By Michael Corcoran
In the summer of 2006, David Boyle spent a month on his knees in an old Baptist church in East Austin, but he wasn’t repenting for his time as keyboardist in the naughty funk band the Scabs. The Australia native, who moved to Austin in 1991, was on all fours refinishing the pine floors of the former Providence Primitive Baptist Church, which he and his wife, Danika, had just bought for $58,000. After nine months of hard work and costly renovations, the 1920s church is now a recording studio, where the Fabulous Thunderbirds just recorded their next album, Tosca String Quartet did a piece for Philip Glass’ Looking Glass Studio and musicians such as Justin Timberlake and Charlie Sexton have popped in to lay down a few tracks.
The Boyles had a lot of help, hiring subcontractors and following the sound advice of University of Texas acoustics professor Preston Wilson. But the couple, who have a 9-month-old son, did as much as they could themselves.
When David Boyle gives a tour of the house, he points out little details that he had spent hours upon hours working on, but also the greater specifics that make for an impressive studio. The main room has 30-foot ceilings and high transom windows. The walls are a foot thick. The stairwell can hold a gospel choir, as it did on the very first recording here for Dan Dyer’s self-titled pop/soul record.
But Boyle is proudest of a fixture that’s on loan from a friend in New York who had no room for it. “This is the best-sounding piano I’ve ever played,” he says of a 1913 Steinway grand piano that once belonged to Richard Rogers, who wrote the music for such classics of theater as “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma!” Like a magnificent zoo animal, the black beauty yawns in the corner of the “live room,” which also served as the family’s living room until last week.
The plan was to transform the old church into a residential studio, where acts from all over the world could live and record in Austin. Doesn’t it seem, after all, that
everyone in the music business is looking for an excuse to hang in the land of breakfast tacos and rockin’ clubs? But for the first 18 months after the studio opened, the Boyles lived upstairs. With a baby. “Please don’t ring doorbell baby may be sleeping” read a note on the front door to stifle the dings of delivery. During recording sessions, Danika Boyle would have to leave with Charlie, sometimes even having to stay in hotels.
“It was totally stressful keeping the family and the studio separate,” says David Boyle.
But the Boyles just moved into a home nearby, leaving the Church House to devote itself entirely to recording the sounds of music. The Church House? Yeah, that’s what they came up with.
You would think that naming the studio would be the easy part, but after several months of contemplating every sort of spiritually charged moniker (Pentecostal Sound, Divine Providence Studio, Higher Power Recording, etc.), the Boyles went with what folks had been calling it in lieu of an official name. “I’ll meet you at the Church House,” they’d say, and it stuck.
“I remember the very first night we stayed here,” Danika Boyle says of the March 2007 move-in. Owner of the Dream Digs real estate business, she is an architecture buff who drew up the designs for the Church House renovations. “While we were doing all the work, we didn’t really have time to think about whether or not we were doing the right thing.” After all, with the current plummeting of CD sales, maybe opening a recording studio wasn’t the most financially promising venture.
“It was just this incredible leap of faith,” Danika Boyle continues, “but on the first night, I was overcome by this peaceful spirit. It just felt so right.”
David Boyle hopes that the ghosts of the rooms will become secret collaborators, that the decades of African American church singing have been ingrained into the building’s frame. The Boyles never get tired of the stories their 80-year-old neighbor, Miss Lula Mae, tells them about the wall-shaking church services from long ago.
Being a former church also helps with the natural sound quality, says composer and arranger Stephen Barber, who has produced chamber music and string quartets at the Church House. “That high ceiling is a creature comfort for acoustic instruments,” says Barber. “It’s an exceptional room.”
David Boyle has been wanting to build his own studio since he first stepped inside one and it didn’t feel right. He hated the way many of the records he played on didn’t fully represent the band. “As a working musician, you give a lot of yourself and face a lot of disappointments,” he says. “But without a good recording, you have nothing to show for it. There’s no legacy.”
Boyle credits producer Stephen Bruton and engineer Dave McNair, with whom he shared a space in New York City, as his mentors in making the transition from musician to producer. The model for Church House, he says, is the most famous recording studio in the world.
“I never liked playing in a fishbowl, with the producer and engineer watching you from a glass booth,” Boyle says. “Our control room is upstairs, like at Abbey Road.” Unseen behind his vintage Neve console, Boyle watches the musicians on a closed circuit screen and communicates by mike.
If he wants to isolate a singer or drums, he records them in the former church bell tower, which has nice natural reverb. Until recently, the bell tower also provided a keen view to the entrance of an active crack house. But that building burned down recently.
The Church House received its first communion when Dyer called David Boyle out of the blue and asked if he was interested in producing Dyer’s next record. “He had heard I was building a studio and he came down and looked at the space and he really wanted to do it here,” David Boyle says. The only problem was that most of Boyle’s recording equipment, including the Neve console, was still in New York City, where he shared a studio near Chinatown with McNair.
An in-demand sideman who’s backed everyone from avant garde composer Arto Lindsay and Brazilian singer Bebel Gilberto to pop singer Gavin DeGraw, David Boyle had been flying up to New York City at least once a month after moving back to Austin four years ago. The Big Apple’s where he made his money between the still-lucrative Scabs gigs.
But after opening Church House, he needed to get his gear down to Austin.
Dyer ended up driving his van to Manhattan to load up the equipment, a not entirely selfless act, as the blue-eyed soul singer got a real sweetheart recording deal. The resulting self-titled album, one of the year’s best locally, helped revive Dyer’s career and gave the Church House a calling card.
“The music biz is changing so fast,” says David Boyle, who doesn’t have a flat rate for studio time, but rather negotiates terms based on a number of variables. “You used to have labels say, ‘Here’s $50,000 to make a demo.’ Now they want to pay $25,000 for a finished record.”
But the new economical approach to record-making is causing a mini-boom in the Austin recording scene, especially with so many acts making records themselves, bagging the tiresome and frustrating label-attraction process. “A band that sells 1,000 CDs for $10 each will end up making more money than if they sold 25 times that amount on a label,” David Boyle says. The Internet provides all the record distribution system a young band needs.
But even as the music business is almost unrecognizable from just 10 years ago, David Boyle sees a future in the past. When he thinks about what he’d like the Church House to become, he thinks back to a time when bands used to live where they recorded, holing up for months so they could get busy when the inspiration hit.
It could happen, especially if the word gets around that the space has a special vibe. “You can feel the spirits,” Danika Boyle says of the building’s previous life. “People had left tears on the floor. When we moved in, it felt like we were just inhabiting the space, but it’s owned by a greater power.”
Abbey Road comes to East Austin? Big Pink goes to church? Slow down. Like little Charlie Boyle, born nine months after his parents moved into a former hardline Baptist house of prayer, the Church House is taking baby steps.