"I'm a conservative guy," Ben Schigel announces as he polishes off a Bud Light tall boy and lights up a bowl.
It's 3:30 on a bright Monday afternoon. Out of bed for about an hour, Schigel is sitting outside Spyder Studios, the comfy home-recording facility nestled in his parents' Strongsville garage, where black-light Iron Maiden posters and dog-eared copies of Penthouse make up the decor. As he sips his brew, the young producer and rock-star-on-the-rise swats nervously at large bees, whose buzz rivals his own. "I kill bees all day, dude. That's all I fuckin' know. I don't have a normal life, by any means."
This much is certainly true. The frontman for rising rockers Switched has a major-label record deal, a home studio loaded with more than $200,000 in equipment, and Tommy Lee's digits programmed into his cell phone. But as a 26-year-old still living at home, he also has parents to deal with, a lawn to mow. He perks up guardedly when his mother's Oldsmobile (license plate: "MTL MOM") rolls up the drive. "You gotta watch it -- my mom's here," he tells a friend who's about to toke up. "She yelled at me yesterday. I started laughing. She's getting desensitized, I can tell."
If Schigel's parents are growing accustomed to the partying lifestyle of professional musicians -- Ben's older brother Joe also works at Spyder and plays guitar in Switched -- they've had two decades to get used to it. Schigel's been pursuing a career in music since he got a Sears drumkit at age 6. He was making home recordings at 10, running sound in clubs at 14, producing records before he could buy beer.
Today, Schigel is one of the region's hottest producers. He helped the Cleveland metal band Chimaira deliver its critically acclaimed new album. He led hard rockers Erase the Grey to a major-label deal. He's opened Spyder to bands like Gatlin and the Bedroom Allstars, both of whom are being courted by labels. Virtually every band Schigel works with is on the verge of landing a deal.
"If it wasn't for Ben molding a sound on certain bands that have gotten deals off his demos, they probably wouldn't have gotten as good a deal -- or maybe not even have gotten looked at," says Scott Rose, programmer for the Bedroom Allstars. "The dude is a genius."
When he's not working on other people's music, Schigel's making his own. Switched sold 40,000 copies of its 2001 debut album, the snarling, anthemic Subject to Change. They've toured with everyone from Sevendust to Rob Zombie and played the Warped Tour twice. At Ozzfest's Los Angeles stop last summer, Switched played in front of 40,000 people, with Nikki Sixx standing nearby. "You can look at the pictures online," Schigel says proudly. "When you hook up with a broad, that's what you show her."
Schigel is now writing material for Switched's second album, a more melodic, self-assured affair that he's hoping to produce himself. The few songs he's already debuted suggest he's on the verge of breaking out as a vocalist and songwriter too.
"I think this guy is going to be a big name someday," says Kevin Estrada, an A&R man for Roadrunnner Records, who works with Coal Chamber and Slipknot. "He's really talented, he's a great musician himself, and he has great ideas. I think he's really going to climb the ladder as a producer."
"Ben is a rarity in this business, to where he is an all-around talent," adds Paul Bassman, head of Bassmanagement, which counts Drowning Pool and Pantera's Vinnie Paul and Dimebag Darrell among its clients. "He's an outstanding vocalist, he's a terrific songwriter and an incredibly talented producer. I guess you could say he's got it all."
Ben Schigel is more SoCal than Strongsville. He uses "dude" with the frequency of Jeff Spicoli on Red Bull. He speaks and moves at a leisurely pace, belying his confidence and composure. He's the kind of guy local rockers want to know, and he's well aware of this. During a recent Mudvayne gig, he chilled in the back of the club, as one well-wisher after another vied for his attention, like schoolkids seeking their teacher's approval. The guy is a magnet for metalheads, and he never stops working.
"Come down a little more, you're way loud," he barks to a guitarist at the Agora Ballroom during a Saturday-night sound check. It's a gig he's been doing for years, the $20 to $30 he makes hourly a good supplement to his studio work. "When I was 14, I used to run sound at Fagan's," Schigel says. "My brother's band played every Friday and Saturday. I'd see my teachers there and shit."
Working behind a massive blinking board that looks like the cockpit of the starship Enterprise, Schigel is commanding yet mannerly; he delivers orders with a reassuring grin. It's the same in the studio. While many producers are glorified engineers who do little more than focus on capturing the right sounds, Schigel immerses himself, often rearranging tunes, simplifying them, and finding the melody in even the most ear-grating acts. His greatest accomplishment thus far might be his work on the latest Chimaira record, The Impossibility of Reason, on which he toned down the band's aggressive overplaying and brought out the hooks, helping fashion one of the better metal albums of the year. Earlier this month, the album cracked the Billboard Top 200 in its first week, landing at No. 117 with sales of 8,300 copies.
"It's great to work for Ben, because he's more of a producer than somebody who will just go in, track your stuff, and maybe have a few ideas," says Chimaira frontman Mark Hunter. "Ben will listen to every single part and question us -- 'Why do you like this part?' You have to really think about your music."
Schigel's preternatural understanding of songwriting is likely the by-product of his upbringing. "Our aunts and our uncles, they all played these Serbian instruments," explains Joe Schigel. "Every time there was any kind of family gathering, everybody brought their instruments and we all just jammed. If you didn't know how to play something, you were left out."
By the time he was 10, Ben was playing with Joe and their older brother Tim in Serbian bands, making $100 to $200 a night working weddings and dances. They spent the money on equipment. "We weren't buying toys; we were buying microphones," Schigel recalls. Soon, he had a studio in his bedroom, eventually moving it to the garage because of the noise. By the time he was 16, Spyder was up and running at full throttle.
"Back in '98 to 2000, this place was fuckin' swamped," Schigel says. "We used to do everything. We used to do fuckin' rap, dude. Me and Joe would sit there on the bass and drums, and these black dudes would call their home and be like 'Yeah, I'm here in Strongsville with two funky white boys.' We'd hear them on the other line: 'There's no such thing as funky white boys in Strongsville.'"
At the same time, the brothers' own music careers were developing. They made headway with Not So Blah, a modern rock troupe that featured Ben on drums and Joe on guitars. Sensing they were onto something bigger, Ben and Joe left to form Switched in 2000, with Ben as its hyperactive frontman. The group landed a deal with Immortal Records -- home to Korn and Incubus -- less than six months after forming. While the release date of Switched's debut, Subject to Change, was bumped four times due to personnel shifts at Virgin Records, the band hit the road for almost two years, honing its live show into a loud, sweaty monster. The last time Switched played town, at the Cleveland Music Fest in February, Schigel was in top form, a fountain of sweat from the opening note. "I wasted that night, dude," he says.
"I saw them on the Warped Tour, and they blew me away," says Bassman, who promptly added Switched to his roster after seeing the 2001 show. "I think they have the potential to be just as big as any of my other artists -- if not bigger. Ben's a great performer onstage, he looks great, he's got that 'it.' Ben's a star."
Schigel is shining tonight. He's finished soundcheck with the Bedroom Allstars and is off to dinner at Mardi Gras, a dark, downtown Cajun joint that's good for Corona and crawdads. As he eyes the menu, a waitress steps up to the table, clearly fawning over him. He's dressed in a black Backstreet Boys T-shirt and baggy pants, looking like a boy-band crooner gone bad. His right eyebrow is pierced, and a trio of studs ring his ears. His features are soft, giving him a baby-faced countenance that suggests Korn's Jonathan Davis on Slim-Fast. The bubbly blond server comes to Schigel's side three times in five minutes, batting her eyes with the force of a bird at takeoff. Schigel hardly seems to notice.
He's always been popular with the ladies, but he remains unattached. "I talk about women with my mom, and she's like 'Oh, you just haven't met the right girl.' I'm like 'Yeah, but I don't think that's possible, because what I would want a girl to like me for, they don't understand anyway,' Schigel says. "I had this one chick I met -- she was a total screwball -- but she said the coolest thing to me one time. She was watching me work, and she said, 'I could sit and watch you work all day on music, how you put it together.' I was like 'Wow, she actually gets it -- sort of.' Most girls are just like 'I'm outta here.' It's a death trap for them."
After dinner, Schigel heads over to Gund Arena, guzzling beer and goading the home team. "Why did he take that three off the pick and roll?' he wonders aloud after the Cavaliers brick a trey instead of taking advantage of an open lane to the basket. Schigel's got a passion for sports. A record-setting running back in junior high, he quit the team in high school when music began to demand more of his time. He obsesses over his fantasy baseball team, checking stats constantly and grumbling about his starting rotation. "I need pitching, dude. I'm like, Will someone fuckin' get me a save or a win?"
By the third quarter, it's time for Schigel to return to the Agora. He works the Allstars' show, hangs out with the band backstage, then heads over to Peabody's to see another gig. He won't make it home until early Sunday morning, but he's accustomed to late hours. He normally goes to bed around 6 or 7 a.m. after working through the night.
Schigel knows there's a balance to be struck between producing the music of other bands and coming up with material of his own. "It doesn't come easy to me," he says. "I spend a lot of time writing one tune. If we're going to make this band thing work, we've got to step up to the plate and do it for real. I'm concentrating on writing a lot of good tunes. Hopefully, they'll be on the radio next year."
The new tunes are blaring in his studio, rattling the walls with soaring harmonies and bulldozer guitars. He's finishing up the writing for Switched's sophomore effort, which he wants to begin recording in June. He hopes to produce it himself, and he'll pocket $50,000 from the label if he does. Switched's first album was tracked in Miami and mixed in L.A. by former Saigon Kick guitarist Jason Biehler. "Why pay $2,000 a day for shit that we have?" Schigel says.
Since starting out as a practice space with a four-track, Spyder has become impressively high-tech. Schigel used his money from producing Chimaira's album to buy a $20,000 Pro Tools setup, and Spyder now boasts two studios: a main recording room with a control booth and a smaller back room, where local bands can record on the cheap.
"I'm glad that even though he could make a lot more money from a label recording bands that are signed, he's still like 'Yeah, come on in,'" says Cleveland singer-songwriter Tracie Marie, who recorded her debut at Spyder. "He's still reasonable. For as much as he's accomplished, Ben is humble and very down-to-earth."
The laid-back vibe is palpable at Spyder. The place feels more like a dorm room than a studio, with a leopard-print couch, a mini-fridge full of beer, and a pile of Hit Paraders. When a buddy wanders over after work, Schigel plays him some new songs he's been working on. The cuts are pulse-pounding and immediate, swapping metal malevolence for heightened melody. Nearly every one sounds tailored for Xtreme Radio. This is good news for Switched, whose next album will be a pivotal one: Though sales of Subject to Change were promising, they'll have to improve significantly with their second album, or they're not likely to get a third chance with Immortal.
"The expectations are high," says Jason Markey, an Immortal A&R rep. "I think they have a great setup that most bands don't have. In order to increase your popularity, you have to have great songs. I hope that's what they home in on: less screaming and more melodic sense."
Schigel seems to agree. He's toning down the bellicose bark he favored on much of Subject to Change for a more harmonious delivery that brings to mind crooners like Scott Weiland and Cris Cornell. If Subject had a fault, it was that it wore its influences too prominently on its sleeve. Schigel's breathy growl -- hysterical one minute, whisper-soft the next -- over rumbling, down-tuned rhythms was bound to draw comparisons to Korn. The new songs contain their share of diesel-fueled guitar, but now the singing leads the way, giving Switched a sound more its own.
"I always used to just go along with what the music was doing, but now I'm trying to be more about letting the music follow the vocals," Schigel says. "Our music is so much lighter, some kids are probably going to think we sold out or whatever, but it's like how the fuck am I selling out, when I do this every day of my life? I don't make any money as it is now."
Schigel regularly fields requests from national acts, who offer him $20,000 for a month of production work, plus $500 a day to use his studio. (New Jersey underground metal favorites God Forbid recently came calling.) But he insists that running Spyder is anything but lucrative.
"Think about it: For what other company do you have to go out and spend $250,000, $300,000 in equipment just to be able to charge $40 an hour?" Schigel says.
Now that he's in writing mode, he doesn't have the time to work with other bands. A longtime friend, Tony Gammalo, runs the studio in Schigel's absence, but Tony doesn't bring in the national acts. Even when Schigel does find time to produce, he risks the ire of his bandmates, who want him focused on Switched.
"We'd have a record done right now, but he did the Chimaira record, and that was a good month and a half," Joe Schigel says. "You lose momentum. It's almost like you have to start over. Last year, you go anywhere, you say 'Switched,' and people are like 'Oh yeah, I've heard of that band.' Now it's like 'Who?'"
Outside of Spyder Studios, a well-worn BMX bike leans up against the garage. Schigel still rides it around the neighborhood.
"I've been riding my bike like crazy, dude," he says with a smile. "My friends are like 'Why don't you get a car?' I'm like, The bike fuckin' rolls. My buddies all live right down the street. I hop on that fuckin' thing, and I'm there in two minutes."
Even as he prepares to record a potential hit album and get paid tens of thousands of dollars to do so, Ben Schigel remains a simple dude. He seems perfectly at ease with himself.
"I know there's still a lot to learn -- I'm trying to learn more all the time -- but I'm to a level now where I feel pretty confident, talkin' with any big-time producers and not feeling intimidated," he says, indulging in a rare ego stroke. "Not all ears are created equal, dude."