The Boston music scene has a character all its own. It never had the glamour of L.A., the grime of New York or the slick professionalism of Nashville — it's neither hip like Portland, nor weird like Austin. It's just hard-working musicians turning it out night after night, usually after a long day at work. Since 1986, Q Division Studios has been pumping out great music with the same blue-collar mentality as the city that spawned it. Jon Lupfer and Mike Denneen were musicians who started a studio so there could be a place to make music the way they wanted it to be made, and while that's a pretty common idea now, it was virtually unheard of when they first opened their doors. With little fanfare and even less ego, they helped expose the world to music by the Pixies, Aimee Mann, James Taylor, Mission of Burma, Fountains of Wayne, Morphine, Natalie Merchant, Liz Phair, Sebadoh and a staggering abundance of independent and self-financed rock bands. This interview is comprised of two parts: Part 1, in which Lupfer and Denneen recount what they've learned about running a sustainable business in an industry prone to drastic changes — and Part 2, in which studio engineers Matt Beaudoin and Rafi Sofer talk about their nearly 10 years working at Q Division, and how after learning the importance of sharp pencils and file management, it ultimately becomes a job of dealing with people.
Jon Lupfer and Mike Denneen
Tell me how Q Division began.
M: We went to high school together, and we had always talked about starting a production company or something. When we got to Boston, we just decided to do it.
J: We didn't know what we were doing!
Tell me about your first location.
M: It was the 4th floor of an old building in the South End of Boston, on Albany Street. There were 16-foot ceilings, and nobody was paying much attention to the building. Young people could get in there to build a studio, and no one really noticed.
Did you have to do a lot of build-out?
M: Tons. It was an empty shell. We hired two of our friends, an ex-con and one real carpenter.
J: We're not the most talented carpenters in the world, but we got good at "guerilla wiring." We overbuilt it, which turned out to be a good thing, because we could grow into it. We got a lot of help from Michael Blackmer, who is sort of a mad genius studio designer. He's the son of David Blackmer, who started dbx [and Earthworks]. He did a really great job with it. We built a really nice control room, a good live room and it served us well for a long time. We'd swap studio time for work. We spent more time than money.
M: We were the "guerilla recording studio" then — it was basically us and Fort Apache, who started about a year and a half before we did with a similar concept of "musician guys start a studio." All the other studios were engineer-driven.
J: They were sterile, recording-is-a-science environments. We needed work all the time, but we were cheap so we had it!
M: We were $250 for an eight-hour session, and you would get either him or me. We also identified engineers and producers who worked with bands, and we offered them free time.
What was the original setup like?
J: It was a Soundtracks console that we bought from "the guitar store" in town, and a 16-track, 1-inch Tascam, both of which turned out to be much better than you might think. Our best compressor was a dbx 160x, and our best microphone was a [Neumann] U87...
M: ...that I literally dropped the first day we took it out, and the head snapped off. And we had a pair of [AKG] 414s. J: We did a lot of strange things in the early days. I would get a vocal sound with an [Electro-Voice] RE20 and a [Neumann] KM 84 combined, trying to imitate a much nicer mic. It's actually not a terrible sounding combination!
Was there a watershed moment that changed your business situation?
M: One of the first bands we recorded was called The Buddy System, who were on The Basement Tapes on MTV during the first fall we had opened! They were friends with the people in 'Til Tuesday, and that's sort of how we started to meet all these various people.
J: We got in with the synth-pop crowd. I know it's sort of hard to put yourself in that mindset now, but that was a really big crowd back then.
M: So in '87, 'Til Tuesday came in to do pre-production for their third record. They had done half their record, and were demoing the second half before they went to record in New York. They came in for three weeks, and I think that was our first high-profile thing. Then the Pixies came in to do their second record [Surfer Rosa] around Christmas of '87.
Were you able to charge a higher rate because there was a bit more money behind them?
J: No, I don't think we were that smart yet — though I remember when we told them how much it would cost they were sort of like, "What? That little?"
How did the Pixies stuff come about?
J: They had done Come On Pilgrim at Fort Apache. There was some sort of disagreement that happened with their second record, and Paul Kolderie [issue #22] told them they should go to Q Division. I was an assistant on...