By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
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By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
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Right off Nassau Avenue, at the end of McCarren Park—the point where Williamsburg bleeds into Greenpoint, where Hasids and hipsters seamlessly co-exist—there are still a few factory streets. The residential spaces haven't yet swallowed up these stretches of pavement, which offer a panoramic view of the city between the forklifts. On one of these streets, sandwiched between a Vespa showroom and some guys moving crap from one warehouse to another, is the Rare Book Room studio. If you blink, you'll miss the entrance: a single metal door adorned with graffiti and a barely visible street number. I ring the doorbell. Nothing happens. I ring again. Moments later, the door swings open and a guy's face emerges from the shadows. I state my business, and owner Nicolas Vernhes ushers me in.
Unlike the outside world, the Rare Book Room is noticeably pristine: slender hallways when you first walk in, which open up once you get past the so-called shag room (a room done up in white shag carpeting, used mostly for overdubs and the occasional nap). Vernhes is ultra-cool and ultra-confident—not geeky, the way you might expect a gearhead to be. We saunter pass the control room and into a boxy space filled with pianos, keyboards, assorted small rhythm instruments, amps, and mics—in short, everything you'd expect in a studio. Yet the place doesn't feel impersonal: Soft yellow lights hang from the ceiling at various spots, giving off a warm glow the way track lighting does. The ceilings are made of wooden beams, resembling that upstate cabin I'll never afford.
In this decade alone, Vernhes and the Rare Book Room have been crucial in forging the avant-rock-meets-electro aesthetic favored by the Fiery Furnaces, Fischerspooner, Animal Collective, Black Dice, and, most recently, Deerhunter. Yet this is a place that almost never was—which means that the story of those bands' current success might have been very different.
Ironically, Vernhes, now just 38, never intended to get into the production side of music. Originally, back in 1995, he was renting an apartment on South 6th Street in Williamsburg that doubled as a practice space for his band. "Very quickly, friends would hear that we had a makeshift studio," he recalls, "and some would ask: 'Oh, can we record a couple songs?' "
So he agreed—and, within months of recording and producing his first seven-inch for Versus, Vernhes found himself in demand. "There were a lot of bands around that were willing to give it a go," he says. "I don't think there were any labels involved. It was just the band pressing a seven-inch—very DIY, very straightforward, and not complicated." From the outset, Vernhes just tinkered and experimented with sounds and equipment until he got the result he was looking for. "In the beginning, I was like, 'If this doesn't turn out the way you want it, you don't have to pay me.' " The bands "knew I wouldn't really give up until it sounded good to all of us," he adds, and most of them "had little experience in the studio, if any. And they were happy that somebody was concerned enough to make the effort on their behalf and achieve the sound they wanted."
Vernhes continuing building his rep, hooking up first with Guv'ner and then, in 1998, with the Silver Jews, the first major band that came to New York specifically to work with him. And thus American Water was born. In the summer of 2000, Vernhes closed down the South 6th Street place and moved to his current Greenpoint location. He took a year off to build and customize the space—all by hand, and again using an unstructured, improvisatory design ethos. "A lot of bigger studios put their blueprints on the Web," he explains. "So I culled from the ones I knew had a reputation for being well-built and sounding great, and started seeing a pattern which I adapted for my purpose." The new location yielded more space, allowing Vernhes to have more "flexibility in recording."
For most of this decade, Vernhes has essentially been acting as an A&R executive while simultaneously producing. You can't help but notice the correlation between Vernhes and the popularity of the acts he's put his stamp on. He discovered the Fiery Furnaces in a club, offered to record them—and, presto, we have Gallowsbird's Bark. Working on Black Dice's first record, Beaches and Canyons, led him to Animal Collective. He's done both recent Deerhunter records and also worked with Ted Leo. It's always been a referral process with him, going back to his days with Versus and Guv'ner. Yet when asked about the apparent link between his work with these bands and their overall success, he chalks it up to coincidence: "If a good record is made, the inevitable happens," he says. "If I'm there when that happens, it's great, because I get to help them define their aesthetic for the first time they might get listened to on a wider scale. And that's a great responsibility, but it's also a great pleasure."
This year, Vernhes has moved his A&R duties to the forefront with the launch of Rare Book Room Records. His first releases are due next month: a fragile, piano-based record from a New York artist named Lia, and another by a German performance- art duo called Palms. And despite the shaky time the recording industry's had of late, starting his own label makes sense to him: He can now control the means of production in multiple ways, while continuing to focus on artistic intent. "For me, it's the fact that a lot of bands came to me early on in their careers, when they were developing their sound," Vernhes explains. "I've always been curious about what happens to the records I make when they leave my studio." He adds that his work on the label so far has been "daunting— and very time-consuming. It's the kind of thing that, if I think about it a lot, I'll just want to close my eyes and run blindly." But that's not likely to happen.