A light in the attic
Stray rays of sun seep in through a skylight, spreading across a sloped-ceiling attic of oddball amps, a shelf of guitar pedals, and a man in thick-lensed glasses sitting behind a mixing board. That man, Ali Jaafar, is the driving force behind Ecstattic Studio, a DIY recording studio with an artist-first ethos. While the uptown Minneapolis attic is small, the list of bands recorded and mixed here is only growing. The Wake talked with Jaafar about his collection of weird equipment and what it’s like to turn down intern offers.
The Wake: How did Ecstattic Studio get started?
Jaafar: Basically I’ve been recording music since forever. A different group of musicians lived in this house before. I know Andrew from the band Crimes, and then some of the dudes from Sleeping in the Aviary lived here. I actually moved some of my stuff in before I lived here just because I needed a place to store gear. So I would do a bit of practicing and recording up here and then when they moved out, I totally pounced on it and pretty much immediately started doing recording up here. It was probably three or four years ago.
The Wake: The website says the “mics, keyboards, amps, guitars, and noise-makers,” are a “carefully curated collection.” Any particular gems or stories behind the collection?
Jaafar: I constantly have to explain to people who come up here that it’s just my stuff, and so it changes all the time. And sometimes it’s not my stuff, and it’s just here for a while and people get kind of confused about what is up here. But it always happens to be interesting and weird. Like, there’s that thing there that looks like a VCR but it’s basically just a delay pedal and it’s just gigantic and awful, and that’s great. (Laughs) There’s that thing over there. It’s basically just a tiny, air-powered organ. I haven’t recorded a steam punk band yet, but whenever that happens, I’m so ready. It’s just my stuff, and that’s my flowery way of saying “Hey, I have a lot of stuff. It’s all of high quality. It’s totally usable. Everything sounds good.” But it’s also just weird stuff people leave here for awhile or stuff that I find at garage sales.
The Wake: You say you record hi-fi and lo-fi, weird and not weird. This seems true because the recordings are a spectrum from folkier to heavier and punk. So, if there’s so much range, what brings them all together to you?
Jaafar: I think mostly it’s an ethos. On my end it’s an ethos of just being artist-first. I want people to get the record that they want to make and be happy with what they’re making. And I think on the artists’ side it’s maybe something similar where they want something that sounds good and represents them, but that is a bit freer from some of the conventions. That’s something that I’ve talked to a lot of bands about before or while we’re recording. I don’t want to be the guy who says no to a band over something creative. I would never want to say, “That’s not the right creative decision,” because I’m not the band. If they want to we can spend all day recording feedback. It’s fine if that’s what you want to do.
The Wake: You’ve done trades for gear for recording in the past. Do you still do that sort of thing?
Jaafar: Only in very select situations. I always tell bands we can work something out. I’ve done records in hours. I’ve done full albums in like a day and a half—just crazy shit. I don’t do as much gear trading anymore because you just get instant regret, like, “Shit…I should have just gotten paid.” Except in a very few select situations, where it’s something that actually has inherent value to me.
I would never want to say, “That’s not the right creative decision,” because I’m not the band. If they want to we can spend all day recording feedback. It’s fine if that’s what you want to do.
The Wake: This year you put out two of the “Make a Star” compilations. Tell me about those.
Jaafar: Those are the fourth and fifth compilations we’ve done. We did a show at the Turf Club for the compilation before those ones called Ecstattic. It was a big production. I suddenly realized that a year had passed and I hadn’t put out another compilation. So I went back and trawled through all the stuff that I had finished and a few things I was still working on and put together these compilations. I decided to release it as two parts. The second one especially is a lot of stuff that I’m still working on that people maybe didn’t even know existed. Like a couple of solo records that people hadn’t told anybody in town about. People were really generous and let me use their music and so that comp is really, really cool. I’m really proud of that. It’s really weird which is what I wanted because I think maybe I was getting a little pigeonholed as the garage rock reverb-y guy which is not who I am as a person. It opens with this like really downbeat jazz song and then it just goes off the rails from there. It’s got a fair amount of people who aren’t from Minnesota, which I like too.
The Wake: What’s your personal preference: tapes, vinyl, CDs, MP3s?
Jaafar: Vinyl and tapes are my favorite. Those are the things I listen to most when I’m at home, but I have a car that just has a headphone jack in, so I listen to stuff on my phone. Definitely as far as owning something it’s generally going to be vinyl and tape. And tapes are awesome, especially if you’re a local band and you’re not doing a lot of touring, or even if you are and you just don’t have a lot of money—you just can’t beat tapes. That’s why I think the label started just because I was telling everyone, “Just do tapes, man. Do tapes.”
The Wake: So you’re the only engineer or do you get help?
Jaafar: For a while my friend Cole, who’s also in Hollow Boys with me, he was like my intern. Haven’t done that for quite a while though. That was maybe two summers ago. Generally though, it’s just me. I’m the only employee. Monica, who’s also in Hollow Boys, helps me assemble tapes and she’s designed some. It’s hard to coordinate with other people. My schedule’s really weird. I sometimes get people from recording schools asking if they can be my intern and it’s like, well, probably not…
The Wake: Any recordings in the works or scheduled that you’re excited for?
Jaafar: Yeah, I have a lot of stuff coming up. I’m really excited to record Livid, a newish doom metal band. They’re really great and I’ve been bugging them to record since they started. Going to record a few really new bands, like people who don’t really have anything out yet, so that’s always fun. I have a horrible memory. I have a planner and my email that I’m glued to. But that’s what’s happening this week!
I think maybe I was getting a little pigeonholed as the garage rock reverb-y guy which is not who I am as a person.
The Wake: Would you ever consider expanding out of the attic, and would you have to change your name if you did?
Jaafar: Eventually it will be in a different space because we want to buy a house and set up a new studio in there. I think I already decided that I won’t change the name. I’ll just get a funny logo that explains it and that’ll be good. I hate coming up with names for stuff. I really do. Except for songs. Songs are fun to title and everything else is just… Coming up with a band name? Have you ever come up with a band name? I love coming up with fake band names. Any opportunity I have to throw one out there. Lately I’ve been obsessed with starting a kind of amphetamine, reptile-sounding noise rock band that’s just really bad called “Rip Witch.” That’s my current fake band name obsession. It’s perfect for that. Because it just sounds like a sandwich you’d get from a gas station, but it also just sounds really aggressive—synergy, you know.
The Wake: Do you have any particularly memorable recording sessions you’ve done in the attic?
Jaafar: I did a record for a band called Big Waves of Pretty where they just lived here while they did it. One of them was from Wisconsin and the other is from Tennessee. And they just kind of meet up to go on tour and record. They did this huge tour, and then at the end of it, came here and they just lived up here and it was the middle of winter but one of them insisted on sleeping up here. And in the winter, you have to run multiple heaters for a while to warm it up before you can really come up here, so I wouldn’t even set foot up here until the heaters have been on for an hour, but he was sleeping up here, with one heater. He was like, “It’s fine. I’m a farm boy.” This was supposed to be two days, but it turned into seven. Which was fine because we just needed more time to work on the record. Every morning we’d have to come up and move Spencer’s bed and put away Spencer’s clothes. (Laughs)
Two recent compilations from Ecstattic Studio showcasing range from Nelson Devereaux’s slow-building jazz to Strange’s ripping riffs can be downloaded for free at ecstatticstudio.bandcamp.com.