INSIDE MAMA COCO'S FUNKY KITCHEN
by Jim Testa
Oliver Ignatius Shapes The New Sound of Bklyn
Oliver Ignatius first made waves in NYC's rock underground
as part of the precociously talented high-school band Hysterics.
He still writes and performs music in Ghost Pal and as a
solo artist, but his main focus these days has been as co-owner
(with his business partner Justin Coles) and house producer
of Mama Coco's Funky Kitchen. The basement studio in the
Windsor Terrace neighborhood of Brooklyn has been turning
out surprisingly sophisticated recordings by talented young
groups like The Great American Novel, Oh! My Blackbird,
Sons of An Illustrious Father, Anna Bradley, Dr. Skinnybones,
and the Harmonica Lewinskies.
I've listened to most of the recordings that have come out
of Mama Coco's, and . I've been blown away by nearly all
of them. Clearly, something important is happening there.
Layne Montgomery, frontman of The Great American Novel,
met Ignatius when both were still in high school. "Oliver's
old band, Hysterics, was the coolest band in the world to
me in high school. Their guitarist Charlie went to my school,
so my two best friends and I went to see them at Bowery
Poetry Club," he said.. "It was the coolest thing
in the world. We were extremely nerdy back then (even more
so than I am now) and seeing this band, this scene, and
these kids who seemed light years away from us in style
and coolness was dare I say, life-changing. It was like
walking into a Velvet Underground song (only I didn't listen
to them back then - I was young and naive! - so let's just
say a Strokes song, because that's probably what I thought
the coolest thing in the world was at the time.)"
The Great American Novel began as a solo project that Montgomery
recorded with Ignatius at the first incarnation of Mama
Coco's, which was in the Ignatius family basement. It has
since blossomed into a full lineup (whose drummer, Zac Coe,
recorded his own solo album as The-All-About at the studio.)
GAN is currently working on its second full length album
at the new Mama Coco's.
"Recording with Oliver is magical," Montgomery
said. "It's strange because I feel like we have pretty
similar influences but he attacks songs from an entirely
different standpoint than I do. He sees what's special in
the song before you do sometimes.The environment in the
studio is so comfortable as well; it's almost like you're
just hanging out with a friend and happen to be making some
music. His love and enthusiasm for music makes the experience
special. . It's obviously his life and job and what he needs
to make a living doing, but you can tell it's exactly where
he wants to be."
Dan McLane of the Harmonica Lewinskies shared similar thoughts.
""Mama Coco's redefined the way we record,"
he said. "We feel like part of a family rather than
a consumer or a product."
Oliver at work
When you visit Mama Coco's, it's a bit of a shock at first
to realize that the guts of the studio consists of Ignatius'
laptop, a few pre-amps, and several speakers. There are
sound baffles and microphones, guitar amps and keyboards,
as well as a full drum kit. Still, compared to the mountains
of gear you find at most studios, it's a fairly bare bones
operation, but clearly up to getting the job done.
I stopped by Mama Coco's Funky Kitchen during a session
with the Harmonica Lewinskies, then conducted this interview
with Oliver Ignatius by email. Here's what he had to say...
Q: Watching you work with the Harmonica Lewinskies
at the studio, it's obvious you are both a recording engineer
and a producer, since you were offering all kinds of creative
input as well as even some backup vocals. Is that level
of participation standard operating procedure at Mama Coco's?
When people hire you to make their record, what are they
getting? And do you feel there are some boundaries that
a record producer shouldn't cross?
The answer to this one really depends on the project. One
of the things about Mama Coco's is that I'm completely there
to offer whatever input is wanted from me, be it arrangement,
helping out with singing or playing, with some clients I've
even worked on songwriting with them. But I would never
impose myself on a process if that part of it wasn't desired.
When I started out doing Mama Coco's over a year ago, I
was recording people in my parents' basement with pretty
substandard equipment, so when people wanted to work with
me it was usually for my ear or for whatever aesthetic input
I was bringing. Now that we're in a nice studio with much
fancier equipment, I can play the faceless engineer. Again,
it totally depends on what's desired. But usually I play
a pretty active role in the production of the music.
The one boundary I feel a record producer shouldn't cross
which I have unfortunately seen many times, is that moment
where it becomes a squabble for control over the music.
I mean a producer can bring his heart and soul into the
whole thing, but he's always going to be a hired gun to
help the artist realize what they want to hear. In the best
case scenario I can present the artist with another outlook,
that may healthily challenge their initial perception of
what they wanted the project to be, and the friction from
that process can inspire us to mutual heights. But the artist's
wants and needs always take precedence, I mean they have
to. Or you're no better than some industry asshole, looking
after the bottom line.
Laying down a vocal track
Q: My impression of Mama Coco's is that you and
your partners are working to build not just a stable of
recording artists but a community, eventually extending
into a record label and maybe even beyond. Can you talk
a little about that philosophy and some of your goals?
Yes we're hopefully looking at a slow growth into dizzying
expansion for Mama Coco's, ha. But yes, I think above all
we wanted to create Mama Coco's Funky Kitchen as a remedy
or at least counterbalance to how much of a grinding struggle
it generally is to be a musician in New York City. There's
so much networking to do, so much competition, so much to
worry about whether you kissed enough butts today to sustain
your band…it can actually be really stress-ridden
and painful, so we wanted to open up Mama Coco's as a safe
haven where the musicians can come in and be cozy and put
their heads together and work on the music, and music alone.
We want it to be a realm of infinite musical possibility.
Eventually we hope to expand the operation so that we can
be an active label that is releasing music digitally and
on vinyl. For now, we're trekking into a mid-zone, where
rather than be a full on label, we're a tightly formed musician's
recording collective, where we are all playing on each other's
records, playing shows together and helping promote each
other's music, and building something all together from
the ground up - since there's certainly strength in diversity,
and in collaboration. And we're really just welcoming any
and all sincere and passionate musicians who want to break
through the chains of the standard, clinical recording practice,
and get funky with us. Of course we need to charge people
to record, since we are a business with all kinds of terrifying
adult expenses and responsibilities and all that, but we
keep our rates low and treat it more as a donation from
the bands, for the continued sustenance and livelihood of
Q: Recording studios are supposed to be dying right
along side labels and the rest of the music industry yet
you seem to have more work than you can handle. How has
word of Mama Coco's spread? Do you seen any unifying themes
that link the bands you work with other than geographic
location and, to a certain extent, youth?
It's been a really gradual spread by word of mouth - I
started doing this over a year ago, first in my bedroom
and then in my parent's basement. The whole affair was completely
ramshackle, but it was a total trial-by-fire and we made
great records with Anna Bradley, can't see Shapes, the Great
American Novel, Oh! My Blackbird, Sons of an Illustrious
Father and more, learned a lot about the evolution of our
craft and in general people were, I think, satisfied so
word of mouth began to spread. Now that we've opened up
a legitimate studio with well-treated acoustics and really
nice gear and all that, I guess it's hopefully just a continued
spreading out. As far as unifying themes, we really want
to keep things as diverse as they can be and engage with
all forms of music and all kinds of people. But I would
say the trend that has united everyone that has come in,
is a certain excitement and exaltation at the possibilities
of digging through recording some music. A willingness to
get messy and slop around and really experiment to get some
interesting sounds. That's the most beautiful thing a musician
can possibly bring into a recording process.
The Harmonica Lewinskies and Oliver listening to
Q: New York City is such a competitive environment
- always has been, but there are probably more bands per
square mile now in Brooklyn and Queens alone than ever in
history. What advice do you have for a band that's looking
to build a fan base and work its way up the food chain in
terms of gigging?
My advice is possibly cheesy, but I always stand by it.
And that's, don't worry about pandering to any target audience,
don't worry about where you fit in the current scene, don't
worry about whether your sound and music is applicable to
its context or whether so-and-so is going to judge it harshly.
The most powerful, striking and inspirational thing a musician
can do is listen to their own creative gut and be themselves
fully. All of the trend-setters and legends are people who
brought some interesting twist or streak of individuality
to what they were doing. It's almost like what choice you
make, as far as how you present yourself, how the music
is constructed, is in itself arbitrary. What's important
is that it's honest, and that you commit to it 100%. That's
what really attracts attention to bands and musicians, in
my experience, and if more people just went by their guts,
the field of music would be revolutionized every three months.
That's the kind of scene I'd like to see. Of course, bands
have to be patient and willing to take the shitty knocks
and embarrassing gigs that we all do take, at one time or
another. There's no shame in that, everyone just has to
hold tight and stand strong together.
Q: You experienced some pretty major hype when
you were very young in Hysterics and I assume there were
more than a few show-business sharks circling the waters
trying to cash in. Because most of the bands you work with
are fairly young themselves, have you been able to share
any of your experiences and provided advice about the insidious
Yes, Hysterics had a lot of fun times and also dealt with
a lot of bullshit, and while those experiences did sort
of burn me out for a few years at the end of my teens, at
this point I consider them a strong educational foundation
to build on. And yes, like my advice above, I'm always just
encouraging people to try to have faith in themselves, stand
strong in themselves and not get too caught up in pursuing
celebrity. As long as the music is mind blowing and un-ignorable,
notoriety tends to follow. And if not, well look how beloved
the Velvet Underground are today! Sometimes you're just
raging against a vast unhearing sea, but if the music is
beautiful and honest somebody somewhere will connect to
it. As long as people retain the joy they take in their
own creation, all that social and industry bullshit will
feel less scary and overwhelming.
Oliver contributes a vocal track
Q: The bands I've come to know through Mama Coco's
all seem to record quickly and cheaply and then throw their
music up on bandcamp for free to find an audience. That's
really a fairly new business model in terms of the music
industry. Do you think it will prove sustainable? And do
you have any ideas about what the next wave of technology
will bring in terms of changes?
Wow, to be honest I'm not a business analyst and I really
don't claim to have accurate projections into what will
be the future of industry. I do think the bandcamp model,
aside from being legally liberating from the constraints
and bloodsucking of record labels, is also hugely aesthetically
liberating in that you control the timing and intensity
and really everything else about whatever statement you
make. That's a beautiful thing. I don't know how bands are
going to make money in the coming years, but I do know that
music is never going to go out of style as long as peoples'
emotions are hardwired to respond to it - i.e., forever.
What I would really like to see is the whole bubble burst,
as it really did around the turn of this century, and everything
contract to 50s style dimensions - more emphasis on regional
charts, more cool studios in the Chess or Motown model who
record and release music, just fun times like that. Of course
with the internet having taken over everything, that's not
entirely likely; but I would love to see a return to a tighter
knit community in music.
Q: What’s cooking at Mama Coco’s right
now and what can we expect in the rest of 2012?
2012 has actually been a really prolific year for Mama
Coco's so far, which is a good thing certainly if this is
the last one we have. We started the year by releasing a
really great psychedelic sea shanties record by Giant Octopus
called "Big Blue Dreams & Other Salty Stories."
That was a gorgeous allegory for life during wartime, filtered
through a naive, psychedelic and seafaring haze. The All-About's
"Winterpop" got a bunch of attention, and housed
some of the absolute loveliest pop songs about heartbreak
and being a young person that I've literally ever heard.
Right now we're working on a bunch of projects. The full-length
debut, "Dare Me," by Oh! My Blackbird is just
about finished, they're getting it mastered and by the time
this interview is printed, it'll probably be released. That
is a beautiful psychedelic folk album that engages a lot
of fascinating, intricate textures. Very excited about that.
(You probably gleaned, I tend to prefer psychedelic music
in all its forms.) Beyond that, the Harmonica Lewinskies
are also hard at work on their debut album, which has taken
on a complete life of its own and is going to be called
"Octopus Wall Street" I think. there's some really
wild stuff happening on that record and those sessions have
been one long manic party. The Great American Novel are
working on their sophomore LP, "Kissing," which
is a massive step up from anything they've ever done - just
heartrendingly beautiful and catchy songs, amazing playing
and an airtight construction top to bottom. Again, I'm really
excited for it, especially because Layne was the first real
client I ever had, and to watch him grow and evolve as he
as to the point where I really think he's ready to make
a major impact, well that's just so inspiring. I'm working
with a dear friend of mine too on his band's album, they
were called Injun Magic which I think is a cool name (my
friend is Indian, not Native American), but I think they're
changing it due to whatever local backlash they've received
- they're based in Berkeley, so you can extrapolate the
rest. We've been working on that album for literally over
a year, and damn I'm excited. It is some beautiful, wigged
out craziness. And of course my own band, Ghost Pal, is
working on both an LP, "Nathan Jones is Dead"
which should be out by the summer, and an EP which will
be released in the spring (essentially to plug the waiting
time while we obsess over the album). Good times!
For more information and free downloads of Mama Coco's
Funky Kitchen artists, visit www.mamacocosfunkykitchen.com
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