What’s that sound? Exploring the aura of Dirt Floor Recording & Production
NOTE: BYLINE SHOULD BE RICK KOSTER AND PETER HUOPPI
To see a video about Eric Lichter and Dirt Floor Recording & Production Studio, go the www.theday.com.
From the back porch of the two-story log cabin on a warm August day, a meadow runs down to a tree line beyond which, partially visible through the gently moving leaves, lazes the Connecticut River. The two dogs, Henley and Oliver, lope happily but with that genetic canine obligation to head off any bears or deer.
Certain that the perimeter is safe, the panting hounds trot back up the steps, through the open door and into a large, high-ceilinged room with a stone fireplace, plank floors and a comfy, low-slung couch facing a world class recording console. Playback speakers are optimally mounted at strategic points. Henley jumps up on the couch and starts licking its human occupant, a brawny, ponytailed New Jersey roots songwriter named Matt Williams, known professionally as the Williamsboy, who places one arm around the animal fondly and, with his free hand, sips from a can of Miller Lite.
Standing and facing the mixing board, oblivious to the Gibson Firebird guitar around his neck, is a slight man with a friendly smile and intense eyes. His name Eric Michael Lichter and, with the comfort and confident focus of a ship captain pleased by fair winds and following seas, he hits a playback button and suddenly the room is suffused in top-volume song.
It’s a playback of a Williamsboy tune called “Coming Home.” This morning, the pair are working on lead vocals for the song after spending the previous day layering backing tracks, instrument by instrument – organ, piano, acoustic and electric guitars, bass and drums. It’s a powerful, gospel-by-way-of-a-tarpaper-roadhouse tune, one that should easily appeal to fans of Justin Townes Earle, Bob Seger, Joe Cocker or Shooter Jennings.
The song sounds powerful and magnificent blasting through the house. Lichter, barefoot, with rolled up jeans, a Western shirt and ballcap on backwards, smiles and nods his head in time, eyes the Williamsboy and enjoys the artist’s reaction.
After one particularly emotive vocal delivery, Williamsboy jumps up and stomps his work boots, laughing and shouting, “Whoa! That is (obscenity) awesome!”
If that exuberance seems somehow contrary to the pastoral vibe of the building and location, well, not at all. In fact, the reaction is an organic part of the whole experience.
This is Dirt Floor Recording & Production in Haddam, where Lichter, along with his staff and trusted friends, recording/mixing engineer Guido Falivene and mixing/mastering engineer Steve Wytas, has overseen fine musical projects for artists from all over New England, New York across the country and beyond.
Getting attenuated to the vibe
Musicians and bands – from folksingers to stoner-metal acts – in fact seek out Dirt Floor in large part because of the relaxed atmosphere, which reflects Lichter’s finely honed approach to his work as a producer, engineer and multi-instrumentalist.
Daphne Parker Powell, a former New London-based songwriter now working out of New Orleans, loved her experiences at Dirt Floor. She says, “We made (an album called) ‘Scared Fearless’ there and it was really magical. It’s this quiet hideaway on the mountain -- all wood and nature and river and warmth. Beautiful instruments in a nice soft room! We were able to all pile in there for the week and focus in on the songs at hand, that kind of dream studio situation of just all being in it together to make an album.”
“I’ve been in dozens of recording studios in my life,” the Williamsboy says. “This is where I prefer to go. This is real, it’s honest … all the ideas you might have for a song are realized in the best way here. It’s why I keep coming back. And Eric is my brother. He gets it. I’ve never met anyone in my entire musical life who gets it as much as he does. He actually cares about YOUR song. As a writer, you have something to say and a meaning behind it – and Eric is going to find it and make it the best it can be.”
Oh, yeah, that solo career
It also helps that Lichter, incredibly proficient on a variety of instruments and a possessed of a lovely voice that he can layer in finest Beach Boys harmony-cluster fashion, didn’t start out planning on owning his own studio or producing other artists. He wanted to write, record and perform his own music.
“There was a point in my 20s when I had some aspirations,” Licher says with a smile that’s either wistful or just amused. “I didn’t want to be famous or any of those things that I think might be a trapping for something I’d consider the wrong reason.”
He grew up in Madison and loved music from an early age. Over time, he learned to play guitar and, with stops in such varied locales as Hoboken, Brooklyn, California, Martha’s Vineyard and more, Lichter soon had plenty of experiences he could write about. Eventually, he garnered a reputation as a singer-songwriter and developed a business relationship with noted producer Vic Steffens. After months of hard work in the studio, Lichter scored a contract with Mercury Records.
“The thing is, a lot of changes were happening in music at the time, and there were a lot of hip hop beats and drum loops and this canned gloss coming into pop music,” Lichter says. “I recorded a batch of songs that ended up in that framework, and I didn’t feel very good about it.” He laughs. “They just weren’t very good.”
When the label was bought by the Seagram corporation, Lichter was one of many acts dropped – and he was saddled with having to pay back his original advance. Given that he hadn’t saved much and, rather, spent a lot of the advance on equipment and recording gear he had no idea how to operate, he definitely owed some money.
But, after being hit by a car one morning while going out for a jog from his Brooklyn apartment, Lichter was able to use the settlement money to pay off the advance. He also used the time recuperating to learn how to play a variety of instruments well, and to use the recording equipment he’s amassed. One of the first folks he worked with was Falivene, who, Lichter says, “Became my brother and mentor.”
Along the way, Lichter has managed to record a bit of his own fine music – albums like “Chorduroy” and “Owl.” And he continues to write and tinker with original material – just at his leisure and as time allows.
“When I was focusing on my own stuff, there’s always the worry that you don’t know how any given record will do,” he says. “And at a certain point, I didn’t really want to travel and play a lot on the road. But I was still completely into music and I gradually just started recording other people.”
Over the years, Lichter opened Dirt Floor in a different location. There have been a few more subsequent moves before the studio ended up in its present location. “At first,” he says, “I didn’t know what I was doing and I probably destroyed a lot of people’s music. I’m sure of it, in fact. But over time, through just doing the work and talking with Guido and other professionals, I got a bit more confident. And here we are.”
The best place in the world
During a break, Lichter takes a visitor on a tour of the facility. He says, “This is my favorite place to be in the whole world, and anyone who finds their way into this house – whether they’re making music or visiting as friends – feels good being in this house. There’s a reason why they’re here, and I can recognize that energy well in advance.”
If Lichter sounds almost stereotypically Zen, well, there’s certainly that aspect to his personality. “I have this gear and I know how I like things to sound,” he says. “And if you are like me, then maybe we can work together and make some stuff that kind of sounds like that.”
At the same time, as the musicians who record here know and appreciate – indeed, rely on – Lichter is a superb player and producer and definitely knows what he wants from an artist and how the partnership can capture that.
The Lichter Sound
“I definitely have a certain sound or style,” he says. “I try not to overtly push that on people, and I’m very silent unless I have to do otherwise. Some projects don’t require having my fingerprints all over it. But if I’m hired to do my thing – if someone wants me to produce and be an instrumentalist – it’s going to be hard for the project to NOT have my sound.”
He pauses, wanting to precisely articulate the philosophical side of what is a very technically precise business.
“I love all kinds of music – stuff that’s current, music my teenage daughter turns me onto. I don’t think I could do this job otherwise,” Lichter says. “But I was raised on Jackson Browne, Joe Walsh, Dan Fogelberg, Warren Zevon, Tom Petty, Joni Mitchell CSNY … artists from that era with that sense of craft and melody. And I think it’s important to have a musical connection to your past.”
Indeed, Lichter injects old-school elements into virtually every project, even if the artists recording at Dirt Floor aren’t aware of it. There’s nothing subversive about Lichter’s methodology; he’s not forcing his own tastes into someone else projects.
Lichter says, “Any time you can put something familiar to somebody in a song, it touches the listener, and they subconsciously react in a positive way. Which is why I think a lot of people love contemporary artists like Father John Misty, a band like Dawes, or Jack White. Or music from producers like Jack Antanoff. It’s not a blatant theft thing, there are just these little moments that make you feel a connection to a simpler time. And it doesn’t matter who I’m recording – whether it’s a hard rock band or a solo artist – younger or older – they get it.”
Similarly, Lichter is very much into making music for the MUSIC. He says, “Most of the artists I’ve admired over the years? Success or stardom was the farthest thing from their minds. Even now – particularly now – if I’m meeting a potential client and their main goal is to be famous, that’s kind of a deterrent, a red flag. That attitude takes the joy out of it and the music suffers.”
Dirt Floor is certainly not the only recording studio that accentuates a rustic aura. The late, great Caribou Ranch in Colorado; Bearsville Studio in Woodstock; Studio in the Country in Bogalusa, Louisiana – these are all noted samples of recording facilities that present an atmosphere and methodology similar to Lichter’s operation. But, of course, Dirt Floor is distinctive in its own way.
The log cabin construction of the studio/house is rich, ambient and natural. Each room has different properties, which Lichter has learned and harnessed over time. A rear bedroom – where this day the Williamsboy is laying down vocal tracks – is perfect for capturing the human voice or the tones of an acoustic guitar. There’s also the fact that more than one artist has insisted the room is occupied by a benevolent spirit or at least a very soothing energy.
Then there’s a grand piano in the kitchen. The room’s properties are as ideal for the instrument’s sonic nuances as they are for a sunny country breakfast -- Glenn Gould does breakfast cereal variations. There’s a side room festooned with stands and wall racks holding all manners of guitars, basses and sundry equipment and, as Lichter, his wife and daughter no longer live on the property, are reserved for the artists recording there.
“I think our guests like the idea of staying on-site in this place,” Lichter says. “I kind of miss it myself. It’s best night’s sleep you’ll ever have.”
With the break over, it’s time for Lichter and the Williamsboy to start work on another song. The dogs are back outside, it’s early afternoon, and there’s definitely anticipation in the air.
Lichter sighs. “I never set out to be a producer or own a studio, and it took me many, many years to get to the point where, OK, I guess I AM a producer. And I’m comfortable wearing that badge. I’ve got a daughter and a wife and dogs and great friends, and this is a really fine life.”