Jersey Beat Music Fanzine


Oliver Ignatius Shapes The New Sound of Bklyn

by Jim Testa

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 the studio.

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 a take

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 buzz machine?

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 is an independently published music fanzine covering punk, alternative, ska, techno and garage music, focusing on New Jersey and the Tri-State area. For the past 25 years, the Jersey Beat music fanzine has been the authority on the latest upcoming bands and a resource for all those interested in rock and roll.

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