Sweatbox Studio founder looks back on 20 years of supporting Austin's indie scene
It is a certain breed of musicians who walk into Sweatbox Studio 1,100 frills-free square feet nestled in an east Austin industrial building and decide it's all they'll need to make their masterpiece.
They likely own far more vinyl than compact discs. They chart days of the week by what bands are playing at which Austin clubs. And if they're not flat broke, they probably were recently or will be soon.
"It's not bands ... who want to be radio friendly," Sweatbox owner and producer Mike Vasquez, 47, said of the studio he opened almost 20 years ago at the corner of Fifth Street and San Jacinto Boulevard in a long-gone armpit of downtown Austin.
"It's bands that are a little more gritty. Bottom line is also these are bands that don't have a lot of money. I feel like I can make things that are radio ready, but I don't care to polish things up, and the bands I work with don't want to be polished either."
A fire and a few moves brought Vasquez to the current spot, which he's set to close down at the end of August to move his family to Portland, Ore.
Once there, he'll begin a career traveling to maintain and install wind turbines across the country, a living that he expects will quickly generate enough income to buy and fully furnish a new studio.
Although the Sweatbox space will continue as a studio under different ownership, Vasquez's departure ends a run that saw him build a staggering alumni list of close to 2,000 bands, most from Austin but also lots from around the world.
For fans of low- to no-frills rock, the bands that have cut material at Sweatbox are impressive, including the Gaslight Anthem, Mooney Suzuki, New Bomb Turks, the Fleshtones, Exene Cervenka and Alejandro Escovedo.
A military brat who latched on to punk rock while his father was stationed in North Dakota, Vasquez landed in Austin with his band the Dorks in 1989 and found a cheap downtown rehearsal space that he kept after the band broke up.
Because downtown Austin was far less inhabited then, the studio's location and cheap price — $12.50 an hour at the time, today just $35 — made it a sort of hot spot where music fans would congregate.
"When we'd get these good bands, people would hang outside out in the street and it'd be almost like a club," he said. "We'd have all the windows open and they'd listen to the sessions. It was a big party because you could drink on the street in those days.
"We'd record on Friday, and by the end of the day we'd have something so we'd take it upstairs where Scott (Gardner) was doing his KOOP show, ‘Stronger Than Dirt,' and we'd put a mix on the radio and he'd interview the band. It became a routine thing to take whatever we were working on and get it on the radio."
Longtime Austinite and acclaimed producer Tim Kerr estimates he's recorded more than 100 bands at Sweatbox and said it became a preferred studio for bands who want a relaxed setting that can capture intense, high-energy performers.
"It's definitely got a whole DIY thing going there, and I think most of the bands that have asked me to record them there have come from places like Beerland or Emo's," Kerr said. "It's definitely part of a legacy because there are so many great records that have come out of there. It'll be missed because it's been such a vibrant place. The DIY thing will keep on happening, but Mike has been a big part of that because he was always looking to help bands out."
Take, for example, the gesture Vasquez made in 2010 when he saw a young punk trio called the Flesh Lights performing in a mostly empty record store during South By Southwest.
Impressed, Vasquez offered the band a free day at his studio, which the band used to record its entire debut album, "Muscle Pop."
The album earned rave reviews as soon as it was released and, along with a kinetic live show, helped the band secure a recent tour slot with Swedish garage rockers the Hives.
Flesh Lights guitarist Max Vandever, who has since interned at the studio and will continue as an engineer there after Vasquez leaves, recalls the awe he felt when he entered the studio and was greeted by stacks of session tapes from some of his favorite bands.
"I remember walking in and I saw these tapes for Quintron and Miss Pussycat, or there's tapes for the (Riverboat) Gamblers records I really liked, and I was just, ‘whoa, that's crazy' that I'm about to record here," Vandever said. "To meet someone was worked with Spot from SST Records and all those bands, and the Cola Freaks, and King Tuff and the Reigning Sound ... that was a huge deal to me."
Vandever has been diligent in recruiting other rising Austin bands to cut material at Sweatbox, with buzzed-about punks the OBN III's having just finished an album and the Golden Boys (who already have Sweatbox albums) going back to cut "Dirty Fingernails," which is one of 2012's best albums from Austin or anywhere.
Vasquez said he's thankful to have been involved in several fertile generations of Austin rock and considers the current scene anchored around Beerland and the 29th Street Ballroom one of the best he's seen.
And while he's looking forward to the move — "There's no one big reason, but I guess it's just time to try someplace else" — he's already looking back on his years in Austin and the impact it's made on him.
"I've already started wondering about what I'll think of Austin once I'm living somewhere else," he said.
"I really get off on how friendly everyone is in the scene here. Not only does everyone know each other, but they kind of love each other and are so glad to be hanging out when you see them at a show. In other cities it's just so competitive all the time, but in Austin there's really none of that."
CORRECTION: In the original story the name of the band Quintron and Miss Pussycat is misspelled.