As the guiding light of twang-raunch-rock stalwarts Southern Culture On The Skids, singer/ guitarist/producer Rick Miller has steered the band through over 30 years of musical adventures, spanning lo-fi DIY recordings, major label plot twists, the endless touring road, and, eventually, the emergence of Kudzu Ranch Recorders, a super-versatile, comfortable recording studio in rural North Carolina. In addition to his band SCOTS, artists like The Fleshtones, The Woggles, Dexter Romweber, and scores of others have made remarkably exciting-sounding records at Kudzu with Rick. There seems to be something about the rec-room informality of the studio that encourages fresh, live sounds and performances. Over the years, I’ve tracked a few projects at Kudzu Ranch (Two Dollar Pistols’ You Ruined Everything and Lud’s Defenestration Boulevard) and gotten to know Rick (plus drummer Dave Hartman and bassist-singer Mary Huff of SCOTS) pretty well. I’ve been lucky enough to have my band open for them a few times, and it is always a gas – an instant party, full dance floor, groovy, slinky guitar and bass lines, stand-up drumming with a snap reminiscent of NRBQ, fried chicken, banana pudding, and surprises such as… well, the latest I witnessed was an actual wedding onstage at The Sinclair in Cambridge, MA,. with Rick officiating the ceremony and the band providing music for the happy couple’s first dance! Rick later quipped, “You know, in both recording and marriage – we like to think that fidelity matters!”
Kudzu Ranch Recorders acts as the musical headquarters of Southern Culture On The Skids, but it is also a fantastic “clubhouse style” recording studio. Can you give a brief history of the place?
Well, we’ve always had a studio, going back to the beginning of the band in 1984. It grew. The Kudzu Ranch started out as a rehearsal place with a little Tascam Porta One; every place we’d move, it would move with us. I found this current place [a house with a detached building] in 1999. I bought it for the outbuilding; I put one wall in, closed up one of the bays, and turned it into a studio. I love the absorbent and reflective quality of raw cinderblock and concrete floors. [laughing] It really evolved out of a practice space, and has had more of a clubhouse flair than a [traditional] studio [vibe]. When we got signed to Geffen Records in 1994, I was living at an old abandoned gas station. I eventually moved from there to here, because I was looking for a bigger studio. This place has an old garage bay; it had been a car repair place and a guy built muscle cars here. There is actually a hydraulic lift in the other room!
That’s what I love about it.
Right! It evolved from an artist’s perspective and a rehearsal perspective. I always wanted to make a place with no clocks on the wall; a room where people can come in, get a good performance and a relaxed feel, and nothing is too precious about it.
Did you guys always do your own records from the get go?
No, one of the guys who helped me build this place is Mark Williams, who did our two albums for Geffen Records, as well as the Santo Swings! singles with us down at Reflection Studios in Charlotte, [North Carolina]. He helped me immensely when it came time to pick out some gear – it was all bought with royalties from songwriting for the band. I thought, “Well, what can I do with my royalties that would be smart?” [laughing] I don’t know how smart it was, but at the time it seemed like a good idea to build a studio. We’ve been a band since the cassette days, and we used to sell our cassettes that we made on our Tascam Porta One. When we signed to Geffen, they gave us a little bit of money; I took $1500 and I found a Tascam 8-track, 1/2-inch, a little Mackie 1604 board, a couple of Furman parametric EQs, a Shure [SM]57 and [SM]58, and I had a RadioShack PZM mic.
I remember those! Very handy.
Yeah! [laughing] We started demoing songs.
We actually demoed “Red Beans N’ Reverb” in the garage bay there. When we signed to Geffen, the A&R guy was like, “I love this song.” Before our first record, Dirt Track Date – which we did with Mark in Charlotte – came out, that song got on a soundtrack, and I made more money than I’d ever made before from playing music.
What was the film?
The movie was called Flirting with Disaster. It’s funny, man! Mary Tyler Moore is in it, and George Segal, Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, and Alan Alda. I thought, “Hey, this isn’t a bad racket. There is some money to be made from publishing and recording.” From then on I always had
the studio idea in the back of my mind. We spent a lot of time doing our own demos, but also working with Mark at Reflection in Charlotte, which was a great studio. They had a nice Neve board and a lot of old mics. He’s a great teacher; very open and free with his knowledge. He really helped me a lot in building this place. On our first record we did here, we didn’t have a board yet! But we bought our [MCI] JH-24 – the 24-track – from Mitch Easter [Tape Op #21]. We brought it over here, and we had a Mackie 24 x 8 [console]. We tracked everything through...