Cover of the Week 24 No Surprises
Wow, can’t believe we’re up to 24 covers already. What do I get for the 25th? Some sort of commemorative plate?
When Buffalo Tom started touring in 1988, people — especially people overseas – would ask us what the “scene” was like in Boston. It seemed so vibrant to someone outside looking in. They assumed we all knew and hung out with each other, Pixies, Throwing Muses, Lemonheads, Galaxie 500, Dinosaur, Big Dipper, Treat Her Right, Morphine, Blake Babies, Volcano Suns, etc. And, in time, we got to know all of those guys and become friends with quite a few. But it never occurred to me early on that there was some sort of unified “scene” as I imagined Seattle to have. Everyone from that area seemed to be on Sub Pop. While Boston had a couple of indie labels, there was nothing comparable to Sub Pop. It took time for me to see that there was indeed a “scene” (I’ve never liked the use of that word in this context) of sorts around Boston. I started realizing it when we would come back home and join the annual Christmas party held over at Fort Apache Studio. When J Mascis sat in on drums for the Pixies at one such party, it seemed that surely something magical was taking place. All of those bands and many more had that one thing, and sometimes only that thing in common: we all recorded at Fort Apache with any combination of engineers/producers Sean Slade, Paul Kolderie, Gary Smith, Tim O’Heir, Lou Giordano (and earlier — Joe Harvard.)
It didn’t take long for bands outside of Boston to notice and imagine what recording in Boston at Fort Apache must be like. Eventually bands like Uncle Tupelo were driving in to Boston just to record there. And it was a clubhouse and unifying element for a lot of us. For BT, recording at Fort Apache was one of the most important, if not the most important steps we took starting out. We had done some demos in project studios, but this was the 1980s and people in studios still had this “clean” and “pro” mentality. It was intimidating to be in these places, even cheap ones, with the clock running and our hourly rates creeping up. We had no idea what we were doing.
Tom Maginnis had played in a band with Tim O’Heir, who had started producing and engineering recording sessions at the original Fort Apache, which was in a very raw space in a rough part of Roxbury. It was very punk rock. We started recording demos with him that eventually became the basic tracks for our debut record. As we started getting interest and money from Megadisc Records in the Netherlands, and SST here in America, we booked some more sessions, eventually taking on J Mascis, who had recorded some Dinosaur stuff there, as another ear in the studio. J, also introduced us to Sean Slade and soon enough we had a record to release. The beauty was that the studio was run by great people who were in bands, not dudes who just thought of themselves as “producers” or engineers. These guys were musicians first, and they were all bright, funny, and had great taste. No one was trying to capture an ‘8os radio-friendly sound; these guys were pioneering a hairy post-punk aesthetic. I remember walking in for the first time and seeing this great old poster of Iggy Pop smashing 45s with a hammer and thinking this was the place for me.
They let the artists lead the way, everyone learning from each other as they went. If Mascis wanted to plug into an ancient Marshall plexi, turn it up to 10, blast his earphones even while he wore earplugs under them, so be it. In any other studio, the engineers would have had a conniption. They would have questioned the logic of turning up amps so loudly when they were close-miked. It would have been akin to those white-lab-coat-wearing engineers the Beatles first encountered when they entered the studio; musicians over there, engineers over here, musicians play, engineers control the sounds. Fort Apache was different. No one really knew what they were doing and so a good time was had by all. The engineers always allowed all the room artists needed to flights of fancy, ill-advised or truly inspired. Sure, we might have blown out an expensive monitor when, under a haze of sweet smoke, producer Sean Slade had the idea of turning up a microphone so hotly in order to record a door creek but then slammed the door and blowing out everyone in the control room. But there were also innumerable times when one idea led to another and all made it onto records, the non-stop percussion take on “Velvet Roof,” e.g., when we all just grabbed anything we could shake and stood in the live room around a mike or two, playing all the way through a few takes of the song until we were laughing, panting, and sweating profusely.
Eventually, Fort Apache opened a new outpost in back of Rounder Records in Cambridge. There was an overlap of the two facilities until all operations became centralized at the Cambridge studio. Later still, a new studio was built around the corner in Cambridge. But it was the second iteration, in the old Rounder studio where most of the great records were recorded and mixed. It was this place that brought in many bands from out of town, including Hole and Radiohead. The latter recorded some of Pablo Honey there, I believe, and then had Paul and Sean mix The Bends there.
Pablo Honey did not really grab me as a listener. I thought of “Creep” as one of so many alt-rock novelty one-hit wonders that seemed to be slipping in to the newly empowered alternative radio format in the early 1990s. But we had crossed paths with Radiohead and they were really nice guys. I remember chatting for a while with Thom Yorke when we were both making appearances in Canada’s music video station, Much Music. And then they released The Bends and I was finally taken by the music. I was geared up for the release of OK Computer and not only did it not disappoint, but I was awestruck. It remains one of the most important records from the 1990s for me. It still holds up and the songs and sounds are timeless.
This is a faithful cover of the beautiful Radiohead song, “No Surprises.” I wrote a song synopsis for allmusic.com in the early-2000s. Re-reading it, it is not one of my sharper essays. But it gets at my feelings about the song.