When talking about the Hoboken music scene, the average local will first mention Maxwell’s.
R.E.M., Beck, Smashing Pumpkins and countless other iconic musicians played there at some point. Bruce Springsteen made a video there. Yo La Tengo, local themselves, used to do an annual Hanukkah residency there. Yet Maxwell’s is hardly the only iconic musical destination in town.
Water Music Recording Studios came onto the Hoboken scene in 1982 within a loft at 201 Grand Street. For nearly two decades, it’s been located at 931 Madison Street. In spite of the star power that has regularly been inside its studios, Water Music has also contributed to the local community over the years by providing free recording services for Hoboken schools.
Owner Rob Grenoble kindly answered some questions about Water Music’s past, present and future. That past includes work from the likes of the Dave Matthews Band, U2, Shakira, Beyoncé, R. Kelly, Idina Menzel, Jason Mraz, Ryan Adams, Sonic Youth and Taking Back Sunday, to name a few notables. In turn, plenty of Grammy-winning and platinum-selling recordings were produced in Hoboken.
As Rob explained within our Q&A, Water Music hasn’t always been the only notable studio in town, and it’s certainly not the only spot in Hoboken fostering great new artists.
hMAG: Water Music has been in Hoboken since 1982. In terms of its facilities and equipment, how does the studio compare these days to its early days?
Rob Grenoble: Water Music started in a third floor loft in a firetrap building at 201 Grand Street. We were there for fourteen years. Our landlords were off-the-boat Italian coat manufacturers who barely spoke English. On the day we left, my landlords and I stood in the alcove with tears streaming down our faces. We were like family.
We still use the same microphones and outboard gear that we had then. The tape machines and monitoring have been upgraded over the years. Ironically, the quality of audio equipment has gone down dramatically with digitalization. Modern digital equipment is basically junk. Our most valuable equipment is from the 50’s and 60’s. We have a lot of tube gear from that era.
H: What is the most popular recording that has been recorded at Water Music? Or at least, what are some of the songs that people may have no idea were recorded in Hoboken?
R: Most of the Dixieland music for the first year of [HBO series] Boardwalk Empire was recorded here. We’ve won many Grammys, an Emmy and other awards. This year, The Pretty Reckless set a new record for consecutive #1 singles on the Billboard Mainstream Rock song chart, breaking The Pretenders’ record from 1986. [Editor’s Note: The Pretty Reckless were engineered by Sean Kelly, the former in-house chief engineer of Water Music.] Other #1 hits would include Vertical Horizon’s “Everything You Want.” It went double platinum, as did the Dave Matthews Band’s Listener Supported.
H: When an A-list artist like Beyoncé or Shakira wants to record at your studio, what sort of precautions usually need to be taken at Water Music?
R: There isn’t a single A-list. Each genre of music has its own A-list, so there are about twenty A-lists.
Our approach is to treat everyone the same: rich or poor, famous or not. Some of our biggest artists weren’t big when they first came here. They got big and they keep coming back, which is good. Some of our artists started with $400 budgets and now have $400,000 budgets. Others started with $400,000 budgets and now have $400 budgets. What am I supposed to do? Turn them away because they have a smaller budget than last time? I can’t do that.
There are several things about successful artists that might surprise people. First, most A-list artists are very frugal. They’re worried that their last big record will be their last big record, so they’re conscious of how much they spend. The first day Beyonce came to Water Music, they didn’t know what they were walking into. There could have been a hundred paparazzis waiting or a few daffodils. She showed up in a stretch limo followed by the biggest Escalade-Gizunda 4X4 you’ve ever seen with four bodyguards, each six-feet tall and six-feet wide. She looked around at our garden. Didn’t say anything. The next day: no limo, no Escalade-Gizunda. There was one bodyguard driving a little Ford Escape and Beyonce was in the front passenger seat. Successful artists worry about money just like the rest of us. It costs a fortune to keep Beyonce’s band on the road. I’d hate to be on the hook for those numbers.
Second, everything MTV and mass media has told you about music is wrong. Recording studios are not party environments. Studio time is expensive and artists are under a lot of pressure to be efficient. It’s an intense, focused, work environment. Every day is fifteen hours if it’s rock and roll. If it’s jazz, the sessions may be a little shorter. There is zero partying. When the session ends, everyone blows out the door and goes home to their significant others. Musicians spend their entire lives on the road. If they’re anywhere near home, they’re like homing pigeons.
Third, A-list artists are, without exception, extremely driven people with a laser focus. We have to be on our A-game all the time just to keep up with them. It is such a competitive industry, there simply isn’t room for screw ups. Anyone with a personality issue or an addiction problem will get washed out of the business quickly, regardless of what the media says.
H: What do you like most about Hoboken?
R: My connection to Hoboken is to the arts community. Musicians have a bond unlike any other social relationship. I can say in full knowledge that Jim Mastro’s Guitar Bar is the greatest music store in the world. Glenn Morrow of Bar/None Records lives on Hudson Street. Michael Hill, music supervisor for film and television, is at 9th and Bloomfield. Boo Reiners (Phil Lesh & Friends, Dispatch) is up on the hill. Julio Fernandez from Spyro Gyra is in Weehawken. Chris O’Connor from Mile Square Theater is a magic human being, as is Zabrina Stoffel, his Board President. You can’t replace people like these. They’re what keeps me here.
H: Since the majority of people have never stepped foot in a recording studio, what does a Studio Manager do?
R: We’re in the “Whatever Business,” meaning we deal with the issues of the day. I’ve sung background vocals with John McEnroe and I’ve accompanied Victor Bailey of Weather Report to the A&P. Water Music has the only full-length mirror that Beyoncé, Shakira and R. Kelly have all used. By the way, this isn’t relegated solely to recording studios. It is true for all entertainment industries. I’ll never forget seeing artist manager Bert Holman burst out laughing when he had 150 people on the guestlist at the Beacon Theater and 20 folding chairs on the side of the stage. Welcome to the music business.
H: Is it true that Water Music does free recordings for the public schools in town?
R: Yes. We don’t advertise it but Water Music will record any elementary, junior high or high school for free. We also record the Hoboken cheerleaders. A lot of people helped me when I was starting out. I’ve never forgotten it and I can never pay it all back, but I try.
H: Finally, Rob, any last words for the kids?
R: I was fortunate to be a guest speaker at the Union City Film Festival recently. It was an incredible evening. Lucio Fernandez, the actor, hit it out of the park as the emcee. The main speakers were Danny Goggin, creator of Nunsense, the legendary Broadway play, and Franklin Zitter and Melissa Pinsky, producers of the Nunsense television pilot. In their remarks, they were very candid about the ups and downs of what we do. I sat there listening and realized—again—that we must be crazy to do this. In my opinion, what you give up to be in a glamour business isn’t worth it. Go to school. Become an accountant. Enjoy your life.
Francis Ford Coppola, the film director, once said—I’m paraphrasing—that being in the movie business is like walking down the sidewalk on a beautiful, sunny day wondering where you can borrow $50,000 to get through the day’s shooting. Do you really want to do that? I do, but I can’t tell you why.