Positive, creative, and a little bit freaky: How one East London studio helped spark a cultural renaissance
Forget your rainbow bagels and Matcha-infused everything, back in 1984 even the dogs walked round Shoreditch in pairs. Five years of Thatcherite de-industrialization had pushed local manufacturing into disrepair, whilst faltering economic growth, the erosion of the welfare state, and the evaporation of social consensus had transformed the former manufacturing hub into an all-out East London badlands.
Despite widespread unemployment and rises in crime and racial unrest, Shoreditch in 1984 was an attractive prospect for the capital’s artists and entrepreneurs. A surplus of desolate Victorian factories meant that studio spaces were available low rent, and by the mid Eighties the district’s blossoming creative scene was attracting some serious press, climaxing in a Turner Prize for sharp-suited Spitalfields duo Gilbert & George in 1986.
One of the early pioneers in the Shoreditch revival was Richard Boote, a British tour manager who’d spent time on the road with the likes of Bowie, The Who and Pink Floyd. In 1984 Richard took over a former furniture distribution warehouse just off Old Street, establishing an independent recording studio named The Strongroom. By 1985, the studio was cutting ex-Velvet John Cale’s ‘Artificial Intelligence’ and in the three and a bit decades since has gone on to capture some of the most iconic tracks ever committed to record.
Seminal recordings from the likes of Orbital, Underworld and The Prodigy earned Strongroom a commanding electronic edge during the Nineties, but throughout its history the studios’ doors have remained open for business. Welcoming everyone from Frank Ocean to Atomic Kitten, the studios have helped reshape both the model for independent studios, and the very fabric of Shoreditch itself. The key to its success? It’s all in the vibes.
One man who knows more than most about Strongroom’s evolution is Gareth Jones. The legendary British producer has helped shape the sound of artists such as Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, Interpol and Erasure, and was first introduced to Strongroom by Mute Records boss Daniel Miller in 1986. “Back then it was pretty anarchic,” Gareth recounts from one of Strongroom’s private production suites, which he’s leased on-off since the late Eighties. “This side of the warehouse was derelict, and there were always parties and raves going on. It became a base for a lot of creative people, who’d be up here every night ‘til 6am working, making art and partying. It’s calmed down a bit since then, but Strongroom always was – and still is – a spot where you could have a great time, whilst seriously finishing records.”
With Shoreditch’s artistic regeneration prompting creeping rent raises, Richard made the early decision to lease out unused warehouse space to independent producers in need of a base. “He was really ahead of the game on that one,” Gareth nods. “If you’ve got producers renting out rooms, they’re going to be using studios. If there’s one next-door, well, you do the maths. It’s a good model that’s become fairly established within the industry: not just for financial reasons, but because it creates a hub of creativity that engenders a special kind of atmosphere.”
“This is the spot from which Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ turned on a generation of pinger-popping youngsters, where Daft Punk went Harder Better Faster and Stronger… There’s magic in these walls.”
Other early tenants at Strongroom included Orbital, The Beatmasters and influential design agency Assorted iMaGes. “When digital technology started hitting the big time there was an incredible feeling that everyone was growing together,” says Gareth. “We’d share our heartbreaks and successes, and bit by bit we worked out how to make this modern shit work properly.”
With no shareholder limitations or corporate ties, Richard Boote was free to develop Strongroom in a manner that worked for its creative community. Based on the recommendations of studio holders and in-house techs, fledgling formats such as MIDI and Pro Tools were explored early on, effectively pre-empting the music industry’s widespread migration from analogue studio technology to digital platforms. Nowadays, the studios continue to bring together leading creative minds, with top producers (Nigel Godrich; Haydn Bendall), record labels (Wichita Recordings; Secretly Canadian), and a handful of TV and ad agencies all using Strongroom as their base from which to connect to the world.
Beyond its private lets Strongroom now comprises four world-class commercial studios, eight programming rooms, and a busy public bar too. “Richard’s the red line that runs through the whole operation,” Jones nods. “He’s professional, but not corporate; a very canny businessman, but also a complete freak. Way back before he decided set up a bar in the courtyard, he was planting vines out there and watering them every day, just to make it a nice place to be. He’s extremely passionate about doing the studios right, and it’s created a special vibe.”
Walking through main studio Strongroom 1 – a Bedouin tent of dark silks anchored by a Neve VR60 Legend mixing desk – it’s hard to deny the energy in the room. This is the spot from which Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ turned on a generation of pinger-popping youngsters, where Daft Punk went Harder Better Faster and Stronger, where five Wannabee pop stars first brought Girl Power to the world. There’s magic in these here walls.
The room itself was designed by British artist Jamie Reid: a former studio tenant with Assorted iMaGes whose artwork for The Sex Pistols shaped the punk aesthetic forever. Incorporating motifs from Druidism and Shamanism, Reid’s aim for Strongroom was to create a stimulating creative space that encouraged creativity and calm for those working in it. As rumour has it, he even tilted the studio by 15° during the redesign, boosting the good vibes by aligning it with an ancient Druid ley line. Magic in the walls, remember?
“It’s certainly a working space that inspires the creation of sound,” says Matt Calvert, guitarist for noise rock-experimentalists Three Trapped Tigers. “We spent a good month at Strongroom back in January 2011, recording our first full-length record Route One or Die. It’s an awesome place to camp down in. There’s the security of knowing you’re in a world-class studio, but it’s not super sanitised, so you feel comfortable doing whatever you like. Really the only obstacle in there is your own imagination: the kit is all top quality, and there’s a team of sound engineers working hard to boost your creative output. When it came to recording our second album, we missed working in that environment.”
Just as it’s no easy task laying down your first record, it’s no easy task keeping an independent recording studio alive. Recording technology, the music industry and Shoreditch itself, all have transformed dramatically over the past thirty years. Many brilliant exponents of the area’s cultural playground have counted the cost: folded or moved out of town, their lets replaced by artisanal coffee shops and flats and more flats besides. But Strongroom parties on: open to all, cutting killer records, and having an ace time of it too.