Lyttelton could be 'Seattle of the south'
A unique artists' retreat, analog recording studio and record label may turn Lyttelton into the Seattle of the south. Vicki Anderson reports.
Ben Edwards is in the midst of creating an artists' retreat and recording studio in Lyttelton.
Together with fellow tall, leather-clad old Brit motorcycle- riding Hamish "the Captain" Thorpe, Edwards has also started a small, independent record label, Lyttelton Records.
Edwards' popular recording space The Sitting Room was destroyed twice - first by the September 2010 quake and then the February 22, 2011, quake - coincidentally his birthday or, as he puts, it "happy birthquake".
After the September quake he spent six months rebuilding the new studio "foolishly closer to town, which seemed like a good idea at the time". The Sitting Room MkII was open for 10 days before the February quake struck. He lost everything.
Like many, Edwards is tired of talking about the quakes but acknowledges his exciting new projects wouldn't exist otherwise.
After the quakes, with a strong DIY mentality, he recorded albums for Christchurch groups on borrowed gear in lounges and a red-zoned home in Dallington, including The Eastern's album Hope and Wire and The Harbour Union.
Lyttelton Records was conceived in the same red-zoned home.
"The odd thing is that, as encouraging as it is, it's also a slap in the face," Edwards says. "When you can work out of living rooms and get really close to the same sound as a studio, and those albums get award nominations . . . I started second-guessing myself.
"How can you make an album in a red-zoned house with trucks rolling by and achieve something that is so-called better? I started wondering 'why do I do this?' and 'what is a studio?' It flipped it all completely on its head."
Edwards took his experiences over the past two years and came up with a new approach.
"Twice now I have struggled to get back in to buildings to get my s.... I decided to look for a house that I could live in and work from so in the worst-case situation no- one could tell me I couldn't go there. That was the concept."
He chose the port-side town of Lyttelton for no other reason than the "inspirational" harbour.
Eventually he found a three- bedroom house with a two- bedroom flat on the same property which he is transforming into a cedar-filled studio that looks out over the harbour. It also boasts another self-contained flat with a deck and a hot-tub.
"It's an artists' retreat. I've never been a fan of the pay-by-the- hour, 'you will be creative now' studios.
"As a musician with Degrees K and recording in studios around the world, the thing we always hated was that feeling that you were in, on the clock, you could see the money ticking by. If you get a take wrong then you're tense and thinking 'this is going to cost us another $100'. I've never worked like that. I know it's a business but being creative on cue . . . it just doesn't work.
"The idea here is you come and stay whether you're after a song and want to stay for a couple of days or making an album and want to stay for a couple of months. So far, the feedback is ridiculously good."
While some studios charge $1200 a day or $100 an hour, Edwards is offering a weekly rate, a weekend rate and a monthly rate. The weekly rate is $1500 based on a six-day week, accommodation included.
Unsurprisingly, although Edwards' as-yet-unnamed studio with its mysterious "Russian" console doesn't open until the end of the year, he's already pencil- booked in to record a wide range of New Zealand musicians until July 2013 and beyond.
It is the talk of music anoraks around the nation.
"The response has been mental. Maybe it's a bit cheap but I want it to be. I've decided that either people are supporting what we're doing or I do good work or it's way too cheap or some combination."
The studio is the only one in the South Island which has a 24-track two-inch tape machine so the "entire thing is analog".
"There are now no studios in Christchurch that run tape."
Right around the corner from the studio, James Meharry of RDU and Fabel, is the proud owner of a vinyl cutter. He aims to release limited-edition, boutique-style releases. The pair will work together.
"There will be no-one in the world offering what we will offer in Lyttelton. This doesn't happen in New Zealand, let alone in the harbour," Edwards says, lasers twinkling in this hands. "I also just discovered that in Cass Bay someone is restoring a 1940s mono tube vinyl-cutting lathe.
"I'm also hoping to get a transformer split. There isn't one in the South Island. It's a music geek's wet dream. Come to Christchurch, play a show, record it live on analog, stay for free and the next day press the vinyl recording of your show. Limited edition, say 10 copies or 100 copies. The theory is to get something unique happening in Christchurch."
Another plan is to put together a portable backline and PA to offer to touring musicians at a reasonable rate.
Lyttelton Records will focus on small-run vinyl releases, collaborations (split 12-inch records), and limited-edition live recordings to vinyl.
Edwards has already secured artists for release for the next two to three years with distribution through Southbound Distribution. The label mantra is "Anything BUT cd".
Edwards and Thorpe - who really is a captain, "currently at sea off Iraq clad in a bulletproof vest" - are both audiophiles.
"The resolution on vinyl is better. CDs died a long time ago for me. Let's give people the best- sounding releases in New Zealand and be proud of it."
The modfather of New Zealand music, Ray Columbus, is right behind the label.
"This is just great, this is long overdue in the old port town and is bound to explode. I think Lyttelton has something special going on at the moment, much like Seattle in the 1990s," Columbus says.
The first album to be released via Lyttelton Records is an exciting collaboration between Delaney Davidson, our answer to Tom Waits, and the fresh-faced frontman of The Unfaithful Ways, Marlon Williams.
Titled Sad but True - The Secret History of Country Music Songwriting - Volume 1, and released on November 9, the album kicks any misgivings about country music fair in the guts. Tracks like Travelling Creature, Demon Claws, Please Don't Let Me Love You and Trail of Broken Hearts prove this album is something special.
"Delaney and Marlon told me they wanted to record something, they weren't going to be our first release but it just worked out that way. They wanted to do a double album in the style of the old RCA Studios' sound. In the end it became a single album and we have a few songs up our sleeve.
"It was recorded in Dallington, mixed in Hoon Hay and mastered in Italy by one of Delaney's friends. A French friend of his did the artwork from photos of Marlon and Delaney. He's morphed them into two dogs."
Although he hates the word, Edwards loves the "synergy" that is happening with his projects.
"It just wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for the earthquakes."
Marlon Williams and Delaney Davidson are touring their new album around New Zealand and also perform one date in Melbourne. The official release show on November 9 and 10 at the Wunderbar. See lytteltonrecords.co.nz.