When I first sat down with Jerry Kee of Duck-Kee Studios in Mebane, North Carolina, I didn’t even realize we were coming up on the 30th anniversary of the recording of Superchunk’s self-titled debut album, helmed by Kee. Many would point to that album as the one that led the indie music world to first take notice of Chapel Hill, NC, the small college town in which Superchunk were formed. Duck-Kee has tracked the likes of Polvo, Sorry About Dresden, Tift Merritt, The Strugglers, The Kingsbury Manx, and many others. Having known Jerry for nearly 20 years now, I know he’s far too modest to take any credit for even having a small part of the creation of a Chapel Hill “scene,” but his history speaks for itself. I spoke with Jerry about that history, the fire that nearly destroyed his home (in which Duck-Kee is located), and what he’s been up to recently. While we had this conversation pre-COVID, it’s interesting that we got into a few things that resonate even more today: The power of communities, working from home, doing more with less, making do with what you have, and, ultimately, being grateful for whatever that might be.
How did you first get into recording?
I definitely got into it from the aspect of writing songs and wanting to record them. Recording other people wasn’t particularly an ambition. A friend of mine had a 4-track reel-to-reel – a Dokorder – I used to borrow it and record on it. Then when I got out of college, I could afford to buy some gear. I was recording myself, and some of my friends, but mostly myself. I was playing all the instruments and learned how to do it as I went along.
Then did you move into helping out more friends?
It mostly came about from knowing Matt [Matthews, of Schoolkids Records]. I recorded one metal band before that, in ’85, which was pretty funny. I was in an apartment when I first moved to Raleigh, and they all came over to sing vocals. It was these five guys singing “Oblivion!” at the top of their lungs,; a policeman walked up the steps and into the apartment, and we said, “Oh, hey!” [laughs] But that was the only time that happened.
By the time I started to become aware of you, you had been recording for about 20 years.
Yeah, I started doing the 4-track, reel-to-reel in the late ‘70s. And then I bought studio gear in the early ‘80s. That was the one thing with the studio – it was fun meeting the people, but with all the money I would make recording I’d just buy more equipment. I had a part-time job that covered my rent, but anything else I made went back into the studio. It made it that much more fun, I guess. [laughs]
When you were first getting started, did you have any mentors?
My friend back in West Virginia that owned the Dokorder, he got me into playing guitar and got my foot in the door writing songs. His name was Rick Lee. I did take a workshop around ’85 or so; it was in Zebulon [NC]. It was half-business and half-studio, and the business guy was the guy that had managed Nantucket and those kinds of bands that were big in the ‘70s. He basically told stories. [laughs] Then we would go to the studio… that was the first time I ever got a book on mic’ing, as well as actual advice about recording. I wound up working there for a little bit, and even taught the workshop one time. So, that helped a lot; seeing what can happen. That was my first time in a nice, 24-track studio. That opened up my eyes a bunch.
You had a hand in albums that put Chapel Hill on the map back in the ‘90s. Was there a feeling that something was about to happen?
Well, there was a lot of music, so I never thought of it as something that “bloomed.” It seemed like something that was going on, and I became more aware of different people [making music]. I met Mac McCaughan [Tape Op #76] in a band called Wwax before he was in Superchunk. That led to another band he was in, Slushpuppies; it was a funky, funny band. I’m not sure where exactly we met, but Wayne Taylor and Brian Walsby were also in that band, and I started meeting people through Matt at Schoolkids. I gave him a tape of a band I was in, and we talked; he was into recording. He brought over a group called Blackgirls, with Dana Kletter. From there, I started meeting more people and one group led to another. There was a lot going on already, and the whole “scene” thing was just outside people becoming aware of it. Superchunk were pretty young. I guess they were teenagers. Angels of Epistemology… they were just out of high school. I guess everybody was pretty young, and it was all beginning, in a way.
It’s cool that they’re all still involved in music.
It is pretty amazing. That’s the best sign of success, as far as being content with what you’re doing.
I’ve noticed the incarnation of Duck-Kee always has numbers referring to the version of the studio. What number are you on now?
Since the fire I was calling it 8.5. 8 1/2 is one of my favorite movies; it’s a Fellini movie. I guess when I was in Bickett, before this place in Raleigh, I needed a name for the studio. I was recording other people; I thought about it, and it was about the seventh place I had been set up to record. A couple places in Annapolis, in my parents’ house when I started, a couple places in Raleigh. I thought, “Seven is a great number,” so I called it Duck-Kee Number 7. Then I moved here, and called it 8, and talked about going to 9 after the fire. But then I thought, “8.5 sounds good.”
What was it like as recording started moving out of analog and into digital?
Well, it wasn’t sudden; it was kind of easing into it. At the time, I had a 16-track, 1/2-inch machine. Most of that work from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, up to about 2000 or something, was recorded on it. Digital was coming out and I got one of the digital 8-tracks and synced it up to the 16-track, so I was kinda both for a little bit. I would have 16 tracks – well 15 tracks – of analog and 8 tracks of digital. I remember doing that for a bit. The next thing was I went further into analog and I got a 24-track MCI machine. Then I started using software to record the mixes – just 2-track – so I could make a CD for somebody. I don’t remember when I went ahead and got a multitrack version of the digital recorder, but it was in there somewhere that I had the 24-track tape deck. Digital recording had become much better, and computers were more affordable. For a while I used both, and then as analog tape got more expensive, I would start a project on analog and move it to digital. We reused the tape. But tape got so expensive, nobody had the budget for it. I was using it less and less, and when the fire happened it was something I couldn’t replace. I had thought about trying to sell the MCI before that, since I wasn’t using it so much, but the resale value was not very good.
What do you think gets the best sound?
My first thought is that digital sounds fine to me. But in reality, I probably do think the 24-track was more cohesive. There was something about it that glued everything together; that talk about tape saturation. But I don’t have any problems with the way digital sounds. It’s definitely gotten better and better. And then there are the benefits of being able to have a track with just the tambourine, instead of the backing vocals and the tambourine and the lead guitar on the same track. Mixing is much easier.
Yeah, and probably a lot faster?
I think so. Although some people miss that thing of three people at the mixing board, where you have to turn this on and off, you have to turn this from 5 to 0, and have to turn the EQ off here. That was fun, in a way. But someone would take the mixes home and say, “Man, it’s great, but I wish I had done this on the second chorus.” It would be so hard to recreate what they took home. On digital, it’s easy to recreate. There are definitely big pluses to it.
You mentioned the fire. How long ago was that?
It was the end of January 2018.
I imagine that had to be a traumatic thing. Did you wake up to it happening?
Yeah, it was a Saturday morning, and I had done sound the night before. I woke up around 7 and was like, “Well, I can go back to sleep. I don’t have to get up.” I sort of smelled smoke, and almost went back to sleep, but I got up. It wasn’t a huge fire, but I freaked out. I tried to put it out, but I did a lousy job. [laughs]
Where was it happening?
I think it originated in the control room, underneath the window to the studio room. It was stupid human error. I had a heater I left on that I shouldn’t have. This friend of mine, Kenny Shore, that I’ve known since the ‘80s was working on a solo album. He was scheduled to record the day of the fire. He lives in Winston-Salem and I couldn’t get in touch with him. He showed up about 1 o’clock, and the fire was basically done. He’s also a psychotherapist, so he was the perfect friend/person to be there to hang out with through the afternoon and talk with.
People responded in a big way. How did that feel?
It was pretty amazing. I’m kind of an introvert. I’ll meet a lot of people, and we have a lot of fun while we’re recording, but I don’t necessarily keep up with them. The studio had slowed down, so I wasn’t recording as many people as I used to. I had had a day job for about a year. Friends like Sara [Bell] and Nathan [Brown] came over and were helping me clean out right after the fire. Sara took some pictures. She’s in a band with Kirk Ross, who does a lot of writing, and she talked with him about it. His opinion was, “Let the people do a benefit for you. It’s a community thing.” It was a little bit hard to say yes. But I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. It was more than I expected. The benefit was at a couple different places, on a couple different nights, as well as the online thing. The response was incredible. One of my sisters said, “Well, you got that little bit of insight, as far as what people may say about you after you die, but you didn’t have to die.”
Did the fire force you to do anything differently, and maybe better?
I went ahead and committed more to digital rather than try to duplicate what I had with the mixing board and the recorder. I went with the basic computer, interface, and some preamps. It’s much simpler than it was before. I used to have a lot of different kinds of preamps, and now I have three or four different ones. So, it was simplified. One benefit of that is location recording is easier and better.
The studio is also your home. Living so close has some benefits, but I suppose there are some drawbacks as well?
I’ve always liked it a lot, and still do, but I realize there are also drawbacks. I love being in the middle of everything. I love being able to reach for a guitar and being able to record whenever I want, or get up in the morning or in the middle of the night and play with a mix. I’ve always enjoyed that. As far as a business goes, it was not the best choice. I guess I got into the business through the back door; I already had the equipment, and I met people to record. I didn’t think about going to another location to record, or to get a storefront. I wasn’t making that much money. Over the years, I’d think about it every once in a while. I guess the main thing is that I’m a bad business person. I think you have to have some business chops to organize, to lease a place, rebuild it, and get the funds needed to do that. I never had that much money together at once. It was easier for me to continue as I was. When I moved out to Mebane, we did more construction than I’d ever done. A large booth, a small booth, caulking up the holes everywhere, and doubling up the walls. I felt more professional; I could do more that way. But still, I was rescuing cats there for a while, and that’s not the most professional thing to have in a studio! Some people don’t like cats, or they are allergic.
I’ve always preferred the home studio setting, because I like that relaxed vibe.
Yeah, it goes well with the way I record, and the way I want to record. I don’t want it to be a high-pressure thing. I knew it was a bit of a drawback, but I didn’t worry about it too much and I carried on.
Recording drums can be so challenging. Do you have a standard way of recording drums?
I do have certain things that I usually do, but that we can change depending on the drummer. I agree with you that the whole drum thing… every session is a little different and you don’t know what it’s going to be like. The drums themselves, and how they sound; but also the drummer, how they hit and how they play. Are they busy? Are they simple? Since I’ve had a little more room, I’ve been doing that Glyn Johns [Tape Op #109], three-microphone thing: one overhead, one in the front, and one on the side. And also recording a close mic of each drum. So, I’ve got choices; I can have more of the room mics or the close mics. Some people like to have more mics up, like the bottom of the snare drum and the hi-hat. I don’t always do those, but if somebody wants to, that’s fine. Or maybe if the snare sounds a little funky to me and that’s the best way of getting some snap, I’ll do that. Some people want less mics and want to keep it as simple as possible. That’s fine with me, too. But yeah, I do have mics that I go to, probably more than others.
What are your go-to mics for drums?
I love this little clip-on Beyerdynamic [TG D58c] for snare drum. I love the way it sounds. It’s a little condenser, and it’s easy to locate; it doesn’t get in the way. I never have to put much EQ on it. Sennheiser MD 421 is pretty standard on toms, and I like them a lot. I’ve been using this King Bee mic from Neat. I bought one for location recording; it wasn’t very expensive and it sounded good using it for drums, vocals, and acoustic. Then I realized that the prices were coming down, and now they only sell them for a hundred bucks. I’ve been telling everybody to get one! [laughs] Now I have three of them. That’s what I use for the room mics for the drums; for the overhead, front, and side.
I’ll check those out!
Yeah… even Amazon is selling them; it’s weird. They were around $345, and now they’re selling them for $100. They’re way worth it. It’s a perfect mic to have for doing vocals. Blue [Microphones] has also been a favorite. I had this Blueberry that I used a lot for vocals and it always sounds good in a mix, so I use that a lot. Sometimes the mic you always go to doesn’t sound good on a particular person, so it’s great to have choices.
You’re a drummer and a guitar player. What are you doing currently, as far as playing music?
I play drums in a band called Stray Owls. That’s a trio without a bass player; instead it’s two guitars and drums. We have a record that we’re just about finished with [Versus Time and Space]. I still play drums in Regina Hexaphone, with Sara Bell. We don’t get together regularly, but we play a few times a year or more and that’s always fun.
I’m curious if there’s anything you can think of that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the due that you think it deserved?
Two big ones come to mind. I was in a band [Dish] with Dana Kletter back in the ‘90s, and she is someone that’s such a tremendous musician, songwriter, and singer. We made an album that we loved [Boneyard Beach]. It was on Interscope Records, and it went nowhere. I wish things would have gone smoother for her. But she wound up teaching and she wrote a book. She’s doing fine. The other would be Geezer Lake. Did you know those guys?
[laughs] I love those albums! We did three, and each one of them is different. They’re all good, and I love that band. That was the first “heavy” band that I got into.
I always think of Superchunk when I recall that time, but what was the first record you worked on that started to get some notoriety?
Probably Superchunk’s “Slack Motherfucker” single. It seems that got attention. But Polvo was really good and made a big impression.
I just looked up Superchunk, and you’re coming up on 30 years ago, this January, that their debut album was recorded in your studio in Raleigh.
It’s hard to get my head around all of this sometimes!