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The rural Minnesota recording studio where Nirvana made its last album is in utero again.
Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls -- which sat dormant last year following several years of decline -- is being overhauled by one of the Twin Cities' most reputable studio operators, who hopes to return it to its former glory. He just can't use the place's old name.
The 1960s-era house and wooded, six-acre lot that hosted Kurt Cobain, Soul Asylum, PJ Harvey, Live and many other rock stars in the 1990s was purchased last year by John Kuker, whose Minneapolis-bred Seedy Underbelly studio now operates in Los Angeles and New York. Kuker owns the property but not the studio equipment or the Pachyderm name.
No problem, he says. He tentatively plans to call it Seedy Underbelly North. He also recently brought in a recording console that he said was used by Bob Marley in the early 1970s at Island Records' Basing Street studio in London.
The refurbished studio, about 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities, should be rocking again by summer.
"We're doing a whole makeover on the place, because it really needed it," Kuker said.
The property had gone into foreclosure and was in disrepair when it sold for $370,000 last summer. Kuker said he even had trouble getting a Dumpster delivered to haul out construction trash "because it had gotten such a bad reputation."
Pachyderm's downward spiral was partly blamed on an industrywide slump. Studios everywhere have been hit by declining album sales and advancements in home-recording equipment. The Twin Cities' famed Flyte Tyme and Paisley Park studios also closed up shop in the mid-2000s (Prince still uses Paisley, but it no longer sees outside business).
There were also ownership troubles at Pachyderm. Following a lawsuit with his former partners and a divorce, original co-owner Jim Nickel sold the property in 2006. It was bought by Matt Mueller, a real estate investor and talent agent known for hosting Hare Krishna acts and other unknown performers.
Mueller could not be reached for comment. The studio's former engineer, Andrew Crowley, who worked under Mueller, said the former owner plans to continue using the Pachyderm name elsewhere.
"The high overhead there was certainly a problem," said Crowley, who now houses Pachyderm's famous console at his Organica studio in St. Paul.
Twin Cities musicians still occasionally used Pachyderm -- Haley Bonar's 2011 "Golder" album was the last one recorded there -- but the studio's declining state literally stared them in the face in recent years.
"They've got a bit of a chipmunk problem here," Stray Cats leader Brian Setzer said during a 2008 session, when an unwanted visitor climbed up on a ledge to check in on his work.
There were a lot more rodents hanging out there than chipmunks, said Cannon Falls City Council Member Leroy McCusker -- who's also a neighbor to the studio and a contractor hired by Kuker to help remodel the place.
"The roof was caving, and the place stunk so bad it had to be fumigated," said McCusker. "It was really sad to see, because the studio and the house are a big part of the history around here. There's a lot of pride in it, so folks are excited about what John's doing."
Small town, big names
A scenic riverside town with a population of 4,083, Cannon Falls became an unlikely hotbed for alt-rock recordings in the early 1990s thanks to Pachyderm. Soul Asylum and Live made their breakthrough multi-platinum albums there.
"You'd hear things like, 'Guess which famous guitar player was down at the bar last night?'" McCusker recounted.
Chicago-based producer Steve Albini had recorded other bands at Pachyderm before bringing Nirvana there for "In Utero" in 1993.
In a 2002 interview, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic remembered liking the "Mike Brady kind of architecture" in the four-bedroom house, which boasts an indoor swimming pool. One of the reasons the band chose to go there, he said: "It seemed good for Kurt's health" (Cobain was battling heroin addiction and would commit suicide a year later).
Kuker said Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, now the Foo Fighters' frontman, expressed interest in buying the property last year. Instead, it wound up in the hands of a local -- or at least a part-time local.
"I've been bouncing all over the map, but I do hope this [studio] will get me back to Minnesota on a more permanent basis," said Kuker, whose main residence is in Los Angeles.
After recording Semisonic, Jonny Lang and countless Twin Cities bands over the course of eight years, Kuker was forced in 2003 to close his original Seedy Underbelly studio in Minneapolis to make room for a new apartment complex. He moved to Los Angeles and went on to host the Jonas Brothers, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Jimmyeatworld, Nick Cave's Grinderman and more reputable acts between there and the newer New York studio.
The opportunity to take over the Pachyderm space, he said, was "too good to pass up."
"The sound in the drum room is pretty magical, and it's just a beautiful place with a lot of history to it."
With three studios to run, Kuker believes he can consolidate resources and keep costs down enough in Cannon Falls to keep the studio profitable -- without having to "worry about always having somebody in there or staying competitive with other studios," he said.
Minneapolis-based noise-rock duo Gay Witch Abortion will get to test-run the studio in a few weeks, giving Kuker and his studio technician, Nick Tveitbakk of the Sound Gallery, a chance to work out any kinks. One "private session" has been booked for summer.
Kuker is not sure if he will keep the old Island Records recording console, though. He said he has received "some pretty amazing offers," money he would like to reinvest in his Minnesota space. Plus, he said, "Old consoles like that can require a lot of time and money to keep running. I might already have my hands full in Cannon Falls."