The Current Rewind: Pachyderm Studio

The Current Rewind
You know great music when you hear it. But do you know where it came from? Host Andrea Swensson and the team bring you original reporting on Minnesota music, fording scenes and decades to put unsung stories on the map. (MPR Graphic)
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Pachyderm Studio: "You ain't going to find that in New York City"
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Can you imagine PJ Harvey walking down a small-town Main Street? Kurt Cobain antiquing in farm country? Yup, that happened. It was all thanks to Pachyderm Studio, a rural recording facility that used to be a family home. In this episode, we'll meet that family, plus a dozen musicians and engineers who've recorded some unforgettable work at the studio. Engineer Steve Albini tells us why Pachyderm is so special, and Lori Barbero from Babes in Toyland shares a story about taking Nirvana to the Mall of America.

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The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Culture Heritage Fund.

Transcript of Episode 2 — Pachyderm Studio

[Nirvana - "All Apologies"]

Cindy Mensing: I am just floored that Kurt Cobain was in Cannon Falls. I'm like, 'No one comes to Cannon Falls...' and no one knew they were here until years later.

Martha Mensing: I've heard about what's-his-name's wife — Courtney Love — going to the antique store and just buying all kinds of things. She came after hours and just all kinds of things. I don't know exactly what. I would call it outside of town. It's called Country Side Antiques.

Andrea Swensson: Nirvana weren't just a popular band — for a period in the early 1990s, they were synonymous with grunge music and alternative culture. Their singles like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and this song, "All Apologies," came to define the sound of a generation.

So what if you learned that these larger-than-life rock stars weren't just being played on every radio station, weren't just performing in your hometown — but that they were setting up shop to cut their next record at your grandparents' house?

Along with albums by PJ Harvey, Live, and Soul Asylum, Nirvana's In Utero was recorded at a secluded studio in small-town Minnesota called Pachyderm, a rustic home and recording facility with a surprising history.

How did the unassuming little town of Cannon Falls, Minnesota become the site for such landmark recordings? And what does it feel like to walk through Pachyderm now, imagining the monumental sounds that were captured in the space?

[Lazerbeak's "Winging It"]

Andrea Swensson: This is The Current Rewind, the podcast putting music's unsung stories on the map. I'm Andrea Swensson. In this episode, we'll dive deep into the history of Pachyderm Studio. We'll take you to Cannon Falls in the middle of a Minnesota winter to explore the four-and-a-half square mile town on the Cannon River, which is home to about 4,000 people. And we'll take you inside Pachyderm's historic home and studio to meet some special guests, including the very family who first built the property in the '60s, many of whom hadn't been inside the space in decades.
For this episode of The Current Rewind, we spoke to fourteen people — including Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum, Lori Barbero of Babes in Toyland, engineer Steve Albini, the Bad Plus's Dave King, and the members of Gully Boys — who, all together, have witnessed the studio's — and the house's — history.

Like so many Minnesota music stories, the tale of Pachyderm Studio begins with a family. In one of our first interviews for this episode, our producer Cecilia Johnson sat down with a group of Pachyderm VIPs: Dick, Martha, and Karen Mensing. Dick is the eldest son of Don and Marian Mensing, who originally built Pachyderm to be their home. He clearly admired his entrepreneurial dad and elegant mother, both of whom passed away in the mid-1980s. Sitting next to Dick were his wife, Martha, and daughter Karen. You'll hear from Dick first, then Karen.

Dick Mensing: My grandfather, my dad's dad, started a malting company in Cannon Falls in 1939, and asked Dad and Mom to come and work with him. And it ended up being a lifetime for them.

Dick Mensing: My parents built the house a couple years after I went into the Air Force, and so I really wasn't a full time resident there very often. If I would come home on leave I would stay at their house, and then when I got out of the air force and got married and we were moving to Cannon Falls, my wife and I stayed there until we found a place to rent in Cannon Falls.

Dad was a very generous individual in town. He was very active on the school board. He had 20 some years on the school board overall; went through the period of time when they were consolidating the country schools with the city school here. He helped a number of people start their businesses in town.

And now, we have the Gemini Corporation, which makes plastic letters for signs. And also makes equipment suitcases. And they are a much larger firm than we are or ever were, but it was coincidental that Dad was on their board of directors. That's another story. And they named the street they're on Mensing Way.

Andrea Swensson: There's also a park named after Don Mensing in town. He was a father, community figure, malt man — and musician. He'd eventually teach violin at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis, but as a young man, he'd walk to nearby towns and give lessons.

Although Don had roots in music, he couldn't have imagined that the family home that he would construct in the 1960s would eventually host world-famous rock stars. As any musician who later recorded at Pachyderm can tell you, one of the home's defining features is its indoor pool, the site of countless parties.

Dick Mensing: The pool was built when the house was built. Dad and Mom really didn't want a pool, but the architect for it and the builder called Dad and Mom up to his office. They started discussing a pool, and Dad and Mom kept saying they really didn't want one. "What are you going to do with this space? You going to buy a lot of furniture for it and then not use it? I can put the pool in for what the furniture would cost."

Cecilia Johnson: Why was he pushing the pool?

Dick Mensing: The architect wanted a pool in there, and I think you'll see when we get there that it makes sense.

Andrea Swensson: "The architect" has an interesting backstory of his own. His name was Herb Bloomberg, Minnesota-born founder of the iconic Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. Herb was clearly inspired by mid-century architects like Frank Lloyd Wright; the entire home looks straight out of Mad Men — if the Drapers were visit a woodsy ski chalet — with clean lines for days, open floor plans, and lots of natural wood features.

Cecilia Johnson: What was your impressions of Herb?

Dick Mensing: I thought he was really great. He built the Chanhassen right after he built Dad and Mom's house. I remember one day Dad said he went out there during noon hour to see what progress had been made, and here were these guys sitting on these timbers. They were going to be part of the ceiling in the house. This guys sitting there with his jackknife cutting the corners off the edge of the beams, and Dad got all upset with him and said, "What are you doing?" He says, "It's the decoration Herb wants."

Karen Mensing: Grandpa was a strong personality, kind of a Germanic upbringing, and then to have a creative force like Herb Bloomberg kind of override whatever ideas Grandpa had-

Dick Mensing: I think he respected Herb's capabilities. He recognized that he himself was not a designer, but Herb was, and they had looked at a number of his other houses before they went with him. Did Herb Bloomberg build this house? Yes.

Andrea Swensson: The Mensings enjoyed picnics and holiday celebrations at the house, which they called Pine Glen after the Pine Creek that runs through the backyard. Just over 20 years after the Mensings moved in, Don and Marian both passed away.

Dick Mensing: When they passed, we six kids got the property, and it being on the high market end of the scale, it was not a big seller. And in the meantime we rented to a family, and finally they moved out after a couple of years. It was about the same time that Jim came along and wanted to buy the property.

Andrea Swensson: When the Mensings sold the property, there was no separate structure for a studio yet, just the home.

Dick Mensing: I think the community is under the impression that the actual sound studio is in that house. It is not. It's 100 feet away from it, totally — just driving in in the driveway and going to the front door, you would never see the studio. It's tucked in behind the trees and under a hill.

Karen Mensing: Like around the house kind of back into the woods.

Andrea Swensson: The musicians Jim Nickel, Mark Walk, and Eric Anderson started building the studio in 1988, using a name and layout that riffed on their band at the time.

Brent Sigmeth: Jim and Eric and Mark had a band called Mean Old Elephant before they decided to open a studio there. So it was called Mean Old Elephant, and then Pachyderm Discs was the original name, you know, when "discs" was a thing.

Wendy Lewis: Jim must have had an elephant thing. Like, he really liked elephants.

Brent Sigmeth: Yeah, and if you look at what would be the overhead layout, like blueprint, of the studio, it's supposed to look like an elephant head, like with the ears on the side.

Andrea Swensson: That's Brent Sigmeth and Wendy Lewis. Brent is an engineer who grew up in Cannon Falls and ended up working at Pachyderm for eight years, and Wendy is a musician whose band Rhea Valentine were the first to record at the studio.

Brent Sigmeth: I grew up 400 yards away from Pachyderm, and in high school, which would've been the mid-late-'80s before they bought it, we would walk down there — "we" meaning the band I was in. We'd practice in my folks' house and walk down there and did that high school dreamer thing, like look at this vacant place — we could build a recording studio here.

Then maybe a year later my mom says, "The new neighbors moved in. You should go take these cookies down and greet them." And so I walked down there and Jim Nickel answered the door, and I was like, 'I'm your neighbor, here's some cookies, what are you guys doing?' 'We're building a recording studio.' So since then Jim has always said that I willed it into being.

Andrea Swensson: One of Pachyderm's first customers was Soul Asylum, as their lead singer Dave Pirner recalls.

Dave Pirner: You sort of seclude yourself out there and don't anything but focus on your record. That's a lot different than being in Manhattan and walking out of the studio and you're in the middle of Manhattan. I like seeing New Yorkers out there. We made a record with Steve Jordan, who never gets out of the city. I just have so many fond memories of him going, "Let's go take a walk in the woods," and them him being like overwhelmed with the nature and going, "God, I've never seen this much sky before."

Andrea Swensson: The record Soul Asylum made with producer Steve Jordan was 1990's And the Horse They Rode In On. It was the first of three albums — including parts of their breakthrough release, Grave Dancers Union — that they'd record at Pachyderm in the nineties. Looking back on that first visit, Pirner went to some serious lengths to get the right vocal performance for the song "Bitter Pill."

Dave Pirner: Steve Jordan put me in the equipment closet and shut the door and turned the lights off, and that was his producer move to get some serious screaming rage out of me. I don't think the other guys in the band really dug it that much, but that's kind of the way that he was. It's all one take and I'm screaming bloody murder, and that's what he wanted, and that's what he got. The other guys in the band were like maybe he should try it again. Steve was like no, that's it. He captured the moment. It's called "Bitter Pill."

[Soul Asylum - "Bitter Pill"]

Andrea Swensson: The band would experiment in other ways during those sessions, such as for a B-side from the Horse They Rode In On era titled "One Way Conversation," Pirner says.

Dave Pirner: We were not short on silly ideas and trying everything. The funniest thing I remember was trying to put a microphone way up in the trees, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but our producer just thought it would be awesome to try it. We put a mic like way up in the trees, and an amp outside and turned it up as loud as we possibly could. But yeah, you can really tell by listening to it.

Andrea Swensson: As Pachyderm began taking on more clients, Brent Sigmeth was wrapping up college - and Jim Nickel had a job ready for him back home.

Brent Sigmeth: I was living in St. Paul and I went to Music Tech, which became McNally Smith. This was '92. So I went there for nine months, learned all the lingo, and found what a compressor was and things like that. And then was just sort of looking to get some sort of menial assisting job or work on my own music or whatever. Didn't even know what I was going to do, and a teacher from the school was like, the guy at Pachyderm is leaving. You should go down there and bring your resume. I already knew Jim, who was my neighbor and had hung out there a bunch of times, but it always seemed like it was too big of a step at that point. But I showed up, gave Jim my resume, and he was like do you want the job? He took me down to the studio. Do you know how to run all this stuff? I lied and was like, "Yeah, totally, okay." And then that was it. And then I just started working there. Lived in the house at Pachyderm for about nine months. Our lease was up in St. Paul, so it was a transition thing, and then I was kind of a caretaker too at Pachyderm, just to be on the grounds and take care of all the shoveling and garbage and errands.

Andrea Swensson: The first artist Brent Sigmeth recorded at Pachyderm was the folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliott, on sessions that would be released a couple of years later as South Coast.

Brent Sigmeth: I guess that's kind of a funny story because he came in and the guy who was managing the studio didn't know who he was, so he gave it to the guy who didn't know, who'd just started, which was me. Like oh, you do this guy. He's a folk singer. You can record that. And I was like who is it. Some guy named Ramblin' Jack Elliot, and I'm like what, and I knew who it was, and was like okay, I can do that. And he showed up in his motor home and we recorded and he was great and I stumbled my way through it, and two years later it got a Grammy for best traditional folk album. It was the first record I recorded, and it's been all uphill since.

Andrea Swensson: Brent Sigmeth knows the rooms at Pachyderm as well as anyone.

Brent Sigmeth: There's a lot of wood. I think it's poplar or birch or something, but a lot of studios don't have the huge windows. A lot of studios have like glass for the control room windows, and maybe some for the isolation rooms, but this place has these enormous bulletproof windowpanes something special in that room happens with the acoustic balance. It's not boomy. It's not too bright. It just sounds amazing. It's had a few pretty great recording consoles in there. There was a Neve 8068 the whole time I was there, which is a classic '70s really thick meaty harmonically balanced console, and now there's an API console in there. Great microphones the whole time. Studio tape machines, and lot of gear. But the main thing is that room, the big live room just kind of sounds like no other.

Andrea Swensson: The timing was excellent for a studio like Pachyderm. Through the seventies and eighties, rock records were increasingly sculpted in the studio. By the nineties, the pendulum had swung back to bands craving a live feel.

We'll hear more about how Pachyderm was positioned for greatness after the break.

[Lazerbeak - "Winging It"]

Andrea Swensson: So far, we've heard Pachyderm stories from musicians, the Mensings, and more. Engineer Steve Albini, who was behind the board for historic records including In Utero and PJ Harvey's Rid of Me, is up next. He told us what he liked about working at Pachyderm.

Steve Albini:: A lot of recording studios are designed to be neutral sounding, and by neutral sounding I mean if you stomp and clap and whistle and wander around the studio, in different parts of the studio the reflected sound would be very dead, and all parts of the studio would tend to sound the same. At Pachyderm they had several partitioned acoustic spaces. There was a main large live room, which had a very nice natural reverb — reverb meaning the reflected energy off the walls and windows. Had a big glass front that looked out over into the woods, and that big glass front acted as a reflector and bounced the sound back into the room. Then there was another room that had a fairly high ceiling, but had granite tiles on the floor and the walls, so it was very reflective, very bright room. And then there were a couple isolation booths where they were just about big enough to fit an amplifier, and then there was a secondary recording space that was sort of a kitchen loft area, and you could set up an amplifier or a drum kit or something out in that little kitchen area. All of those spaces sounded different, and all of them would be flattering for one thing or another. That's what appeals to me as an engineer. Pachyderm was designed so that if you had a particular sound in mind you could probably find a spot to record that sound. All of those options being available in one studio was actually a very nice convenience for me.

Andrea Swensson: Albini's first visit to Pachyderm was for Seamonsters, the 1991 album by the Wedding Present.

Steve Albini:: I had done an EP with them in England, and my friend's band had recorded at Pachyderm and were raving about the acoustics of the main recording space. It seemed like a good idea for a traveling band, meaning a band coming from another country, because it had the residential house attached to it so they could crash there.

Andrea Swensson: Late in 1992, Albini returned to Pachyderm with another British artist — the singer-songwriter-guitarist PJ Harvey, who'd released a highly acclaimed debut album earlier that year, Along with her bassist and drummer, she and Albini recorded the classic Rid of Me at Pachyderm.

[PJ Harvey - "50. ft Queenie"]

Steve Albini:: Her vocals for the songs that were more dramatic, that is where she was singing more — doing more dynamic range with her singing going from loud to quiet or quiet to loud, whatever, those were recorded in the large live room so that the ambient sound of the room would kick in as she was getting louder, and it would give you a kind of a psychological cue that she was singing louder because you'd hear the room reverberation.

Andrea Swensson: By 1992, Pachyderm had earned a reputation in the grunge rock community. Babes in Toyland visited Pachyderm that year to record their major label debut, Fontanelle, for Warner Bros.' Reprise Records. Drummer Lori Barbero told me about their stay.

[Babes in Toyland - "Bruise Violet"]

Lori Barbero: It was with Lee Ranaldo, from Sonic Youth, and it was really great because it was close to Minneapolis, but it was yet out of the city, and you got to stay there. It was something, especially when you're doing something as difficult as recording an album. It takes days. Instead of traveling and all the disruption of going somewhere and then getting back there and settling in again, you just are settled in at the place. It's a really cool modern mid-century house with an indoor pool right off the living room.

Andrea Swensson: The pool is functioning at that point?

Lori Barbero: Yes. So you could just stay there and eat there. You didn't really have to leave unless you wanted to get out of there. I don't even think we had a manager at that time. It could've been Tim Carr, our A&R guy, and he knows about everything. And so I'm guessing maybe it was him because we were talking with Lee Ranaldo and having somewhere else, where instead of going somewhere and staying in a hotel every night somewhere, you just get the whole kit and caboodle. It was really super cool, except for my room was haunted.

Andrea Swensson: I want to hear about that.

Lori Barbero: It really was.

Andrea Swensson: Tell me more.

Lori Barbero: I took the one that was away from everyone else, and it was in a corner of the house. You'd go by there, and the temperature was 20 degrees colder and it was completely haunted, like I could feel sometimes when I was lying there, I could feel it go through me, like whoosh. I don't know if you've ever experienced any crazy spirit going through you or something. I just would think it's all right, it's cool as long as you don't do anything I don't really know what that was, but everyone said oh my goodness. You could feel it. And then Nirvana recorded there and I was sitting in the living room with them telling them the whole story. We were sitting there and they're like oh yeah, sure, right, whatever. And one of the chairs that was next to the pool just went flying into the pool.

Andrea Swensson: What?

Lori Barbero: Yes. I was there. They were there.

Andrea Swensson: What did everyone do?

Lori Barbero: They thought that I was doing something because I started laughing because it was like thanks for the props. It was just one of the chairs that was next to the pool. It was indoors. It just went plop.

Andrea Swensson: This wasn't the only time something like this is said to have occurred at Pachyderm. Brent Sigmeth and Wendy Lewis recalled another incident from the mid-nineties.

Brent Sigmeth: I should help carry the myth more, but I never had any ghost experience.

Wendy Lewis: You played some pranks on people, right, to make them think that--

Brent Sigmeth: We played pranks for sure. You had to. That's part of the experience. The best one, which actually turned out to be kind of mean because the band was mad at us afterwards, was this band, Hum. This was mid-nineties. We put a speaker in the woods and covered it, and I ran a speaker wire into the studio to this Akai sampler, and had all these sounds in there like leaves crunching and bears growling and babies crying. At the time you had to take a flashlight to go between the studio and the house at night because it was really dark. So it was pretty easy to get people. After the first night the band wouldn't walk up to the house unless they were all together for like the rest of the sessions, and then we told them at the end, and they just about killed us.

Wendy Lewis: They were embarrassed, I'm sure.

Brent Sigmeth: I wasn't totally responsible for their anger. It was signed off by the producer.

Wendy Lewis: I hope they hear this. They're going to be calling you.

Andrea Swensson: Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum certainly ran into the unexpected near Pachyderm.

Dave Pirner: I very specifically remember taking a long walk in the woods, and I heard this sound. I didn't know what it was. I couldn't figure out what the sound was. It was like white noise. I couldn't figure out what the sound was. As I walked toward it I realized it was the sound of birds wings flapping, so I sort of followed the sound and I ended up in this kind of — there's a creek going through the back yard — the back property. It's not really a yard. And the water kind of opened up a little bit to a bigger spot, and I feel like I'm not exaggerating. There was like 500 robins just all there, like having a big old robin party get together something. It was really cool. It was just one of those things where you're trying to get in a creative place and then you see something like that, and you ain't going to find that in New York City.

Andrea Swensson: In the wintertime, things could get even more dramatic, as Steve Albini told us.

Steve Albini:: In the dead of winter, just the 100 yards between the house and the studio can be slightly intimidating. You do have to bundle up to get from one building to the next. There was one incident — I was recording Will Oldham, the Palace album Arise Therefore — we recorded at Pachyderm, and his brother Ned and David Grubbs were the other musicians there, and we had devised this bizarre game of — we were in the swimming pool, which had been dialed up to tropical heat so that it was basically a sauna with a swimming pool in it. One of us would go outside and come back with an armload of snow and dive into the pool, and then the snow would just sort of physically disappear into the pool because the pool was so warm. It was sort of a game of tag to see if you could get into the pool with an armload of snow before the other two could lock you out.

Andrea Swensson: Albini's most high-profile client at Pachyderm was Nirvana. Lori Barbero says she recommended the studio to the band.

Lori Barbero:: I'm not 100%, but I know, talking to Kurt and telling him — he said he wanted to record an album, and he wanted to be somewhere very secluded because he was really hoping that he could be somewhere where anything wasn't accessible. And so I said we were at this really great place. It's about 45 minutes out of town in the middle of nowhere. You get to stay there. There's a kitchen. There's a swimming pool. I said it was just really great. The studio is good. It's not some janky two-bit place. I guess it kind of went from there. And that was pretty fun because I hung out with them down there a few times.

Andrea Swensson: Albini and the band arrived in Cannon Falls in February of 1993, a time when Kurt Cobain's name was always in the news, due to his sudden celebrity, his stormy romance with Courtney Love, his public struggle with substance use, and a record label waiting impatiently for the follow-up to Nevermind.

Steve Albini:: For an extended session it's nice to have a spot where people can get away from each other and have some degree of privacy.

When I'm working in the studio with a band I prefer that it just be me and the band rather than having managers or record label people there. My experience is that their people, whatever their skills at business, they're typically not active participants in music. They tend to be critical in ways that are not helpful.

There's one aspect of being secluded in Cannon Falls, is that specifically with Nirvana, Kurt had had problems with substance abuse, and every junkie has a network of facilitators, and it was kind of presumed that there were people in Minneapolis who would be eager to bring drugs to the band if the occasion arose. So the idea of having them an hour or so out of town was appealing to everyone in the band because it would put some drag on that kind of adventure. It'd be less likely that anybody would turn up. Kurt was in a critical period there where he wasn't using but everyone was concerned that he might start using. It seemed like a good idea to keep him physically away from the people who would want to attach themselves to his story by procuring for him.

Andrea Swensson: Still, Nirvana didn't completely hibernate at Pachyderm. Lori Barbero became the band's tour guide.

Lori Barbero: Then there was one day because Steve Albini, who I knew, was recording them, and Dave was doing drum tracks, and Kurt and Krist were like we want to get out here. What should we do? I said Mall of America wasn't that far. And there's also Red Wing, which is filled with antiques, and I know Kurt loves antiques. So we did a couple days of doing different things, but we went to the Mall of America and Steve said, "You guys, you shouldn't go to the Mall of America. You're going to be mobbed. People are just going to mob you if you go there." So it was Kurt, Krist, and I, and we went there, and Mall of America people don't really know anybody. It's just kind of everybody's walking around mouth breathing and looking at all the stores. One person came up to us and said — because it's when I had my dreadlocks, but someone came up to me and said, "Are you in Babes in Toyland?" I said yes. That was fun. I took them there because I told Kurt that there was a store there that I knew he'd really love, and it was called Bare Bones and it had everything to do with skeletons. You could buy a human skeleton. It had rubber fetuses. I had everything. Kurt bought a whole bunch of stuff. It was thousands of dollars, and he wrote a check. I found out later, he told me, he said, "Lori, they never even cashed my check." I want to say it was $7,000 of stuff. But that's where he got the human skeleton see-through with the wings — it didn't have the wings, but he put that on.

Andrea Swensson: At the Mall of America.

Lori Barbero: He incorporated it into his videos and records and stuff. That was kind of cool. One time he really was craving McDonald's so we went to McDonald's. They went through the drive-through and every time I go down there I also look at the drive through and my heart misses a beat. And then we went to some antique stores.

Andrea Swensson: I love the image of Nirvana antiquing in Red Wing.

Lori Barbero: Kurt loved antiquing.

Andrea Swensson: Nirvana were at the head of the nineties alt-rock gold rush, when major labels were signing scruffy college-radio bands in the hopes of finding another big seller.

Brent Sigmeth: I would say there was a percentage of people that it was the sound of that record that they like — of In Utero — that they liked and wanted to come there. And then there were some people who were like, "This is where Nirvana recorded. Make us sound like Nirvana," and that's kind of funny. You just don't. There was a band that was really into Nirvana, and I charged them a dollar for every time they asked me a question about Nirvana, and they were totally into it. They were paying me dollars, and I bought lunch and it was great.

Wendy Lewis: That is kind of amazing though because he got to hang out with those guys for like what, three weeks.

Brent Sigmeth: Eighteen days, yup. Really, PJ Harvey was there before Nirvana. Soul Asylum. The Jayhawks, Trip Shakespeare.

Yup. So really it was Steve Albini that brought Nirvana to Pachyderm, and that gave it a huge boost. But he heard about it because of these other bands that had been there before, and he did the P.J. Harvey record there, and the Wedding Present. It was already kind of in the network of that vein of--

Wendy Lewis: I remember you saying you did something with Tweedy — not Tweedy the band, but Jeff Tweedy the Dude.

Brent Sigmeth:: It was Wilco. It was just a live to 24-track in the studio recording for a radio show. So it was recorded with an audience and then I mixed it and then it got aired as a radio show.

Cecilia Johnson: It was recorded at Pachyderm?

Brent Sigmeth:: At Pachyderm.

Cecilia Johnson: Where did you put the audience?

Brent Sigmeth:: Just all around the control room and whatever, and put microphones in there. It's not like stadium applause, but studio applause. We did a bunch of those. We did They Might Be Giants, Wilco, Kristin Hersh, Run Westy Run — we did one of them with them. Frank Black.

Wendy Lewis: It just seems like everyone in town knows about Pachyderm, and there's kind of mystery about it.

Brent Sigmeth:: It was always really private. People knew it was there, but rarely would anybody come in and just kind of nose around or anything. It was — everyone's pretty Midwestern.

Wendy Lewis: And very Minn-e-SOH-ta.

Brent Sigmeth:: "Oh, wouldn't want to stop in now and bother those talented musicians."

Wendy Lewis: "Or embarrass myself."

Andrea Swensson: For all of the time Brent spent at Pachyderm, there's one story in particular that he loves to tell. It stars Grant Hart, the drummer from beloved Minneapolis punk trio Husker Du, who recorded a solo album there in 1999.

Brent Sigmeth: I got a quick one that involves one of my favorite human being, Grant Hart, who I did a record with called Good News For Modern Man. We went into the Hardee's to get something to eat, and there was a gal behind the counter, probably 16, 17, and Grant, in his punk rock disheveled demeanor walks up and goes, "Excuse me, is there real monster in your monster burger?" She just looked terrified and she was like no, and he's like "Okay, I'll have one of those then." And then he filled out the employee comment sheet and said, "Your counter worker, Alicia, saved my daughter's life. She deserves a raise." He put the comment card in the box and we left.

Brent Sigmeth: We used to joke that Bigfoot was kind of our yes-man, like what does Bigfoot think. He would peek in the window and give us a thumbs-up or something. What was it — Yes-man Yeti or something. I can't remember the term. We had a really funny name for it. Bigfoot is my herald. That was the quote.

Wendy Lewis: What does that mean?

Brent Sigmeth:: Like heralding the king, like he's my yes-man: "Good job, Grant. That vocal was amazing."

Andrea Swensson: Pachyderm wasn't just a place to make loud rock. Jazz trio the Bad Plus rented the space in the 2000s, as drummer Dave King told us.

Dave King: The Bad Plus did three records there. We did a record called Prog. We brought in Tony Platt, the engineer who did the AC/DC record Back in Black. He's an English producer and engineer who worked with Bob Marley in the '70s a lot as well. We also did For All I Care, a record that we featured all contemporary classical music and then some pop things that Wendy Lewis sang. She's a singer from Minneapolis. And that record came out in 2009. And then we did a record called Never Stop in 2010. So we actually ended up working three times at Pachyderm. There was a Pachyderm period there for the Bad Plus.

And I've also done a record for Haley down there. Her record, Lure the Fox. I did a record down there for Mason Jennings I was down there quite a bit in 2006 and 2007.
I did his record called Boneclouds. And I did a record for a jazz bassist who resides in New York now named Chris Morrissey, and his record was called The Morning World, and I think he wanted to work at Pachyderm too just because it was becoming something that some jazz things were doing because it has a great live room — a big beautiful live room. It's one of the reasons why we wanted to use it in the Bad Plus.

Dave King: Wendy is a really old friend of mine, and Brent became a friend around those sessions working with Bad Plus — first with Haley. That's when I first met him, and I think that was right after they got married. I ended up getting along great with him. He's very quiet and dry, and she talks more, so it was kind of fun — their dynamic was fun to work with.

Dave King: We used Brent, who really knows the room, and he recorded and mixed it instead of just recording. It's just a very natural sounding album you really just hear the natural acoustics of the room in the drums and piano being in the same room. It sounds a little bit like an old jazz record. It's got a very live feel to it.

Andrea Swensson: But by the mid-2000s, Pachyderm started slipping into a dark age. Greg Norman, an engineer who now works in Chicago with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio Studios, recalls a visit.

Greg Norman: I did a session up there in 2004, 2006, and the place was kind of a shell of itself. The house was a little run down. They were keeping it clean and everything, but a lot of the equipment wasn't working that well, so it was kind of a hit or miss. If you'd grab an organ or an amplifier or a mic and plug it in and try using it, it'd be fifty-fifty if it would work. It was running on fumes, it seemed like, at that point, but the band I was recording and I were super stoked about being there to record.

Greg Norman: We had to share a bathroom that was in someone else's bedroom because the one in mine didn't drain — the shower didn't drain, there was that kind of thing. It was kind of like we took over someone's abandoned Playboy mansion and were sort of discovering what worked and what didn't work.

Andrea Swensson: From 2006 to 2012, Pachyderm was owned by Matt Mueller, a real estate investor with little practical studio experience. He and some friends tried to repair the main house. But the overall downturn in the music business, a byproduct of the Great Recession and the rise of affordable home studios, took a toll on Pachyderm's bookings.

By 2011, the property was in foreclosure, and the studio was so infested with rodents it needed to be fumigated.

But don't worry, better days are ahead after the break.

[Lazerbeak - "Winging It"]

Andrea Swensson: In the summer of 2011, the Pachyderm property sold for $370,000, having lost over two-thirds of its value in five years. The new buyer, John Kuker, had trouble even getting a Dumpster delivered for the studio overhaul, because, as he told the Star Tribune, "it had gotten such a bad reputation."

We've mentioned the rodents and disrepair of late 2000s-Pachyderm. But all that changed within a few years of Kuker's takeover. Engineer Nick Tveitbakk worked for Kuker at his Seedy Underbelly studio in Minneapolis, where Semisonic recorded their big hit "Closing Time." Seedy Underbelly would eventually relocate to Los Angeles, but Kuker kept an eye on the Twin Cities market.

Nick Tveitbakk: First time I ever came to Pachyderm I was at a coffee shop with John Kuker, and it was the day of the open house the bank was trying to sell it out of foreclosure, and he told me that he had the keys to Pachyderm. It was French Meadow, like 10:00 p.m. We drove down here at 10:00 and walked around the house. It was maybe 2014.

Nick Tveitbakk: When we came here that night after the French Meadow it was crazy. The trees were touching the driveway, they were so overgrown. It got really run down. The roofs were leaking. All the worst nightmare stuff was happening. People were saying the house should've been demolished. That's the state it was when John bought it. And the studio building was the same way, and so the first thing he did was tear the roofs off, put new roofs on, put water diversion systems in to protect the house, it's a better starting point than just kind of putting Band-Aids on everything. Sometimes you just can't do those big projects that the house needs. Every time we opened up a wall it was another thing. Two years this house took to remodel.

Andrea Swensson: According to Greg Norman, that work paid off.

Greg Norman:: Then the last time I was up there was maybe five years ago, and it was just after that guy, John bought the place and refurbished it. I was actually just looking at a board they had installed up there that they wanted to sell. I was just up there to scope the board out to see if it was something worth buying for someone I knew, and got the whole tour of the place. I was excited that someone was investing that much money into the place, because it definitely needed it, and it was cool to see they actually followed through.

Nick Tveitbakk: I always feel like we have so much gear here, like more gear than can be used sometimes or most of the time, and a lot of people would say that's the best thing about this place. He knew that part of the sound aesthetics of things, like this kit sounds great on modern rock, this kit sounds great on punk rock, this kit sounds great on Americana, and this kit sounds great on everything — little things like that.

Nick Tveitbakk: So when it came to the Gully Boys we did that in two days; tracked it one day and mixed it in one day. I picked a kit that I thought would fit that kind of grungy neopunk kind of thing, which is like a vintage Leedy 1960s kit.

Andrea Swensson: Now that Pachyderm has been reborn, it's become a hub for emerging Minnesota talent. Major artists like Haley, Hippo Campus, and Trampled by Turtles have recorded albums there in recent years, and in 2018, Minneapolis rock trio Gully Boys traveled down to Cannon Falls to record their critically acclaimed debut, Not So Brave. Nadirah McGill, Kathy Callahan, and Natalie Klemond told us about what they referred to as their "staycation."

[Gully Boys - "Dizzy Romantics"]

Nadirah McGill: We got there Friday night and immediately started recording until 2:00, something like that. And then went to the house, which was wild, and went swimming in the house. It's so big.

Kathy Callahan: We sat on the same spot as Kurt Cobain. There was this famous picture of the band. Where is it? It's in front of the fireplace and we were really excited to be there.

Nadirah McGill: Like wow.

Natalie Klemond: It kind of just fell into our laps. We didn't really pick it.

Kathy Callahan: We really needed to do it before the tour.

Nadirah McGill: Nick was super chill and made us feel like not the amateur babies we were when we went in there. The person I was working for was a huge musichead and I told him we were touring Pachyderm and he had like a heart attack. He was like are you kidding me. I did a whole bunch of research and realized it was the Pachyderm.

Andrea Swensson: Sadly, John Kuker passed away suddenly in 2015, and did not get to see his studio flourish in this new era. As Gully Boys told us, his longtime engineer and friend Nick Tveitbakk is working hard to keep his memory alive. A photo of John Kuker hangs on the wall of Pachyderm's house.

Kathy Callahan: It sounds like he always keeps him in mind when he's recording, like he's like I'm going to make him proud with this. He definitely does that.

Natalie Klemond: I think he mentioned that John would've really like us, which was like ouch.

Nadirah McGill: That hurted.

Kathy Callahan: Yeah, that hurted a lot.

Nadirah McGill: He was very cute. I missed my high school reunion to go to Pachyderm. That's the best decision of my life.

Andrea Swensson: They say you can't go home again, but in March of 2019, the Mensings returned to their old family home, many of them for the first time in decades.

[AMBIENT SOUND: Footsteps crunching in Cannon Falls snow; car door slams. Dick and Karen Mensings' return to Pachyderm in March 2019 and chatting with Nick Tveitbakk.]

Andrea Swensson: While visiting Pachyderm, we watched the extended Mensings family get reacquainted with the space and chat with Nick Tveitbakk.

[AMBIENT SOUND: Continued distant conversation between Mensing Family and Nick Tveitbakk]

Andrea Swensson: At the time of this recording, Pachyderm Studio lives on. The last Cecilia heard when she was out reporting this story, Nick Tveitbakk and Dick Mensing were talking about staging the next Mensing family Christmas at Pachyderm, just like they did in the good old days.

[Lazerbeak - "Winging It"]

Andrea Swensson: The Current Rewind is produced by Cecilia Johnson. Michaelangelo Matos is our writer, Marisa Morseth is our research assistant, and Brett Baldwin is our managing producer. Our theme music is "Winging It" by Lazerbeak from the album Luther. John Miller engineered audio of the Mensings' visit to Pachyderm, and Michael DeMark mastered this episode. Thanks to our guests Nick Tveitbakk, Brent Sigmeth, Wendy Lewis, Steve Albini, Lori Barbero, Dave Pirner, Dave King, Gully Boys — and the whole Mensing family, including Dick, Martha, Karen, David, Cindy, and Mary.

If you enjoyed listening to this episode of The Current Rewind, we would love to hear from you. Leave us a rating on iTunes, subscribe to the podcast so you don't miss upcoming episodes, and tell your friends about this cool new thing that The Current is doing.

Go to TheCurrent.org/rewind to find transcripts and bonus materials, including a Cannon Falls photo gallery and Cecilia's full interview with Gully Boys.

The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. It is a production of Minnesota Public Radio's The Current.

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  • Photos: Exploring Cannon Falls, home of Pachyderm Studio Since 1988, Pachyderm Studio has made a name for itself as one of the premiere recording studios in the country. In addition to the impressive roster of bands who have already recorded there, including Babes in Toyland, Nirvana, and Soul Asylum, Pachyderm still attracts musicians to its serene, reclusive space, nestled in Cannon Falls, Minn.
  • Meet the Mensings: Pachyderm's first family Before Pachyderm Studio took root in Cannon Falls, the property was home to the Mensing family. The Mensing's connection to Cannon Falls spans generations, and has left lasting impressions in the town, from music to malting.
  • Interview: Gully Boys go to Pachyderm In just three days, Gully Boys recorded their debut album, <i>Not So Brave</i>, at Pachyderm with engineer Nick Tveitbakk. While visiting, they sat on the same fireplace where Nirvana once posed for a photo and walked the same Cannon Falls streets as PJ Harvey. The Current Rewind producer Cecilia Johnson sat down with Gully Boys to talk about their experience at Pachyderm. We couldn't fit all of the interview into the episode, but you can hear their full conversation here.
  • Playlist: The sounds of Pachyderm Studio Many fans know that Nirvana recorded their 1993 album <i>In Utero</i> at Pachyderm Studio, or that PJ Harvey visited the studio to record <i>Rid of Me</i>. But did you know that Pachyderm is also where Hippo Campus laid down their first full-length album <i>Landmark</i> &mdash; and where Andrew Bird recorded parts of <i>Armchair Apocrypha</i>? This playlist walks you through some of Pachyderm's most iconic recordings, from 1988 to today.

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