COVID-19 has changed millions of careers over the past eight months. Some have taken up new jobs entirely, some are still looking for one, and others have gone in a different direction in hopes that what they were doing before the pandemic erupted will once again be a reality when life returns to somewhat normal. North Kingstown native Graham Mellor has encountered the latter with his concert production company Sound Advice. If it was life as usual, chances are Mellor would be on the road handling the sound for a famous musician or band, but he’s taking this curveball that got thrown at everybody and utilizing another part of his talents for the time being. That’s why he’s been spending most of 2020 operating a recording studio within the Columbus Theatre on 270 Broadway in Providence.
We recently had a talk about how he secured the space for the studio, which records he’s been working on, socially distanced shows, live streaming and his thoughts on what the future holds for live music.
Rob Duguay: How were you able to secure the space for a recording studio at the Columbus Theatre?
Graham Mellor: Sound Advice takes care of the audio production at the Greenwich Odeum in East Greenwich, and the Columbus Theatre is one of our accounts that we’ve had since 2013. We’re a partner in the production aspect of things at the theatre and we’ve been for the past seven years.
RD: We’re still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, so what would you say is the biggest change or the weirdest thing you’ve had to adjust to with this current situation we’re all in when it comes to running a recording studio? Have you been doing Zoom recordings or anything like that?
GM: My biggest adjustment has been running a recording studio because it’s not normally what I do. Before this, I hadn’t worked in a studio in almost 10 years. It’s been a big adjustment for me because I’m mostly a live sound engineer and a production manager, so it’s taken some adjusting just to do the recording process. We don’t do any Zoom recording and we tend to do only long-term projects, so we’re seeing the same bands for a week or two weeks every day, we don’t take days off when we’re working on projects. Everyone gets tested beforehand, we’re sort of all in each other’s bubbles and we’re generally pulling 10- to 12-hour days.
GM: Yeah, we’re working on records to get them done. It’s more of an older school approach and, in the instance where doing vocals or something that doesn’t require the entire band for only a day or two at a time, generally that person doesn’t come into the room. We keep people in the live room, I stay in the control room and we have a level of separation with the windows ventilated. We never do more than one client in a day so there isn’t a chance of two clients running across each other. I get tested pretty regularly to make sure that I’m safe to be around and I’m not going to infect anybody with anything other than good vibes and badass sounds.
RD: Have you had any finished products come through the pike yet?
GM: Not yet, but very, very soon. So far I’ve recorded an acoustic record for Chris Monti, I’m in the middle of tracking what will be a double album by Noah Harley, we’re putting the finishing touches right now on the newest record from The Silks and we have an EP coming out within the next month from Willie J. Laws, who is a blues musician currently based in Massachusetts.
RD: I’ve heard of him.
GM: We haven’t had anything really finished, but we did release a couple things. A couple weeks ago I did a recording with Matt McLaren and Chris Sandlers for this thing they do called “Bach To The Future” and it takes place at a church at Brown University every year for 12 hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. For that whole time, people come in to do the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, but obviously they can’t do it this year in that setting, so they did it virtually. We recorded a Bach cello suite for broadcast and we did that in the studio. Think that’s the only thing that has gone out into the world at this point.
RD: Ok, cool.
GM: We also mixed a record by a guy named Properdust who’s sort of like Arctic Monkeys meets E-40 style rap. That project is going to be mastered soon and it should be released during the beginning of next year.
RD: You mentioned earlier how Sound Advice handles the sound engineering for the Greenwich Odeum, and for the past few months they’ve been doing socially-distanced shows. They’ve recently had Tom Rush and Livingston Taylor come and perform.
RD: So we’re in this situation where we have these socially-distanced shows and live streaming becoming the two major things sustaining the music industry when it comes to performances. What are your opinions about this? You’ve done both of them, so what are your thoughts on each of them? Does it feel weird for you at all?
GM: It all feels weird, it all feels really weird. I was on Sturgill Simpson’s tour in March when we had the shut down. I had almost 50 people on the road and I had to send them home on March 13. It’s a weird thing for me and it’s a shame that at the federal level and at the state level there hasn’t been more of an effort by the government to pick up some of the slack for the arts. In Europe there’s an insane amount of support for the arts, even during the best of times, and I find that it’s not the case around here in this great country we call the United States.
It’s been particularly difficult and I think that I tow the line, and I’m going to be very careful with how I say this because I don’t want it to be misconstrued, on whether indoor shows, no matter how socially distant, are the way to go or whether live streams are the way to go. I always feel a little bit strange, given the circumstances, when people are inside. The Odeum does an amazing job of keeping people safe, an amazing job of policing and making sure people are wearing masks. Security will remove anybody who doesn’t keep their mask on. They do temperature checks at the door, if you go out to smoke a cigarette and you come back in you’ll get temperature checked again.
There’s a questionnaire everyone has to fill out before they come in, so they’ve been extremely safe. With that being said, it’s a little weird. I joked with Livingston Taylor after I mixed his show by telling him that it was really nice to feel normal for an evening. I’m not sure what normal is anymore, but it was nice to feel that, so it’s strange. I like the webcasting idea, I think the market for it is a little bit saturated but I think that’s a good thing.
Any time people are performing art, making art and putting it out into the world, it’s a self-regulating thing. People will either ingest it or they won’t, but people will still be making art and I think that’s great.
RD: Yeah, it is. It’s one of the few bright spots in this crazy, messed up year. For next year, what are your thoughts on what the future holds for live music? You’re a professional who’s been involved in it for over 15 years, so do you think the recent announcements of these vaccines coming into play is a positive path to normalcy? Do you think the idea of having people attend concerts in plastic bubbles like The Flaming Lips did in their hometown of Oklahoma City a month ago is the future of it?
GM: I love anything The Flaming Lips do.
RD: It did get a lot of press when they did it. Do you think we’re on a slippery slope where something different will come back to haunt us in a few years or are you cautiously optimistic?
GM: I’m remaining cautiously optimistic, and I’ve been saying this since the shutdown happened— when the market comes back, whenever that is, it’s gonna come back with a vengeance. To speak on the consumer end, people want to get out of their houses. To speak on the economic end, artists are going to need money. There are artists who have been amazing with taking care of their people and their staff while their bank accounts are being drained. I think it’s going to be a hard road when it first comes around for a number of reasons, artists are going to be squeezed by promoters, especially with companies like Live Nation.
RD: They’ve already announced they were going to do it months ago.
GM: Yeah, everyone is going to want to go back to work, everyone is going to need to be able to do it safely and everyone is going to get squeezed on margins. The market, much like it is currently saturated with webstreams, it’s going to be saturated with professional music. Music is also going to go up against pro sports because stadiums, arenas and everyone is going to want a piece of it. It’s going to be insane.
RD: You’re going to have a ton of tours happening at the same time.
GM: There will be a lot of tours going on and there are only so many venues. I think you’ll see drive-in concerts stay around.
RD: Same here.
GM: At first, it’s going to be an interesting thing, because there will have to be less bigger shows. Live Nation is in a good place because they own a ton of outdoor amphitheaters, which I think is great because they’ll be socially-distanced and it’ll be wonderful. It’s gonna come back with a vengeance and it’s all going to hinge on the efficacy of the distribution of a vaccine. If it’s 90% or 95% effective, then once people can get it and it’s shown that it can be effective, then everybody is going to try to do some stuff.