September begins the mourning process for Piety Street Recording, as it takes its final bow. It could be viewed as another step in an unfortunate direction for New Orleans music but owner/operator Mark Bingham would prefer to handle Piety’s death in the Irish Wake style, celebrating its life and looking forward to applying the lessons learned from Piety in continuing to make New Orleans music great.
“We started Piety after the New York Times had declared recording studios to be dead… as such we had a good run,” says Bingham. Piety has recorded hundreds of artists over the past 12 years, from Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Dave Matthews Band, Allen Toussaint & Elvis Costello, to the late Bobby Charles, The Knux, Rebirth Brass Band, Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars and John Scofield, just to name a few.
With two different studios in the building and an excess of often rare, top-of-the-line equipment many home producers would die to get their hands on, Bingham’s ready to downsize and become more mobile.
“It’s time to make a smaller setup to work with more people, be more mobile and modular and spend more time writing and making tracks.”
He’ll be keeping a core recording system, as well as some of his most prized pieces of equipment, like an early ‘80s Orban spring reverb with yellow tape on the power button. The rest of the equipment will be sold off to other recording studios and home studio artists in New Orleans. There are a few things, however, that will be missed about the building. “These sound lock doors here. They’re the original doors from WWOZ when they were operating from above Tipitina’s,” notes Bingham, referring to the doors leading to his main studio, Studio A. “Think about all those people that must have touched that door handle. James Booker walked in and out of those doors,” he says peering at the silver handle.
The white stucco building doesn’t look like much from the outside, but with a living room, kitchen and two recording studios, it’s one of the most comfortable recording environments in the nation. The wood paneled walls and old brass ceilings give this studio a sound and aesthetic all its own. He hopes that when he leaves the building, the new tenants will leave it looking the same, but doesn’t see that as a realistic possibility. “Somebody will buy it and probably turn it into condos,” he predicts.
Never harping on the past, Bingham doesn’t get caught up in things like genres, equipment or target audiences. “From my end, Piety was always about trying to do the best work possible. The intention was to utilize the best of the tried and true methods. Money and commerce follow excellence… The studio stayed open because what was recorded there sounded good and people who recorded there told other people. That’s the purest form of advertisement.”
That’s sort of the same way Bingham got into the industry in the first place. He was just writing songs he liked and eventually Elektra Records picked him up in 1966. He released one single with them, “Deep Regret/Your Problems and Mine.” Since then he’s been steadily making a living in the music industry, as both an artist and a producer, but tries to stay grounded in the days of practicing with friends in a garage.
After moving to New Orleans in 1982, he started the Boiler Room Studio and has been in the New Orleans music scene ever since. Bingham is constantly shocked at the misrepresentation of New Orleans music outside of the city. “Everybody around the world has this idea of what New Orleans music is, but if I were to ask them if they thought
Pantera was New Orleans music, they’d have no idea what I was talking about.” He also thinks people spend too much time focusing on all the music that was recorded in New Orleans between 1920 and 1976. “These guys are fading. We can’t latch onto it forever.” Bingham thinks many great artists are currently putting out really good music. “A lot of the stuff I’m turned on to now is from 18 year-old kids that are really obsessed with music and have too much free time on their hands. I’d have never been turned onto Chance the Rapper [otherwise].”
Though he still has his 2” machine for the rare times when people want them, his 1/2” tape machine for mixing and tape echo, and a 3 head cassette deck (also for tape echo), he’s not afraid of change and is willing to adapt to modern ways. “For the first two years we were mostly analog, but Piety Street has been 80% digital for the last ten years,” he says. As technology continues to advance, the digital recording equipment is becoming just as good as the analog. According to Bingham, sticking to analog is more for nostalgia sake than the actual sound of the music.
While Bingham sees a lot of ways of the past as fleeting ideas of what a recording studio should be, he doesn’t think it’s a fading industry. Though according to Bingham, studios will get more specialized and “more and more tracking in alternative spaces will result in more diverse sound recordings… The future looks like the past. There are only so many sub-sets of recording studios.”
According to Bingham, there are six types of recording studios:
1. The corporate/label studio (most of them gone)
2. The “build it and they will come” studio (90% of these out of business since the mid ‘90s)
3. The owner/operator run studio where the owner/producer/engineer has enough work to support a studio. That would be Piety, Word of Mouth, the former Ultrasonic, the former Sea Saint, the former Kingsway, the former Sound Services, the former Axis. This sub-set is now mostly in the home studio realm.
4. The laundered drug money studio.
5. The “trust fund/have too much money/need to lose some money” studio. This category is the primary “big” studio model in 2013 Louisiana.
6. The home studio: approximately 100 in New Orleans, approximately 100,000 nationwide.
“There are enough studios out there to feed the need for whatever it is people think a studio is for anymore,” he says. With local studios like the Living Room, Studio in the Country, Music Shed Studios, Esplanade Studios and Fudge Recording Studio all serving a similar role, it’s hard to argue with Bingham.
Studio manager Shawn Hall says, “I will miss meeting really great and talented people on a regular basis and the changing day to day problem-solving that happens in this biz. I’ll miss the building, which is truly fabulous, and its general good, homey vibe. I have many fond memories of particularly good sessions where we all functioned like a big family, despite not knowing each other previously. Those are the best times. We made a lot of great music.”
When asked which sessions he was most proud of over the last 12 years, Bingham says, “Pride will get you nowhere. It was a gift, an honor and a privilege to have worked in New Orleans for 30 years with hundreds of amazing people at Piety and elsewhere.” As far as what he will miss he says, “I don’t attach much importance to anything I’ve done (or the studio), don’t believe in that. Time is fluid and there’s no stopping to assess importance. We did some decent work, had some fun. New Orleans is a snake biting its tail and we are just another layer of the skin falling off and decaying in the heat. Beautiful skin it was.”