Written & Photographed by: Matthew Terry (Some images provided by Flat Black Studios: AKA Kevin Bacon photo.)
Often, getting lost is the best way to find oneself, and while I am not sure if that plays a motivating role in the acts that come through Flat Black studio, it’s a message I have long committed to in a personal sense, and one I feel can be fully applied to this little slice of Midwestern magic resting just north of Lone Tree. If you had any doubt of the rural placement of one of Iowa’s most widely known studios, the name of the town its address falls within should be more than a giveaway. As an artist myself, I have long embraced the undeniable benefits that come as a result of pulling oneself away from everyday distractions. It refreshes creativity, and these monthly features have shown that there’s significance in the ability to seclude oneself in spaces where all focus can be applied to the creative process free from the static clutter of daily life.
Greeting me at the door of this repurposed barn was Luke Tweedy, the owner, operator, and mastermind behind Flatblack. Luke has had his hands in many things around the Iowa City scene, as is more than apparent in the interview below, and it’d be difficult to find a local music lover that hasn’t crossed his path in some sense. As an artist that often has an overwhelming amount of projects in my pocket as well, I always have a great amount of admiration for creatives with a similar level of passion and persistence. Sometimes it’s a choice, other times it feels one would cease to exist without access to an expressive outlet.
This was my first trip to the rural recording studio, and if you are not a musician, or someone that has attended Grey Area Festival in the past, it’s likely you have never found yourself wandering the grounds Flatblack is so aptly placed upon. However, even if you never find yourself standing behind or within the walls of Flat Black, the likelihood you have watched a band, or heard an album recorded here, is extremely high. As a person that has seen and shot countless Midwestern bands, I found myself ogling the wall of records produced here which filled the kitchen space, imagining the sounds of some of my favorite Iowa acts filling the upstairs floor I now found my feet standing upon. Two albums that initially caught my attention were one’s from William Elliott Whitmore and Elizabeth Moen, both of which are common fixtures in, and well beyond the Iowa scene. While Whitmore is far from a new name in this scene, I first saw Moen in 2017 and on a national level, she is rising fast. Which if you’ve seen her is more than understandable. Speaking of Whitmore, he has also worked with Luke and Flat Black on other projects he is/was a part of, including one of my favorite Iowa-based acts from recent years, Middle Western.
I know a lot of friends that have albums in their collections that I saw gracing the walls of the studio, and you can definitely give some thanks to Luke for just how great those sound, and the enjoyment that has resulted from listening to them. I think it’s easy being an artist from the midwest, and specifically, Iowa, to feel lost, or looked down upon for being outside the normal spaces of “artistic admiration” but places like Flatblack, and creatives like Luke, make me proud to be an Iowan artist, and you can tell Luke takes pride in the local scene in ways we all wish more people would. Artists helping artists is what helps keep us all afloat, and knowing how many lives have crossed paths on this little cut of Iowa countryside thanks to creative passion and artistic expression is a truly beautiful thing.
How did you get into the music studio business? Were you (are you still) playing in any local bands in the area, or does your interest focus mostly in music production and not creating the music, so to speak?
“My journey started by being a huge music fan, and although it is cliche to say, of all genres. If it was music related, I wanted to be a part of it. I used to manage Iowa City’s “Record Collector”, I’ve been in several bands, from ft(the Shadow Government) to Sinner Frenz, I have a record label (Long Play Records) I co-own with William Elliott Whitmore, a screen printing shop (White Rabbit) I co-own with my wife, doing band merch like T-shirts and posters, and I run a mini-festival outside the studio known as Grey Area. I’ve also designed record covers, dozens of show posters and a couple of t-shirts as well, I even built the stage in Iowa City’s ‘Trumpet Blossom Cafe’, and put together a PA for the owner Katy, and Lagunitas (Chicago). I just want to be involved wherever I can fit in.”
Are there any specific genres or artists you’ve really enjoyed working with throughout your career, why so? Is there any specific style of music/musician that you believe your studio/production style excels at?
“My favorite genre is records that get heard. I work on 1 or more records every week, and this is beyond a full-time job for me. I do Americana, grindcore, hip-hop, punk, experimental, country, rock and so much more. I’d say I work on between 50 and 60 records a year, and have for well over a decade. Some of the LPs I make become some of my favorite records as a music fan, but many of those not too many other people get to hear after they leave this place. For some people writing the music is the hardest part, and for others it’s the easiest. It’s the self-promotion, booking shows, or running social media accounts that is brutal. Even if you are good at all these things, there is no guarantee people will hear it. Luck is a huge part of the equation.
As far as excelling at a style of production, I tell every single band that comes in here,”I want to make the record you want, in the way you want to make it…” So that means things are always changing, and even if I feel like certain things don’t work as well, or the record might benefit from another recording style, I will suggest it, but ultimately I want the band to decide. I also specifically tell bands to produce themselves and let me be the engineer. So many records get made in 3 or 4 days, that I have not even truly learned the songs before the band has already left the property, finished record in hand.”
For the artist, what is the best way for them to make sure their track is recorded and produced to the best quality when they come in for a session? Of course time/costs can play a major role, outside of practicing/having songs dialed in, are there any suggestions you have for an artist in preparation for time in the studio?
“Practicing for sure, having clear goals and vision, and making sure any choices that need to be made as a band have either been made already or can be made through quick and civilized discussion. When it comes time to mix the songs, give as much time as possible, and have realistic expectations. I cannot tell you the number of records I have mixed in a day, or even part of a day. You’ll end up with a record that sounds like that. Lastly, leave ego at the door, and make every choice on what is best for the song.”
Flat Black is clearly one of the most established and legendary Iowa recording studios currently operating. It may be a bit vague, but with an ever-increasing shift towards a more digital/immediate world, are there any major changes you’ve seen in the music scene, at least in relation to the recording process or how the average musician approaches the recording process since you began?
“First of all, thank you so much for the kind words. It is hard to pull the camera back and see yourself through the eyes of another, so your statement is humbling and heartwarming at the same time. People know a lot more coming in these days. They all have seen youtube videos of the way this artist or that one does things, know some key brands and terms (like Neumann or compression), and they will have seen a lot more music documentaries. Almost every single artist has recorded themselves on GarageBand, Audacity or Ableton, and understands the basics. This is good and bad. Being a guy with hundreds and hundreds of records under my belt, I have had the opportunity to make a lot of the mistakes and see a lot of the pitfalls of certain approaches. Being too rigid, and not having a fluid, go-with-the-flow attitude, will always cause problems. Take your time, as the song, once released, will be around forever. Quality sometimes takes a bit of time, so enjoy the process.”
Let’s settle the debate: Which is the best digital audio workstation(daw)? If you don’t feel there is but a workstation to deem the best, is there one you like to use in particular? What is the most beneficial aspect of using this DAW?
“There are a million factors to consider, but personally, I use ‘ProTools’, for a few reasons. The first, it’s the DAW I learned on, and am too heavily invested to change course now. Secondly, in today’s recording world, you have to be ready and willing to have projects span multiple studios. Most truly professional studios are using ProTools, so file transfer and getting up and running is a breeze. That said, most DAW’s are pretty great these days. The 1’s and 0’s are all the same, so if you put good audio in, know what you are doing, and have decent enough converters, you will get good audio out. I say use what makes sense to you, what’s comfy, and logical, and don’t get hung up on brands, or the ideas of another engineer or studio. If you can make great tunes on audacity, or GarageBand, go for it. I never care what gets you to a sound, just the sound.”
With so much technology involved, what are your favorite pieces of gear made available to artists that use your studio? Are there any pieces of gear that make your studio even more unique and/or help the studio stand out?
“Every studio is different. It is that engineer’s vision, within their budget. My vision was a studio in the country, isolated from the noise, and temptations that go along with being within a city. I have 10 acres of wooded land, fire pits, grills, a pond with a beach, places to crash, and 24-hour operation. When I leave, bands can experiment and practice. Try different pedals, amps, and instruments. My best piece of equipment is the space itself.”
What are some of the biggest hurdles you’ve faced as a music studio, either anticipated or otherwise, and what did you do to overcome these temporary blocks?
“The hours. I work almost every weekend. My days off are nobody else’s. I don’t have a 401K, or PTO, or sick or vacation days. My 8-hour days are not the same as others. I am in the studio an hour before the band arrives to prep, and an hour after they leave to clean up, and shut everything down. Also, their 8 hours always goes longer than 8. The way I overcome it is, by trying to work reasonable hours on the days I do work, scheduling activities on my days off, and having a firm understanding of how incredibly lucky I am to be in this position and not be digging ditches, or scrubbing toilets (no shade, as those are honorable jobs, but very tough work. Much tougher than working weekends, and no PTO). I know I’m lucky, and I am thankful for it daily.”
In addition to the recording side of Flat Black, you also host the Grey Area Festival, showcasing bands that you’ve worked with. Was this an idea you all tossed around for a while before it came to fruition, or was it something one of the musicians suggested? What are the biggest benefits/struggles with that side of the music scene compared to the production side?
“Grey Area is a way for me to bring attention to the studio while highlighting some of the artists who work here. It is not a money-making event, as I try and pay the bands fairly, and donate a portion to various charities. After expenses, I call it a labor of love. Music in a rural setting, with excellent sound, and a positive, supportive, and accepting crowd is a fantastic feeling. It is different from city concerts, either indoors, or out. We have a couple of stages, one in the open air, and one in the woods, facing a fire pit. I feel like it is a truly unique, Iowa experience. It’s the type of show, and setting I always wanted to see music in, and since it didn’t exist, I willed it into being.”
In closing, what music/musicians have you been hooked on recently? And are there any local artists you’ve worked with that we should be on the lookout for/more people should know?
“I am currently going through a bunch of Dolby Atmos mixes and trying to decide where I fall on that technology, and if it will be a good fit for this place or not. That means I am temporarily moving away from the small and obscure artists I would normally listen to in order to hear what sounds are being made by large artists, with big budgets, to see if that is something I could to bring to this area. That said, this week I bought the newest Horse Lords release and the latest Killer Mike LP as well. As far as stuff I have recorded that people should watch out for: all of it. Everybody has different tastes. I say, just go and support what type of music locally that you are into. If you listen to thrash, Americana, grindcore, country, hip-hop, pop, or weirdo stuff, there are Midwesterners doing it at a high level, and they need your support. It’s a win-win when more of the public supports the arts.”