Back in ‘the glory days’, if you wanted to be in a band and make music there was a pretty straight path you had to take out of the garage. The first step was you and your mates had to get good. No matter how long it took, there was no way to fudge it, you just had to play everything thousands of times until it was worth spending actual money on putting all your energy and electricity on tape.
In the age of Pro Tools we tend to unjustly glance over these tales of glory as folklore. However, there are still engineers around who have had to not only keep up with that calibre of player, but also form their own ferocious skillset in order to become just as irreplaceable as the musicians they record. This is the depth of history and talent that reverberates through the dimly lit walls of Damien Gerard studios.
Marshall Cullen bought into the business in 1985. The 16-channel recording set up and its satellite rehearsal rooms had been around for a few years, but it wasn’t until Cullen took it over that things started to really cook in there. When asked about his favourite projects to work on over his thirty-plus year career, he speaks the most fondly of doing demos for The Hoodoo Gurus’ classic Mars Needs Guitars and Blow Your Cool albums.
“That was really the beginning of it all. They were absolutely dedicated musos, they weren’t just some young band, so I really got to learn a lot from them,” he says. It was obviously a mutually beneficial pairing as The Gurus now rely on Cullen for their live sound; only recently he was riding faders for them at The Melbourne Zoo when The E Street Band’s Steve Van Zandt happened to drop in.
In the late 80s Cullen trained up now chief engineer, Russell Pilling, and traded up from the trusty 16-track to the jewel in the studios crown, their 1985 Soundcraft 2400 console. “People love that, everything runs through (it),” he says proudly. “Obviously we’ve taken all of that history and equipment from the start and just added to it.”
Somewhere along the line they managed to pick up a 2” tape machine, which they added to an already impressive list of mics and outboard gear, and some of the more comfortable looking studio furniture I’ve laid eyes on. Since then the empire has expanded exponentially. “Usually, if you’ve got a recording studio you find you have a bit of down time and it’s probably a good idea to have a record label to fill that space,” said Cullen.
Having installed Pilling as chief engineer, Cullen turned his hand to other aspects of the music industry as a way to flex some entrepreneurial muscle. The 90s saw him start Foghorn Records to help out bands coming through the studio that shared his vision and energy. “These days of course you can’t really make money out of a record label so we do more of a marketing thing. We can even print CDs if bands want them.”
Never one to shy away from a good idea, the empire also stretched out to include Sounds Like Café, an ambient music and marketing enterprise aimed specifically at the hospitality industry. On top of all that he still makes his way doing live sound for bands, albeit bound to home soil more than he used to be. Long story short no one that operates under the Foghorn/Damien Gerard umbrella is short of work, nor do they show signs of slowing down any time soon.
There is a no rest for the wicked kind of attitude about everything that happens in and around the studio that rings true of the fabled work ethic of those glory days. “You had to sort of fight with the sound a bit more,” says Cullen. “You really had to understand EQ and dynamics a lot better. You had to know it better than you can be taught in a course, and doing it day in day out it’s just the reality of it. It’s in your blood.”
This heads down approach is more and more rare these days and to find such a rich seam of dedication and determination in the beating heart of Sydney is what keeps the whole team busier than ever.
Damien Gerard Recording Studios is located at 230 Crown Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney. For more information head to damiengerard.com.au.