By Jeremy Hallock
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By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
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On a steep hill overlooking the wooded, undeveloped flood plain just south of the Old Alton Bridge, near the border between Argyle and Denton, there's a weather-beaten red guitar swinging from a noose like a warning against bad riffs—or perhaps an offering to appease the rock gods. Who knows? But as ominous and/or comical as that image is, the center of the vibe at The Echo Lab Recording Studio might just be 20 yards away, in the bathroom, where the walls have become a repository of Denton inside jokes, a complete roster of Rock Lottery participants, and home to the most disturbing image of all: an actual, undoctored photo of former Brave Combo percussionist Joe Cripps shaking hands with Fidel Castro.
If you've followed the North Texas music scene for, say, 10 minutes or so, you've heard of The Echo Lab, The Echo Lab's producers or one of the bands those producers work with or play in. In the nearly 10 years since its inception, the studio has been virtually inseparable from the Denton music community, working with such essential Denton acts as Centro-matic, Brave Combo and The Drams. Studio founding producer Dave Willingham, guitarist/producer Matt Barnhart and drummer/producer Matt Pence started The Echo Lab less out of commercial aspirations than a desire to document the Denton scene. In 1998, Barnhart and Pence started a studio in St. Louis, but almost immediately decided to return to Denton and, soon after, hooked up with Willingham. Willingham says the studio grew slowly and organically: "You record your band, then your friend's band, then pretty soon everybody else's band."
The three now run the place as a kind of co-op, with each producer bringing in his own projects, contributing recording gear, and generally maintaining The Echo Lab as a community service as much as anything else. "It's definitely an extension of the Denton scene," says Pence, a past Dallas Observer Music Awards Producer of the Year. Pence has developed a reputation nationwide for creating records that bridge the gap between lo-fi grit and hi-fi ear candy, and says that there's no formula for getting a good recording: "There is definitely no one right answer. To me it's about reacting to what's there."
"And that's a great metaphor for how the studio is run," agrees Barnhart. "We've never advertised, and we were all determined to figure it out ourselves from the beginning." The Echo Lab's unlikely combination of such accidental methods and a decade of longevity might make other studios want to look into stringing up a red guitar of their own. "We're not business owners," says Willingham. "We're engineers."