Perhaps a quick scan of the various slipcovers decorating the walls of Moon Music will give you a better idea of who Steve Wold is and why it's significant and more than a little bittersweet that he's packing it in after eight years of ear-bruising service in the sonic bunkers of the Northwest. Tacked to every available surface in this cozy Olympia-based recording studio--along with Wold's more personal and/or historically nostalgic memorabilia--are albums from Fitz of Depression, C Average, Murder City Devils, 764-HERO, Dub Narcotic, the Need, the Crabs, Tight Bros, Red Stars Theory, lots of early Modest Mouse.
The entire studio, both equipment-crowded and rec-room-comfortable, serves as an ad hoc museum dedicated to the genesis of the Olympia music scene, such as it is and was. A homey, almost atavistic authenticity presides here, as well as an aura of integrity, hard work, and a deep, abiding love of interesting and innovative music. Paul Allen can eat his gold-plated, grunge-in-amber heart out. This is where it's at, one of the unadorned trenches of local music production. Not for much longer, though. Sometime next June, the guts of Moon Music--amps, recorders, microphones, cords, mixing boards, everything--will be packed and stacked into a freighter bound for Europe, to be followed over air by Wold and his family.
"This is it," says Wold about his reasons for leaving. "I'm finished with America. I'm 50 years old now, and I've been watching greed play the main stage since I was a teenager. I just can't stand it anymore."
According to Wold, the albums hanging in his studio represent only a small portion of the bands he's captured over the years on all those thick black spools of analog tape. I ask him for a ballpark estimate. He hesitates. "I haven't really thought about that," he says. "Must be like 30 or 40 or 50, a lot of albums. Maybe more than that. I don't know what happens to a lot of them. It's hard to keep track. People come, make a record, and I never hear from them again.
"Some I never want to hear from again," he adds, laughing.
One band Wold has wanted to hear from again--and record one last time before he moves away--are the Tremens, a "totally refreshing" Seattle trio he's been hooked on ever since he saw them play a show in Olympia years ago. "With the Tremens," he says, "it was really like I heard them by accident. I just walked into this bar here in Olympia, and these guys were smokin'. I told them, 'If you guys ever want to record, I've got a studio and I'll be happy to record you.' Then they were told by other people that I wasn't just a bum.
"Well," he laughs, "I am a bum, but I wasn't just making it up totally."
The result of this chance meeting was the Tremens' first full-length album, belmont smiling racehorse downtown, a collection of brief but complex rock songs shot through with rapid-snap time changes, great guitar work, and a frenetic, jazzy energy. It didn't take much friendly arm-twisting for the band to convince Wold to record one last album before he left the country--a sort of coda to both a lasting friendship and to Wold's substantial stint as a producer for a multitude of great Northwest bands. Or maybe it's best to consider these final sessions as a quiet farewell to a somewhat reluctant local icon, the last, low-key hurrah of a guy who often seems genuinely amused, even surprised by the things he's seen and done over the last decade. (Like, for instance, going on tour as a backup guitarist for Modest Mouse.)
Wold began recording local bands shortly after he and his family moved from Europe--where he'd been running a studio--to Olympia in 1991. Whatever Wold's immediate plans had been at the time of relocation, they didn't include opening up another studio, at least not professionally. "I got sick of recording," he says. "It had been a few years, because I had sold my studio in Europe and I wasn't going to do it again."
Wold's resolve began to crumble--or maybe it's more correct to say his interest was revitalized--when musicians, in need of recording facilities and/or guidance, began seeking out his services. "I just got sucked in," he says, "and I was doing it again. You know, people started bringing bands around. Kathleen Hannah did some of the early stuff here. She brought something and Calvin [Johnson] brought Fitz of Depression.
"I didn't really know what this music scene was," he adds. "It was the pretty early days here. I just started doing little bands. There wasn't any real studio here."
Soon enough, and certainly to his mild disbelief, Wold was right back in business. One of the first Moon-produced albums to see release was a recording of a band Wold and Paul Shuster put together called Pez, the record coming out on London's Rough Trade label. There followed, according to Wold, "a never-ending stream of albums" that include, along with many others, early records by Modest Mouse, Satisfact, 764-HERO, and Murder City Devils.
"This studio has its little place in what it did here," Wold says about the long- term impact of Moon Music in this region. "I understand the history of it. I can see that for a period of time it was, you know, important. I enjoyed what was going on for a while, all the innovative bands. It was fun to record some of the early bands.
"This period of time in the Northwest over the last 10 or 12 years has been sort of a strange island in the history of recording, because before that it was all just big record companies paying for bands to go into studios. All of a sudden, you get this so-called indie scene where people, either through little record companies or by themselves, were doing something on their own. For a while, I had great hopes for it. But so many of those indie record companies were just like miniature major companies.
"I just think it ruined it for a lot of the bands themselves," Wold says. "It's the same amount of work to make a record for three or four thousand dollars as it is to make a record for a hundred thousand dollars. Every time an indie label would get successful, someone would buy them. It's just all the majors gobbling each other up."
Obviously, Wold has persisted, despite whatever success he's achieved, in championing such lesser-known bands as the Tremens, whom he considers one of the best around. "A lot of the bands that I have continued to really like over the years were the ones that were attitude-less," he says. "The bands that became famous, they've already got too many people waving flags about them. The bands that really have stuck in my heart are the people that came in and were groovin' being in [the studio]. Those are the ones I remember and I still really like."
In the studio, his love of the Tremens' music translates into an absolute concern with getting their sound right. His approach is both casual and entirely concentrated, unhurried yet always focused. When guitarist Quentin Ertel begins describing a particular guitar effect he has in mind, Wold sits silently, rocking back and forth in his chair, allowing him the full expression of his idea.
"He's a great listener," says Ertel. "He hears things that I would never hear.
"With him," he continues, "it's really sort of a performance-based approach to recording. It's all about the entire piece of music. It's very emotional."
"I've never had a recording experience remotely like this," adds bassist John Mitchell. "There's really something unusual and special about working with Steve."
The gap between the roles of producer and musician, in this instance, is virtually non-existent. It's a perfect collaboration, solidified by mutual respect and the bonds of a lasting friendship. "There's so many things about him that I admire," says Ertel. "He's just a remarkable person."
From a technical standpoint, a large part of Wold's appeal as an engineer rests in his paradoxical ability to obscure himself in the act of engaging his talents for reproduction--for lack of a better term, he serves the music. The consequences of such receptivity are made especially apparent when everyone listens back to the basic tracks, which were recorded in the space of a day, many being first takes. Even in roughest form, the songs sound amazing: clean, full, heavy, crackling with the energy of a live performance. Everyone is really happy with what's happening. Everyone smiles. At one point, Wold, stepping outside for a cigarette, tells Mitchell that "this is the most kick-ass record that's ever come out of Moon studio." High praise.
And, as has been said, it will be the last record that carries with it the imprint of Moon Music. "It's really home to us," Mitchell says of the studio. "It's where we started. It's where we came from."
"One thing I can say about Steve," says Ertel. "Obviously I'd love the opportunity to keep making records and work with other producers, but if that never happened, I'd be perfectly thrilled to have only recorded with him.
"I'm really sad that he's moving away," he says.