Sundown Studios is the latest addition to Perth’s growing range of options for musicians looking for a place to record their music. Around The Sound spoke to Elliot Smith, Sundown’s in house engineer and producer prior to the studio’s industry launch.
Recording studios are spotted all over Perth. They’re usually tucked away in unassuming buildings from inner city locations to commercial estates. You’d only know they were there if you were in the know. Sundown Studios in O’Connor is in the latter category, with its light industrial location and exterior giving no indication of the welcoming and well-designed space inside.
In 1970 a bootleg recording of seminal band The Troggs (‘Wild Thing’) started changing hands in dodgy record shops, market stalls, via mail order ... It was pre-Internet and the rarity of the recording made it all the more attractive. The contents of the tape? Audio of a band imploding in the studio. Frustrated that they can’t get what they’re looking for out of the song they’re recording, the members of The Troggs resort to expletives and verbal abuse, and some smart Alec at the studio desk thought it would be fun to release copies to the public.
The recording has passed into folklore, particularly the quip ‘Put a little bit of fucking fairy dust over the bastard’, apparently the magic quotient for getting a killer take. For that, the Troggs Tapes are as much a distillation of how difficult it is to get results in the studio as they are a document of the impact egos and too much light refreshment can have on the creative process.
Where was the producer in all of this? Maybe they’d stepped out for a quick pint at lunch time? This wouldn’t have happened on Elliot Smith’s watch. Smith, in house engineer and producer at Sundown Studios sees his role as part technician and part people manager. Mostly people manager.
“I get to work with people at the peak of their creative cycle. This is a place where musicians come, usually after a long period of creative work, and they’re feeling really good about what they’re doing. It’s such a privilege to work at this stage of the creative cycle. And this studio, with its history and the design, it’s just great!”
The innards of what is now Sundown Studios were designed and built in 2010 by Internationally renowned Perth band Eskimo Joe. The studios were sold at the end of 2017 to local philanthropists Peter Hayes and Antonietta Wooley, and reopened under the current name in 2018. It’s worth taking a bit of a diversion here, because the Perth music industry is extensively supported by the sort of quiet philanthropy being exercised by Hayes and Woolley as part of the vision for Sundown Studios. Smith takes up the story:
“They (Hayes and Woolley) both have always loved music and seen artists not be able to do things. They wanted to give back. They wanted to create a space that is constantly making music and giving and opportunity to new and cup and coming artists.”
The fact that Hayes and Woolley weren’t present at the interview with Smith speaks volumes about their approach to supporting WA artists. They’re music lovers and willing to invest to provide opportunities for artist development, but they don’t seek a starring role. Their satisfaction comes from seeing artists flourish and they’re very much behind the local product.
“It’s a great opportunity running Sundown. Peter and Antonietta are actively supporting development of local artists and have established the recording space as something that’s absolutely world class. The design of the room was just about perfect when we moved in, but we’ve put a lot into enhancing the space and updating the equipment.”
Implicit in Smith’s comments about the development of the studio space at Sundown since it changed hands is the recognition of the opportunity that running the studio as a full-time engineer and producer gives him.
“I’ve been playing in original bands since I was 15. If there was someone that was going to put the mic on it and run the computer and do a little mix and put it on a CD, it was going to be me. Just out of pure want and interest. Just a quiet obsession that eventually comes to the forefront, I guess.”
In the last 15 years, Smith has constantly developed his studio craft, while maintaining his role as a professional musician, perhaps most notably as drummer with The Chemists. Speak to almost any musician in WA and you’ll find that Smith is highly regarded for his musicianship and is increasingly becoming recognised for his engineering and production chops. A lot of this comes as a result of his technical prowess, his ear for what makes a good recording and, back to where we started, his quiet and calm way of managing people.
“Good is just what each individual thinks. With recording music, everyone has their own palette, their own tonal fingerprint that they’re moving towards. When I’m working with someone, it’s a combination of the sounds that they’re drawn to and the sounds that I’m drawn to. I place a big emphasis on what the artist is listening to and what they want their music to sound like.”
“My role in the studio depends on who I’m working with. Everyone wants to play a different role when they’re recording and rooms and dynamics work best when that’s adhered to. I try and hang out a little bit prior to recording to make sure I understand what they’re [the artists] are going for, what they want to sound like, but also what makes them tick, are they going to be nervous when they record and how do those nerves come out.”
Sundown Studios is a world-class recording facility, already much storied as a result of its history with Eskimo Joe and artists like Meg Mac. There’s no doubt the cachet of the recording space will continue to grow under the new name and, as an exercise in philanthropy, Sundown is a welcome addition to Perth’s music-industry landscape.
We’ll also watch with interest Smith’s progress as an engineer producer. Music producers can be instrumental in making artists’ careers and we have high expectations that Smith’s production work will be recognised for its contribution to the evolution of the Perth sound that already has international recognition.
One thing we’re certain about: there will be no equivalent of the Troggs Tapes emanating from Sundown Studios. Those sort of shenanigans just don't happen on his watch. But we’re pretty sure Smith does have the magic quotient.