Every state and every region has its own unique music scene. However, it can be said that New Jersey has produced more than its fair share of popular music's most iconic, diverse, and influential acts. Frank Sinatra, (William) "Count" Basie, Whitney Houston, Queen Latifah (aka Dana Owens), Debbie Harry, and George Clinton are just a few. And that's not even mentioning Bon Jovi from Sayreville, or the Jersey Shore music community of Asbury Park. In the DIY era of indie groups that caught fire in the 1980s, New Jersey tenaciously held its own, with vibrant post-punk and power pop scenes splattered throughout the state, especially in Sinatra's hometown of Hoboken. (Yes, I too was there, in the front lines of the stylistic battles for the soul of rock 'n' roll with The Bongos.) In 1988, brothers Rick and Kurt Reil formed The Grip Weeds in New Brunswick, combining a Beatlesque melodic jangle with a punchy, New Jersey muscularity. Which brings us to the House of Vibes recording studio in Highland Park. Beginning out of the necessity to record home demos for The Grip Weeds in 1992, House of Vibes evolved into a full-service recording destination for the new breed of New Jersey bands, as well as artists who were passing through. Like its home state, the studio boasts a surprisingly diverse clientele, as well as a sonic output that packs a punch. I sat with Kurt Reil – Grip Weeds singer/drummer and House of Vibes' chief producer/engineer – to discuss the evolution of the studio, and how this house became a home of good vibes and exceptional recordings.

How did you first become interested in recording?

It grew out of being a musician. You're a musician, and you need to record. When my brother Rick and I were kids we both played drums and guitar. By the time we started The Grip Weeds in college, I decided to play drums and he played guitar. But earlier on, when he was about 11 years old, he started recording with a family friend. This was my first experience with recording. It may have been two stereo cassette decks, and they would go and bounce back and forth. By the time you're done, you get this very lo-fi sounding multitrack recording with generations of bounces. In college, once we started the band, we needed a demo. "Oh Rick, you know how to do that." So, we wound up getting our first 4-rack reel-to-reel. I remember we'd started the band; I'd just started working at a job, and it was right around the time CDs came out. I said to my friend, "I don't have enough money for both, but I'm either going to get a CD player or a 4-track reel-to-reel. What should I get?" He said, "The question you should ask yourself is do you want to listen to music, or do you want to make music?" And I went and bought the 4-track.

Was it a TEAC?

Yeah, it was a TEAC 2340 with 1/4-inch tape. We had to do it because we needed demos. We started small, with a 4-track, the most basic of little mixing boards, and the most basic microphones. There was no patchbay; we had to go behind the machine. We were really informed by '60s beat music, or rock music, especially The Beatles.


Our ambitions as a recording act were small. "Let's get a good sound that represents what we sound like live, so that we can be taken seriously and we can get a gig." It taught us all the basics of how to get the sound and how to get the track down in a very primitive way. With 4-tracks, you have to have to plan. I don't think people have that training now because of virtual recording; DAW is all done and connected in the box.

It was such a different world when you had to make records that way, but the results can be magical.

Yeah, because we were engaged in the limitations of it, and we only have x number of things we could do before it was all destroyed by generation loss. You've got to plot your moves like a chess game. What if we want stereo? Well, then that requires a 2-track panning scheme, and that is ruined if we're bouncing tracks around the 4-track. Our first EP [See You Through] was recorded on two 4-tracks. We'd fill up the four tracks on one deck, bounce down to two on the new 4-track, and then add two more vocals there. Usually that was where we'd stop. We did go to some [proper] studios, and we found that the people we worked with didn't quite get what we wanted. We found that the 4-track demos we were making ourselves were more relaxed, more imaginative – and we thought, "Maybe we can make these the record."

So, that's what you did?

Yeah. We had a bass player at the time, Mick Hargreaves. He had a cassette 4-track, and with that he produced his own 45. He went to Water Music in Hoboken to mix it down and put it out as a 45. We're like, "We could do that!" We put out the record, the record got reviewed, and then we got some attention. It got to a label called Twang! Records in Germany, and they said, "What else do you have?" We had a couple of songs that we had recorded in the proper studios, and we put those out in Germany as another 45. Then we thought, "Let's make an album." Now we knew we could go to Water Music to mix it – we'd bring the whole machine because this was semi-pro gear. It was okay, but we didn't get the thunderous bass or bright highs. It has its charms, don't get me wrong. I love the sound of those old machines, but they're limited. Local bands that we were playing with – in New York, New Brunswick, and wherever – would hear it and say, "Oh, that sounds pretty good! Can you record us, too?" I'd say, "Yeah... I think so." [laughter] We'd had some experience recording Jim Babjak from The Smithereens. If there is a mentor to The Grip Weeds, Jim is it. He's our friend, and he was our mentor at the time. The Smithereens were getting their success; they were out of New Brunswick, and it was like, "Wow! This is where we can go. They've made the road map for a band like us to be successful."

What a great mentor to have!

Yeah, I was at Jim's store [Flamin' Groovies Records] in New Brunswick – we used to hang out there – and he played us their first album, Especially For You. Jim is the humblest guy you'll meet, almost to the point of self-deprecatory. He said, "I don't know if anybody's going to like this, but here it is." He plays it, and I'm knocked out. "Jim, if there's any justice in the world, this record's a hit. I feel it." And, sure enough, six months later it was huge. It was on WNEW FM, which was the big New York rock station at the time. And that, to me, was a real measure of success. Then they got on MTV, and they got Richard Barone to open for them! [laughter]

They had a hit on that tour, "A Girl Like You."

During that album, 11, which "A Girl Like You" was part of, Jim wanted to work up demos of his songs and have them ready to go to the studio in L.A. and record them with Ed Stasium [Tape Op #98]. He said, "Do you think you could record me?" I'm like, "Sure, Jim. I'd love to." We didn't have the House of Vibes yet, but I had my little 4-track and we were at my mother's house in my bedroom. Jim was the first client at House of Vibes, which wasn't House of Vibes yet.

That's cool.

When bands that we were playing with at these local shows at Maxwell's in Hoboken, and in New York City, started asking us to record them, that was the impetus that got House of Vibes moving from our little private demo studio to a place where we could make a [real] record – for us and for somebody else. That was the big step, that we would be trusted to do that. We had to measure up. I do remember at times getting a little queasy in the stomach before a session, because I knew that I was being paid to do this now. You can't spend all the time in the world and try to learn your craft while you're on somebody else's dime.

Was there a do-it-yourself attitude that came from post-punk pop music?

Exactly right. There was a DIY thing that crept into it, and, if you can do that, that's pretty cool. You have independence from the big budget you'd need to go into a studio and record. If you don't have access to either money or the studio, how do you get your career going? At that time, it was like, "Well, let's just do it." It was a concerted effort, and a decision we made at the time. We're not going to wait around for the deal; we're going to get on with it.

The name The Grip Weeds refers to John Lennon's character, Gripweed, in the 1967 movie How I Won the War. That always makes, for me, a Beatles connection with your music.

Totally. It's a constant bar of excellence. The Beatles hang over the entire industry. If you're in the type of music that we make – call it pop, rock, or whatever you want – even if you go outside of that to do something a little more orchestral, more ornate, or more produced, The Beatles are there. They did everything. In the early '70s, Emitt Rhodes [Tape Op #33] was clearly Beatles-influenced and did the DIY thing, wrote the songs, recorded, and played it all by himself. Anybody who has done that is definitely of interest to us.

When did you get your own space to record in, and when did it become the House of Vibes?

When he moved out of our mother's house, my brother Rick got a house in Highland Park, New Jersey. I moved in and brought my 4-track with me, and we set up on this little side porch. It was flawed sound-wise because it was the porch of a beautiful 1920s home. But that's where we started to take it a bit more seriously. We would put the guitar amp in the living room – it had wood floors where I could mic it in a nice way – vocals in the bathroom, and guitar amps in the basement. We were running long snakes all over the house. It had its limitations again, but it got us to this next level. We were still working with semi-pro gear – now it was a Tascam 8-track – but, at this point, we started to take on clients, so we were taking the money we made and putting it back into the equipment.

Do you remember what microphones you got first?

Well, we started with the obvious [Shure] SM58s and SM57s. Then we got [Electro-Voice] RE20s. One RE20 came from CBS Studio in New York. I don't know how our bass player got them. We're like, "We can put that on the kick drum because that has good low end response." Having worked with the semi-pro gear, we came from a background of having to find tricks to get the low end that we wanted. We'd have to use extreme close-mic'ing to get it to sound like we thought it should. It was only when we got a 2-inch machine – a fantastic Otari machine, it's still working – that there was the frequency response that we were looking for. Now we could mic normally and find those sounds, because the machine had a good response and would pick it up. We had to unlearn a little bit to work for real with professional gear!

What about this space itself? I love the stone wall.

It's a great diffuser. We were looking for a house, and we would annoy every real estate agent. They're like, "Take a look at the kitchen!" And we’d say, "We want to look at the basement first, and if we don't find what we want we're out of here." They looked at us like, "What's wrong with these people?" [laughter] This was the first place that all of the elements – price, location, a business district where we could take clients, and we could afford it – plus, it had this wall. This playing room is like a rec room. If you go to Sun Records [Memphis Recording Service], it's an ordinary room. Motown was a garage. I went to Western Studio [in Los Angeles] with Richard X. Heyman in the early '90s, and he recorded in the Beach Boys room. I walked in there and thought, "Wow, this isn't very big." These all were just good spaces that held the music well and had a vibe. We came here, we saw the wall, and we said, "Ah! We can work here." So, we bought the place. The control room, where we're sitting now, was a laundry room and there was ductwork exposed because there was no ceiling. I got a vent guy to reroute the vents, we boxed them in, and it helped with the sound. The best solutions are ones that are out of utility. We didn't have a grand acoustic design in here, because we didn't have any money. It was, "Let's get going. Lets' get this place finished." We did the sheet rocking ourselves; there are pictures of Kristin [Pinell, the Grip Weeds' guitarist and Kurt’s wife] with spackle all over her face, sanding in this corner right here.

When did the mixing console come into the picture?

This is probably the fourth console we've had, if we count the early semi-pro gear. It's a Sound Workshop [34C] from the mid-'80s. This console came from Jan Hammer, a great musician. I got to meet him when we picked it up. He recorded with Jeff Beck on this console, and the Miami Vice soundtrack was made on this – it went to number one on Billboard. I'm now the studio that people go to who've worked at their project studio and now they want to mix it for real.

Now you have become the Water Music…

…of Highland Park. The me that came into Water Music with my little track that sounded like a tin can! Now I get to turn other people's tin cans into a real record, so I know the pain they probably feel. [laughter]

What do you think makes New Jersey unique?

New Jersey is a very concentrated state, and it's between New York City and Philadelphia. Where we are now is at the crossroads of those two and the Jersey Shore. So, having all of those areas to go to, to work with, to do shows at, as well as all the bands that are in those areas. Rutgers University is right down the street from here. There's a lot of energy – more so before; there was a real vibrant music scene. There still is, to a point, but there are fewer clubs to play.

There's a lot of music that has come out of New Jersey.

I do think it does have a lot to do with access to the big cities. Because there are so many people in New Jersey, there's a market. It's the most densely populated state, per square mile.

One thing I would say about music that comes from New Jersey, there seems to be a certain toughness about it.

Yeah, I think that too. Living here and the speed of the state; things are quick here and fast-moving. In addition to that, in The Grip Weeds we developed our sound in the clubs. The New York scene was developed, and the CBGB punk thing was happening. We wanted to fit into that, and when you're in the clubs playing live, you have to deliver. You've got to put on a show, to the point where you're going to get their attention and hold it. That is your job, and hopefully you get better at it as you do it. There's something about the power of rock 'n' roll – it holds an audience if it's loud enough and there's an energy to it. The original punk scene had something to do with that, and that informed our sound. But then you get into the studio, and at first it was always, "Let's translate our live sound to record." You have to get to that level.

Later on, you had sessions with The Smithereens.

As I mentioned, Jim had been working here with me. I think he had such a good experience that he said, "Hey, Pat [DiNizio], let's bring The Smithereens in here. I think we can do this locally." The first project was 7th Inning Stretch, Pat DiNizio's ESPN2 reality special. They wanted to use Smithereens songs but didn't want to license the masters from Capitol Records, so Pat said, "Let's re-record them. Let's do the hits." I was the guy to do this, and I was going up against some of the biggest studios. They'd recorded Green Thoughts at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles. They'd worked at the Record Plant, and they'd recorded with Ed Stasium in L.A. They were in some good rooms, with some great producers. This was my entree into how to record The Smithereens. They gave me all their original tracks and said, "Make these sound like they sound."

A baptismal of fire.

Oh, yeah. It was great. At one point we were rerecording "A Girl Like You," – it's a great song. Pat and I had gotten close in the studio; we were working a lot. After this he gave me a couple solo albums of his to do. I did a whole bunch of tribute records with The Smithereens, a live album [Live in Concert! Greatest Hits and More], and the Christmas [With The Smithereens] album. I got into how to work with them, and I was like another member of the band. I said to Pat, "How did you guys get that big guitar sound on 'A Girl Like You?' It's so huge." He said, "I don't know. Let's call Ed Stasium." He's a real nice guy. Pat called and said, "Hey, Ed, I've got Kurt here." I'm like, "So Ed, how'd you get that sound?" He goes, "How'd I get that sound? I don't know. Probably a [Shure SM]57, a Marshall [amplifier], and just put the mic in front." I said, "Really? That simple?" He said "Yeah, probably." I did that, and then I double-tracked, and maybe even triple-tracked, and there was the sound. At another point, I watched DiNizio – on one of his solo projects we did – take his album that we'd recorded and literally slice and dice it. To look at it with a perspective I've never seen anybody do. He played a song and then he said, "Oh, that intro is too long. Cut that out. We've got to go right to the verse. All right, that section there's too long. Let's go right to the bridge." I was like, "Wow!" I had never done this before. With radio you've got to get [snaps fingers] right there.

Yeah. True.

I'd never thought about it. There's Pat, slicing up his songs with abandon. "Oh, shit, that's how it's done." I also learned from him to be prepared when I have an artist of his level. Make sure I don't waste their time. Don't spend too much time getting the sound. Get them set up, because they've got their own rhythm, and they want to get right to it. With Pat, it was, "Come on! Let's go!" After we'd worked together for several years he trusted me, but it took a while to get there. Once you get to that level, you don't want to go back down. Now you've unlocked some secrets of how to get there. A lot of it is magic. The first thing Pat said to me was, "Uh, sprinkle a little fairy dust on this, will ya?" He was paraphrasing The Troggs [in a thick British accent], "A little fairy dust!"* I thought it was a little like, "Yeah, right," but no – they came to me to make a record, and they're looking for me to capture that magic and amplify it. That's exactly right. You've got to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, right?

How did working with Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere & the Raiders come about?

I had worked with Mark by chance at a Cavestomp! series show, which was this garage rock event in New York City. 9/11 had just happened, and I was on the short list of drummers. Clem Burke [of Blondie] was number one, but his wife wouldn't let him fly because of 9/11, so he stayed in L.A. Dennis Diken [of The Smithereens] was second, but he was busy. The list came to me, and I said, "Mark Lindsay? Yeah!" [laughter] I had a connection with Mark that I was surprised by. There was no age barrier, the celebrity thing was out the window, and we were just talking music and connecting. To this day, that's my relationship with Mark; it's like we're in sync. In the studio he always says, "We're the same, man. We're the same."

That's so cool.

Mark is a real producer in his own right, as well as a musician, singer, and songwriter, of course. He was a solo artist after the Raiders. We did the Cavestomp! Show, I did a show or two after that, and then I didn’t see him for a while. We were doing The Grip Weeds’ Christmas record, Under the Influence of Christmas, and the idea was to get some special guests. I wrote this song called “Santa Make Me Good,” and it had to be sung by somebody with an attitude. I don’t know why, but I thought of Mark, and he was into it. We worked with him, he loved it, and then he wanted to come and work here on a project. We did one project, and then we did his rock comeback album, Life Out Loud. He was really back, at that point. I got to play on that, and I was shoulder to shoulder with him, producing.

So, he was producing and you were engineering?

Yeah, and I played on it and sang on it. The Grip Weeds are a '60s-phile band – I was going to say "Anglophile" but he's American! The Raiders were America's answer to the British Invasion. I was working with Mark on his album and getting him back into that zone. Finding those tricks that he did with [producer] Terry Melcher, working at CBS Studios. Mark had all the stories. As we would be doing some harmonies, and he'd say, "We did this trick at CBS. We'd put a little echo before the reverb, and we'd put that on the right channel." He had all the tricks of how to get those sounds. I was soaking it all up working with him. It's like school. Mark was very respectful of me, as well as my approach and whatever I heard. He added to that and framed it, but he also gave me a whole lot of latitude. That's another thing that wound up in the bag of how to do this, and how to make a record stand up and be something special. A lot of it has to do with talent – in this case Mark's singing – and to get him to that place where he can go mad. He would tell me, "I don't know how I sang those records. I'm a shy guy. I would go into the vocal booth and get possessed by the music. When I finished the song, I'd come to and realize, 'What have I done?'" There are incredible performances because the music made him do it. If you can get that excitement out of your talent, that's your job.

Where did you set up Mark to do his vocals?

He was in what we call the "sound booth," which is the bathroom here at the House of Vibes. [laughter] He loved it in there, because he was away from everybody and nobody could see him. He would go mad, screaming with more energy than I've ever heard anybody else have; he was bouncing off the walls in the studio. He told me that he would rip up his voice in the early days of the Raiders. He went to a vocal coach, and they said, "Mark, don't give us everything all the time. Why don't you hang back on the verse and then go full throttle on the chorus?" So, he developed that whispery style and then he would dig in. That's how he interpreted that. That's a trick that I got from him. My attitude is always, "What can I learn?"

How did you end up working with Ladysmith Black Mambazo?

They were in town at the State Theatre New Jersey in New Brunswick, and a friend of a friend was managing them.

They're one of the most famous groups from South Africa.

Yeah, that was a real experience for me. They needed to do a recording, and we're right up the street. I started thinking, "There are ten of them. They're going to be live. How do we do this in this little room?" I got rid of the drums, and I took everything out of the room. Then I was thinking I was going to have to set up at least eight mics. I didn't know how they stood, but I figured I'd set them up in a semi-circle. All the guys walk in, they come in front of the mics, and they start singing. I got to hear something that you never hear on a record, and that is the volume level of a singer in the room. You never get a sense of that. "How loud does that person sing? How loud did Elvis Presley sing?" I don't know. Ladysmith Black Mambazo is ten South African guys, and you could talk over them without a problem.

That's how they get the vocal blend?

Yeah. It was hushed. That was a game changer for me. I realized, "Oh, I don't have to sing at the top of my voice to make a good recording." We can hold back. I don't know what each singer's volume is to get their tone; there are no rules, except you don't want to blow your voice out. It was a mindblower to work with them. A cappella, live, and no overdubbing; because they're a live act. It's beautiful, and so unique. That was a cool, lucky thing to work with them, and – again – I got something from it.

Do you call upon these experiences when you produce a new band?

Yes. My goal with each band is to find out what they're trying to do and help them achieve that. Not what I want to do. I might see something that they don't see; something in their music that they need to hype. That's where I would come into it. But I feel I have to be reverential to their direction or their vibe, because otherwise I'm foisting something on them that they don't want to do. That never works. I've got to find out what they're doing, get hip to it, and magnify it. Each of these experiences helps me to do that, because, even though it's different music, it's the human connection that remains similar. They're all artists making music. When you come down to it, how many notes and chords are there? On the engineering side, it's frequencies and the same rules always apply. There are variables with the player, the instrument, and the way the player approaches it. That's always going to be different and unique. They're going to get something else out of it, and I've got to find a way to translate it.

The Grip Weeds have been played on Little Steven's Underground Garage SiriusXM radio show. You've had 30-plus songs recorded at the House of Vibes that have been chosen as "Coolest Song in the World."

Yeah, it might even be more. The list is growing! Well, it goes back to how we formed The Grip Weeds and the style of music that we set out to achieve or be influenced by. The last one we did was "All Tomorrow's Parties."

The Lou Reed song.

We thought, "Well, this is a curveball for us. We'll make it a little like The Byrds, and we’ll put our own thing in there. We'll take it away from Nico and The Velvet Underground, as far as we can." That's what we did, and Steven picked that song. It was not meant to be a radio track; it was meant to be an album track, but he saw something else. At first, we were just doing what we did, and he connected to that. After a while, we started to think, "What can we do to get on the station?" We wanted to keep this ball rolling, but those always wound up failing. When we try too hard, or think he's going to like it, he goes for something else.

Sometimes success comes when you don't try too hard, when it just happens.

When you overwork a recording, you think you're getting it right. Then you listen back sometime later, and you realize you didn't get it right. You overcooked it. There's that point where you boiled off the magic. The hard thing is knowing where to stop, especially now. There used to be the finite tracks on a recorder that would stop us.

And there used to be a limitation on studio time.

That too. There is something to having a deadline. You wouldn't think it, but it does make a record better because there's an urgency that you've got to get it done. If you have too much time to ruminate and to change – an unending period where you don't have to commit – that can give you some trouble. But there's a point where you get that buzz from the record, and you've got to stop. There's a thing that actors do; there's an arc to a performance. I always look for the arc. Build to a climactic high point where the magic is, and then I'll start to notice it's trailing off. They're trying too hard, thinking too much, and something goes away. After that it's diminishing returns.

There's an ongoing series of Jem Records Celebrates… tribute albums on Marty Scott's Jem Records. These are various artist compilations of the music of John Lennon, Pete Townshend, The Kinks, and Brian Wilson. You've done the mastering and some production.

It's a lot of fun. It's a lot of work. Marty's like a bulldog. He gets in there, and every day I get the call, "What are you working on? We've got to get this done! What's going on?" [laughter] And Marty's very good at marshaling the forces. But I know what he wants; he wants to get the records out there, and so do I. Those are challenging records, from the creative standpoint. How can we take this great songwriter's song and do something with it that hasn't been done? There's nothing worse than listening to a cover version that's a Xerox of the original. They're never as good. We try to pick songs that would benefit from our stylistic direction, and then work with those songs. I get into the art of sequencing the record, and it has to have a flow. It's like a live set; when you compose a setlist, you look for that arc. Then, from the technical point of view, I'm mastering and bringing everything together so that it sounds like it belongs. That's hard.

But you enjoy it?

I've come to enjoy mastering. I did not originally. I look for what I consider to be the best-sounding song on a compilation, and then I try to bring everything else up to that standard, rather than bringing that song down to the other ones. All the songs are working in relation to each other. I don't want something to poke out too much; a bright song next to a song that's muddy. I've got to make them sit together, from track to track. That's the mastering job of every single record ever made; it's just easier when I have them all recorded at the same time.

It's a different kind of job when you have a compilation.

But the thing that is good about the DIY approach, for me, is that I get to do these different things. I would be bored if I was a mastering engineer only. Or, like Bob Clearmountain [Tape Op #129], and all he does is mix. He’s amazing. But I like to be able to have a recording session one day, then I do a mix session, and then I do a mastering session. I can get into the minutiae of it, but a basic tracking session – when I'm tracking drums, bass, and the whole band – that's a whole other level of pressure and intensity. It's nice to be able to do an overdub session, where I'm working on guitar overdubs or vocals, and that's a much more sedate recording session. Then I like to be able to work the track after we've recorded it all, or I like to get somebody's mix and work that. When I get tired of that, I'll go to the mastering room, or I’ll write a song and play. I get to do all those things!

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

Or Learn More