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In the Indiestry: The Headroom's Kyle Pulley & Joe Reinhart

- by Q.D. Tran

In the indie music scene - more and more these day - you’ll find artists wearing multiple hats. You may start off playing in a band, and then find yourself on the other side of the board in the producer/engineer role, which is often a tedious and less glamorous position but an equally important and intricate part of making a great album or song. We had a chance to discuss these roles and more with The Headroom’s Kyle Pulley (also in the band Dangerous Ponies) and Joe Reinhart (formerly of Algernon Cadwallader), and you can read the informative interview below.
 
The Deli: How long did it take The Headroom to go from an idea to an actual physical space? How difficult was that to do in the warehouse space known as Big Mamma’s?

Kyle Pulley: Joe and I had been talking about collaborating on a studio at a warehouse space for 2 years or so. It took our group that long to find the warehouse we currently reside in. It was difficult at first to figure out how the studio was going to fit into the grand scheme of things with all of our different roommates. At first, people wanted to do shows (and we actually did quite a few) in the room that is now the studio, so every time there was a show we had to move everything out of the room, and then back in. Once we bought the tape machine (and after the fire alarm was pulled twice), we put a stop to that, and the room became a dedicated studio/rehearsal room for the bands that live here.

Joe Reinhart: The Headroom was a mutual vision we had after college while recording bands in our various West Philly basements and bedrooms. When we moved into The Headroom it needed lots of TLC. We put a lot of time into making it a place where people could feel comfortable being creative. Not to mention making it sonically pleasing room.

TD: What’s the origin for the name “The Headroom”? What made you decide on that name?

JR: It’s a term used to describe the amount of gain a piece of gear has in recording, but it’s also an analogy for the way we think of the studio: a small space to push the boundaries. Also our ceilings are high thus giving a taller person, such as me, literally more “headroom.”

TD: How long have you been interested in the recording process, and what inspired you to get involved with it?

KP: I got into it in college. I knew I wanted to do something in music, but I wasn’t sure what. I was using the university’s studio almost as soon as I was allowed, and was always there recording one of my bands. I soon figured out from trial and error that it was really the only thing that interested me in music besides actually playing in a band. It’s funny. I was almost in denial. I didn’t think I wanted to spend 12 hours in a dark room twiddling knobs, so I tried working at a venue or a post-production house, but I was leaving early to go to the studio! Once I came to terms with my true self, Joe was sort of an inspiration to go ahead and do it. He showed me that all you really had to do was have some gear, know how to use it, and make some friends with some bands.

JR: I unknowing became interested in the process when my 6th Grade band was making recordings by doing all the rhythm tracks live into a Talkboy, then playing that tape back though a boom box while simultaneously performing the lead vocals and guitars parts next to a second tape recording on the Talkboy. Realizing I was having a blast messing around with the 3 band eq on the Boombox, I bought a 4-track a year or two later, and started recording bands that I put out on my “record label.”

TD: Both of you went to Drexel. You met through there, correct? Did you ever as undergrads talk about opening up a studio together?

KP: Yes, we did. Joe had a dumb lip ring, and I had an ironic mullet. After the initial suspicion of each other wore off (and I got a hair cut), we started hanging out and helping each other with our respective projects. I don’t think we talked about opening the studio till after we graduated.

JR: We had a class together. Kyle thought my lip ring was lame (it was), and I thought his mullet was absurd (it was). At some point after that, we met at an Algernon Cadwallader show, and hit it off pretty well.
 
TD: Joe, Hop Along recently released the full-length album Get Disowned, which was nearly a two-year-long project that you worked on as a producer and engineer. What took so long for it to be completed? Was there a turning point in the project that helped everything fall into place, or was it a struggle all the way?

JR: The Hop Along record would have come out just as well had we done it in a month or two. The 2 year myth is more a product of scheduling conflicts than actual time spent in the studio. Believe me - I would have loved to have spent 2 straight years making a record with them. However, this was not the case. I was on tour a lot, working on other records, and the band had to work as well. Everything fell into place on day one when Frances and I ripped apart and arranged a new song she wrote called “No Good Al Joad.” This day, like many others after it, was filled with those magic moments where one idea sparks another, and it snowballed into something magical. Some days were more fruitful than others, but it was never a “struggle.” Paul McCartney has thrown down his bass and stormed out of the studio. We never did anything like that.

TD: Kyle, you recorded Dangerous Ponies and through that experience joined the band. How has it been playing in the band?

KP: It’s been the best. It’s afforded me the opportunity to travel and tour, play some amazing shows, and make some really great friends. Playing in a band was my first true love, and before DP, it had been a few years since I was able to play in a serious band. Going on a national tour was one of my dreams as a kid, so was living in a warehouse, so I count myself lucky to have been able to achieve two of my boyhood dreams.

TD: How does producing/engineering knowledge affect your songwriting process?

KP: I don’t write songs per say, but I definitely approach all of our songs as a producer. I don’t write my guitar parts until the rest of the song is done, in order to fill gaps or solve problems. I also look critically at what other people are doing, and offer suggestions occasionally, even when it comes to lyrics. What is wonderful about producing is hearing a song as a music fan or listener, deciding what you like about a song and what you don’t, and actually having the ability and opportunity to make changes.

JR: If all the creativity processes have run their course before the first drum is tuned on day one, then I'm just working for a paycheck. While that's fine, that’s not why I do this. Sometimes I'm another member of the band, arranging, working on vocal melodies, or actually playing an instrument. Other times, I'm the band therapist offering advice on different ways to fret a chord, or just simply giving a smile during a vocal take. The Headroom is an open space where there is no barrier between the artist and engineer. Knowing where that barrier lies with each band is my job. When I’m writing for my own band, I definitely use the studio as a writing tool. If a section seems lackluster during mixing, I have no problem re-writing a guitar part, taking out the drums, adding a synth, or whatever it needs because I have the resources. If I had an orchestra in my living room, I’d use that too. I know working in this manner isn’t the most organic approach, but I enjoy staying up all night with a pot of coffee and getting lost in process.

TD: What type of satisfaction do you get from performing on stage at shows in comparison to recording in studio?

KP: Playing in a band is a rollercoaster, you’ll have a great show and feel great, or play some town in the middle of nowhere and wonder what the hell you’re doing, but there is still nothing like it. Working on a record gives you the satisfaction of helping someone realize their vision, and it’s an even keeled sort of experience. It’s generally fun but without the soaring highs and abyssmal lows. It’s really the difference between working towards your own goals or helping someone else work towards theirs. Both are very gratifying, but as a producer there is a little bit of autonomy that you don’t get from playing in a band.

JR: Anyone that plays music for the right reasons will tell you that there is no greater high than playing a killer show. In front of 5 kids or 500, that moment when you all realize your all fucking killing it up there is your moment of Zen. Other things come close, but that's it. My favorite part of recording is the accidents caught on tape that become forever - the mistakes that you couldn't try in a thousand years to duplicate. A voice crack, a note bend into oblivion, a panicked drum roll that worked, and dorky things like accidentally hearing the mic in the corner of the room that sounds way better than whatever's actually on the amp. You will crack a proud smile every time you hear "that thing" for the rest of your life.

TD: Both of you have recorded your own bands. How difficult is it to do that?

KP: I find it very difficult. It’s so hard to get perspective and be objective. It’s almost like there is a mental block to overcome. Our last record was made with me and two other members in the band who have recorded other bands on their own. It was a project where 3 different people, who have 3 different ways of doing things, all had to agree, and needless to say, it was very grueling. I think for that reason, I won’t be doing our next record. I’d rather have an outside opinion, which I think is important. In fact, I think working with a band, while not actually being in that band, and having that objectivity is probably the greatest asset one could bring to a project. It’s probably the best argument I can think of for a band to hire someone else that they trust.

JR: Every time I record my own band, I swear I'm never going to do it again. A few months later, I can't wait to. It’s so much multitasking that I feel like I'm on a seesaw with myself. On one end is going to be me; the other is a rock that's just kinda getting the job done. There’s second guessing, and no one’s around to slap me and say, “The first take was great, move on!” But I’ve gotten good at hitting record on the tape machine with my big toe.

TD: Can you give young artists/producers who do the same any advice about avoiding possible pitfalls of taking on both duties?

KP: I think deadlines are important. If you are working for yourself, there obviously isn’t as much of a financial constraint on how long you can work on your material, but probably the most important thing you can do for your record is to finish it. If it’s not as good as you think it could be, you’re probably right, but it’s also completely natural to feel that way. You’ll do better on the next one, and the one after that. The whole point is for someone besides yourself to hear your music, don’t forget that. I know bands that have spent years on recordings, and then break up or lose interest before it’s even done. It’s a real shame to see that happen. That’s not to say you should rush, as long as you are making real progress, keep working. It’s just at the last stage - the last 5 percent - when you start second guessing yourself, or getting hung up on making last minute changes for days or weeks on end. That is the real pitfall.

JR: Don't be afraid of any situation, get in over your head, make mistakes, and learn from them. Don’t take drugs, and drop outta school.

TD: Some well-respected Philly artists are on your roster like Grandchildren and The Extraordinaires. Did you approach them, or did they approach you?

KP: I worked on Grandchildren’s old band, Rad Racket, before I worked on their record, so it just sort of made sense to do it. I’m not sure who approached who about it. The Extraordinaires were approached by me. They’re a band that I’ve been a fan of for a long time even before I knew them personally. Our bands were on a small label together briefly, and through that partnership, I gained their trust, and got them to come into the studio. It was really gratifying to finally work with a band that you had been wanting to work with for years.

TD: Who are you working with these days that you are excited about?

KP: Slowly but surely, I’ve been producing the next Power Animal record. We did a few days of capturing all sorts of percussion and other instruments for Keith to build his very own unique sample bank in order to write the record. So now he’s holed up in his room with Ableton, putting loops together. Once he has the skeleton of each song, we’ll take a look at them together, and go from there. I also recently decided it was time for me to further educate myself, so I haven’t been taking as many clients in order to have time to start working at Fancy Time Studio with Kyle “Slick” Johnson.

JR: I consider myself lucky to be in a position where I’m excited about almost everything I work on. I think of recording as a challenge to get the best product out of a band. In some cases, that’s capturing their sound as accurately as possible. In others, I’m pulling out all the stops and using the studio magic trick book cover to cover. Doing any of those things well is exciting to me.

TD: Are there any artists you really want to record that you never worked with before?

KP: There are so many great bands doing great things in and around Philadelphia! Tongue Sculptors, The Mendles, Work Drugs, The Looks of It, Thee Eeries, Ladies Auxiliary, The Circadian Rhythms, Univox, Ghost/Light - they’re all bands I hear doing great things, but they’re also bands I would love to be involved with making their next great record.

JR: Tigers Jaw, Dangerous Ponies, Catnaps, The Eeries, The Swimmers, Waxahatchee, Swearin'.


TD: What do you love about Philly, and what do you hate about it?

KP: Jeez, there is a lot to love and hate. I love that Philly has a tight-knit community of musicians. There are a lot of great artists out there waiting to be discovered. I also really love our DIY scene here. There are also a lot of people who live here who are very enthusiastic about music and art, and want to support it either by coming to see it or creating a place to show it. You don’t realize just how much we have going on and how seriously it’s taken until you go somewhere else in the country and see the lack of enthusiasm, talent or organization that exists compared to Philly. What sort of drives me crazy about Philly is that people don’t take advantage of what the city has to offer. Rent here is cheap, and I think that saps some of the drive from people. Because it’s easy to eek by, they do exactly that. They don’t look at their band in a bigger picture. They should be saving up some money, take some time to make a really great record, and GO ON TOUR! If you’re serious about music, you have to figure out new ways to always push yourself. You can’t just play the local bar once a month, and call it a day.

JR: I love that you can get to any part of Philly on a bike in 45 minutes. I love the beer scene. I love my friends. I hate broken glass and trash.


TD: What makes Philly’s music scene unique from others?

KP: It’s a big diverse city with a lot of music and art, but without the crippling financial constraints of LA or NY. On any given night, there are 5 shows happening somewhere in the city, and it’s one of the few cities that has a very vibrant and diverse house show scene, which is a great incubator for young bands. I think almost every band from Philly who is anybody has started out playing in someone’s basement.

JR: There will always be the obvious things that make Philly so attractive to music enthusiasts, like art schools, great bands, and lots of venues. But under the marquee, there is an unseen community that supports it. Almost exactly like a network of fungi. It’s all over country; it’s just that our DIY scene happens to be blooming large, healthy mushrooms. Venues die, and new ones spring up around it, because there is an audience. Bands break up, and new ones are formed, because there are opportunities. With that being said, you get out of it what you put into it, and most people here are smart enough to get something out of it.

TD: What is the biggest challenge in running a studio?

KP: Well, as anyone who has a studio will tell you, there is always a financial challenge. Bands think they can make something comparable on their own with a laptop. Not that I don’t think a band should try, but we have experience, gear, and a methodology that you aren’t going to get with a few microphones and some free plug-ins. But with record sales what they are, it’s hard to recoup on an investment from a financial point of view so I don’t exactly blame bands. I just think there is a tangible benefit to having someone else work on your record; it gives you a critical ear outside of your band from someone who still has a vested interest in your success. One band I worked with, Kite Party, went from a band playing random basement shows to a band that got its record picked up by a small California label, got write ups from Punk News and Alternative Press, played the No Idea Fest, and has been opening for some more established bands at more established venues. It’s not necessarily a rags-to-riches story, and it was the whole experience that pushed the envelope for them, not just me, but they definitely used their studio experience to make a step up in the world. It’s hard to explain that to a band when they walk through your door to check out the studio.

JR: Getting enough sleep.

TD: How would you like to see the studio evolve over the next few years?

KP: Honestly, I’d just like to continue to have the opportunity to work with talented, hardworking bands like The Extraordinaires, Grandchildren or Kite Party, and maybe see one of those bands have gained some real recognition for what they’re doing.

JR: The fact that I can make a living off of music is still mind-blowing to me. But if I had to get greedy, I would like to see a steady stream of new toys coming into the studio. The junk mic or the useless delay pedal can sometimes be just what a song needed to get everyone going again.

TD: What is your favorite thing to get at the deli?
 
KP: Bagel w/cream cheese and lox.

JR: Last time, I got a turkey, bacon, avocado sandwich with a Dale's Pale Ale.
 

 

 

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