The musical mystique of the scenic Pacific Northwest is world-renown, thanks to the success of a few local bands that sprang up from the damp environment in the early ‘90s—Nirvana, Queensryche, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam. Of course, you can’t have a great music scene without great studios for bands to record in. And hands down, one of Seattle’s best is Bear Creek Recording Studio in Woodinville, Washington. Bear Creek is a quick 20 minute drive from downtown, but the 10-acre horse farm and barn are in a world all its own.
Owned and operated by Northwest natives, Joe and Manny Hadlock, a married couple who purchased the bucolic property in 1975, Bear Creek has been the studio of choice for artists like Soundgarden, Foo Fighters, The Gossip, Fleet Foxes, Kate Tucker, Ra Ra Riot, Metric, Josh Ritter, Modest Mouse, Tragically Hip, Eric Clapton and Lionel Richie. Now Joe and Manny’s son and heir apparent, Ryan Hadlock, is earning his stripes as the studio’s chief engineer as well. As Bear Creek celebrates their 30 year anniversary – a huge accomplishment in such trying times – I asked Manny to share the secrets of their success.
CD: How did Bear Creek get started?
MH: I met Joe in 1970, the first day of college, in Ellensburg, Washington. Joe was putting himself through pre-med as a musician in a rock band. I became the band’s number one groupie and then their manager. We moved to Seattle after we got married and soon fell into a small recording project in a garage in West Seattle. Joe was in heaven in the studio, and it wasn’t long before people were actually paying him to produce their music. Joe won a recording contract at The Apple Blossom Festival battle of the bands, and then recorded a commercial for Washington Apples. He started working with Linda Waterfall as an engineer/producer. Robin Pecknold’s (Fleet Foxes) father was Linda’s bass player and that is how Robin ended up recording at Bear Creek last year. Joe and Ian Matthews of Fairport Convention wrote songs and recorded for Island Records during Bear Creek’s first year. Other bands he worked with in the early days of the studio were the Grass Roots, Dr John, John Mayall and Tower of Power. Plenty of touring bands showed up because we had one of the only two multi-track machines in Seattle. After “Our House,” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young became a big hit (I think that was the song), Joe and I found the farm and immediately started building a studio in the huge barn. Many of our hippie friends helped us, and we paid them back by recording their projects in the years that followed. We landed a great account recording commercials for Rainier Beer. That and a small loan from a bank helped us add the cool vintage gear. (Of course, at that time, it was bright, shiny and state-of-the-art.)
CD: When did you realize you had a real success on your hands?
MH: When Eric Clapton walked into our studio to play on Lionel Richie’s Dancing on the Ceiling album.
CD: How did you get started managing producers and who you have managed?
MH: I made a decision to manage producers the first day I walked into a studio and we decided to build our own studio. As we grew and started working with a wide range of artists, other writers and producers asked if I could help them with contracts and sales. Wayne Horvitz was one of my first outside producers. I did work for Microsoft and large, national ad campaigns at the time and we had more work than we could handle. My daughter Anne brought in [producer] Gordon Raphael after they discovered the Strokes, and I started working with them in New York City. That proved to be a great success. Later, when Gordon and Anne moved to London, I went over to help Gordon set up a label with Sony UK. We ended up briefly working with Regina Spektor on Soviet Kitsch.
CD: When did Ryan become interested in the family business?
MH: Ryan has always worked at the studio. From the time he was ten, he was the kid who cleaned up and set up. By the time he was fourteen he was recording his own bands. His break came when he worked with Black Heart Procession. They were all about eighteen at the time. Ryan went to college to study communications in London and then ended up at Evergreen in Olympia. He came back to Bear Creek as an intern and helped us build the addition of a huge room and a new control room. Around this time Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs brought Ryan to New Orleans for a few projects in Daniel Lanois’ haunted studio. When Ryan got back, he assisted on a Foo Fighters record. Then Blonde Redhead found him through Black Heart. Anne moved to London and all sorts of connections started to happen. She was signed to Shoplifter Records which was run by a wunderkind named Toby who now runs Transgressive Records. They recommended Ryan to their artists and now Ryan has a manager of his own through Transgressive.
CD: When did you know that both of your children were musically inclined?
MH: Anne was always an artist. She was interested in music, poetry and painting. She never watched television. She was always producing something. She played her first show of original material when she was thirteen. Ryan was more of a regular kid and got into music as a player in the neighborhood band. He built garage studios and brought his friends in to record. They had to work for their recording time by mowing lawns, cleaning stables, and doing farm work. Ryan was always a great communicator and stepped into being a producer easily. He has a deep-rooted talent for engineering.
CD: Can you briefly describe the studio itself?
MH: It’s in a century-old barn surrounded by fields trees and a stream running through the middle of the property. The barn is big. There are several large rooms and a whole band can fit in the control room. With a 60 x 40 foot live room and another 20 x 40 space with many isolation rooms, you can record anywhere. There is also an apartment upstairs that sleeps six and has a full kitchen. It is a pretty sight driving in. I am surprised at how many of the artists who record here say they grew up in a place just like this. We get bands from England, Canada, Sweden and Australia so I think we provide a comfortable, easy place to create that eases the stress of recording. We love to spoil bands. And there is a big hot tub a hundred feet from the studio for breaks. Joe is also a consulting in designing other studios. He’s built several in the Seattle area, New York and London, including one for The Strokes.
CD: What are challenges for professional studios since home studios have become so popular and recording equipment has gotten so inexpensive?
MH: We are lucky to have a huge room – you can’t get that sound from a computer – so drums and vocals are still recorded by serious artists in a real studio. The Internet has saturated the web with music, both good and bad music, and shattered the need for labels, who need to sell records to stay in business. We have had to adapt to charging prices we charged 20 years ago because budgets have been halved. It is hard to run a place like Bear Creek that requires a big staff and is also residential. But fortunately, we are booked solid and have been for 30 years. Still, we are affected by the economic downturn. Our staff deserves better pay for sure, but we are getting by.
CD: Is it still fun?
MH: It is always fun to work with amazing artists. Our favorite part is having the band over for dinner at the farm house. Getting to know the musicians and hear about their lives is a reward in itself.I think the engineers and producers love it too, except for the grueling hours that many bands think they need to be in the studio. It is diminishing returns. Bands want the most for their money, but the ears they are relying on need to be sharp. So recording for more than eight hours a day in the long run is not really a good way to go.
CD: I know you have your own background designing stage clothes. How did you get started doing that?
MH: I interned for the Joffrey Ballet in high school and studied art in college. I made clothes for bands, beaded old army wear during the psychedelic days, and I even made covers for gear. I was killer at satin bellbottoms and leather guitar straps. I also made custom sheepskin coats for touring bands. I still love making rock band clothes. I can’t play a note of music and if I sing the bath glass shatters. But I can manage and sew.