Originally, local T-shirt czar Daffy Dan, who owns a building located off Superior and East 21st St., didn't want to lease out his fifth floor to the folks behind Crushtone, a recording studio that caters to indie and emo rock acts. But he eventually acquiesced and now, Crushtone, which appropriately has a spectacular view of the Rock Hall, has become the go-to place for bands looking for an old school studio experience.
"We had looked at a lot of places that were big and inexpensive," says Jim Wirt, the in-house producer who works out of the place. With his shoulder-length silver hair, he looks like some kind of guru as he walks us through the enormous studio one recent afternoon and shows us the wall of gold and platinum records that attests to his talent as a producer. "This place was already built out and it sounded great."
Wirt is particularly proud of the drum room where he says you can get a "big old drum sound."
And he should know. He's seen plenty of drum rooms. Wirt has an impressive resume that includes work with big-name acts such as Fiona Apple and Incubus, and he's beginning to recruit some of the talent in Northeast Ohio. He's got some great gear, including a Neve 81 Series console that was once used by Michael Jackson and an SSL mixing console that used to be at Disney during the Lion King years.
Originally from Springfield, Missouri, Wirt started out in a rock band called Fools Face. "We were world famous in Missouri," he jokes. "We had three different lead singers and didn't have that identifiable front man. It got me out to California."
Thinking he could get his band a deal if he got into the production side of the business, he started working in studios.
"I just got immersed in the recording business," he says, referring back to his days at 4th Street Recording in Santa Monica, a place that was formerly a recording studio called Sound Solutions. Acts such as Little Richard, Stanley Clarke, George Clinton and the Beach Boys all recorded at the studio which features "a wavy ceiling" and has had its walls soundproofed with sand from the beach. "It was a great studio in a great location."
Wirt initially worked on Viscous Circle, the last major label effort from glam rockers L.A. Guns. They had used his studio on their previous album, Hollywood Vampire, but just for vocals. "It was nice for a vocal room," says Wirt. They started doing demos there for their next album and hired Wirt.
"It was a great thing for me even though the record didn't do that well," he says. "It was just a great thing that I got the nod on that record."
He hired a management firm and the work started streaming in.
A friend of his from Missouri knew a teacher who was working with [guitarist] Mikey [Einziger] from Incubus. She was tutoring him and he had given her a demo that she passed on to Wirt.
"We developed [Incubus] over the next couple of years," says Wirt, who worked on the band's early albums, Fungus Amongus and Enjoy Incubus before taking the helm for their big breakthrough S.C.I.E.N.C.E. "They were great. They didn't want to do anything normal, especially on S.C.I.E.N.C.E. It sounds like there are keyboards on the album but it's all foot pedals. We went crazy with the foot pedals. We were on our hands and knees for most of the recording of that album."
He met Hoobastank through Incubus and helped turn them into hitmakers. To hear him tell it, he was "on a roll," and the major labels started to notice. Eventually he got a job doing A&R at Elektra Records. "It was really easy," he says of the gig. "They were just throwing a bunch of money at us."
Eventually, Elektra underwent a series of major changes, and he left the label and started working with Something Corporate, a band known for its piano-based indie rock.
"Suddenly, I became the piano guy," he says with a laugh. "We did an EP that we made in ten days and [the song] 'If You C Jordan' got all this airplay on [the L.A.-based radio station] KROQ. We did a full-length and got an orchestra and recorded at the most expensive studios in L.A. It was a great album. That was really good."
At that point, the music business was "getting weird" and Wirt started working on film projects. Since moving to Cleveland a few years ago, Wirt's set up shop at Crushtone and has been working on analog consoles. "We mix with faders and real compressors," he says. Ironically enough, his old school approach appeals to up-and-coming bands.
He's done two albums from Cincinnati-based garage rockers Buffalo Killers and an album by the Steepwater Band. He's just finished an album with A Skylit Drive, another piano-based emo act, that's due out on Jan. 6. And he's also recording with Cleveland indie rockers Teddy Boys and Nights.
"I just want to keep my ass working," he says. "This place is great for bands who like studios. Some albums aren't even done at real studios. And some bands don't like studios, but maybe they do want a drum room. I would love to get Chris Robinson's band Brotherhood in here. I love emo and piano music but sometimes you look at what you have to work with and you realize you want to do something that kicks ass."