Second set: Oliver Sain's hidden new wave connection
Here’s a theory: everyone should embrace a few things in life that are completely uncomfortable and alien to him or her. We’d be a more empathetic culture if everyone were shoehorned into situations like those in the Morgan Spurlock cable show “30 Days,” in which people with dead-set ideas and opinions are forced into odd fits for a month, with different shades of enlightenment resulting.
Born without an especially pronounced musical gene, I kinda forced my way into a brief musical life. The new wave years were a part of my overall college experience, the same as flunking my senior poly sci portfolio exam and playing a couple seasons of college soccer; all were memorable parts of my college life’s wacky stew. By the time my senior year rolled into mid-terms, though, my band, If It Said, had ceased being and my drums would fall silent, pretty much for good.
I didn’t so much play a drumset as I played a dreamset. That’s because I was more dreamer than drummer, constantly thinking two steps ahead of my talent. Instead of, you know, practicing (done sometimes) or taking lessons (that happened once), I concentrated on imagining complicated ways to score opening gigs. More time was spent laying out ransom-note-style, period-piece flyers for If It Said than working on the craft of percussion, so it wasn’t a surprise that my days as an active player were pretty much limited to ages 18 and 19.
Not that there weren’t some high points. Originally cooking up musical schemes with my high school friend Kurt Groetsch, I found another kindred soul on the Webster Gorloks soccer team. Sean Garcia and I talked music and started sketching out a grand vision of writing original songs, assembling a fuller band, learning some covers, buying a PA and getting free, one-night-only passes to all the clubs that were basically off-limits for us the rest of the year.
Strangely enough, it all sorta worked out. Kurt went away to school in the Quad Cities, but we imposed on him to occasionally make trips back to town for shows, even as we plotted to put together - and keep together - a year-round unit. Over time, we played rooms like the Great Grizzly Bear, back when its Thursday night series was a hugely important new music night. We enjoyed the stage of Cicero’s, Bernard’s, Off Broadway, the Frosty Factory and Gary’s, where we played our final show with the Barking Aardvarks. Few of the gigs made any type of money; and our output didn’t go beyond recording a few demo cassettes, often at the free-to-cheap studios of Webster University.
But there was that one time in the back lot of 4521 Natural Bridge, the home of Oliver Sain’s Archway Sound Studio. That one didn’t really make sense until years later. At which point, the experience felt just as much amusing as sublime.
Legend? Who's a legend?
Over multiple decades, Sain had been a drummer and sax player for hire, a bandleader, a recording engineer and producer and, eventually, something of a cult figure, with some of his 1970s tracks, in particular, drawing an avid audience. Before his death in 2003, Oliver Sain had begun to enjoy a late, richly deserved renaissance in local music circles. And around that time Groetsch, Garcia and I all figured out that we’d recorded a handful of songs with one of our town’s most-authentic musical legends, without so much as a shred of knowledge relating to the man’s career before we rolled into his North City studio a quarter-century back.
At some point in 1987, Sean Garcia cracked open the Yellow Pages, looked up Recording Studios and found Sain’s Archway, then booking at an affordable $25-an-hour.
Cold-queried earlier this week, I confessed that a lot of the memories of the place had faded for me. I played an old, beat-to-hell, blue sparkle drumset, bought out of the basement of a North City bar for $300. Oliver Sain placed me behind a baffling board. And then ... gosh ... there must’ve been more...
“I don't know if I remember a whole lot either,” Garcia writes in response to my query. “I had no idea who Oliver was at that time. Prior to then, I had only recorded on a Tascam 4-track, so this was my first time in a professional studio. I remember the studio being up north somewhere in a shady area, especially considering we were all kids from the ‘burbs. Inside, the studio was very homey and seemed like it had been well-loved. Seems like the recording console was an old, large looking board ... like something you might see in a photo of Abbey Road. I think I did wonder what Oliver thought of us and how we ended up in his studio. We were very young and inexperienced musicians. Oliver was quiet, and I don't really remember him saying much to us during recording and mixing.”
Groetsch writes, “For what it's worth, I have only a few specific memories of the session: 1) Being blown away the first time I heard Sean's harmony vocals on ... ‘Burning Me’? Aside from the Webster University thing Thomas and I did (which decidedly did not feature harmonies), this was the first time I'd heard anything like that from someone I actually knew. Magic! 2) The seemingly endless amount of time it took to get the airplane/helicopter sound done at the beginning of ‘Green Man.’ 3) Thinking ‘Just Another Day’ was the most successful creative endeavor I'd be involved with. … I have no idea how we found the place pre-GPS and Google Maps. Oliver was a good guy to put up with a bunch of naive kids from the suburbs.”
Some of those thoughts did trigger a memory, or two. The helicopter to our anti-war “Green Man” came from a sound effects record, and it took as long to layer that as the recording of other, full songs. And the room was the farthest thing imaginable from today’s clean, efficient, computer-driven studios; a modern studio can be run by a 23-year-old with impeccable skills on his MacBook Pro, but Archway was straight-up historic, right down to the dust bunnies. It was as real as any place I’ve done a project.
Proving that the memory’s crazy-sketchy on this one, I vaguely remember talking to Oliver Sain at something suspiciously like the RFT Music Awards, much later. In that version of reality, I sheepishly told him that I appreciated his recording me a decade-and-change earlier, and that I was embarrassed to have not understood what a moment I was living. If that happened (and I think it did) he was kind to me, told me it was enjoyable, even as he surely would’ve been forgiven for forgetting the whole affair.
Hmm. Sure hope we had that conversation.
Just Another Day | If It Said
Oliver Sain died in October 2003, after two bouts with cancer. He left behind a large body of recorded work, which can be heard on the excellent 2009 compilation CD, “St. Louis Breakdown,” featuring everything from early soul and R/B work, to his disco-inflected mid-’70s cuts. (They happen to be some of my favorites on the disc; there’s a reason “Bus Stop” always gets discussed when mentioning Sain’s sound.) It’s a sampler that belongs in any St. Louis music fan’s collection and does a more-than-representative job of expressing the many phases of his career.
Sean Garcia immediately left If It Said to join a young version of Three Merry Widows, a group that would go on to sign with TVT Records, after a brief stint in Boston. They released the album “Which Dreamed It?” with TVT, before splintering and somewhat reforming under the name Spinning Jenny. After some time in Austin, he returned to St. Louis, where he started Tinhorn, a well-respected rock band with two albums. He currently sings and plays guitar in the fully revived Painkillers, a band writing plenty of new material after two decades of inactivity, punctuated by the passing of songwriter/singer Jeff Barbush. He’s kept it going and going.
Kurt Groetsch finally came back from school and joined the alt-country band Sugarstickygirl, fronted by Mary Alice Wood. After some time in the offshoot Audiotone, he went on to play with the Brandy Johnson-led Drift, which produced a pair of locally released EPs. After departing St. Louis again, this time for graduate work as a librarian, he came back before finally going off to Google Land, where he not only works for one of the highest-regarded tech firms in the world, but serves as volunteer curator for the If It Said digital collections. It’s a role that means not much to many, but a whole lot to a few.
As for Archway Sound Studio, an initial web search provided some interesting, divergent info. One business listing had the place still active, right down to a phone number. A story attributed to the April 2012 The Eleven magazine, meanwhile, said the space was completely empty, with photos indicating that it was up-for-sale. A trip to 4521 Natural Bridge was necessary, and Monday night, just prior to dusk, I was able to get by. After not even thinking of the building for years, a flood of memories that came back as I pulled up and eventually drove through the alley that traumatized us.
The building, now given over to a first-floor hair salon, is a big, broad one, with an add-on commercial storefront. It appeared, solely from a casual glance, that the residential areas above were empty. Some fencing kept a more thorough exploration at bay, but I could detect the area where we would’ve pulled in and loaded in our gear, in the rear of the building. The neighboring houses veered from tight-and-trim across the street, to boarded-up next door. And the most striking memory came from the business just to the west, a walled, compound-style motel that immediately took me back to 1987.
Like a few other buildings of this kind in town - for example, the Black Artists’ Group empty storefront on Washington Avenue at Jefferson - there’s a strong nostalgic longing for something good to happen to the old spaces, which are, really, our own cultural holy grounds. At least in the case of 4521 Natural Bridge, the building’s still up, still there for a potentially different, exalted life somewhere down the road.
Don’t got money, just got hope.