the original feel, though some things had to be altered for code. Kuker’s family assured me that he would’ve had issue with the new retaining walls as they weren’t faithful to the original era of the property. The gates and the statues in front of the home bear the elephant symbol of the studio, details that Kuker’s mother made sure to include in the restoration.
Studio A is still framed by lush greenery near the stream. The 2,500 square foot studio is home to the famed Live room, the Granite room, two isolations booths, and the spacious control room and lounge. Engineer Nick Tveitbakk is running the day to day operations at the studio and has control over the API console from Sweden that in its previous life recorded both Britney Spears and The Hives.
On the day of the reopening celebration, the studio was helmed by Tveitbakk who proudly showed off the recording console. It was a real thrill to hear the live and recorded music of local artists JT Bates, James Buckley and Zacc Harris play in the expansive space. The studio is a large space, filled with the light coming in through huge triple paned glass windows.
When I talked to Nick Tveitbakk, his excitement about what has been happening at Pachyderm was palpable. The Long Odds just wrapped up recording about a week ago. Georgia metal core trio Norma Jean did a documentary about their time recording Polar Similar during the polar vortex at Pachyderm, a record that couldn’t have happened anywhere else. Check out the trailer for LUMINÆRIES, the Making of Polar Similar here: https://www.facebook.com/normajean/videos/10154246115681041/
How fitting that the last album recorded at Pachyderm in 2010 before the foreclosure was Golder by Haley Bonar. If you aren’t familiar with Bonar’s recently released record Impossible Dream, know that you should listen to the acclaimed album that was recorded at Pachyderm in August of 2015. Bonar has a special love for the studio and contemplated buying the property herself–even posting on her Facebook page looking for investors. That didn’t happen, but happily her creative relationship with the studio has remained strong.
What is next for Pachyderm? Well, Dave Simonett’s next Dead Man Winter album that was recorded at Pachyderm will be released early 2017, and the Duluth band Glen’s Neighbor are arriving soon. It may be too early to say just how the studio will do in the long run, but certainly the love of its legacy, and the hope for its future has everyone involved feeling very optimistic!