"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.