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Feature Thu May 13 2010

Welcome to Daytrotter

A hundred and eighty miles west of Chicago, the Mississippi River wraps around Arsenal Island and cuts through Iowa and Illinois. Towering over this river, Centennial Bridge connects these states. A few steps in from shore is the Great River Trail. One can move along it slowly and savor it for miles. A few more steps in is the small city of Rock Island. There are streets and people. At night — voices and lights. There are bars, restaurants, businesses. There is Huckleberry's Pizza, SEO Copywriters. Up above them both, there are engineers and magicians at work. In one room a magnificent sound is created. In another it is nudged gently onto BASF 468 1/4" analog tape. This is done 15 inches and one second at a time. Seven times a week, for several hours a session, for over four years this has been done here. The tape collection has been growing. And now, one can move along it slowly and savor it for miles. Welcome to Daytrotter.


"Our studio is your studio." Phil Pracht tells me this as we stand in the lounge of the Horseshack. If one is not so inclined to ask, one might not discern any single title or position among those who've made their home here. There are simply those who are from Daytrotter and those who are passing though. Pracht is from Daytrotter. And as we stand in this room, the walls plastered with the fingerprints of those who came before, he tells me what I imagine someone told them: "Our studio is your studio." There is no lack of sincerity in his words, in his tone. And I presume that the previous passers by, for a short while, for a brief and glorious mile, heard and felt the same. In this studio. In this very room.

Standing just outside the lounge, still fresh and beaming from their 60 mile pilgrimage to Real Records in Iowa City, standing here are Sean Moeller, Johnnie Cluney and his wife Bambi. Moeller began Daytrotter four years ago, in February 2006. For just as long he's been welcoming bands into the studio, then seeing them off hours later. He freely shares each of these live sessions, "Daytrotter sessions," at Daytrotter.com — with his weaving and surreal words always trailing closely behind. Alongside the sessions are the unmistakable illustrations of Johnnie Cluney — each image an illustrated fragment from some sunny and smokey-breathed utopia. Cluney's wife Bambi helps to keep the train on the tracks, to let one know when it is coming. She makes sure one has what one needs. She makes sure one knows that one is among family.

Beyond the lounge, down a long and narrow hallway and opposite a Hammond B-3 organ, there is a second room. The lights are dim and incense burns. There are studio monitors, racks of preamps, a mixing board, a river of cables to connect the seas and another that hangs still and flows nowhere. All of this eventually leads to the glow of an Otari reel to reel recorder. In the middle of it all, Mike Gentry sits with a can of PBR, a focused face, and calculated hands. Gentry is mastering an earlier recording from Vancouver, Canada's The Pack AD. From his vantage point, there is a great deal of time spent looking through two panes of glass and into a third room.


The live room begins like any other room. It is just a room. It holds things that are simple, things that are more complex. It gives back only what it has been given. So what has been given? On top of the overlapping patterns of worn out rugs, the live room holds generations of vitality, of spirit, of hardware. Acoustic guitars, electric guitars, drums, pianos, keyboards. Pedals, tambourines, a xylophone, a cabasa, a squeeze horn. More cables, more organs. They line the walls and form new ones. And then — then there are the amps. Amps that bring tones as warm and sweet as honey sit like gorillas around the room. Those that are small rest around others that are large, heavy, still. Even in silence they are loud, roaring. Dominant. Always nearby, near the amps, near the drums, near it all, there are of course the microphones.

This is the equipment that most will play through during their visit. Besides for the sheer vastness and mystical allure of it all, there is also the matter of three flights of stairs. What is played in this room is what will go to tape — reel to reel. It will do this with no overdubs. And what goes to tape is what will go to Daytrotter.com. Free to all.

It is just after 2pm. It is bright, cool and gorgeous outside. It is Saturday, April 17, Record Store Day.


The infinite wheels of the musical caravan stop here often. Today they've shot Rocky Votolato three hours along the highway and under the sun from Chicago. He left his home in Seattle at some point earlier. Maybe a month. Maybe longer. Last night he played Lincoln Hall. Tomorrow he will play a living room in Des Moines; in less than three weeks, Nexus in Braunschweig, Germany. In the summer he will play living rooms all across these massive United States. This afternoon, he arrives in Rock Island with his wife April, and he plays at the Horseshack.

Votolato stands alone in one room and plays to a small audience in another. In this other room, we talk briefly in between songs. Where are you from? It's so beautiful there; where are you coming from today? In this way, we talk. There sits a couple who in 10 days time will have moved to New York, friends of the Daytrotter family who've come today to visit. Next to them sits Votolato's tour manager. In his arms, his lady friend. All are sitting — listening. (All with great names, wonderful names, but so many names in one day can be troublesome for a child sitting so near the controls of a spaceship.) Also sitting in this room is Votolato's wife April. She sits with her favorite songs and with what appears to be a great deal of pride. And whether he knows it or not, Votolato is singing to both. He is singing to many. Softly and sweetly.

He pauses to switch rooms, to listen. He sits at the mixing board and stares heavily into the song. He does this at times with eyes open, and at other times with eyes closed; always staring. For its duration, he sits and stares with a face of stone. When it ends — the song, the staring — the stone breaks and reveals a great joy.

Votolato returns to the live room and Gentry returns to the mixing board. For three more songs, together with the tape, they work. Before the session comes to an end Votolato must record his tag. It's done how it is always done. "If I was to do one, it would be like 'Hi, this is Mike Gentry...'" the engineer begins. The tape rolls and spins as the magician finishes — "Welcome to Daytrotter."


It is now 5pm. There are wheels outside that turn away slowly, then faster toward Des Moines. There are others that have spun from Portland, Salt Lake, Denver, and so on. Today they've spun from Minneapolis, and come to a much needed rest, here. This happens downstairs and on the street outside. Upstairs, the members of A Weather move back and forth in the hallway, in and out of the rooms. They carry cases, bags, water; they carry a heavy and visible exhaustion.

But it is a lovely exhaustion. It is a gorgeous exhaustion that sits behind eyelids weighing a thousand pounds each, and radiates, shines when the lights dim and the songs begin to rise. And for at least this one hour, it finds in the tape a place to rest.

In between the songs there are only the thoughtful gazes and shortly-worded sentences. Together they drift into the distance and decide that, what was recorded, was just as it should be. The album versions have existed for some time, they will continue to do so. These are the live versions, and now they too exist. And they are, as they should be.

Before continuing on with their tour, the members of A Weather ask for suggestions on a place to eat. Holding fragments of such information from an earlier coffee shop conversation, I approach one of many maps hanging in the hallway. But I too have just traveled here today. What might I be looking for? How might I find such a thing? I lower my arm and advise them to head east. There they may find what I'm told is Rock Island's best Chinese food. And so they leave. Filled, I hope, with a meal before their 18 hour and 1,100 mile drive to Somerville, Massachusetts.

Where the studio ends the essence of Daytrotter goes on. After wishing everyone a happy Record Store Day, Moeller leaves for a birthday party, and to see his family. Gentry leaves with plans to see a musician friend perform, and also, his family. Cluney and his wife Bambi meet with friends for a drink at the Great River Brewery. I'm invited to join them, and I do. The conversation doesn't break, and rarely does it leave the topic of music. There are six of us; there is so much to say. Cluney tells me about playing drums in Mondo Drag, about the first of two flattening A.A. Bondy sessions and how Bondy refused to accept his money for a record — "People in bands don't buy records from people in bands." He tells me about The Entrance Band session and the mysterious tape noise that appears throughout "Grim Reaper Blues (pt. 2)." (I am back in the spaceship.)

We eventually leave the brewer's lounge and drive to the home of Cluney's Mondo Drag bandmate Jake. We sit around his living room table where, for hours, we play and sing the songs we know, and still some others that we don't. And we somehow manage to escape the madness that awaits at dawn.

It is just after 2am. There is a cool breeze outside and lights hanging in the Quad City skies. It is Sunday.


Morning has become afternoon. There is sun everywhere, on everything. Those who are from Daytrotter are scattered around the lounge after an early meeting. In addition to the engineering and the magic, there are also matters of business that appear from time to time. Not so often that they may bear any burden on those just passing through, but more often than one might think. There is after all a studio to run, a website, a growing list of live shows, a tour. In less than two weeks the Daytrotter-presented Barnstormer III shows will begin in West Libertyville, Iowa. They will circle parts of the midwest before returning here. There is much planning involved, much talk and excitement about this fact. It permeates the room, as another vehicle creeps into a sun-faded parking space outside.

Andy Friedman walks up the stairs and into the lounge alone. He carries a guitar that it is unlikely he will play. Last night he played Schubas in Chicago. Tomorrow he will fly home to Brooklyn, to his wife and kids. Right now he sets his guitar down on the ground, and sinks for a moment into the wide and welcoming arms of a couch. There is no particular hurry here, today. There is only the steady breeze that carries a quiet and relaxed anticipation. Friedman is complimentary to all in the lounge, for all that they do and for all that is done here. He is curious, has questions, wants to know more. And so the sharing begins, and drifts into the live room.

Friedman pulls an acoustic Gibson down from the wall. He positions a chair to sit in. Gentry moves in and out of sight often as he positions the mics. I prepare to leave the room when Friedman welcomes me to stay. He tells me that he would prefer it, that the point of all this, the desired outcome, is to have shared something with someone. By asking me to leave, he would be shutting me out. So I stay. I choose a piano bench, and I sit.

Friedman rolls rawly and tenderly through his chosen songs. From this room, one can hear a father and a son in the same breath. They are strumming a bruised string. They are kicking a can down the road. And now, from beyond this room, now this same sound can be heard — by one and by all. It is with this purpose, with this desired outcome, that Friedman steps into the control room. He lies back on the couch, and quickly, he begins to grin.



The day is done. All are in the lounge. Everyone is giving something to everyone. Each gives, and each receives. Friedman tours with a box of drawings, his drawings. Album covers, book covers, newspapers, magazines, The New Yorker: he has drawn for them all. He has drawn from homes and hotel rooms, and some of what he's drawn sits here in this box, for anyone who might like to have one.

In small rooms that appear from out of nowhere, Daytrotter shirts are being pulled from Daytrotter boxes. There is some time spent on this; they must fit. They must fit not only those in this room, but a wife, kids. Those that don't will go back into the boxes until they do. Albums, postcards, e-mail addresses: they are all in this room and they are all blowing calmly, around and around.

This goes on until it becomes time to leave. Some have already left, and a small group is leaving together now. Up above, most of the lights have been turned off for the night. There remains only Gentry and a still-droning guitar.

But still there is more. There are the songs that will make their way to Daytrotter.com. There are the miles of tape that will travel to New York to be stored. There are the thousand-plus who have sailed their ships through here for a time, then sailed off again, and onto Des Moines, Somerville, Brooklyn, Braunschweig and so on. All having given, all having received. All having been burned slightly by a bright and blazing sun.

It is 5pm. It is quiet. It is Sunday night.

~*~

All photos by Brian Leli.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information.

Michael Dill / May 13, 2010 5:08 PM

Beautiful writing capturing the beautiful spirit of a very special place. Daytrotter is unique, there is no other studio quite like this anywhere else and your article gives those of us who have not made the trip a little taste of how special the people who make up the Daytrotter family are.

James / May 14, 2010 11:49 AM

Nice writeup, Brian. I've always liked the Daytrotter concept, but this really gave me a concrete understanding of what it's all about.

Kirstiecat / May 15, 2010 10:07 AM

This is a really thorough piece and I think what you did best is capture the mood of the place as a whole. I like how laid back it seems...miles and mils away from any big city.

Brian / May 15, 2010 12:19 PM

Thanks for the comments everyone. It's a special place indeed, made much more so by the good souls roaming around in it. Thank you again.

Ryan / May 17, 2010 11:38 AM

Great article Brian, I met you in the studio that day, you captured it beautifully.

Brian / May 17, 2010 9:02 PM

Ryan, thank you. I'm so glad you found your way here. It was great to meet you, and I hope New York is treating you well.

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Classical Tue Apr 01 2014

Pulling Strings: For Classical Music in Chicago, You Got a Guy - April 2014

By Elliot Mandel

Love fugues? Dig counterpoint? Get your fix this month as the music of J.S. Bach fills the city. Plus, don't miss a Chicago debut and all five Beethoven cello sonatas.

Read this feature »

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