Idful Gone For Good
In the fall of 1997, Idful Music–the venerable Wicker Park studio where co-owner Brad Wood recorded major albums by Liz Phair, Tortoise, and Veruca Salt–was forced out of its rented space in the strip mall at 1520 N. Damen. The mall had been purchased by developers, who would give it a new name, a new facade, and new tenants, including a Coconuts CD store, and even before Idful’s lease was up, demolition crews were eagerly tearing away at the building. “The working conditions were awful,” Wood says. “They had dug a six-feet-deep, two-feet-wide trench in front. They tore the roof off. There was no roof over our lounge; you could see the sky above you.”
When he helped design Engine Studios–a state-of-the-art three-studio facility that opens next month just a few blocks from the old Idful location–Wood took extra care to make it the most comfortable environment he could imagine. Every room in the place, even the “live rooms,” where the artists actually play, has a window–the only time Idful’s interior ever saw natural light was when the roof came off. Each studio has its own lounge and bathroom; at Idful you had to walk through the live room to get to the john, and if someone was tracking, you just had to wait. The speakers in each control room are topflight, meticulously installed for the most accurate sound–even the lowest-priced room is a marked step up from Idful.
Unfortunately, Engine is not Brad Wood’s new studio. In an August 1996 Tribune story that reported the sale of the strip mall, Wood said he planned to reopen in a building he would buy, so that he’d never again have to deal with what he’d gone through on Damen. He approached Metro owner Joe Shanahan about going in with him on the real estate, and through Shanahan met powerful radio consultant Jeff McCluskey, who was also in the market for a building. A year and a half later the trio, operating as a company called JJB, bought the four-story structure in Wicker Park that now houses Engine for $1,200,000.
Renovations, including sandblasting, rewiring, a new roof, new windows, new plumbing, an elevator, and a parking garage, cost an additional $1,400,000. “I put all of my personal finances into the building,” says Wood, “and I didn’t have enough afterward to start my own studio. It became apparent that whatever expertise I may have, there’s so much money involved with building a new studio that I just didn’t qualify.”
But an Orlando businessman named Jep Thornton did. Wood had met him in early 1996 in Dublin, while producing an album by the British pop band Placebo. Wood and Thornton, a business partner of the father of Placebo’s bassist, became friends, and after it became clear that Wood couldn’t afford it, Thornton decided to open the studio himself. With Wood as a consultant, he began contacting investors, and by April 1999 construction had begun. Wood has no financial stake in Engine except as an employee–as a producer-at-large, he plans to do a lot of work there. But he’ll have a long commute: days after Engine officially opens, he, his wife, Maria Suarez, and their two-year-old daughter are moving to Los Angeles. “We don’t want to be here because of the weather,” he says. “I’ve lived in this area for 35 years. I want to go somewhere else.” The studio will be run on a day-to-day basis by Cash Money guitarist and former Idful employee John Humphrey.
Since Idful closed, Wood has remained busy with both local projects–he worked on albums by Phair and Smashing Pumpkins, and produced Diane Izzo’s debut and Verbow’s forthcoming sophomore effort–and national ones, including the cast recording of the Broadway rock musical Hedwig & the Angry Inch. But he believes moving to LA “will probably force me to confront the issue of my career. Either it’s going to go to the next level, where I’m hopefully working on multiplatinum records, bigger artists, or it won’t, but I’ll be happy with either one. I think staying in Chicago has delayed that reckoning–it’s like being stuck between two worlds.”
In related news, Brian Deck–one of Wood’s original partners in Idful–and onetime Idful staffer John McEntire have opened new studios of their own. Deck, who says he “handed over my share of the debt” upon parting ways with Wood in 1992, actually launched Clava last fall–as a fully equipped mobile studio. “For three or four years it seemed like every record I did was done in someone’s rehearsal studio or living room,” he says. “I only ever got into the studio at the mixing stage. I thought by putting together a good studio in road cases I’d be the busiest guy on the planet. But as soon as I had it set up, every single band I worked with needed a studio.” So when Deck was hired to produce the major-label debut of Olympia indie rockers Modest Mouse in August, he used the money to build Clava a three-room home adjacent to the south-side offices of Perishable Records, which is owned by his primary financier and Red Red Meat bandmate Ben Massarella. But should the need arise, the equipment can still be transported and set up anywhere in about half a day.
McEntire started his studio, Soma, in 1994 while still working at Idful. He envisioned it as a modest home facility where he could record his own bands, including Tortoise and the Sea and Cake. But as his reputation spread, friends and acquaintances began recording there as well, including Trans Am, Snowpony, and Stereolab. “I never really considered it a commercial venture until after Idful shut down,” says McEntire. “Then I started thinking more seriously about places to work, and I wanted to work on a two-inch [tape] machine, not just a computer.” In fact, however, McEntire’s digital production skills are one of Soma’s major selling points–he recorded and produced Tortoise’s TNT and Stereolab’s Dots and Loops almost entirely on computer. His impressive collection of analog synthesizers, which is available to studio users, is another.
About a year ago McEntire rented a raw space in Wicker Park and built the cozy new Soma. Its first session–Casey Rice recording Joan of Arc–is scheduled for this week; McEntire plans to record Tortoise in January and the Sea and Cake in February. He hopes to re-create the friendly, relaxed atmosphere of Idful in a way the behemoth Engine can’t. “Idful was kind of the neighborhood place,” he says, “and in a sense I’d like to have that appeal here as well.”
The lineup for Lounge Ax’s two-week farewell blowout is falling into place; at press time it included Seam, Red Red Meat, Tortoise, the Flying Luttenbachers, Cheer-Accident, a tribute to the late Doug Sahm featuring a host of alt-country favorites, Wilco, Man or Astroman?, Giant Sand, Calexico, Eleventh Dream Day, Shellac, Scrawl, and the Coctails.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.