INTERVIEW: TREEHOUSE RECORDS
Nearly every band at Treehouse Records signs the shark: Cage the Elephant. Twin Peaks. The Orwells. And in just three years, this low-budget but high-quality studio is booked more days of the week than not, worked with global organization Sofar Sounds to coordinate low-key “secret” and unplugged shows, and founded a live series with Consequence of Sound to record live video sessions with anyone from Hinds to the Strokes’s Albert Hammond, Jr.
For two guys in the early-to-mid 20s who dropped out of college years ago, they’re doing exceptionally well. And they’re also doing well for any studio, period.
Treehouse Studios is located in northwest Chicago off of Cicero Avenue in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood. In other words: it’s far enough away from the city’s heart where their rent is affordable but it’s close to the DIY communities in Logan Square and Humboldt Park.
They’ve created a studio from scratch inside what used to be a morgue that was built in the 1890s. And yet the studio space looks impressively modern and sheen: a 1970s Trident console lines the window of the control room, a collection of over a half of a dozen organs line the corner of the live room, and plenty of arcade machines and Keurig coffee machines fill their entry room.
We talked to co-founder of Treehouse Records Matt Gieser about their growth during a time of a declining recording industry and what it’s like to run a studio that only uses analog tape in a digital era. Garrett “Bear” Guzaldo
Matt, are you from Chicago originally?
Matt: Bear and I grew up in Park Ridge, which is a suburb right by O’hare Airport. I’m 23 now and Bear is 25. I didn’t know him well in high school but he was recording in his house, I was in a band, and that’s how we got connected since we recorded in his house.
Bear has always recorded with tape — we’re an all analog studio. He just had a little Tascam one-inch tape machine and he was doing it out of his basement.
What did the studio space first look like when you moved here?
Matt: It used to be a gym and the building was built in 1890 to be a morgue — there’s a big oven in the basement, it’s pretty spooky! Then it used to be a textile factory with seamstresses, low lights, and long tables. The owner bought it but it was like they just got up and they left. He divided the space and it was a gym for a while.
We renovated the space that year from October to January. We built every wall, every light. Everything. It was a dumpy old gym.
I would have to imagine to have a space to record music you’d have to change up the space from a gym since the sound would bounce everywhere.
Bear: When we moved in, it was a big box, which is more or less the worst thing you could do for sound. We looked at a blueprint and we figured it out. It fell together pretty easily.
Matt: This place has character.
Where did the name Treehouse come from?
Matt: When I met Bear, he had a recording studio in the living room of his house. The house is still there — I can’t believe it is still standing — it’s this big old white house. It’s cool, it’s on an angle, but it’s all decrepit and there’s mold in the basement. At a time, 6 or 7 of our friends, like other musicians or artist we knew, were living there. People just called it the Treehouse because you would go there and somebody was doing something — it was a treehouse!
I want the Treehouse to be a place where you can rehearse, you can record, and then do everything.
What equipment did you have when you first moved here? Over the past three years, you guys probably have changed a lot of equipment or brought different gear here.
Matt: It’s definitely night and day with that. Like I said, Bear had a Tascam one-inch tape machine. It’s nothing fancy. And since we’ve been developing, we’ve upgraded to the Studer, which is a 2-inch tape machine. Everything has been upgraded but the major pieces are the tape machine and the console that we just upgraded. Garrett used the Soundcraft Ghost, which is just a 24-track, solid state mixer.
Bear: It wasn’t the cream of the crop since I bought it when I was 18. I learned the flow of the console. I didn’t find myself limited by it for a while, but the opportunity presented itself when a studio was shutting down. We weren’t looking for a board but it found us.
We bought it in November and then by March we had it set up because this board was made in London for Trident Studios. When we got it, it was in as many pieces as it could be. The previous owner said it doesn’t need modifications but now’s the time to do it when it’s taken apart. We ordered the parts from London and it took 2 months to ship here. Once we got them it was about figuring out how to do it.
Matt: Out of all of the gear updates we’ve done, the console was one of the bigger ones. When we started, we had enough equipment to fill the control room adequately so we focused on the front of the house stuff. And that’s what I know.
Bear: Us together is a really good person. [Laughs] But separately we’re a little off.
Matt: Every two weeks, there’s a piece of new equipment that shows up.
Are there other studios in Chicago that only do tapes?
Matt: Absolutely. Electrical Audio, which is Steve Albini’s studio. But I don’t even know their daily rate is over there
Bear: We’re basically in two different worlds. We cater to the everyman. I’ve always wanted to have the design that any band can come here and record.
Matt: The idea of the studio is to work off of bands like Twin Peaks. There are so many younger guys who, at the time, didn’t have that much money to record. Like, they recorded Sunken in their house. We wanted to give them a space to have a professional recording done for a reasonable price.
When we went into the recording studio industry three years ago, we knew that it was a dying industry. You can record a great record in your basement but we wanted to stick with analog to make it in a niche market. That’s why we have success and because of Garrett is good at what he does.
This is a really cool space, I’m just taking it in.
Bear: Yeah, I wish I could see it for the first time. Everything in here I put here. Anything that’s anywhere is because we put it here or because we designed it that way. It’s a normal thing for us but some people will come here and say “oh my god.” It’s nice to exceed people’s expectations!
What is one of your favorite pieces of equipment here?
Matt: As far as organs go, the Hammond C3 with the Leslie is the dream organ. I don’t play piano very well since I’m a drummer, but I love gear. I love vintage things. I can get into it all.
As far as guitars go, I’ve got a 1966 Chet Atkins Gretsch from Nashville. It’s my favorite guitar.
I feel like a kid in a candy shop.
Matt: That Benson is cool. That is actually Norman Greenbaum’s Benson. So that’s the amp he used to record that fuzzy riff on “Spirit in the Sky.”
I feel like this is a musician’s Valhalla.
Matt: That’s what I’m aiming for!
Is the summer usually the busiest time of the year?
Matt Gieser: We’re busy year-round. I would say normally August, September, October slows down a little bit just because people are getting back in the swing of things, people are going back to school, since they’re not having fun in the summer with their bands anymore. Although, this year we’ve been busy and today is the only day we’ve been off.
Any exciting plans in the future, or is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Matt: We’re really working hard right now on either doing a summer festival, a Treehouse festival, or we’re going to ramp up our South by Southwest showcase. We did one the past two year. It seems like every year has been building. We’re going to something bigger. A lot of fun things.
Thank you so much for giving me the tour.
Interview done by Colin S. Smith.
Learn more from Treehouse Records here.