THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Take It From The Top

The Turbulent Evolution of Mama Coco's

by Greg Nissan

Illustration by Layla Ehsan

published November 21, 2014


It’s easy to wrap oneself up in the cushy utopian promise of music on the Internet: almost anyone can release an album or recruit a fan-base without the aid of some slick-suited corporate appendage. Democracy at long last, you might cry. But the sites that communities of musicians can’t do without—local venues, studios—are never free from the fluctuations of real estate, the biblical farces of weather, from pesky neighbors and roach infestations.

I first encountered Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen, a recording studio and collective (in the loosest sense) in Brooklyn, while looking for a place to turn my jangly bedroom jams into an album. I’d remembered the studio’s founder and mutton-chopped ringleader, Oliver Ignatius, from his high school band, and a quick perusal of the studio’s website highlighted the odd nature of Mama Coco’s: gear-wise, a professional studio, but with the relaxed comfort of a home setup. To date, 89 artists have recorded at the studio, which is about to host its 38th showcase.

The studio is in the midst of its most recent rise from the ashes; a catastrophic flood forced the crew to find a new home, and they’ve spent the last three months building a recording studio from scratch. I talked to Ignatius on the phone the other day about the history of Mama Coco’s, the challenges that a DIY project faces in such a cutthroat scene, and the litany of disasters that propelled the studio into ever better iterations. What follows is his saga, in his words.

 

Origins

In high school, I had this experience of having my own music defiled when I was recording it in the Hysterics. It was an experience of being on the other side of panes of glass, powerless to affect the situation. It ended up in a series of very complicated weird hang-ups when it comes to music.

I sort of just laid down and dropped off for a couple years, taking a lot of drugs and traveling around the country, doing a lot of meditation and a lot of thinking. Just being insane for a while. At that point it was not in my mind to do anything. I thought I might end up a monk somewhere. I didn’t really think I was going to come back. But I did. And I came back to New York, ultimately because everything else ran out of gas on the West Coast.

 

Bedroom Squawks

I needed to make some money and had this idea: I could create a minor safe haven for me to work, and maybe I could offer the same service to other people. People could come in and know that their vision would be respected. The priority would be helping them realize the musical goal that we came to understand mutually. What would be a safe and easy way to do it that didn’t feel sterile or uncomfortable?

So I took the little bit of money I had and bought some barebones garbage equipment, set up a very minor little workspace in my bedroom, and started recording a couple people in there. I remember the first session I did, I was frantically reading up on how to record drums that day and pretending I’d done it before.

We were just in a bedroom, so it felt comfortable. It was a weird set up; at one point we had the room bisected by this huge rope and black curtains that hung from the ceiling to the floor. There was enough room for a drum set and a desk with a computer and a little rack here, some small amps over there. It was really small.

Coco [Oliver’s cockatoo and the studio’s namesake] was in the room and she was always screaming. If you go back to the really early Mama Coco’s stuff, you can find Coco’s screeching her blood-curdling wrath at certain points into the drum tracks. [laughter]

Those really early sessions were more about the music than the technical process. We were doing a lot of thinking, like, when people come in, let’s start getting them drunk, get them relaxed enough to get something good. Then that would come out badly, so we’d try something else. 

 

Basement Bugs

The bedroom was getting bad—we couldn’t live. So we went down to the basement one floor below, which had six or seven foot ceilings. It was reaaaally low; some people couldn’t even stand up all the way straight in there. There was all kinds of dust and plaster and cockroaches and shit falling in through the ceiling at all times, so the first thing we did was roll a big blue tarp over the whole ceiling, which then became this really weird reflective thing that didn’t sound very good.

It was a bigger space, so once we were in there it became feasible to track bands live. We started going around to the back laundry space just to get a little isolation. It was pretty low-tech. And there was a very serious mouse and cockroach problem all the time so that was pretty grim [laughter]. Every second, we were hoping that the dogs wouldn’t walk around upstairs, because if they did it would compromise anything we were recording. And the neighbors, by that point, were bugging.

That basement actually suffered a couple of floods while we were there. Bernadette and I were actually in Africa with our families in summer 2011. I got an email from a friend letting me know that the space had severely flooded. There had been a big rainstorm and all the water in the back had pooled and then poured in through the grate in the basement. It wasn’t the most catastrophic, but I think that was the worst flood we ever had. The water came up like 10 inches, pretty extreme. Luckily we had some friends, people who were in Ghost Pal mostly, who ran in and got everything out of there. Pretty much everything was saved. Then we had a flood repair crew come in and they fucking stole my laptop. I lost the entire Ghost Pal album sessions to Nathan Jones is Dead, which were all on my laptop. It was a while before I could bring myself to admit to them that all the work was gone. For a while I was like, “I think I have it somewhere...” even though I knew I didn’t. But we regrouped and did it again. And then again. That was the first of three versions of that album that we recorded. 

 

Fecal Matters

In winter 2011, I was recording with Goodman for his first self-titled EP. And there was a pipe leaking. A bunch of water started to pool, so we called the session and got a plumber in. [laughter] The plumber came in and discovered that there was an obstruction in one of the sewage pipes. I was standing at the top of the stairs to the basement looking down as he unscrewed the pipe and fucking feces just exploded everywhere. Onto the drums, onto the amps. Shit was just spewing out everywhere. There’s been a lot of trying moments, but that was one where all you could do was just stand there and laugh, you know? There was nothing you could do, it was just too funny. So we got the shit off everything and that was OK. 

 

Moving into McDonald

So then we found the space on McDonald Avenue. I really can’t stress enough how grim it was when we got there. Horrifically dungeon-like. There were stains everywhere, the whole place was filthy, and it obviously hadn’t been inhabited in a really long time. There was a grave in the corner, which, most people who have seen it still believe that’s what it was—a grave in the corner. There were exposed roots and grass all around the side of it, coming in through the floor. You couldn’t get paint to stick on it at all. We were right across the street from Greenwood Cemetery so it seemed highly plausible that there could be a grave there. Why not? There was a ghost, a woman in a blue dress that was seen by me a few times, seen by another couple of people a few times. I definitely thought it was connected. 

 

40 Days, 40 Nights

It was definitely a game of steady improvement in there. We were constantly shifting the configuration around, trying to figure out what works best.

There was a karate school above us for a little while that we hated; they were quite literally the bane of our existence. We had an incredibly mutually antagonistic relationship and then they ended up moving out. We couldn’t get shit done with them working above us.

I’d get real tired out sometimes, thinking, this is not sustainable, it’s costing me my sanity, comfort, and happiness, my life day-to-day. But the community is what we needed to make me keep on going, because there’s more at stake than just me. If it was just me, I might’ve given up. For some reason I seem to have found myself in this incredibly blessed position where people have rallied around the studio. It matters to them and they want to see it do well, want to see it be something, and want to see us all do something together. In the end, that’s the gas. That’s what keeps the engine running. You give me gas and I’ll run and run and run, you know, I’ll get a lot of miles on the gallon, but without that gas I don’t think I can do it.

There was one flood about a year in that just sucked. We dealt with it and got a big crew in to clean it up, which was pretty fun. The final big flood was May of this year and it was raining really hard that day. I came in, went around the whole studio, checked the perimeters for leaks, and we were good. There was no issue [laughter]. Then I was in the booth—I was with a band mixing some stuff—and I couldn’t have been in there for more than 15 minutes. When I came out, it was like a tsunami had hit. The water had pooled at the front door and just BOOM!

It shot through the door. There was so much water coming in at a crazy fast rate. That was another time—I just started laughing. The band must have thought I was insane, but I was walking around giggling, poking at all the leaks and laughing again, standing there scratching my chin and laughing a little bit.

But the next day we were looking at new spaces. At that moment we knew we were going have to get out of there. 

 

The Big Build

The thing that really necessitated the scope of this project was that we found this space finally after a month or so of looking. But it was right above a wood shop. They were sawing down there and we didn’t really know about the noise until after we signed the lease. We were in a situation where we were just fucked enough to do something about it. So we learned how to build a soundproofed studio, and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last three months or so.

It’s crazy how fast this is moving. I used to dream maybe someday we’d build our own studio. As recently as eight months ago, I thought, maybe in five or 10 years, that’s something we could someday do, but probably not. That’s the thing about this whole process. It reflects back to the origin of the studio, it goes to the beginning of the collective and the community, it goes on and on and on. I’m really a big believer that, for this and for me, the only way to do it is through evolution. I’m not a guy swept into the active mind. I don’t think you can really put your foot down and decide to do something. But what you can do is allow things to happen.

We did an Indiegogo campaign to raise money, which was great, and a lot of people came out and filmed these testimonials to support the studio. We wanted to reflect the rich vibrant community of people here and I think we got something like 60 of them shot. We ended up at 32 thousand at the end of the campaign. Then we spent more money than that. I’ve been running around the last couple of months pulling every miracle I could think of, you know, begging people for loans. I’m going to be pretty severely in debt for the next few years, but that’s OK [laughter].

The construction has been done by the community, that’s the amazing thing. 69 people have helped out at least once. The first night we thought we’d just hire a recording studio contractor with the money we raised and just get it built. Then I found out they were all quoting 200 grand, 40 grand for the plans alone, so at that point we realized we were going have to do it ourselves.

At every point through the process we’ve been working with a professional carpenter on the team. He’s essentially supervising and teaching us all how to do things that we don’t know how to do. Then the labor has been all musicians. I did not consider myself to be a handy person—if anything, quite the opposite—and now I could build a wood frame house.

It was a crazy scene. There were days when we’d have 15 or 20 people coming in and out. Everyone was stoned the whole time, stoned off their asses using power tools. No one got hurt, you know [laughter]. Because the nature of this thing is difficult, because it’s a competitive world and it’s certainly a competitive city—everyone’s busy, everyone’s got a lot of stuff going on—it’s been a repeated concern: how do you help the community stay together? I think this construction project has been the most sustained period of camaraderie in Mama Coco’s history. We’ve all worked together on this thing, we’ve all seen something that I think most of us would’ve considered to be outside the realm of possibility become a manifest reality. 

 

Resurrection

We’ve calculated every angle in there and calculated for sound. Some of the rooms have crazy slanted elaborate wall configurations and stuff. Outside of that, consider that November 19th will be the four-year anniversary of Mama Coco’s. I’ve been kind of the crazed workaholic; it’s not unusual for me to do 12 to 14 hour days, seven days a week at some points, just going going going. Since May I’ve been on an enforced five-month hiatus of recording, so I’ve had lots of time to think. I do feel going back in that my approach will be very different. I almost want to say unrecognizably different.

My responsibility now is to come in and get in the right headspace. To be the musical shepherd, make sure the music is right. I’m trying to work a little less so I can rest more and be more capable and on top of my shit when I do go in. That’s kind of a major thing right now. I really want to be operating at a hundred percent capacity. I don’t want to do any more sessions at 60 percent capacity because I haven’t slept in two days. That’s anther thing—whatever the benefits are in the short term of hauling ass like that, life’s too short in the grand scheme of things to make those kinds of compromises.

What we have right now is an opportunity to create a body of work that’s astounding. I think a lot of people—especially in New York City, which is such a competitive place— put a lot of energy into figuring out how to present something or how to get the right attention for it, how to promote it. We’re settling more and more on the opposite approach: to create a fucking seething rhythmic hotbed of content, of action, of things happening. And if people come, they come. And if they don’t, it’s just as fucking real as if they did.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.