Meet the studio
On an unassuming dirt road, in the small town of Cannon Falls, Minn., sits property steeped in musical folklore.
A 60’s style house, one that any respectable Brady would’ve loved to have, rests on a quiet drive.
Gates separate the driveway from the road, discouraging the uninvited from dropping by. The house claims a few acres of land blanketed by trees, nested near a trout stream.
Inside the house you’ll find a rock fireplace, a large three season porch, an indoor swimming pool and a sauna. Orange and brown patterned carpet lines the floors of the main living space. The walls waft the scent of wood paneling. Adjacent to the house is a pristine recording studio lined with a vast collection of instruments and various top of the line equipment. But it wasn’t always this way.
The history of Pachyderm Studios is a storied one.
The retro style house was designed by Herb Bloomberg, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. According to current owner Matt Kuker, it was originally built as a vacation home for the president of a malting company. His family owned it until 1985. The house sat empty until 1988, when Jim Nickel bought it with partners Mark Walk and Eric Anderson. The three – producers and musicians – decided to add a recording studio on site. Thus began a decade of hosting big name bands and producers, creating a legacy for this hidden gem in the middle of rural Minnesota.
As the 90’s gave way to the 2000’s, the record industry struggled and studios in particular had a difficult time staying afloat. Home studio equipment was becoming more advanced, easier to use and less expensive.
Nickel, according to a 2012 Star Tribune story, went through a divorce and lawsuit with his former partners during this time, resulting in the sale of the property once more. Property records indicate that it was listed multiple times coming up empty before real estate developer Matt Mueller purchased it in 2006.
The years it sat void of inhabitants caused the house and the studio’s condition to suffer greatly. The cozy woods and stream that had made the spot so attractive made the empty house a prime location for various furry squatters. Nature moved in. It was as if the property was put under a curse. A curse that only one person could break. That person would be John Kuker.
John Kuker’s passion for music started early. In an interview with his older brother Matt, he recalls 13-“year-old John, getting a band together to play at the local pizza joint. It was from there he fell in love with music and made it his life’s work.
By all accounts, John was not your typical music industry guy. He had a genuine love for the art of creation, the type who never let the business end get in the way of making music. His long-time associate Nick Tveitbakk (studio engineer) remembers being drawn to John once he realized his approach differed so much from his current engineering mentors.
“I felt like I was being constrained. I was learning a craft and the chief engineer was like, ‘you need to quit all the bands that you’re playing in, and you can’t play music, you need to focus on [engineering]. And he was right. But when I started working for John he was like, ‘that’s crazy, you should play music every day. You should play in as many bands as you want. That’s all part of this.
It was this philosophy as well as John’s anti-corporate style of recording that led to a decade’s long working relationship with Nick. The first studio John owned was Seedy Underbelly in Minneapolis. That is where Nick and John met. At the time, Nick was working for another studio but unbeknownst to him, the studio was in the process of letting people go. A friend of a friend who was privy to that information suggested Nick come to Seedy Underbelly to help them out. Nick obliged, and ultimately met John, who offered him a job there.
Once business started to decline (around the 2000’s, same time Nickel and Co. were losing Pachyderm), the Seedy Underbelly lost its lease. John and Nick attempted to fight it. Eventually they had to fold their cards and try another hand. John found a studio in L.A. that he liked so Nick helped pack everything up to move west. The new location was in the former home of Toto drummer, Jeff Porcaro. Jeff had built a studio in his house so he could track albums without leaving home, making it easier to lead a double life as rock star and family man. This setup, where a band could live and work onsite, was exactly what John wanted. This way the band could seclude themselves and focus on music. Nick stayed in Minnesota, making frequent trips to L.A. to assist John.
For years Nick and John traveled back and forth to L.A., to New York and to Minnesota. They referred to themselves as “tri-coastal.” Often they would divide and conquer, rarely in the same place as the same time, trying to assist bands at the different studios, but checking in with each other daily by phone.
“I think I already did it”
When John and Nick were in the same place at the same time, they would often meet for coffee or dinner to go over business. Nick remembers vividly the meeting with John when he first got to see Pachyderm studios.
“…the day of the open house, I was working at another studio that day and John was going to come down and take a look at it. And we met later that night for coffee at French Meadow and it was like ten o’clock at night he just pulled a set of keys out his pocket and said ‘do you want to go take a look at Pachyderm?”
Nick then drove down to Cannon Falls to see it for himself. John met him there.
“[John] asked me, after we got done goofing around after checking things out ‘what do you think, should I buy this place?’ I said ‘this place is amazing and magical and it’s so perfect but no, you shouldn’t buy it, it’s just so much money to turn it around.’ And I think John had always asked me questions about equipment or whatever like that just cause he knew I would say the opposite of what he was gonna do just to have that devil’s advocate, so he’d have one last chance to say no and he was like, “well I think I already did it.”
That was it. John had purchased Pachyderm Studios with the dream of restoring it to its once former glory. He enlisted Nick to help him since he was still traveling to his other studios in L.A. and New York. Thus began the massive project to revive the property, which by Nick’s recollection was in the very depths of dilapidation.
“There were trees growing out of the roof of the house that had some cedar shake shingles and both the house and studio roofs were leaking and water damage and it was probably as trashed I’ve ever seen any foreclosed property.”
Rodents and assorted critters had found their way in the crevices of the house and the studio. One particularly disturbing incident involving a mystery stench was found to be a mass rodent graveyard within the walls of the studio. Nick remembers taking a hammer to a wall and balls of fur coming out. It’s a visual that difficult to believe after seeing the completed transformation.
Once the major structural damages were repaired (and disinfected), John was determined to design the interior true to its original 60’s style. This was despite the cringing of his family, who are in real estate by trade and helped him with the project. At the grand re-opening of Pachyderm, John’s mom recalled the day she saw the carpet arrive. She gasped in horror at the dated orange and brown pattern. But John wouldn’t budge on it. And once it was in the house, everyone agreed it looked amazing. John had a knack for vision, in music and interior design.
Retro furniture consistent with the theme was purchased. The outside of the house was painted a dark brown with orange trim. The walls of the room housing the indoor pool were painted variant shades of grey so that it would look the same at any given time of day, with the sun coming through the floor to ceiling windows.
All of this was to create a space for artists where they could stow away from real life and focus on the music.
In the studio, everything was upgraded. The original console, the famed Neve, was sold to Billy Corgan who “bugged us about it forever” according to Nick. The console they ended up buying was made by API in America, then brought over to Sweden and used by The Hives before it was purchased by John for Pachyderm. The API console was designed by Paul Wolfe, and was the best of its kind. Only six were ever made and Paul had upgraded the original design for this particular one. Now you can find consoles like this one in all the best studios in the country.
John’s passion for music also translated into being a total gearhead. He was, as Nick puts it, “the zen master” of gear. In addition to being incredibly knowledgeable on the tech side of gear, John was a visionary when it came to collecting special pieces. Some examples of his collection include a microphone used by the Andrews Sisters when they recorded “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” John had a knack for finding vintage pieces and knowing the right time to sell them for the highest price. Nick refers to it as “the gear stock market” because like stock, the value of vintage music equipment and instruments fluctuates up and down depending on the market.
During the 90’s Pachyderm was in its heyday. The most infamous story comes from Brent Sigmeth, who was the sound engineer for Pachyderm at the time. On his first day, he was sent to pick up a band from the airport for famed producer Steve Albini. Steve had recorded at Pachyderm before with PJ Harvey and The Wedding Present, however that day he was sent to pick up a band called The Simon Ritchie Bluegrass Ensemble. Who was this band? To his shock and surprise, The Simon Ritchie Bluegrass Ensemble was none other than Nirvana, who arrived to record what would be their final album, In Utero.
The 90’s also saw Live, Jonny Lang, The Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, Babes in Toyland, among many others. In the 2000’s Alkaline Trio, Mudvayne, Norma Jean, HALEY (Bonar), Trampled By Turtles, Dead Man Winter, Hippo Campus, Mason Jennings, Motion City Soundtrack, Alan Sparhawk and others all recorded at Pachyderm, many while it was under construction.
Where the Magic Happens
What draws artists to Pachyderm? Some many times over.
“I can safely say that Pachyderm is my favorite studio in which I’ve worked so far. The setting is extremely beautiful. It’s set in a wooded valley that houses a few acres and a pretty productive trout stream. The house is a very funky early 60s mansion and the studio is incredible. The gear is top notch and the room is made for live recording. I’ve recorded two records there myself and produced a couple others and I’d guess I’d describe my experience as …well … great.” – Dave Simonett (Trampled By Turtles and Dead Man Winter)
“It was a lot like being at camp, in that you couldn’t just up and leave. I loved that because it kept everyone focused on the project, without many distractions. The setup was also conducive to family style dinners and BBQs, which is something we didn’t typically do.” – Claudio Rivera (Motion City Soundtrack)
What Nick believes is special about Pachyderm, are the times when magic happens in the studio. He believes the magic has direct correlation to property.
“The best thing about Pachyderm is not the house or studio or the equipment, or whoever is running it. It’s this valley and this creek and whatever has been down here. There’s something down here, that feels like people have always been here and there’s some sort of magic. The property used to be called Pine Glen, when the Mensing family built it – and a ‘glen’ is a Scottish word for deep and narrow magical valley and it’s totally true and to me that’s the best thing about Pachyderm, whatever magic is going down here in the glen it’s for real cause it’s totally magical here.”
The magic of the valley manifests in numerous one take performances that continue to wow the studio’s clients. It’s those moments that really make the studio special. According to Nick, it tends to happen after a dinner break when they return to the studio. He knows now to always hit record because bands like Trampled By Turtles and Haley Bonar have both experienced these types of full band, live vocal one take wonders. Haley’s recording of “I Can Change” is an example of one of these times.
In February of 2015, just short of completing the restoration on Pachyderm, John Kuker passed away at the age of 40. It was a devastating loss to the studio, the music community and John’s family.
Even in the wake of their grief, John’s family knew they had to continue work on the studio. They approached Nick days after John’s passing to ask him if he would stay on as engineer and keep the studio running. Thankfully coming from the real estate and contracting business, the Kukers were the perfect buyers for the project. The family purchased the property officially in 2015 and then completed the remaining restoration. Matt Kuker, John’s brother is now the business manager of the property, with Nick as the day to day studio manager and engineer.
Since the loss of John his family has worked diligently to promote the studio and ensure it sees the life John had envisioned. Nick has also seen to it that all of John’s assets, the studio, the house and the massive collection of gear he had were adequately cared for. Their work culminated into an open house for industry folks where they greeted everyone with friendly smiles and tales of John’s tenacity to see the project through.
Much of Pachyderm’s history was serendipitous in nature making good on the case that the property itself has its own magic. A couple prime examples of this have to do with the studio’s original engineer, Brent Sigmeth.
“When I was a kid, before the studio was built and as just a neighbor, the amazing house was kind of a dreamy curiosity for me. I played music and was fascinated by the art of recording. My high school rock band rehearsed in my parent’s basement 500 yards away, and we would often hike around the future Pachyderm property. My bandmates and I would look through the windows of the house wide-eyed and imagine somehow purchasing it and building a recording studio inside. Soon after – as I guess the cosmos aligned – out of nowhere Nickel, Walk, and Anderson showed up (1988) and moved in. As their new neighbor, I was sent with a welcome gift by my mother (cookies). As we chatted, I asked what they did and Nickel said that they were musicians and record producers and they were going to build a recording studio (!!!). No way! Far out, man! I stayed in touch with them, visiting often and watching the progress of the studio construction, until I eventually finished engineering school and applied for a job there in 1993. There’s some crazy fate stuff in there, for sure, but what really made it more ridiculously fateful (as I was to discover a decade after I began working there) was that my wife, Wendy Lewis (who was in the band Rhea Valentine with Eric Anderson), actually found the property for Nickel/Anderson/Walk as her then father-in-law was a real estate developer and had some property in the area. Rhea Valentine were the first band to record in the new Pachyderm in 1989. Wendy and I have been married since 2005 and live a mile further down the road where I have my own home studio, Littlebig Studio.
It’s clear from the testimonies of Nick, The Kukers, and the various bands that have recorded at Pachyderm that it’s something special. It’s beyond the storied history, beyond the legends whose spirits exist in the walls and vintage equipment. The life of the studio comes from the land it sits upon. Something about the woods, something about the stream and the seclusion gets into the veins of the people who stay there. It stimulates creativity in a way that cannot be measured in words or phrases only music. John Kuker saved Pachyderm and turned it into what it should have always been. His legacy lives on there as well through his generosity, his kindness and his mission to make it what it is today. We think the future is bright for Pachyderm and we’re excited to bear witness to the future magic waiting there to be created again and again.
Sarah Osterbauer is a die-hard music lover. When she does her budget each month, food comes after concert tickets. Find her on twitter @SarahOwrites.