Take me home, country roads

Producer Dave Willingham makes noise in the middle of nowhere

One of the busiest recording studios in the area is in the middle of nowhere. Well, Argyle actually, which isn't technically in the middle of nowhere, but you can probably see it from there. Argyle is little more than a city-limits sign between Lewisville and Denton, a glorified bend in the road where locals give directions peppered with phrases such as "Turn left when you see two blue trash cans and a row of six mailboxes." It's the kind of place where there aren't many street signs, because there are few streets and even fewer people to drive down them. Dave Willingham's 70 Hurtz Studio has made the city an unlikely destination, though, attracting more musicians than a clearance sale at Guitar Center or a $5 all-you-can-eat buffet.

"It's just where I found a place," the 29-year-old Willingham says, explaining his studio's unlikely location. "I mean, I looked for months, and this was just the first place that I found that I really liked. It's not really bad, but the Argyle land prices are pretty steep."

The studio is kind of like Willingham's field of dreams: He built it, and they came--they being bands such as Light Bright Highway, Baboon, Transona Five, the Calways, Lift to Experience, and myriad others. It's not hard to see what attracts bands to Willingham and 70 Hurtz. The studio has the kind of cheap rates--$25 an hour, $350 a day--that bands crave, and he has the ears and ideas that can make $350 sound like $350,000. Since he set up shop in Argyle about two and a half years ago, a steady stream of bands has made the trip, traveling down a series of winding dirt roads that are just narrow enough to scare the hell out of you if another car is coming. In fact, so many bands want to record with Willingham that he almost has more business than he can handle. The studio stays booked two months in advance, keeping Willingham busy enough to consider turning away some projects.

"I want to slim down my workload, but work harder on what I'm doing, instead of just...I want the studio to stay a studio for hire, but I don't want to be doing every single project that comes in here," Willingham says. "I want to start doing more of the things that I want to do, so I'm not doing some band's very first demo, unless it's someone that I really want to work with. Of course, I'm willing to work with just about anyone as long as they're cool people. But I figure that if I'm working on something that I really enjoy working on, I can really better myself and I can give them a better product instead of stressing to get it done within a certain price or trying to get it done in their time limit."

It's hard to imagine the soft-spoken Willingham stressing out over anything. He's so laid-back, you'd imagine that it is hard for him to stand up on his own power. Willingham doesn't worry about things much; if it works, it works. If it doesn't, he knows he can figure out a way to make it work. It's a quality about himself that he likes to see in the bands that he records.

"Perfection is good, but you can push it a little too far," he says. "Take a guitar solo 50 times to get it exactly the way you want it, it kind of loses everything to me. Those are the things that annoy me in the studio the most, when you push things like that a little too far. You should just relax and have fun, and let what happens happen."

Willingham seems to have the perfect temperament for a producer--a kind of quiet confidence that comes either from knowing you're usually right, or from having smoked a bowl 10 minutes ago. His unobtrusive personality carries over into his production work; he makes suggestions when they're called for, but, for the most part, lets the band do what it does and makes it sound as good as possible.

"I just set up the mikes and record them as is," he says. "That's my goal with most bands, really, is to do that. I'd rather not go crazy and tell them they gotta play this melody or we gotta use this effect. I'd rather just record them as is. And, if the music calls for doing some weird stuff or experimenting, I really enjoy it, but certain things like Light Bright Highway, you think there's a lot of room for experimentation with them, but there's not. They already have it themselves. They already sound so good that I don't really need to do anything."

Working with Light Bright Highway is one of the few things that Willingham talks about with any sort of excitement. Along with Stumptone and Sub Oslo, Light Bright Highway will release an EP--it's 48 minutes long, but it has only two songs--on his record label, 2-Ohm Hop Records, in the next few weeks. These are the first real releases on Willingham's label, not counting a 12-inch demo he put out by Christopher Ryan, a local DJ who spins records weekly at the Liquid Lounge. Starting the record label sounds like it would have been a natural offshoot of his production work, but until recently, Willingham hadn't really considered the idea.

"The thought had entered my mind, but recording was more of a passion with me, something I really wanted to do," he says. "The record label just kind of came along, because there were all these bands out there that I really like, and that I think were some of the best bands in Denton, and no one was doing anything. They didn't have anything out, and no one was considering putting anything out for them. So I was like, it's just time for me to do something. I mean, look at Light Bright Highway. They've been around for seven years, and they haven't ever put anything out."

Don't expect 2-Ohm Hop's roster to grow much--or even at all--anytime soon. Willingham has no intention of letting anything take away time from his work in the studio. For now, he's concentrating on the four bands that are already on the label, and the only plans he has made for the future of the label are full-length releases by Stumptone, Sub Oslo, and Light Bright Highway.

Willingham's career as an engineer and producer began out of the same necessity that led him to start a record label. Like the bands that come to him now hoping that he can turn a loaf of bread and a few fish into a feast, Willingham was in a band in high school, the Squidmen, that didn't have many options when it came to recording. He was the only member of the band who was interested in recording and running the soundboard, so he bought some equipment and taught himself how to use it. Gradually, his hobby grew into a full-blown career, making him one of the lucky few who can pay the bills by doing something they like.

Before he moved to Argyle, Willingham worked out of his house in Denton for about three years, until a few run-ins with the local law and a general dissatisfaction with living in Denton ended that situation. It worked out for the best, though, because--however strange it may seem at first--Argyle is actually a great place for Willingham's studio. The studio itself is just as well-equipped as any other, and the area around it is so distraction-free, it could be a holistic cure for attention deficit disorder.

The number of bands making the trip to Argyle should only increase now that Centro-matic's Matt Pence moved to St. Louis. For a while, Willingham, Pence, and Sam McCall--the former bassist for Brutal Juice who has since left for New York City--made up a fraternity of North Texas producers that could be counted on to deliver the goods even if the money or the equipment wasn't there. Willingham was the unsung member of the trio, overshadowed by Pence's and McCall's slightly higher-profile projects, such as Slobberbone, the Grown-Ups, and Centro-matic. But Pence and McCall are gone now, making 70 Hurtz the studio of choice for many up-and-coming bands such as Go Metric USA, a fuzzy pop band from Dallas set to start recording with Willingham this week. Pence's and McCall's departures have certainly been good for business, but Willingham still sounds wistful for the old days.

"Once Sam McCall left Denton, I got all his business that would have probably returned to him," he says. "They didn't have anywhere else to go, so they would call me. Then Matt started recording, and a lot of the people who recorded here would go work with Matt. There was a good, nice family. We'd just kind of trade around with the bands, and they would go wherever they felt most comfortable. Now that Matt's gone, it's all back to me."

He doesn't sound worried by the prospect of taking on the additional work, or greedy with the knowledge that every band in North Texas will probably have to record for him eventually, like it or not. Willingham doesn't have time to worry about things like that. There are record sleeves to be folded and more bands to record tomorrow. For a second, as we talk about release dates and recording equipment, it doesn't feel as though we're out in the country anymore. With the door and windows closed, 70 Hurtz Studio could be any studio, anywhere. Then Willingham opens the door to leave and exposes the open fields that extend behind his studio all the way to the horizon. I'm not sure, but I think I saw the middle of nowhere.

Good, clean fun
"They say you have four careers in your life. This is number two for me, and I'm still going," says Charlie Gilder, co-owner of Bar of Soap. Gilder, a former aircraft mechanic, has been a part of Deep Ellum since there wasn't anything to be a part of. When he opened up the Twilite Room on Commerce Street in 1983, Deep Ellum was a ghost town. "We demonstrated that you could get a big crowd to come downtown," he says. For three years, Gilder and his partner Steve Asbeck hosted some of the best underground punk bands in the country, including Black Flag, Descendents, Meat Puppets, Circle Jerks, and the Dead Kennedys. Asbeck and Gilder left that location and club behind in September 1985, opening up the rock-and-roll laundromat Bar of Soap in Exposition Park. They don't book national acts anymore, but the club is still one of the best places in town (maybe the only place) to see Bobgoblin play while you're washing a load of whites. On July 9, the duo will celebrate 15 years in the business with a performance by the Barry Kooda Combo, who played the first show at the Twilite Room. Also on that bill were the Stinky Shits, whom Gilder tried to get to reform for the anniversary show. Apparently the Shits no longer can stand each other. Damn.

Everything's coming up Radish!
A few hours before hopping on a plane to Copenhagen to play with the likes of Bob Dylan, Tori Amos, and Morrissey at the Roskilde Festival, Radish's Ben Kweller shot over a fax to inform you, gentle readers, of all the comings and goings of Greenville's favorite 17-year-old. "I thought it would be fun to let you all know what RADISH is up to!" he writes, punctuating his sentences with tiny happy--and sad, awww--faces, depending on the mood. "I know there has got to be a few people in Dallas that still care about this band."

In his fax--which reads like a how-I-spent-my-summer-vacation essay with all the misspellings, and, really, bless his heart--Kweller informs us that on May 1, the band (now a quartet, with the addition of Joe Butcher, ex-UFOFU, and Juno Spector's Debbie Williams) went to Muscle Shoals, Alabama ("home of the famous recording studio where Skinard recorded," Ben reports), to record the follow-up to 1996's Restraining Bolt. Along for the ride was Bryce Goggin, who co-produced Pavement's Brighten the Corners, among other indie-rock faves. The band mixed the disc in New York City last month before heading to Denmark for Roskilde and Norway for the Quartz Festival. "Unfortunately, we are the only band from Texas attending both festivals," Ben writes with a frown. "But dont worry! Like always, I'll be spreading the word about the Dallas music scene!!!!!"

Kweller expects the new album to be completed by July 25, with a release date sometime in the winter, around Christmas. Of the new disc, Kweller insists it's a far more complete-sounding record than the grunge-is-dead debut. "The record ranges from r&b to country to soul, to punk, to emo, to freaked out syd barrett/tangerine dream sounding stuff to oj's like funk!" he writes. "It's crazy. I've never been this happy about a RADISH project before!!! I can finally sit back and know that there is a recording of this band that sounds exactly like it did in my head, before it went to tape. Anyway...I'll continue to keep making music 'straight from the heart' no matter what." Like he could do anything but.

Scene, heard
Ronnie Dawson hasn't stepped on a Dallas stage in more than a year--it likely has something to do with a hero never being appreciated in his hometown. Well, the once-and-future Blond Bomber will perform Friday at Poor David's Pub, and it's a rare thrill worth catching, whether you've seen him once or a thousand times.

--Robert Wilonsky

Send Street Beat e-mail and happy thoughts to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com.

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