210114ind Knickerbocker

Before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the Knickerbocker Cafe in Westerly was a Southern Rhode Island hot spot for live music, particularly in the winter. Now, with shows on hold for the foreseeable future, the venue has found new uses for its empty stage.

“Adjusting” has been a key word to describe the last 10 months. Regardless of your profession – if you still have one – or what your life as a whole is like, you’ve definitely had to do things a tad differently because of COVID-19. Due to the nature of an industry that relies on people gathering, music venues have made plenty of adjustments as well. The Knickerbocker Music Center on 35 Railroad Avenue in Westerly has shifted from its status as one of the most legendary establishments for musical sounds in New England to a recording studio and practice space. In fact, they also have a livestream series happening this weekend that’ll go on for the next few months.

I recently had a talk with The Knickerbocker’s head sound engineer Shawn Allen about how the idea for the current setup came to be, his working with an old friend, one of the world’s best jazz musicians coming in to do a residency and teaming up with The United Theatre for the upcoming series.

Rob Duguay: Who initially came up with the idea to make The Knickerbocker Music Center into a recording studio when COVID-19 shut everything down back in the spring?

Shawn Allen: Indeed, I did. I was actually moving from my house and I needed a spot for my equipment. Me being a sound guy and The Knickerbocker being available and open like that, it was perfect timing. I went ahead and moved all of my stuff into there and everything started from there. When I was last at my house at my home recording studio, I was recording this band called Wooly Mammoth, which is based out of Mystic, Connecticut, and I started working on an album with them right before the pandemic started.

That was when we put down the first initial tracks for that project. We had to take a bunch of months off because of COVID-19 and we ended up finishing it at The Knickerbocker while doing background vocals, finishing guitar leads and icing on the cake kind of stuff. We also mixed it there to finish it off. Going back to about a year ago, before the pandemic started, I started to revamp my studio, and about 10 years ago I had gotten into putting a Pro Tools system together and I had started working digitally. The past few months before March I had teamed up with an old friend of mine.

In the early ‘90s, I started my home recording business called Redbone Recording. I’ve had it in multiple houses that I lived in through the years, and in ‘91, a guy I know named Patrick Brownhill had his mom buy him a gift certificate to record with me. He was 14 years old, he came with his heavy metal band and afterward we became really good friends. He kept asking me about recording; he was very, very interested in the craft. Patrick then moved on and he moved down to Florida to study music production at Full Sail University, which he ended up getting a degree in Pro Tools at.

I was having some problems with my Pro Tools software and I was looking for a fill-in sound guy at The Knickerbocker one night because I was going on vacation. I called him out of the blue asking, “Hey, what’s going on with you? Are you a sound guy or what?” He ended up filling in, and he did a wonderful job. I started picking his brain about Pro Tools and all that and he helped me put together a brand new system. Since then, we came together to do this Wooly Mammoth project and we’re still working together.

He was my student in the beginning and now I’m kind of his student because he’s been teaching me the ins and outs of Pro Tools to get everything up and going. The Wooly Mammoth project we just did has been amazing. It’s the highest-quality project that I’ve done thus far and as far as the studio, The Knickerbocker and The United Theatre are teaming up to do 10 shows that we’re prerecording and videotaping. I’m using Pro Tools for the whole thing, and we’re putting these high-quality videos together featuring national acts. This past Saturday was our first one with Ian O’Neil and Chris Ryan from Deer Tick.

RD: Really cool.

SA: Yeah, they have a duo and it was amazing. I’ll tell ya, after being out of the live music scene since last March, it was just a magical night and it was such a wonderful time. I’m really happy with the sound that we captured, and the following day we did one with The Wolff Sisters out of Boston.

RD: They’re awesome; I’m a big fan.

SA: Yeah, they’re amazing too. They came in and just killed it.

RD: When it comes to doing these prerecorded shows, is it a big change for you versus doing a normal live show? Do you find yourself having more freedom to edit things or are there any restrictions that take adjusting?

SA: It’s definitely got a live recording feel to it because it’s continuous – so it’s live, but without a net. By capturing it in Pro Tools, we can give them the finest quality of a mix that’s gonna match up with a video.

RD: Outside of Wooly Mammoth, have you gotten anyone else to come in and do some recording, practices or anything like that? Have you had steady business coming through the venue?

SA: No, because we really had to take a bunch of time off, and also over the summer we had Jon Batiste there. He was doing a bunch of his own recording, so I kind of had to wait for Jon to finish what he was doing until I could set up, which was around August. Since then I’ve also done a couple mastering projects –  one for Johnny and The East Coast Rockers and another one for a band called Sweet Mercy.

RD: During Jon Batiste’s residency this past summer, he was doing a bunch of different stuff, including some music for the current Disney flick Soul that’s currently out. Did he play a distinct role in The Knickerbocker becoming a recording studio?

SA: He basically did the same thing that I’m kind of doing. He had the whole venue at his disposal and he brought in his own engineers and everything. I supplied the equipment and that kind of stuff, but I have worked with Jon before in the past. When he’s performed at The Knickerbocker I’ve ran sound for his shows; he’s an amazing person and an amazing musician. It’s an honor to be able to work with someone like that.

RD: He’s really talented. I got to see him play the Newport Folk & Jazz Festivals a few times, and he’s excellent. When it comes to these livestreams that The Knickerbocker is teaming up with The United Theater for, when will they start to be broadcasted?

SA: The streams are going to start this Friday, and they’ll be broadcasted on both The United Theater’s website at unitedtheatre.org and The Knickerbocker’s website at knickmusic.com. Since they’re prerecorded, after they’re available on Friday you’ll be able to watch it anytime afterwards to check it out. They’ll be released during the next 10 Fridays in a row. When we started doing this, Patrick helped me out a lot, and I couldn’t have done it without him.

Tony Nunes, who is the Artistic Director at The United Theatre, has been handling the video production with Dan Hall as well. I look forward to watching one of the videos when they come out; it should be pretty amazing.

Rob Duguay is a Rhode Island-based music writer. Send him email at rob.c.duguay@gmail.com.

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