Live from a law library; an unassuming record studio in the heart of Mid City.
Photo: Michael Tucker
Live from a law library; an unassuming record studio in the heart of Mid City.
We sat down with Michael O'Keefe of Record Office Records to talk musical influences, old synths and recording equipment, and what it's like to record on an old and legendary board – recorded on by the likes of Bob Dylan, Dr. John, and MJ, among others.
How were you introduced to music, and how has that evolved?
My mom introduced me to Bowie, the Kinks, and the Velvet Underground; my dad had dragged me to three Stones concerts by the time I was twelve. Growing up in New Orleans acted as a mandatory primer on all things rhythmic and soulful. From there I found jazz, dub, ambient, dream pop, samba, field hollers, Japanese adult contemporary, calypso, and every other esoteric or mundane iteration of music I could have imagined. These days I spend about an hour every off-night with headphones on, combing YouTube for overlooked classics to listen to.
So now you write your own music – were you into composing from the start? Do you remember the moment you knew you wanted to write music?
For years I experienced a weird disconnect, a sort of cognitive dissonance wherein composing music or creating art in general seemed oddly inaccessible and mysterious to me. The urge to create was there, but I lacked knowledge and confidence. Then one day, just as mysteriously, it was all demystified in an instant when I picked up my grandpa's old detuned guitar and started plucking away. As with most else in life, taking that initial leap was the hard part.
And when did your interest in recording begin?
My friend's father used to own a beautiful commercial studio in the Bywater where all the notable local acts recorded. One night, I was there loitering around the live room when the thought occurred to me that I too could one day record music as more than just a hobby. So, from that revelation onward, I worked to make that life of music my reality.
“As with most else in life, taking that initial leap was the hard part.”
Your collection of vintage equipment is so great. I'm really impressed with your love and dedication to growing it. How did you get started? Could you have ever expected to have so much gear at this point?
In high school I started getting heavily into the artists on Warp records, specifically Aphex Twin/AFX and Boards of Canada, and the early '70s production work of folks like Brian Eno and Lee Perry. I was obsessed with learning about and deconstructing their processes, and in doing so found that a lot of the sorts of equipment they used - analog synthesizers and tape echoes and stuff - was still pretty under appreciated and undervalued. So, over time I started building a collection of vintage synths and fx units by scouring ebay, Craigslist, and thrift stores. Then I fell down the rabbit hole of vintage studio microphones, and the obsession's only grown from there.
What are your 3 studio essentials, or your absolute favorite pieces of gear for production?
Paper/pencil, a well organized patchbay, and Roxy, my lovely canine assistant.
And do you have any favorite instruments or synths?
I think all synths can be beautiful and useful in the right contexts, but my favorite right now is my Yamaha CS-50. It's an old analog polysynth from 1977, when they were still figuring out what a synth should be. The thing pulsates with a sort of raw energy, with a sound that just leaps out of the speakers and electrifies the ether. Plus it has a totally anachronistic visual aesthetic that I love.
Speaking of visuals — I love your Instagram. The video edits and the tunes you share are excellent. You've told me you meet a lot of people on Instagram. What's that been like?
Instagram has been a great outlet for my own music outside of the usual client fare, but it's also been a killer way to find contemporary creatives that I'd otherwise never have encountered. Everything from synthetic Thai electro-funk to expressionistic swirls of noise recorded to VHS tape, and it's consistently made by some of the most creative, talented, and humble artists no one has ever heard of.
What was your education (formal, and/or otherwise)?
I've got a degree in Philosophy, and minored in Music Business. Most everything I've learned about creating and recording music I picked up through experience, reading, and experimentation. It's such a subjective field and the jargon used in it is so nebulous that any attempt to figure things out without hands-on experience is almost pointless. Sometimes recording feels more like creative, musical research science than anything else.
“Sometimes recording feels more like creative, musical research science than anything else.”
Is there someone you've met in the studio that really blew your mind? Some sort of sonic genius that taught you something big?
Nearly every artist I've worked with has taught me something or other worthwhile. I'm routinely amazed by how the city I've had the privilege to grow up and work in sustains some of the absolute biggest talents, almost all of whom have the smallest egos.
Tell me the story of your board, and the beginnings of Record Office Records.
Oh man, the story of the board is probably greater than my own. First, it's a twelve foot-long 80 track Trident TSM, made in 1978 in England by the engineers behind the legendary Trident studios. It was custom made for Herb Alpert's A&M studios in Hollywood. There it was used to record some of the biggest pop, R&B, and New Wave albums of the era, everything from Michael Jackson to Bob Dylan (they even performed together on the old all-star charity tune "We Are the World," that was recorded on the board in '85). Then the board got shuffled around the world, and it eventually ended up here in New Orleans at the incredible Esplanade Studios. At Esplanade they record everything from Dr. John albums to Terence Blanchard soundtracks, so the board had tons of N.O. mojo on it before I even met it. Then one day it came time for Esplanade to get a new Neve console, and I whoopsed into the classic old Trident (or rather craned it into my studio's second-floor window, oi vey!). So, the acquisition of the board was the main impetus behind formalizing my recording services into what's now Record Office Records. One day I hope to be as successful a recorder as my board, haha.
“There it was used to record some of the biggest pop, R&B, and New Wave albums of the era, everything from Michael Jackson to Bob Dylan (they even performed together on the old all-star charity tune "We Are the World," that was recorded on the board in '85).”
What's up with the killer interior? How did you get to build a live room in an old legal library?
The spot that's now ROR was a law office for years, and had the obligatory law library in the center of the building. The whole place was full of old files and records, which was where I got the name for ROR. The dimensions of the library were perfect for my studio purposes, and when I started experimenting with the space I realized the shelves full of old law books acted as ideal acoustic treatment. Plus the books lend a unique vibe. I rearranged the shelving, dusted every book, and wired things up for mic lines and such. Now it's a beautiful sounding live room where the majority of our instrument and vocal tracking is done.
What are some favorite ROR projects?
I've enjoyed and learned from every project I've worked on in any capacity. That's the beauty of music production - there's always more to learn, create, and express. Some of my favorite client projects I engineered, mixed, and/or produced this past year at ROR include: a heady hiphop album where we utilized some of New Orleans' (and therefore the world's) greatest jazz players in lieu of stale samples and 808 kicks, a Krautrock-tinged deep house album that has some of the most gorgeous textures I've ever had the chance to work with, and a jazz/funk/R&B quartet that sounds like if Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers had a very Toussaint-influenced musical baby.
Who are your dream artists (now living) to work with?
Seeing as how Bowie, Lou Reed, and Lee Dorsey are no longer options I'd settle for David Byrne, Jorge Ben Jor, Haruomi Hosono, Smokey Robinson, Arcade Fire, Parquet Courts, Bob Dylan, or Yo La Tengo.
What would be the ultimate fantasy group of 3-4 artists (living or dead) to work with at ROR?
Oof, that's a hard one, too. Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb were a hard combo to beat imo.
Top 3 albums or tracks (of all time or at this moment)?
Yikes, possibly the hardest question. Old favorites that have stuck with me: Talking Heads' Remain in Light, the Velvet Undergrounds' self-titled (third) album, MJ's Thriller, Cocteau Twins' Treasure, and Jorge Ben's A Tabua de Esmeralda
What is your most gifted record?
I've probably gifted a half-dozen copies each of Getz/Gilberto and Remain in Light. My must-hears.
What's next? Any releases coming up?
I'm finalizing the first EP for a project of my own, called Midnight Pretenders. The music's like what I'd imagine Lou Reed would have made if he was really into '80s R&B, Dream Pop, and ambient (instead of just heroin). The album's called Sleepless, and it's a collection of spaced-out, dreamlike songs and soundscapes I wrote and performed, with an emphasis on synthetic and organic textures. Most of it was recorded on an old 4-track cassette recorder and has a distinctly lo-fi aesthetic in relation to most of my client work. After the release I'll probably strike up a band and play some shows around town.
Anything else to share — wise words, zen insight, etc?
If it sounds right it is right, sometimes shitty is pretty, and while it's easy to get hung up on gear, processes, and pretense, it's really all about songs, performances, and decision making.