Perry Farrell, front-man for Jane’s Addiction and Porno For Pyros, not to mention the founder of the Lollapalooza festival, strolls barefoot through tall blades of green grass with his gorgeous wife, Etty, by his side. He starts singing a phrase, then cuts himself short. Etty picks up where he leaves off, taking the verse a little further before they join together and blast headlong into a soaring chorus, Perry’s vocal husk cutting through the humid air like a machete through a cotton cloud. As they gaze affectionately at each other, a setting sun casts hues of red and gold on the jagged hills of Santa Monica in the background and the Pacific Ocean sparkles in the distance. It’s about the most romantic scene you could possibly envision. At least, it would be if the couple wasn’t swarmed by an army of photographers, camera men and tech assistants.
This isn’t some romantic stroll through the park with two lovebird musicians crooning at each other, this is a shoot for a “making of” video about Farrell’s next album. The necessary shots captured, he and Etty head back inside an enormous house that’s perched on the edge of the grass the same way the grass is perched above a sprawling golf course set in a canyon below. Just like the scene isn’t exactly what it looked like at first glance, neither is the house.
Waiting inside is a certified musical Shangri-La that has played host to a collection of musicians as vast and varied as the surrounding landscape, from pop icons like Christina Aguilera to soul standard bearer John Legend to indie royalty like the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. They’ve all been here for the same reason Farrell has come: To create music in one of the world’s most unique recording studios.
Welcome to the House Of Rock.
Pulling up to 2009 La Mesa Drive in Santa Monica, it’s easy to wonder if you’re in the right place. This is supposed to be a designed-to-the-hilt, technological wonder of a mansion where rock stars hang out and make records morning, noon and night, but from the street-side of the gated entrance, it just looks like … a house. Granted, it’s a really nice house, but then again so is every other house on the block; many far more opulent-looking than this one. But further into the center of the house’s semi-circle driveway sits a black Fiskar Karma against which leans none other than Tommy Lee, legendary drummer for Mötley Crüe.
Yup. This is the spot, alright.
Billy Idol used the master bedroom as his green room. Use your imagination.
By the front door is another sign of this place’s pedigree that might go missed by the untrained eye: Tyler Barth, whose business cards say “VP of Business Development and Artist relations at Blue Microphones,” but who you can just refer to as the guy who puts the “rock” in “House Of Rock.”
A quintessential LA industry operator, Barth is either the most charming guy you’ve ever met or just on an endless hustle – in this town, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. He doesn’t call attention to himself with flashy clothes, but rather with a constant stream of phone calls, text messages, and emails that weave in and out of whatever conversation he’s trying to have with you. And he is trying, it’s just that, in his business, the measure of a man is the length of his contact list. And Barth’s contact list is looooooooong.
Barth was brought on to the project by one of the house’s owners, a designer/developer named Elaine Culotti, who bought it with some partners for $7.7 million from the estate of ’50s leading lady Kathryn Grayson after Grayson died in 2010. Barth had worked with Culotti on the 2010 Esquire House, where he installed the home studio in a place known as “The Ultimate Bachelor Pad.” Granted, sponsors were paying for it to be called that, but it wasn’t too far off the mark. Culotti’s idea for the Grayson house was to bring in an international roster of designers and give each of them a room to do with what they saw fit. David Bromstad, Ralph Pucci, and Sami Hayek, among others, did just that, but Culotti wasn’t done.
“Rather than just put a studio in her rock house, [Culotti] wanted the entire house to be a studio,” Barth explains. We’re standing in an entryway that has seen more than its fair share of Hollywood’s elite. What used to be crowned with Victorian elegance has been tastefully updated to impart a more modern sense of chic. There’s a lot of big wood here – massive banisters on the staircase are complimented by wood paneling along the walls and set off by large art and mirrors. There isn’t so much of a hint of recording gear.
Barth says the House of Rock is “the combination of design and music, in a lifestyle format.”And while that is a succinct description, it doesn’t really capture what the place is all about. Each and every room in the house is inspired by Rock and Roll in some form or another. Outwardly, the design comes off as an homage to the history of music, each room telling a different story. Upstairs in one of the smaller bedrooms, a wall takes on new form as a mural of music, with 88 images of iconic musicians strung together in a collage. Outside the dining room, a tribute to the Rolling Stones hangs on the opposing wall. But beneath all the glitz and hidden mostly out of sight is a mountain of electronics that make it possible to cut professional-level recordings in nearly any room in the house.
And there are a lot of rooms – 25 in total, including the kitchen and a pantry that’s twice the size of most kitchens. Of those spaces, four feature input boards with up to 24 microphone inputs and connections for headphone monitoring. If you weren’t looking for them, you’d never know they were there, and it’s all tied together via fiber optic cable and routed to a nerve center studio on the top floor. We’re not heading up there just yet, because “Tommy” (Barth calls him Tommy, we don’t) is up there working right now, but he assures us Perry Farrell is coming by later for a session. That should be enough awesome for one day.
With a few hours before “Perry” (screw it, we’re name dropping today, too) arrives, there’s plenty of time to check the rest of the place out. Needless to say, it’s worth checking.
The dining room is the lowest-tech room in the house, yet it is the most acoustically intriguing spot – and completely by accident, at that. Ispired by Tina Turner, the designer strung hundreds of strands of small chains and the effects dazzle the eye, but even more so to the ear because the chains transform the acoustic properties of the room. What was once an echo chamber is now a well-tamed environment, with just enough reverb lingering to make it sound great. The room is a great conversation piece and a hell of spot to record or work out a vocal track. Hip Hop legend Talib Kweli and some friends had a five-hour dinner/writing session here, then went directly upstairs and recorded for 10 hours straight. Talib dug the room so much, he featured it in his music video for “Outstanding.”
Size-wise, the great room is the most impressive space on the main floor. Its open expanse, high vaulted ceilings and towering stained-glass windows create a space with cathedral-like acoustic properties. Sitting at the center of the room is an elaborate drum kit on which Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo recently cut 12 full tracks during a marathon one-day recording session. Overlooking the room is a balcony from which Grayson once addressed her guests, but now hosts guitarists and bassists so that they can be in the room while tracking with the drummer. Just inside the entrance is the blue Baldwin piano that Jack White played at the Grammys.
The master bedroom is a rock and roll love palace, with a sprawling bed and view overlooking the Riviera Country Club Golf Course, though it isn’t clear if the space was meant to inspire song-writing or wildly irresponsible sex. But that’s nothing compared to the master bathroom, which is set up to record and features acoustics as wet as … well, it’s a bathroom. Back when they used to host concerts in the backyard, Billy Idol played a show and used the master bedroom as his green room. Use your imagination.
That backyard can be seen from most of the rooms that face it, and it’s inspiring. On the far side of the property is the largest infinity pool in Santa Monica. Gazing at it, you can visualize groupies frolicking around with cocktails in their hands, giggling at the thought of hanging out with rock legends, their heads fuzzy with fine champagne. This seems like a pretty great place to lay down a track or two, but alas, it was re-zoned for relaxation only after neighbors complained about the concerts. Also, the insanely perfect grass? Not real – it’s super high-end artificial turf. So LA …
The fiber optics and inputs that link the recording equipment to the studio aren’t the only tech running through the rooms. There are 55 – and 65-inch Sony HX950 TV’s and iPads for Sonos music control mounted everywhere, and it all blends seamlessly. At no point in the house do you feel like you’re in a production facility; the whole place exudes a refined opulence that’s suffused with a rockstar vibe, like an ember waiting for a gust of wind. And just like that, the wind arrives.
Jack Joseph Puig glides around the corner and the energy in the backyard, where Barth has been holding court, shifts. You’ve likely never heard of him, but Puig is the guy behind the guy – among the most sought after producers and engineers in the entire recording industry.
JJP (that’s what he goes by, and like we said, we’re name dropping today) looks like he just stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine. His beard is trimmed with the precision of a leaf sculptor, his hair perfectly coiffed – no doubt by the warm winds ripping across the cabin of his convertible. His shoes probably cost more than your TV and he carries himself with the calm, deliberate air of superiority of a guy with multiple Grammys that he’s earned working with little up-and-coming bands like Sheryl Crow, U2, and No Doubt.
There are professional recording engineers that don’t fully understand the power of this thing.
When Barth started working on the House Of Rock, JJP was the first guy he called because, while Barth can envision an entire house-as-state-of-the-art recording studio, JJP can actually make one.
It takes over an hour of expansive conversation ranging from technology to philosophy to cuisine, but we somehow prove our worth and JJP leads us upstairs to view his creation, the place where all those fiber optic cables all run, like so many tributaries feeding a raging river. It’s in the attic and it’s the heart and soul of The House of Rock.
In the studio itself, cutting edge recording technology collides with the best vintage gear ever produced, creating a one-of-a-kind hybrid portal through which sounds that have never been heard before are created. The recording console alone is a marvel of engineering, a custom-made, one-of-a-kind, Duality 48-channel wrap-around console produced by Solid State Logic. If you don’t know what any of that means, don’t sweat it. There are professional recording engineers that don’t fully understand the power of this thing. It’s the kind of boutique-style recording gear that, just by being vaguely familiar with it, makes you a card-carrying member of an elite cool-club of Uber Engineers. And that’s just one piece of gear. The studio is filled with so much eye-popping gear that a separate page is necessary to hold all of it. Wanna geek out a little? Go here.
But the House of Rock wouldn’t be such a big deal if JJP simply put in some really expensive tools to work with. When JJP hears music, he hears more than chords, beat, and grooves. He hears things like harmonic tension, dissonance and resolution – the things that make you feel something when listening to music. He can tell when a recording will energize you, make you bawl, or bang your head into a steering wheel while sitting in traffic on the 405. Maybe even more importantly, he understands all of the non-musical things that are necessary to make great music.
Take the view from the studio, for example. Just staring out into that canyon from the recording console makes you feel like a rock star because it’s clear you’re in an exclusive place. To let that view in, JJP made the call to leave the window – not something most studio technicians want – in place. “Imagine you walk in and see that view … tell me what record studio has that view,” he says. “You walk out and hear the birds, and you’re in a different brain. Your mind’s totally different.”
JJP pauses – he does this a lot when he’s talking, probably because he’s thinking very, very deeply. We get the sense that, in those brief-but-sometimes-uncomfortable moments, he might have just solved the world’s energy crisis. But that was just a distraction; he’ll get back to it another time. Where was he? Ah yes…
“[It] can also work against you. Caribou Ranch, which I made probably nine albums in, didn’t work for me because there was no pelvic energy. It’s in Colorado, outside of Boulder. You walk in … cows, horses, blasting snow machines if its in the winter … but there’s no sexual pelvic energy. In Rock and Roll – in it’s DNA – it’s two things: social commentary and pelvic energy. [Los Angeles] has the pelvic energy. That’s why it works. If we try to do this in Sacramento, it’s not going to work. Wrong energy. This is the right energy. It’s sexy, its whimsical.”
“It’s like, I’m in Candyland now and I’m gonna eat as much candy as I can. I’m not even thinking about the steak.”
That, by the way, isn’t just us talking; musicians talk about JJP in the same reverent tones. On the stairwell wall leading up to the studio is a framed collage with an autographed photo of John Mayer and a personal note made out to JJP that reads: “You made me a better musician, but more importantly, you made me a better man.”
None of which is to suggest that what Barth and JJP have created here is some sort of confessional. The whole point of the House of Rock is to foster a creative vibe; it’s up to the musician to define what that vibe should be. If a songwriter wants to go deep into his feelings with JJP, the library or the backyard is a perfect place to reflect. If a guitarist needs three sexy coeds to press their naked breasts up against the glass in the studio sound booth for inspiration, that can be (and has been) arranged, too. This is a place where inhibitions disappear, and when artists feel free, they do their best work.
“What happens is they get so excited to be here and they enjoy the experience so much that there’s nothing else they think about,” says JJP. “They’re not thinking about who they have to call back, what else they have to do. It’s like: I’m in Candyland now, and I’m gonna eat as much candy as I can. I’m not even interested in the steak. I think that’s what puts the musician in that kind of mindset to output that kind of creativity.”
Of course, if they do want steak, they can have it. “No artists go starved here,” says Tyler Barth, “They become most creative when they have a meal in them.”
Just then, Barth gets a phone call. Perry has arrived.
Despite the fact that we’re now name dropping like a pro, we’re forced to make due with the birds and the infinity pool while Perry records. After a few hours, he emerges into the backyard, practically floating across the fake grass like he’s barely contained by Earth’s atmosphere. He moves with a deliberate grace, and the dude is fit. Like, chiseled.
Perry lives only blocks away, and he has a recording studio of his own, but he comes to the House of Rock because it’s unique.
“The first thing I like about it is – I mean, to be honest with you – it’s accessibility,” he explains. “I can ride my bicycle here. You know, the last place I recorded was in beautiful downtown Burbank. And I was miserable by the time I got there. Gettin’ on that freeway and sittin’ there, and just hating, hating existing in a car. You know? Stop and go [traffic]?! Here, you’ve got a beautiful ocean breeze, you’ve got beautiful architecture inside. And then you’re recording up in the attic, but you step outside and you’re looking at this beautiful golf course that I didn’t even know existed; that’s how exclusive this place is. But here I am with the likes of Mike Watt and Pete DeStefano – we recorded here for Porno for Pyros. And we were having a dandy of a time kayaking in their pool.”
“This is a big, roomy house,” he continues. “And big roomy equals big roomy in your head when you’re writing and thinking about songs. You know, your mind expands.”
One of the craziest things about the House of Rock is that, while recording here is invite-only, it’s also free. Like, totally without cost for use of the facilities. From the biggest names to the roughest new talent, if Barth asks you to come, you can arrive without a wallet. Sure, there’s a product tie-in for Barth’s employer, Blue Microphones, which presumably makes converts out of the rockstars who are the company’s best marketing asset, but the studio here is not about driving revenue. The business model is just like the recording model: all about perception. The House of Rock was conceived as a seriously high-concept marketing strategy for the house itself, which means the house is for sale.
If you’re not a professional musician but still want to record here, it’ll only cost you $22 million.
But what if you’re not a musician at all, and still like the digs? That’s the ultimate irony. After all the blood, sweat, and tears that have gone into it; after every amazing piece of music created here, and kayak paddled through the infinity pool by an iconic frontman and inspiring breast pressed against the glass of the sound booth, whoever buys this place may well just take the whole thing apart.
Weirdly, though, that idea doesn’t seem to bother the two guys most responsible for all this magic. Ask Barth or JJP how they feel about the prospect of their work being dismantled and you won’t get much in response beyond a twinkle in their eyes.
Penthouse Of Rock, anyone?
Images © Copyright Bo Bridges
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