Howl Street Recordings and Mystery Room make great Milwaukee music even better
Shane Hochstetler calls it his “log room,” but he’s just being modest. This is a room of many logs—80 of them, in fact—and they cover the walls in hickory, white oak, and other timber varieties, going up about nine feet. By Hochstetler’s estimation, there’s only one other log room in existence, and it’s located inside the famed Keyclub Recording Co. studio in Southwestern Michigan, where his band Call Me Lightning has done recording for two of its albums. (Keyclub has also birthed records by Fiery Furnaces, The Kills, Six Organs Of Admittance, and Living Things, among many other bands.)
Hochstetler knew he had to have his own log room for the recording studio he’s operated in Bay View for three years, Howl Street Recordings, even if it meant calling four different sawmills and making a series of 90-minute, round-trip drives to Sullivan to haul as many lumber slabs as he could precariously pack into his van. In all, it took Hochstetler seven months to get the log room together. It was a process indicative of the slow and often tedious work that goes into making powerful and spontaneous-sounding rock ’n’ roll records, but Hochstetler was single-minded in his pursuit of the “heavy-as-shit” drum sound the log room gives him. “I still get goose bumps about that stuff,” he says.
If you want to know why much of the most exciting music coming out of Milwaukee lately—including releases by Jaill, The Goodnight Loving, Northless, Juniper Tar, Chris DeMay, Speedfreaks, Protestant, and Disguised As Birds—originates from two studios tucked inside a nondescript building located on a quiet stretch of Howell Avenue not far from the bustling intersection of Kinnickinnic and Lincoln, the log room is a good place to start. It’s not only a testament to Hochstetler’s keen ear for sonic detail; it also shows how much cozier this place is than most recording studios. The members of local folk-rock outfit Juniper Tar wanted to build a bonfire inside of the log room when they were making their stunning 2010 Howl Street EP. For The Goodnight Loving, the log room made Howl Street feel like a Northwoods cabin with the added benefit of a tasty lunchtime Mexican restaurant down the street.
“When you look at a place like Sun Records, you realize that maybe the size of the place doesn’t matter, or that a large space can actually be detrimental to the overall feeling and sound,” GNL’s Andy Kavanaugh says of the comfy confines at Howl Street and the adjacent Mystery Room Mastering And Recording Company, where his band recorded this year’s terrific The Goodnight Loving Supper Club with Mystery Room proprietor Justin Perkins. “Being elbow-to-elbow is how we have always practiced in basements and played shows in dive bars with small stages, so we were in our comfort zone.”
The comparison to Sun is apt; the records coming out of Howl Street and Mystery Room have the same naturalistic, you-are-there realness that distinguished the records Sam Phillips made with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash in the ’50s. It's all about replicating on wax how a band sounds live on its very best night.
Hochstetler rents his studio space from Trevor Sadler, an engineer and producer who once operated out of the space and was widely known as being the area’s go-to guy for record mastering. Similar to the way Sadler priced his services to fit the budgets of local musicians, Hochstetler offers top-notch work for a relatively low price that varies depending on what bands can afford. He got his start recording his own bands, eventually sharing his expertise with friends like Kristopher Endicott, and inviting bands to make records at his home studio.
“He’s got the capacity to make everything sound so explosive. Especially the drums—he gets some pretty violent tones,” says Endicott, whose band, Disguised As Birds, made the excellent 2009 New Demons EP at Howl Street. “Still, he has such a great ear for the nuances of the song, and understands how to chase the right tones for more delicate or spacey things. He’s just a great musician in general. He works quickly; he is super knowledgeable, and honest.”
While Hochstetler made his name working with metal and punk bands, his ear and musical acumen are respected by many local artists working in various genres. “I don’t think there are too many people we’d listen to if they suggested changes to a song. We’ll listen to Shane,” says Ryan Schleicher, a member of Juniper Tar, whose delicate Howl Street EP is a far cry from the post-punk raging of New Demons. “We can’t say enough good things about Shane.”
Around the time that Hochstetler decided that he “needed to take the noise out of the house,” the Howell space opened up after Sadler made plans to move away from Milwaukee. Hochstetler says he “got really, really lucky” with the studio, essentially “walking into a place with air-conditioning and a control room that was already built.” After being rechristened Howl Street Recordings, Hochstetler’s studio soon became a second home for Perkins, a Neenah native who moved to Milwaukee after working at Smart Studios in Madison. Like Hochstetler, Perkins is respected in local music circles as an engineer and musician, playing in rootsy punk bands like Yesterday’s Kids and Obsoletes—he currently tours with Ben Weasel in Screeching Weasel and Riverdales—and recording albums and 7-inches for scores of punk, folk, and garage-rock acts.
After Hochstetler began referring bands to Perkins to master their records, Perkins decided to just move into the other half of the studio and start his own operation, Mystery Room. Perkins’ highest profile job was recording Jaill’s Sub Pop debut That’s How We Burn; lately he’s been “80 percent” focused on mastering, though Jaill drummer Austin Dutmer says the band would love to record with him again. “As long as we’re making music in Milwaukee, I can bet Justin will be involved,” he says. “He deserves the great reputation that’s coming to him.”
Because Hochstetler and Perkins are both unassuming, perpetually mellow guys who tend to shy away from self-promotion, it’s precisely that kind of word of mouth among musicians that has kept Howl Street and Mystery Room booked months in advance. Bands from all over the area are coming for the expertise, the quality, and the sound that these studios have become synonymous with—and staying for the rustic hospitality.