The experience between Pool and co-owner Dan Baker combins for more than a half-century in the music business, lending more than just notoriety to what has kept the space in Williamsburg operating for 23 years.
Bands like Vampire Weekend, Tony Trischka, The Punch Brothers, Dirty Projectors and The National have recorded at the studio, and more are sure to come.
I met up with Pool at the studio last week to discuss the Excello legacy, his own career in music and the difficulty of staying viable in the recording industry in the midst of technology paving the way for cheaper home recording.
Where did it begin for you in NYC?
Well, I came to New York when I was 20 years old and started playing in the subways. I got out of college and came to New York to be a star. I did it, and things have changed, but also not changed I guess.
Today I own a house in the neighborhood, I have a business, I have kids and a wife. Some people come to America and 10 years later they’re bizillionares, but for me, my story is not quite the same. Mine is 30 years of tough slugging and I have a viable living in the business.
When did you find your first break?
Eventually some guy saw me playing in the subway - Ted Kessler - and he asked if I’d like to come up and play at Columbia University. They had a coffeehouse up there and I said sure. I started playing there, getting gigs, playing down in the Village, at The Speakeasy, the Sun Mountain Café, up and down The Back Fence. I answered an ad in the newspaper with this band from Arkansas – Catfish - and we went over to Europe and made three records over there.
Then I traveled a lot. I came back to New York and I lived on a tugboat in the Hudson River. While I was living on the tugboat I met Janey (Pool’s wife), and then I continued playing and traveling. Eventually I moved in here about ‘98 or ‘99.
Are you still playing with the same guys?
Yeah, it has changed a bit, but I’m definitely still in contact and I do play with those people. I have three records out now with a band called Mulebone. We’re working on a fourth.
Is New York a demanding place to start a band?
I feel that on a very real sense, that there is a performing musician and there’s an entertainer. I don’t consider myself first and foremost an entertainer, I consider myself first and foremost an artist, but I don’t mean that in a pretentious sense, that’s just what I do. I express myself. I don’t just wind up the old thing and go, “Hey man, I’m content on doing that thing.” There are people that are like that and they’re great at it, but it’s just not how I see myself.
The fact is, I go all over the world and I aim to entertain them, and in a very real sense, I feel like I am competing for their entertainment dollars the same way that Sony and whoever is marketing Blu-ray entertainment systems at Best Buy. I feel that I am honestly competing for the same dollar. You have all this immediate gratification and at a certain point, what do you have to do to get someone out of the house and pay $15 to buy a couple of drinks and watch you play? Especially in a city like this where there is so much going on.
Do you remember how you first got into music?
We weren’t really a musical household, but my sister and brother both got guitars. My brother started playing harmonica and he was listening to Bob Dylan records and playing the stuff like “Blowin' in the Wind” and stuff like that. And when he wouldn’t be home, I would imitate him with the harmonica and put it back so he wouldn’t beat me up because he was eight years older than me, you know?
So it started like that, and then picking up the guitar; I just liked it. I didn’t know how to to tune it, but I would just fiddle with it you know? At the same time my sister started dating this guy that she later married, but he played guitar and he was a minister. But he showed me how to tune the guitar and a couple of things. I was like 13 or 14 then, but then at 16 or so I saw the Allman Brother’s “Brothers and Sisters,” and I started seeing these record covers and in particular that one, with everyone’s kids on the front porch, and I was just like, “I have got to do this.”
Then there was Credence Clearwater and these dudes in flannel shirts writing cool music and playing. I was just like, “That’s the best,” I mean come on.
How does that translate to the way music is today?
I’m a spiritual person, I don’t know if I’m a religious person or not, but there’s one sentence in the Bible that says, “judge a man by his fruits.” I remember not really knowing what that means, but I remember thinking if I can just make my living playing music, then I’m a musician. That is such a working class kind of thing. I come from a working-class town in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, so that those penetrate for sure. But I came from a town and it was there.
My dad worked for U.S. Steel and my granddad worked for Heinz and I was thinking, if I were growing up today, I was thinking making a living playing music – I still make a living making music – but the kids these days go out to clubs and they make no money. To do it now you have to have a job to pay the rent on these places, and you really have to have a good job – that or you’re sharing a place with like four other people. This was something I was fixated on. I just wanted to live playing the guitar and writing songs, and when I was able to do that I was like, “ Hey, I’m a musician.”
Is having your own recording studio the pinnacle of where you are right now?
No, I mean I’m playing tonight, I’m playing the Philadelphia Guitar Summit on Feb. 8, I’m going to Brazil, Vienna; I wouldn’t be happy only doing this, and I wouldn’t be happy only doing that.
I like being a dad, I like being around my kids and I like being there. I go away and I have a pretty good time, but I also take care of what I have to take care of. For me, to not do this and travel a lot more, I ‘d have to be making like a bit more money, maybe three times what I make playing now.
But, I value it, I’m proud of it, I’m the best sales person for Excello. The place is great, the gear is great, the vibe is great, we’ve done a lot of great work here, and it’s one of the pieces that formed my family.
Do you find that bands sometimes want to play here because it’s Brooklyn?
Somewhat. But most of the people that end up working here have heard something was done here. We did a bunch of days with an artist from Mexico, and because the producer heard a record that they loved with the sounds of the guitar on it, they came here and spent like two weeks. I ended up playing banjo on the record.
But we’ve been here for 23 years and there weren’t any other recording studios. Coyote was the only other place that was here and they’re gone. And then, slowly came Studio G and Mission Sound came in, and that was it for a long time. There’s a recording studio down the street that’s owned by Nike and they’ll record your album for free.
How do you describe the sound you get out of this place?
We have a very big live room here. It’s 40-by-25 feet with 20-foot ceilings, so we have very awesome drums sounds here. It’s a big physical space and a really good sounding physical space. There’s also a lot of very nice sounding ambiance in that room.
We have about 40 vintage guitar amplifiers, the whole Fender line and most Marshalls, so we have a lot of great guitar sounds. Most people that work with me, I have a lot of great guitar stuff. You also get knowledgeable people and a lot of experience and a pretty friendly work environment.
Visit the Excello Recording website at (www.excellorecording.com) for more information.