October 1724, 1996
Vintage equipment and old pros at Tongue and Groove.
By Margit Detweiler
Leaning back in a black leather chair, Michael Block kicks his feet up on the recording console. It's the same console used at Sunset Sound in California to record Led Zeppelin IV, the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, the early Steely Dan records, the Doors, Janis Joplin, and almost all of the releases of the Doobie Brothers.
"It's got a growl to it, a gut to it, that's just unparalleled," explains Block, his deep-set eyes focusing on a mass of tangled wires plugged into the console. "We call that the console's 'spaghetti.' The wires are more flexible than a modern pushbutton console, though it takes longer to learn to use it properly. But when you know how, it lights it up like a firecracker."
Vintage, famous equipment like this makes musicians flock to Tongue and Groove, the recording studio in Northern Liberties which Block owns with his wife Sarah, producer Dave "Stiff" Johnson and Johnson's wife Claire Godholm. Besides the local musicians who've recorded therepeople like G. Love and Special Sauce, Ben Arnold, The Low Road and Wanderlustthe studio has attracted international artists, too. The Belgian band Ashbury Faith and Züriwest (reportedly the Pearl Jam of Switzerland) have hauled themselves to T&G to get that good old American sound. T&G is also starting to sign a few of its own artists, including Dahveed from Austin and Spillred from Nashville.
And the buzz is amplifying.
Last weekend, WXPN's World Cafe initiated their first "Special Producer Session" at Tongue & Groovelive broadcasts featuring "'XPN regulars" with a select member audience. Nil Lara was the featured performer on Saturday's show, and future stars include Ray Davies and Michele Shocked.
A few weeks before that, famed engineer and former vice president of A&M Records, Shelly Yakus, came to town to hang out with his longtime buddy Michael Block and discuss consulting for Tongue and Groove.
"You'd hear about Tongue and Groove on the West Coast, " says Yakus, who's been impressed with some of the acts recording at the vintage studio. "I realized I wanted to be part of it."
It's fitting that the lean, attractive 47-year-old Block looks at ease in a sound room. He's the son of Martin Block, the man who invented DJing.
Hired as a radio news announcer for New York station WNEW in the '30s, Martin Block would play records during the lagtime between live news bulletins, creating what was called the "Make-Believe Ballroom," a dance floor of the imagination. His next-door neighbor style of announcing inspired newspaper columnist Walter Winchell to coin the term "disc jockey" to describe him.
"I grew up around a lot of musicians and celebrities. My dad played golf with Perry Como; poker with Buddy Hackett. It wasn't unusual to be at a party at home where Nat King Cole and Les Paul were there."
Block grew up in New York but moved to Austin, TX, when he was 24 and started his first studio, Third Coast. He recorded everyone from the Fabulous Thunderbirds to Kinky Friedman to Timbuk 3 to the governor of Texas.
Once, Block says, while recording a hot, all-night session in the '80s with The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Charlie Watts, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Nick Lowe (playing producer), Gov. Bill Clemens walked in with friend Ross Perot for their morning political spot session. The rock boys had to scramble to finish up, get the rock and roll out and the election promises in.
It was while living in Austin for those 20 years that he met his second wife, then Sarah Light, who ran Lone Star, a studio fiercely competitive with his own. Both say they hated each other from afar, until they finally met one day. "And we've literally been together ever since," says Michael Block.
The two started a studio in Harrisburg, then one at Philadelphia's Warehouse on Delaware Avenue. A year and a half ago they formed Tongue and Groove.
The studio is on North Third Street, home for 15 years to Studio 4 (where Billy Joel, Bob Dylan and Boyz II Men have recorded). Block and his wife joined forces with Studio 4 owner and producer Dave Johnson and his wife after Studio 4, co-owned by Ruffhouse Records, moved to Conshohocken. They continued to stock the place with almost strictly vintage gear. Block continues to collect vintage equipment and does a good business selling and lending gear to bands. He shipped Fairchild compressors to Island records for the Rolling Stones' last album. How does he amass all this old stuff?
"I go into a town, check into a motel, go to every radio station and ask to speak to some of their older engineers. They often have [vintage equipment] lying around. The fact that I'm Martin Block's son helps. They all remember him. And I can talk their lingo. I trade in a new mike for old onesthe new ones suit their purposes better."
Block picks up a silver handheld Neumann microphone.
"People look at this and see an inanimate object. But there's smoke and spit and frustration that shows up in the character of these pieces. Some of them get better with age."
Not only does Tongue and Groove aim at getting that age-old feeling into recording, but the owners offer living quarters to visiting bands that fit in with the same aesthetic.
Sarah Block, originally from Philadelphia, inherited an eccentric and elegant 18th-century Italian mansionette where the family now lives. The house on Pine Street serves as a sort of ritzy flophouse for bands while they're recording at Tongue and Groove.
It's a house you might have noticed a hundred timesthe ivy creeping up the side of the dark red brick, the red velvet drapes in the stained glass window, the murals on the ceiling, the sparkling chandelierand wondered, who lives there?
The band Wanderlust had the same question, Block said during a dinner party several weeks ago.
"Wanderlust banged on the door to ask if they could use the house as a backdrop for their band photo," said Michael Block. "They had no idea we were in the music business. Sarah said, 'Okay, if you give us a copy of your demo.' I was building Arrested Development's studio in Atlanta at the timewhen I came home at 4 in the morning, Sarah woke up and said, 'Check this out,' and hit the demo. It was a very strange recording of what was an obviously cool song. We got them in the studio that weekend with Mike Mussmano producing, and two weeks later they were signed to RCA."
Tonight Michael and Sarah, Wanderlust bassist Mark Levin, Spillred's Craig Gore, Dave Johnson and Claire Godholm, singer-songwriter Nancy Falkow and the Block's German exchange student Lillian are seated around the dining table inside the Blocks' house. A photo of Martin Block and Glenn Miller hangs on one wall. Sarah, in bare feet and an indigo blue dress, passes plates of homemade pasta, salad, roasted veggies and focaccia as a heated conversation about the new Patti Smith album ensues. Charlotte the dog walks around calmly; the kids float about. No one is quite sure if T&G producer Mike Musmanno is there. He might be sleeping upstairs.
Gore, who like other T&G musicians has stayed at the house while recording, gives a tour of the place, pointing out the elaborately decorative wallpaper, the old paintings, the brittle old books, the old records.
At the moment, the Blocks say that restoring the house would be too expensive; its antique shabbiness has a relaxed charm. Gore points out the rooms where bands staythe last to stay here was Züriwest from Switzerland. That's the room, the one with the T. Rex album on its door, where Mussmano may be sleeping.
"I love having the music business in the house," says Michael Block, who occasionally leaves the table to answer a call or retrieve a fax from his desk in the living room. With band members hanging around playing the grand piano, or one of the members of Züriwest reading to his kids, Block feels his children are getting a similar experience to the one he had growing up.
Züriwest decided to record at Tongue and Groove because of famed producer Dave Johnson, whose work with the likes of G. Love, Kriss Kross, The Low Road and The Goats brings in business for the studio.
"Züriwest had a band meeting to try and pick the producer for their record," says Michael Block. "It turned out two of the records they brought in were records Dave Johnson had done: G. Love and Urban Dance Squad."
"They told me 'We're not into the flashy,'" says Johnson. "When you have too much emphasis on the perfect recording, you kind of lose the emphasis on the perfect performance."
Johnson does 90 percent of his work at Tongue and Groove, though he freelances all over the world. He's focusing on bringing acts to Tongue and Groove. Dahveed is his next big project.
"The kid [Dahveed] has put out seven different records on his own, so the industry was very aware of his material. But it wasn't until we brought him up here and produced him, that we got record companies to become interested."
A few days later, producer Shelly Yakus is sitting at the Blocks' kitchen table. Yakus has worked at A&R studios and the Record Plant in New York City (as a partner to producer Jimmy Iovine) and was the chief engineer and vice president of A&M Recording Studios for 10 years. He's engineered hundreds of albums, including such gold- and platinum-sellers as Tom Petty's Damn the Torpedos, Van Morrison's Moondance, The Band's Music From Big Pink and John Lennon's Imagine. A recent article in Mix magazine points out that "his ears are among the best in the business."
So it's hard not to notice Yakus noticing all the sonic interruptions at the Blocks' breakfast table this morning. The dog barking, the teakettle whistling, Block's daughter's watch alarm crowing.
Sporting a black turtleneck, his white hair in a ponytail, he acknowledges them with a smile, continuing to talk over figs, cider and tea.
Yakus is an old friend of Michael Block'sboth build studios, both are devoted to vintage equipment and both had a music biz upbringing. Yakus worked at his dad's studio, Ace Recording in Boston, when he was a little kid.
His infatuation with sound led him to contribute ingenious recording ideas long before the days of digital and sound effects boxes. He describes once putting a condom on a mike, placing it into a milk bottle filled with water and then putting headsets on the bottle to send a sound through it.
With more and more bands trying to recapture the days of a richer, less digital sound, Yakus' input at Tongue and Groove will be priceless. Yakus says he left A&M a year ago to pursue freelance projects such as T&G.
Yakus will be working on the Dahveed project as an engineer with Dave Johnson producing, and he'll be consulting on other projects that neither wants to reveal just yet. The Tongue and Groove collection of vintage tubes, Fairchild compressors, Neumann mikes, and vintage instruments is in line with Yakus' recording vision.
"If you listen to a record from the the '50s to the '70s, those records have a certain character, they get to a deeper part of you. With modern equipment the records tend to be kind of cold-sounding. They start sounding like the same person mixed them in the same studio on the same console. But modern equipment combined with vintage equipment makes a great record."
Tongue and Groove recording artists Dahveed, Spillred, Emory Swank, Daisy and The Martini Brothers will play Thurs., Oct. 31 at Upstairs at Brasil's, 112 Chestnut St. Call T&G at 923-8163 or 413-1770.