Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Industry Interview: Bruce Robb, Founder of Cherokee Studios

Pictured above: Bruce Robb behind one of Cherokee Studio's famous Trident A Range consoles

We sat down with Bruce Robb, Founder and longtime owner of the former Cherokee Recording Studios, the site where the Lofts @ Cherokee Studios will now reside. This piece of Rock-n-Roll history right smack in the middle of Hollywood was one of the grooviest places to be if you were a rock star back throughout the last three decades. It went on to continue a long legacy of remarkable recording, opening its doors to everyone from Chaka Khan to David Bowie, Ice Cube to Christina Aguilera. Bruce Robb gives us his personal take on the legacy that Cherokee Studios left us, and exciting future of things to come.

BR on founding of Cherokee Studios:

We (me and my brothers Dee and Joe) believed that our approach to a recording studio was unique and different enough that there was an opportunity in the industry for us. At the time we started Cherokee, the emphasis was so much on the technical recording process and not enough on the art and the music. Studios were being run from a corporate mentality… “sign in, sign out” and then here’s all the rules. Artists don’t tend to respond well to all that confinement.

What people used to say about Cherokee was that we had this incredible “vibe” and that it was creatively inspiring. But what they didn’t notice was that yes we had the relaxed vibe, but we also had one of the largest technical staffs of any studio. We had 7 full time techs working back in the day, but they were not in your face. We intentionally kept it that way so that the focus was on the music. In spite of how we may have looked with our colored lights, incense and laid back setting, we had the best techs and designers working on new gear and tweaking out everything we had around the clock.

Bruce Robb playing Hammond B3 as member of 'The Robbs' in the mid-60s

We weren’t studio owners from a managerial sense – we were artists who became producers and engineers years before we even built the first Cherokee ranch. We actually got in to the technical side in order to defend our own music. There was a time when “rock-n-roll” was not welcome in recording studios and the engineers would intentionally sabotage the recordings. We were forced to learn how everything worked. So, by the time we had Cherokee Studios, we were in the rooms all the time. We knew what was working and what wasn’t firsthand. We were our own biggest customers. When we took over what became “Cherokee,” it was a Westlake designed studio. The rooms were beautifully constructed, but acoustically dead. We called our old friend and acoustic genius – George Augspurger – who we had known since our days at the ranch. Working with George, we acoustically redesigned the studios and control rooms. That is when it became “Cherokee Studios.”

BR on Cherokee’s run:

We thought we could be successful, but we did not expect it to do what it did. We never imagined the studio taking on this legendary status. We already had a small clientele from our ranch – artists like Rick Nelson and Steely Dan. So, we hoped to continue to grow that. We had no idea that we would inherit the previous studio (MGM) clients like Frank Sinatra. And, Bowie literally just showed up one day in a limo, walked in to Studio One, played a chord on the piano and said, “Cherokee… this will do nicely.” Rod Stewart was much the same way. I guess he heard about us over at Record Plant and decided to come see it in person. My brother Dee and Rod hit it off and Dee engineered several records for him. Rod ended up doing something like a dozen gold and platinum records with us.

Cherokee Studios conference room

BR on selected Cherokee stories:

There were a couple of decades when owning the studio was like owning the best nightclub in the world. You could go there literally any hour of the day – any hour – and something exciting and creative was going on. If you couldn’t sleep at night, you could just head to Cherokee and find KISS in one room, the Cars in another and Duran Duran in another. We didn’t have the closed doors, private lounge policy. One group would need a guitar lick and would just go grab a famous player from another band to come in and play. It was so creatively open at that time. (I really miss that.) Some really great relationships were forged at Cherokee because of the shared lounge and open atmosphere. For example, this is where David Bowie met Frank Sinatra. And I remember one day coming in to the lounge to find Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme sitting at one of our big restaurant booths with Motley Crue. Steve was teaching them the proper technique to light a cigar.

Long time Cherokee Studios client, Joan Jett of The Runaways pictured above with Bruce Robb

BR on what he has been doing since Cherokee’s closure:

Before Cherokee officially closed, I had already been preparing for the transition. We had a great run. I had the best experience of my life – maybe of many lifetimes... But I was also ready to migrate away from running a large commercial recording facility. Things have changed so much in the last two decades. Ironically, the way we landed at MGM was because we had been locked out of our little ranch studio by the Sheriff’s department in Chatsworth on the grounds that we were “running an illegal home studio.” And, now thirty years later, things had come full circle and I was ready to fold back down to a great one room private facility, much like I had at the ranch.

Cherokee Studios will continue in to the future, but now it will be more of a hub for my other creative endeavors. I have several offshoot companies that I formed with my partner Tiffany Downey in the last few years. We have a production company (Bruce Robb Productions), a boutique indie record label with publishing entity (Quarter 2 Three Records & Quarter 2 Three Publishing), a studio design firm with George Augspurger (A&R Studio Design + Construction), and I’m about to announce a new audio equipment company that I’m very excited about that will offer a line of high-end class A analog recording products that are being built by hand here in the U.S. And, we are hoping to announce the location of that great one room studio by Cherokee very soon.

In addition to my own projects, I continue to stay busy producing, engineering, recording and even playing. Yes, I still play B3 as much as I can. It is always just about the music with me.

BR on the preservation of the history of the Cherokee landmark:

I find it very sad when culture landmarks disappear like The Derby, Chasen’s, The Tropicana (the infamous rock hotel on Santa Monica Blvd. where every famous musician lived when they came to L.A.) and The Weiner Factory – now that one may not qualify as a landmark, but I can tell you that my friend Steve Cropper cried when I told him it was gone. The prospect of Cherokee becoming a fruit basket store or one of the many different scenarios that were being proposed was a little depressing. I couldn’t be happier with the choice to take the property in a direction that pays homage to the historic relevance of the site. This truly is a Hollywood landmark. In addition to the musical heritage from Cherokee, MGM and Don Costa Studios (Frank Sinatra’s producer), this building began as one of the earliest studio’s soundstages – Republic Pictures in the 1920’s. Now instead of becoming a gourmet grocery store with a little plaque on the wall, it will hopefully spawn another generation and more of art and music as the Lofts @ Cherokee Studios. If you are one of the lucky ones who end up living here, how can you not be inspired by the association with Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, Michael Jackson… are you kidding?

BR on how the Lofts @ Cherokee Studios project was conceived:

Our facility was a difficult building to sell as a studio – we were too big for most artists looking for their own room and the commercial studio business had been in a contraction for a decade by the time we went on the market. One day my girlfriend Tiffany drove me over to a couple of sites where live/work lofts were being developed and the idea was born there. We didn’t know anything about zoning, setbacks and all that stuff, but we just started pacing things off and penciling sketches based on our lot size and figured we could fit about 12 units (ironically, that ended up being the real number). We presented the idea to my brothers and the concept of live/work lofts designed for musicians got everyone really excited. At that point we told our broker to bring us developers only. Our second developer meeting was with REthink – the rest is history. Steve and Greg came in with the green approach, which took the project to a whole new level.

BR on his involvement with the lofts:

Once REthink came in to the picture, it really became their development. We have remained involved with our brand and the aspects that relate to any of the use of the space for music related purposes. Through our company A&R Studio Design + Construction, George Augspurger and I have consulted on construction techniques for increased isolation and acoustic treatments for the units being prepped as potential music production spaces. The future buyers will be offered the opportunity to work with George and I to complete these spaces that have been given preliminary treatment in order to reach the appropriate level for their needs and acoustic tastes. For these musical buyers, George and I will take the room to final tuning and even assist with selection of equipment if desired.

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