20100804-cover-0101Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Written by Dege Legg

Dockside Studio owner Steve Nails turned tragedy into triumph. The result is more than two decades of classic recordings.


Making a record is kind of like painting a highly detailed — hopefully flattering — portrait of yourself. You want to hide the warts, but not lose the heart. Suck in the gut, but not lose the bottom. You want it classic and timeless, but not too uptight. You want to Photoshop out the bags under your eyes, but keep the character and disposition.

Depending on your budget, it can be an exacting process — one that can make you crazy, going back and forth with the options — hence why choosing the right recording studio to make your album or record your song is such a crucial and anxiety-filled decision for a musician.

What do musicians look for in a studio? Many things. Big rooms with great acoustics. A good drum sound. Warm sound consoles. New gear. Vintage gear. Classic microphones. Affordable rates. But most of all they look for studios with an indefinable magic and vibe that somehow gather all the disparate elements together to become the place where bands will take that picture of themselves. For better or worse.

Dockside is one of those studios.

Co-owned by husband and wife team Steve and Cezanne Wish Nails, the studio was born in 1989 in Maurice on 12 acres along the banks of the Vermilion River. Stories of its warm sound, classic equipment, esteemed clientele and unique location have flourished not only throughout the state, but throughout the world. Recording artists such as B.B. King, Mark Knopfler, Leon Russell, and Taj Mahal have recorded there. The Dockside legacy has been cemented into hundreds, if not thousands, of recordings. Like La Louisianne and J.D. Miller’s studio in Crowley that helped define Louisiana music from the 1940s to 1980s, Dockside has come to be known as one of the more significant recording studios of its time, thriving and documenting the modern era of Louisiana music, as well as that of many others, since the late 1980s.

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                                    Photo by Travis Gauthier
Steve and Cezanne Nails outside Dockside
Studio, which has been documenting the
modern era of Louisiana music, and that of
many others, since 1989
Steve Nails got his start in the music business not as a studio owner and operator, but as a guitar player. Raised in Lafayette, Nails gravitated toward the music of his day. A huge Springsteen and R&B music fan, he honed his craft and played in numerous bands around Acadiana throughout the ’70s, most notably in Cajun country singer Nancy Tabb Marcantel’s band. They played sweaty clubs, jukes and festivals teaming with the summer heat of Louisiana, dishing out a repertoire composed of homegrown Louisiana songs. “I played with every band in the area known to mankind,” says Nails. “But she was my favorite.”

Nails was living the dream, playing guitar, entertaining the crowds, traveling the roads and making the rounds in an industry he loved and dreamed about. That dream almost came to an end one night along a dark, country road in 1984. While in route to a class reunion in Henderson, Nails was involved in a truck accident that left him a quadriplegic.

The dream seemed to have come to an end, but after a lengthy recovery period, Nails eventually got the itch to get back in the music game — this time as a studio owner. After receiving an accident-related settlement, Nails decided to invest it in a recording studio. For months he searched far and wide across Lafayette and the surrounding area for a suitable location, and eventually happened upon the property with a house and guest lodge in Maurice alongside the Vermilion River — a house he passed many times as a kid on boat trips on the river.

“When I got to the gate at the fence, I said, ‘It’s mine,’” Nails recalls. “It was run down, four foot of grass in the yard, but I knew it was the place.”

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Bruce Springsteen and Steve Nails Dr. John, Steve Nails, Dylan Nails
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BB King, Steve Nails Korey Richey, Steve Nails, Bobby Charles
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Jim Bateman, Bobby Charles, Steve Nails
(front); Korey Richey, Sonny Landreth (back)
Leon Russell, Steve Nails
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Tony Daigle, Dr. John
The property and house, formerly owned by Green Bay Packers defensive back Phil Nugent, was purchased in 1989. Located on the property across the yard from the main house sat a two story barn in excellent condition that in a previous life had housed a wood mill and a private nightclub. With kitchen and living quarters on the second floor and an enormously roomy main room on the first level, the place was perfect. This was the center of what would become Dockside Studio.

Nails began the process of renovating the barn to studio specifications, filling it with state-of-the-art recording equipment. Two Neve mixing consoles — melded together Frankenstein-style — became the centerpiece of the studio courtesy of legendary producer and friend Bill Halverson, who’d tipped Nails off about their location and availability. The 52-channel mixing board already had a lengthy history in its former home of Chicago where it was used to record all of the Cheap Trick albums as well as albums by Rod Stewart and Survivor. With the addition of numerous vintage tube microphones, pre-amps, compressors, and Studer tape machines, a world class studio began taking shape.
 
Local producer, engineer, and future Grammy-winner Tony Daigle, whose résumé included engineering and recording the King Biscuit Flour Hour, was hired to wire the board and get the studio up and running.

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The main room at Dockside/Photo sequence by Travis Gauthier
B.B. King's autographed guitar given
to Steve Nails from B.B.
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Recording booths and organ The guest house for artists recording at Dockside
“I did about two or three months of soldering  and putting the place together. It was a lot of work,” says Daigle. “I installed the original console by myself, then Fred Hill — he was the Neve-guru who modifies all that stuff — came down a year or so later and we put the two boards together.”

They began recording bands right away. “I started off producing and engineering local records, hired engineers, and put all the money I made back into the studio. I didn’t take any salary or anything,” says Nails. “After about 10 years, I’d accumulated a lot of stuff. My big passion became collecting microphones.”

Over the following two decades, through word of mouth of the studio’s great acoustics, vintage gear, and motivated staff, great records began to emerge, and more bands booked time at the country studio along the river. “It’s the best damn recording studio in Louisiana. It’s the coolest anyway, by far,” says Tony Daigle. “Over the years, I recorded B.B. King, Sonny Landreth, Derek Trucks, Levon Helm, Beausoleil and many others there.”

“I worked as a full-time assistant engineer at Dockside. It’s beautiful,” says Lafayette musician and producer J. Burton. “Anyone who walks in is awestruck. It’s on the river and looks like an antebellum plantation. But really it’s special because Steve put his heart into making it what it is today. Because of his hard work, it harbors decades of memories of great musicians and great records. Not many people realize how much love and devotion goes into record-making. That kind of emotion tends to stick to a place. Every session had its good and bad moments, but at the end of each I always felt proud to have been a small part of something great.”

Louisiana musicians heard the call. Many of the state’s greatest musicians holed up like monks at Dockside’s secluded studio to record their greatest albums. This club includes artists such as Bobby Charles, Gatemouth Brown, Dr. John, Sonny Landreth, Beausoleil, Lost Bayou Ramblers, The Subdudes, Wayne Toups, Marc Broussard and Buckwheat Zydeco.

Alan Lafleur of the Lost Bayou Ramblers recounts his band’s time recording its album Vermillionaire at Dockside. “We walked into Dockside to the smell of soothing herbs misting from a vaporizer — Scarlett Johansson had, luckily for us, left an assortment of herbal vocal aids and mental illumination oils in the studio from her earlier recording session,” says Lafleur. “After a short boat ride to a nearby cow pasture and a civil war cemetery, we started making our fifth record. Though it felt like our first.”

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Studer 2-inch analog tape machines
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A photo of Gatemouth Brown sits on the Neve console
at Dockside
Early this year, heat-seeking Lafayette indie band Givers holed up at Dockside to record its much anticipated debut album. “Besides having the most incredible gear, amazing location, and the most peaceful atmosphere you could ever ask for in a studio, the people that own and manage the place are beautiful,” says Givers’ vocalist Taylor Guarisco. “For me, the people will always make the place wherever you go, and Dockside happens to be run by angels.”

National acts heard the call as well. Many of them were artists searching for a warmth and authenticity to their records, while others sought a place far removed from the distractions of the big city. Over the past 20 years, musicians as varied as Mark Knopfler, King Sunny Ade, Levon Helm, Keb Mo, Leon Russell, Taj Mahal, Junior Wells, Bobby Keys, Charlie Sexton, Ian McLagan and Ani Difranco have spent time recording at the studio. Most recently, actress Scarlett Johansson recorded an album of Tom Waits covers at Dockside with TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek producing.

“It’s was all word of mouth. The music industry is really small. Everybody knows everybody,” says Nails. “If you want to record in the city, you go to New York or L.A. If you want to record in the country, you come here. They love the studio, the food and the drive-thru daiquiris.”

Dozens of big name recording artists have passed through the doors at Dockside, and many illustrious tales have been attached to their visits, but none of the tales occurs so frequently as those surrounding the late, great Louisiana bluesman Gatemouth Brown. Without a doubt, Brown was one of Dockside’s most talented and notoriously cranky clients.

“I was outside with him once while he was calling his ex-wife. And when she didn’t answer the phone, Gatemouth shot his gun off, next to the phone, as the answering machine was recording,” says Nails.

“Another time Leon Russell had a really good song that he was recording. Me and Gatemouth Brown went over into the studio together. I sat down between Gatemouth Brown and Leon Russell. Gatemouth looks at Leon and says, ‘You know, you’re playing some really negative shit.’ Leon gets up, gets in his bus, and leaves.”

One of Dockside’s most famous visitors is rocker and part-time New Orleans resident Lenny Kravitz. Although Kravitz visited the studio only once, many are under the mistaken impression that he recorded his album Are You Gonna Go My Way (1993) at Dockside. “Lenny came here in a limousine. Got out. Looked the place over and decided that he wanted to record here — not the studio, but in my house,” says Nails. “So we went back and forth for about two months on how he was going to rip up my house and make his record. But that didn’t happen.”

In addition to many well-known artists, there are quite a few legendary producers who have made records at Dockside. Some of the more famous include Scott Billington, Michael Barbiero, John Snyder and Sitek.

“Dave Sitek was the best producer I’ve ever had here. He layers stuff off of a click track,” says Nails. “He records one person at a time — sometimes one drum at a time — rather than the whole band. He was really good.”

As Dockside moves into the new millennium, it is faced with a whole new set of challenges, namely, how to compete in a marketplace where home-based digital recording — as well as digital file swapping — is taking a bite into the bottom line of  all phases of the music industry, from record labels to music stores to touring bands and recording studios.

“Studios are closing all across the country. Last year 97,000 albums were made. Only 700 sold more than 5,000,” says Nails. “We’re definitely doing it for the passion and the music. We’ve got Pro-Tools, now, but we run everything through the tube gear and the Neve boards. Very few people record analog now. But the absolute best way to record is to go to analog first — let it touch the tape once — then dump it to digital. But I will never get rid of my analog gear even if digital takes over.”

Surprisingly enough, even with all the ups and downs of the music industry, the future stills looks good for this world-class studio. The calendar for studio time at Dockside is booked solid through October. “One year, you’re booked all year. The next year, you don’t have anybody,” says Nails. “If you’re the real thing, you got to keep the doors open. It’s perseverance. You got to stay in the business,” he adds. “At the 10-year mark a lot of people drop out.”

As he looks back on the past and celebrates the 21st anniversary of his dream and the legacy of records it has produced, Steve Nails is grateful, philosophical and optimistic. More than anything, he loves the creative camaraderie that comes with being around musicians. “I’m in a wheelchair, but I’ve got the world’s greatest entertainment right across my property, nightly. I don’t have to get up and go to a nightclub in my van,” says Nails. “That’s what I was hoping for in the beginning, and I just got lucky. I didn’t think I was going to be alive this long. But I’ve met Bruce Springsteen. I’ve met Bob Dylan. I’m happy.

“This studio is who I am.”

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