[Woods' Jarvis Taveniere and Jeremy Earl at Rear House, Brooklyn, NY]
By Jenn Pelly
It would be almost impossible to find 229 Bushwick Avenue if it weren't for the flashy, neon awning of the bodega next door. Past the front entrance of this non-descript, East Williamsburg tenement building and down a narrow, paint-chipped hall, a back door opens to a hidden courtyard littered with dirty snow and garbage bags, a ragged couch, a broken stove. Seven paces further, up a cement staircase, is Rear House, home to the recording studio Woods drummer Jarvis Taveniere started in 2007. A "Recorded at Rear House" label has since become a seal of quality for fans of ramshackle indie pop à la Woodsist and Captured Tracks.
It's a Monday evening in early January; outside Rear House, the air is strangely silent. No telling if the doorbell works; nothing about Rear House looks like it's been updated since 1970. Inside, the Vivian Girls/Woods garage-pop collaboration The Babies is tracking handclaps, finishing up a B-side for a 7" on L.A. label Teenage Teardrops. Their debut full-length, also recorded at Rear House last year, drops February 8th on Shrimper.
Up on the second floor, down a dark, tapestry-clad hall, Jarvis mans the board in his tiny production room: an 8 x 8-foot glorified closet that used to be his bedroom. He sits at his desk, within arm's reach of the tape machine to his left, a collection of 33 1/3 books on a tiny bookshelf to his right, and the '60s lipstick-red Farfisa organ behind him (an eBay gem). Nearby, Woods/Babies guitarist Kevin Morby, who sleeps in the bedroom next door, picks at an acoustic guitar.
[Jarvis at work; Rear House; October, 2010]
Babies drummer Justin Sullivan is outside in the hall, laying down a few more echo-laden claps as a cracked mirror behind him reflects unemptied ashtrays, concert posters, and piles of mixtapes. After a few moments, Cassie Ramone, singer/guitarist for Babies and Vivian Girls, pops in, and they pause to listen to Jarvis' mixdown of the track. Ramone's shiny vox swirl over Woods-by-numbers guitar work. The three listeners complement a psychedelic organ part Jarvis recorded. Afterward, Ramone and Morby head downstairs to screen-print Babies t-shirts in the kitchen, as John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" crackles from a nearby turntable.
“Rear House is by no means a mansion on the French Riviera,” Jarvis admits, sitting at his desk with a Tecate in hand. He likens the scene at Rear House-- which has hosted sessions with Woods, Real Estate, Meneguar, Ganglians, and The Beets, among others-- to "a poor man's Exile on Main Street." The studio, he says, actualizes home recording, making use of the house's entire physical space. Jarvis loops a fifty-foot cord down to the ground floor, where the living room and kitchen function as a live room. During a typical recording session, Jarvis remains in his makeshift control room, listening through headphones and running the sound from reel-to-reel to computer. "The guitar amp is in the kitchen, the drums are in the living room, and the bass player's making dinner," Jarvis says, adding that overdubs usually happen in Morby's room upstairs. "I would say that's the downside to recording here: singing in someone's bedroom." But the bands don't seem to mind.
"Rear House is all about capturing an energy that can only exist when musicians are really comfortable," says Katy Goodman of La Sera and Vivian Girls, who recorded their forthcoming record, Share the Joy, with Jarvis last fall. She prefers the house's living room to a regular studio because it's "easier to relax and let it happen."
[A Classic Education's Giulia Mazza at Rear House; October, 2010]
When Jarvis was younger, operating a fully functioning studio seemed like an unaffordable pipe dream. But, he says, "when I began to develop my ear and have a more defined opinion on sound, I realized most of my favorite albums didn't sound expensive. I knew we couldn't play like The Byrds, but '8 Miles High' didn't seem sonically out of reach." The warmth of the tape machine reminds him of the records he grew up listening to, especially LPs by The Stones and The Ramones. Today, he says, "the whole process usually starts with a conversation about the first Ramones record."
When Real Estate began planning their 2009 debut LP for Woodsist, they recorded its opening track, "Beach Comber," at Rear House. "It's kind of the 'house studio' for Woodsist," says frontman Martin Courtney, "so it seemed really cool to be able to record there." The band also went there to record last October's "Out of Tune" 7". Courtney describes the track as more hi-fi than usual, but with a clear "home-recorded vibe" stemming from vintage staples like Jarvis' Roland Space Echo box and minimal overdubs. Real Estate guitarist Matt Mondanile also mixed the recordings from his most recent Ducktails record, Ducktails III (Woodsist), alongside Jarvis at Rear House.
Last October, the Rear House myth drew in one band from over 5,000 miles away: Italy's A Classic Education spent two weeks there recording their debut album. "I'd heard a bunch of records, and looked on the back, and always saw Rear House," wrote frontman Jonathan Clancy from Bologna. He'd also heard about the space from members of Real Estate after playing shows with the band in Forli and Milan. Clancy and his bandmates particularly liked the East Williamsburg location, which seemed "exotic," and like "real New York, with a million stories intertwining-- not just youth culture."
[Rear House Studios; October, 2010; photo by Giulia Mazza]
Seven years ago, after Jarvis and Woods frontman Jeremy Earl graduated from SUNY Purchase and moved to Brooklyn, they found the Rear House building through a friend. Jarvis had studied sound engineering at Purchase, but he wouldn't found Rear House Studios until 2007. "In school, I would record corny jazz ensembles," he says. "It was very academic. So I shied away." The house initially functioned as a live-in practice space.
Earl began Woodsist in 2006, packing records and screen-printing covers for each release in the living room. "After a while, we started taking pride in doing everything here," Jarvis says. The Woodsist operation grew quickly, and last year, Earl moved back upstate to Warwick, NY, his hometown, where Woods' upcoming sixth album (due in Spring) was recorded.
Jarvis' friends variably call him "a lifer," "next-level," and "a chill dude with Zen vibes." "He's super mysterious," says Matt Mondanile, recounting an incident on tour with Woods in Japan, when Jarvis went missing for two days. “We stopped to get food and he never came back to the van. The next time we saw him was back in Tokyo. He was wearing a silver Versace suit and had purchased every season of 'Friends' on laserdisc."
Jose Garcia of The Beets calls him a "superhero for bands," while Morby stresses his professionalism: "While Jarv-O is a fun-havin' kind of dude, he likes to get down to business. He's also a geek with a decade of experience behind him. When I play people new Babies or Woods songs, they can't believe it was done in a living room." That homey feel is what Jarvis and friends love about the space. "And the front yard is really killer when it's not covered in snow," Jarvis says. Bands hang there for breaks, and when the weather's nice, friends come over for BBQs. "We try to keep it free," he adds. "Spiritually."