Making records: D. James Goodwin, owner of The Isokon studio in Woodstock

D. James Goodwin. (Photo by Monik M. Geisel)

Recording studios are uniquely mythologized businesses, and the myths run the gamut from the Spartan to the Caligulan. One thinks of the top-selling acts camping out in studios (or mansions, or castles) for months at a time in label-footed boondoggles and Bacchanalias of legendary excess (on some occasions detained there at gunpoint by Phil Spector), and coming out the other side with something like Exile on Main Street, or Night at the Opera, or perhaps a total bust for which heads rolled.

On the other hand, we read of Chess Records or Stax cutting hit after solid-gold classic hit in pretty much the time that it takes to play them back: no overdubs, no coddling, and a sound that people still fetishize and struggle to reproduce. We hear the accomplished and famously opinionated rock producer Steve Albini mocking the very idea that studios need to be conducive to mood and creativity, wondering publicly, “What’s with all the candles?”

The recording landscape has changed radically in the last two decades along with every other dimension of the music business, and that’s a story with great resonance and repercussion locally, for the Hudson Valley is and has always been a pretty legendary place to make a record. The lore centers on Woodstock, where giants present and past like Bearsville, Allaire, Dreamland, and one nondescript pink house minted a host of significant 20th-century music.

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But the region is dotted with working professional studios. To list a few is to slight the rest. There are just too many to even get started.

In some ways, D. James Goodwin, owner of The Isokon studio in Woodstock, is a perfectly illogical place to begin an exploration of recording in the Hudson Valley. The self-described contrarian Goodwin is a conundrum: from local stock, his work with many national acts speaks more to a Brooklyn experimental sensibility, the antithesis of the fundamentalist Americana for which the region is most known.

And yet he poses a far more subtle and complex problem than that. In his work with Blitzen Trapper, Kevin Morby, Rhett Miller and many more, Goodwin’s imprimatur is all over the re-imagined, experimental roots rock of the 21st century. He can go as weird as you want, but he has also been behind the board on generational music by the likes of The Hold Steady, The National, New Pornographers, and — get this — Bob Weir.

As a performer and composer himself, has played locally with Ultraam, the groovy improvisational noise band that made huge sonic waves in local venues the last few years. His own recording alias, Snowflake, produces an elegant, sonically complex brand of psych rock with debts to early Pink Floyd and to the Chicago post-rock scene of Tortoise. He is, like the paradoxical Hudson Valley scene, a tough nut to figure.

 

JB: I just blithely assumed, from your credits and connections that your career had been a Brooklyn concern with a Hudson Valley relocation. Not the case!

DJG: It’s natural to assume a Brooklyn connection, but in fact, I grew up in the Hudson Valley, and ended up going to Bard College, dropping out after a year. But in that time, I met Paul Antonell at The Clubhouse, and began engineering there in my late teens. I was always the kid in the band with the gadgets and the four-track, and my father has always been a tinkerer, so I think it was a natural fit for me.

I never fancied myself an engineer or producer until some time later. For me at the time, it was simply a way to record the music I was making, but I had no long-term intention of becoming an engineer. I was a control freak — still am — and I think that informed what I was doing. At any rate, I continued on recording, because it offered a modest paycheck and of course it involved making music, which was my primary focus, and why I dropped out of Bard.

I started making a bunch of records for Eyeball Records, a label out of New Jersey who sort of launched the careers of several early-aughts ‘emo’ bands. I was the guy who produced their less ‘emi’ bands: the weirder and stranger ones. One of the bands I produced was Murder By Death.

After that record, I had begun to realize that I actually loved producing and engineering, and that I was intended to be in that place. And from then on, I was more intentional about my work, and less cavalier. I think it really became my craft at that point. That was in my mid-20s, I guess.

Not long after that, I built a mixing room in my house on Woodstock, and then eventually built what is now The Isokon, where I do most of my work since 2010. And the rest, as they say, is history.

 

With your connections to the Brooklyn scene and specifically to the auspices of a huge, era-defining band like The National, I’d assume the temptation to move south has been ever-present. What keeps you here? The beauty? The comparatively less cut-throat economic environment? A sense that things are “happening” here in Kingston and elsewhere?

I preferred not living in the city, and preferred being surrounded by the trees and the mountains.

Certainly the economics helped, but I never wanted to live in Brooklyn. I had often considered it, thinking it would be a good career move. But as it happened, I just drilled into the Hudson Valley, and made a commitment to make it work here, at all costs.

I never found myself enamored with the cultural vibe here, though I didn’t dislike it. I just didn’t care much either way. I travel a lot, so I have often gotten to experience other places deeply, but as time moved on, I always felt relief coming back here. Maybe it was the combination of being close to the city, but just far enough out to be not only beautiful but affordable.

 

Your credits tell an ambiguous story: you’re a modernist in many respects, fluent in Eno and 20th-century experimental tradition, and people have certainly gone to you for a dose of BK-style avant hip. But many of your records are pop, some of them pretty damn organic in a way that plays well here in the land of Levon. Do you feel you have an ambidextrous quality of being sensitive to traditional song values while also being able to infuse and even undermine them with sonic experimentation, modernist strategies?

Most definitely I think that’s a wound-in part of my aesthetic. I’m not sure it’s conscious, but I’m definitely aware of it. I enjoy the push and pull of competing narratives, artistically. And I’ve always enjoyed the idea of musique concrete pushing against traditional instruments and writing.

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The subversion of a norm is always compelling to me. I think it’s why I work the way I do, and why certain artists might be drawn to my prism, or my lens. I definitely view myself as a bit of a rogue. I’m wired naturally to be a contrarian. I’ve never been smitten with the rootsy, Americana history of the HV, but I’ve always respected it, and enjoyed the fruits of its influence. I think there is an inherent paradox in my aesthetic, both culturally and musically, that finds interesting ways to subvert the historical norm of this area. I probably wear that as a badge of honor, if I’m being honest.

 

 

How aware are you of the region’s historical legacy of notable studios, some pretty legit “big boys” from rosier days like Bearsville and Allaire all the way to heavy composers/arrangers like David Baron or Chris Maxwell and their optimized small spaces? How would you describe the relationships between studio people up here?

I’ve worked at all those places, and it inspired my commitment to making it work up here. Certainly helps that the history works in our favor here. For all of his faults, Albert Grossman had a vision of this place, and it certainly came true in many respects.

I think everyone here is pretty familiar with each other, and quite mutually respectful. David Baron and I have done a ton of stuff together, and Danny Blume, another producer and engineer here. So yeah, I think we all have adopted the ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ approach to each other. And we all do such different things that it’s easy to carve your space amongst it

 

When you worked with Bob Weir, was there any palpable sense of being part of a reinvention, a hip reclamation of The Dead’s legacy?

|Interestingly, he was intent on that record having very little to do with The Dead. It was all cowboy songs from his youth, and that framed the entire thing. Of course, the connection wasn’t lost on me, and the sense of reclaiming the legacy was of course a latent thought, the whole time.

I will admit though: the first time I heard Bob’s voice through the mic, at my studio, the importance of that moment was not lost on me. It was an incredible moment that I’ll never forget.

 

The last decade has seen a traumatically sudden de-professionalization of the recording profession as a result of the virtual disappearance of record revenues. At the same time, many artists started to develop recording competency (and mic lockers!) themselves, and the job of studios became very hybrid and ala carte, not as much end-to-end. You have survived (and prevailed) through all of that. How?

At the risk of sounding pompous, I think it is because I view what I do as an art form. I don’t really think of myself as an engineer, or producer. I’m just an artist, and I have a perspective. I’ve been fortunate in that many people I respect and admire have found my perspective to be valuable to them, and I suspect this is why I have managed to have a fulfilling career, thus far.

Also being a contrarian, I am paradoxically flexible and inflexible in my processes. Not sure how to say that simply, other than to say that I have never been beholden you the traditional patterns of working or soliciting or managing my career. I have sort of done my own thing, in my own way, and that’s fostered some very worthwhile and meaningful relationships over the years

Live music is facing a completely unexpected transformation. How do you think that is going to affect the recording profession?

I’m concerned for smaller artists who rely on touring as a primary means of revenue. I’m concerned they will have to make sacrifices that don’t benefit their creative process. How that manifests itself in the recording world is yet to be seen, but I predict that it may have a somewhat positive effect on experimentation, as people may be more willing to be creative in how they make records.

Records will always be made. I think that this may sort of refocus some of the energy that record-making has lost in the last decade. It might also put a primacy back on the ‘product’ of the ‘record’, rather than the heavy reliance on touring. Whether or not we culturally rise to that moment is yet to be seen, but I am hopeful.