While urban sprawl hasn’t siphoned the heart and soul completely out of Santa Barbara as it has from so many communities across the country, there is no denying that the face of our city center is but a shadow of its former self. And as corporate America tightens its grip on State Street, it’s more than just the local businesses that are falling by the wayside. Lurking amongst the drainpipes under the floorboards of what is perhaps best remembered as the home of Earthling Bookstore on the corner of State and Anapamu was the city’s cultural heart.
The sign atop the stairwell there might have read “City Storage,” but by venturing down into the subterranean maze of units that occupied the building’s basement, one was quickly thrust into a den of creativity. There, artists and musicians not only found sanctuary from the commotion of the city that operated overhead, but also the opportunity to mold a unique and dynamic creative community of their own. The rehearsal rooms and recording studios behind the facility’s nondescript doors gave rise to an abundance of bands and recordings that rose from the basement’s depths to grace the amps, speakers, and soundboards of venues throughout town.
When Zach Madden and Mike Echternacht established Corporate Nightmare Records and decided to run their emerging musical enterprise out of Madden’s City Storage-based recording studio, little did they know how unfortunately ironic their moniker would prove to be. As Copeland’s Sports closed its doors on the street level, the tenants that had turned their various storage units into a thriving and creative hive were forced to pack their boxes too. And when the building began being overhauled in preparation for the arrival of an Old Navy, the basement was also designated for renovation, introducing its occupants to the harsh realities of the Santa Barbara property market.
“There were a few things that drew us to that location,” recalled Madden. “I knew a few of the people that were already down there and had set up studios. The rent was unbeatable and the landlords didn’t mind us making music. As long as we weren’t blasting out during business hours, they were super cool with it. With that, a bunch of us set up recording studios, while some of the local bands used other units as rehearsal spaces. It was great atmosphere. There were always people around doing things, so there was always someone to hang out with.”
In being the first to occupy one of the units for creative pursuits, Santa Barbara musician Lance Parker forged the way into the basement for many to follow. Parker introduce Craig Costigan to the location and, with his recording facility quickly outgrowing both his garage and wife’s tolerance, he subsequently set up a studio in the building’s basement. Other occupants have included producer Bruce Winter and the band Rey, which was Rey Villalobos’s act before he created The Coral Sea. But with the arrival of eviction notices came new leases for several of the underground occupants. Winter moved his set up to Reinhold Heil’s studio, while Madden and Costigan combined both their expertise and equipment to establish a new recording facility in GoletaCorporate Nightmare Studios.
“It was a real scene down there,” offered Costigan. “Zach would be working on a record and I would have a band in doing a record. Bruce would be there working on a soundtrack, Shaun Kennedy would be tucked away in his corner writing, the Bruce Winter guys would be hanging out-so we would have five or six bands down there at a time milling around and everyone knew what everyone else was doing. And it was close to Roy’s, which was also important.”
“Roy’s lost a lot of business when we moved up here,” Madden added. “And the Mercury Lounge has been the beneficiary! But we have definitely managed to capture a lot of the magic of the old place up here.”
Corporate Nightmare Studios was christened by The Coral Sea, who recently headed in to set up and record the much anticipated follow-up to 2005’s Volcano and Heart. With Costigan handling the initial tracking, Madden and Villalobos began working together to bring the recording to life. The result is a sprawling musical masterpiece titled Firelight. Dark and edgy, the album is a not only a gorgeous testament to Villalobos’s considerable musical talents-it’s also evidence of the quality of the facility itself.
“With the old place, we were basically working in a basement,” explained Madden. “It was a weird abnormality where we always had to be on the down low. In setting up here, we can now raise our profile. And the sound quality here is just so much better. The Coral Sea album was recorded pretty much live, then sent through a bunch of old gear to give it the sound we wanted. This room sounds amazing and it gave us so much to work with. There was just no way we could have made a record like this one down there.”
Along with the new Coral Sea album, the studio is currently playing host to in-the-studio artists like The Spires, Ray Fortune, The Mutineers, and former Buffalo Records proprietor John Healy’s longtime creative chariot Plateaux. Not to be outdone by his artistic side, the label portion of Madden’s musical interests is also hitting a creative high. Inspired in part by their new home, and even more so by the catalogue of talent the label is currently boasting, Madden and Echternacht have recently released a promotional compilation recording of Corporate Nightmare artists destined for radio stations around the country.
With contributions from Nice: On Ice, Kinothek, White Fires of Venus, along with offerings from Bruce Winter and Madden himself, the record offers a sonic snapshot of not just the label’s musical aesthetic, but also of music in Santa Barbara. And lucky for us, the compilation will be complemented by a Corporate Nightmare night at SOhO on Thursday, August 31, where the label mates will be able to bring their live show to the masses.
The defining characteristic of label and studio alike is the sense of community that drives all of their creative undertakings. While Madden’s two musical enterprises might have evolved in a maze-like burrow underneath State Street, it’s been Madden’s “coming out” that has allowed him to confidently share his hard work with so many more people. State Street might be changing, but the heart and soul of Santa Barbara is still here. It has just moved up the road a little.
Corporate Nightmare’s showcase, featuring Zach Madden, White Fires of Venus, Kinothek, and Nice: On Ice, will take on SOhO (1221 State St.) next Thursday, July 31 at 8 p.m. Call 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com for details and ticket info.