Greensboro’s On Pop of the World Studios fosters a creative community
A recording studio can be a vital part of a creative music scene. All the better if it’s accessible, laid-back and relatively affordable. On Pop of the World is a local studio that’s struggled to keep the tape rolling (or hard drives whirring) since opening at its current location in 2012. But a handful of musicians and bands that record and hang out and/or work at the studio are organizing an event to help keep the lights on.
The event takes place Saturday, Oct. 15 at New York Pizza in Greensboro. The bill will include Sugar Meat, a new band made up of singer/songwriter Suzanne Stafford (from Come Hell Or High Water), multi-instrumentalist Matty Sheets, and studio engineer and bassist Matt Goshow.
Also on the lineup for the benefit show are Dildo of God, Harry, Sissy Pants, Vaughn Aed, and Bob Fleming. It’s a rotating collective effort that reflects the general vibe of the studio. Some bands and musicians get inspired by getting on stage, where the looming live date might simply jump-start the writing process, or where playing in front of an audience might spark an idea about dynamics or a realization about a transition. Others need the solitude of the practice space or the bedroom to hash out ideas. But there are those musicians who get their best ideas when hanging out in the studio, listening to playbacks or rhythm tracks or piling on vocal harmonies, messing around with reverb.
On Pop of the World Studios in Greensboro has served as a gathering place for a revolving constellation of area musicians that make up a fruitfully promiscuous local music scene, with players contributing to each other’s projects, serving as backing musicians and collaborators. The studio has been at its present location since 2012, when studio owner/engineer/drummer Randy Seals moved the studio to the space from its former basement location in Reidsville. Seals has worked with artists like the Fumblemuckers, Sissy Pants, Vaughn Aed, Village Tricycle, Emily Stewart and Baby Teeth, Ameriglow, Breadfoot, Dildo of God, and others, many of which feature Seals, Goshow or Sheets in some capacity, or involve other types of collaboration. Even some of the drum kits, amps, guitars, pianos and vintage keyboards at the studio are there on loan from some of the area players.
I spoke to Sheets, Seals and Stafford by phone last week about the benefit show, the role the studio plays in the community, and the way that new projects, like Sugar Meat, can emerge from such a setting.Stafford says she’d been working on recording her old band Come Hell Or High Water for four years at the studio. But upon returning to On Pop of the World earlier this year to complete the project, Stafford decided to bag it and start something new, since the other configuration had sort of dematerialized. Sheets and Stafford have been playing together in different combinations for 10 years. Stafford says that some of the Sugar Meat songs are older tunes that she’s just dusted off and revamped.
Sheets is drawn to the community-minded sense of collaboration at On Pop of the World.“What Randy has created at the studio now, it really supports that idea,” says Sheets. “I love working with them, and I think they’re on the right track. Absolutely everything I do is involved with the studio.”
For some musicians and songwriters, the process of recording is about distilling their vision down to its essence, a unique personal expression. But some have started to sense that such prioritizing of the individual doesn’t necessarily result in the best music. Collectivism has been on the rise, particularly in the world of independent music, for the past 15 years.
“Something that I learned from working at this studio is that I don’t have to do everything myself,” says Sheets. “The point isn’t really to create a band, it’s more of making a record that I’m really happy with. I’ve learned to kind of get rid of that ego part of it and realize that what I want is a good record.”
The opportunity to collaborate and make a document of it is what drives a lot of the energy around the studio. “I just think this is beautiful,” says Sheets. “I’ve definitely never been a part of anything like this before.”
Studio owner Seals is careful about how he characterizes the work that goes on at On Pop of the World, since the studio is, in effect, a business. Even if it is not a profitable one.
“The studio doesn’t make money as a studio,” says Seals. “It loses money every month.”
But that’s not the entire point. Seals says that he — and many of the people who record there — are working to turn the place into something that’s not focused on profit-and-loss or cash flow, even though all of that stuff, and the co-op-ish attitude, comes into keeping the place open.
“I’ve been recording for a long time — probably a good 25 years,” says Seals. “When I started this one, my thought was that a lot of studios are primarily based on being technically inclined. This studio is much more artist-based. We’re all musicians that are also recording fans. Instead of going for a straight business model — an hour-for-hour thing — I wanted to create more of a community that would spread out from within with a core of musicians, basically helping each other.”
This kind of thing isn’t unheard of. Most recording engineers and producers are also musicians. And musicians are social and interactive, gathering in clubs and bars and performance spaces. But studios, by their nature, tend to be down to business. Equipment is expensive. Tape, if you want to go the old-fashioned analog route, is expensive. Just having someone on hand to push the buttons and adjust the knobs and faders requires a person who will presumably need to pay their rent and buy groceries, etc.Seals says he’s had to get sort of zen with the endeavor at times, by “not worrying about the outcome.”
The outcome has been interesting. And, despite the common group of players and shared philosophy, the recordings that come out of On Pop of the World have not been uniform. Bands like Ameriglow and Dildo of God are making unusual music — shambolic and unvarnished Americana-tinged indie rock from the one and abrasive, raw, disjointed pastiche-heavy hip-hop from the other. And there’s everything from singer-songwriter folk to psychedelic pop to straight-up rock in between.
“I kind of just felt that if I stayed true, with the way things developed, I saw that that was really interesting, a lot of people working together,” says Seals.Some formative experiences might explain Seals’ tendency to cope with the uncertainty of his studio enterprise: He was raised on communes in the Midwest in the ‘70s, so he evidently got pretty comfortable with flux, which probably comes in handy when you’re behind the mixing board, trying to coax the best performance out of a band.
Seals says this about his process: “There’s the willingness to put everything I have into it and have it crumble and then have it start again.”
Wanna go? Sugar Meat, Sissy Pants, Vaughn Aed, Harry, Dildo of God, and Bob Fleming play a show to benefit On Pop of the World Studios at New York Pizza, 337 Tate St., Greensboro, on Saturday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m.