Kris Wade and Matt Smith are a team
You won’t see any signs outside declaring you are at the hallowed new grounds of Six String Ranch. You won’t see ads in the Chronicle pushing it. This is meant to be low-key. So low-key that Matt Smith, the ironman in charge, doesn’t want me to flip you the address publicly, but would rather have you contact him personally instead at 917-821-4388. That is out of respect for the neighborhood, which is close to UT. There is limited parking. Over 3000 sq feet of studio werx awaits those who are invited in. An adult, professional attitude permeates the atmosphere here in this older, renovated 1930- era house, with unlimited gear and the knowledgeable staff to drive it. I was immediately blown away. It wasn’t just a studio, one of hundreds in the Austin area, but something beyond a studio. It has video capabilities, and is a teaching complex for those who want to advance their skills no matter what level they are playing at. An upstairs bedroom complex with complete facilities for artists who want to stay overnight from out of town is pretty ,uh, “suite.” A downstairs kitchen is huge and decked out for the artist who likes to eat in. A labyrinth of rooms for various recording purposes exists, and Smith and associate engineer Kris Wade have spent massive amounts of time building this dreamland for artists, and with a budget to match that dream, it became a reality. Not overnight, either.
Smith has been busy mixing the upcoming Hot Nut Riveters album at the new facility. He’s a one of kind cat, steeped in teaching experience on all levels. He’s taught Guy Forsyth a number of things and Guy loves working with him so much that this is not the first cd they’ve done together. Matt is a smart, quick engineer and can coax great performances out of people at all skill levels. He has The Matt Smith Way of teaching, engineering, and writing. He’s taught worldwide, and toured Europe for years. He’s got the endorsements and pedigree from his work with The Monstas, Popa Chubby, Forsyth, Matt Smith’s World, Mike Milligan, and the slap-you silly trio of Chop Shop. In a land brimming with talented guitarists, Smith takes a back seat to no one. He operates at a genius level, some say. He’s a deep pool of humble pie, but also a New York City Type -A guy. Years ago, he’d play out regularly and throw shades of Rory Gallagher out on a regular basis. Nowadays I liken him to Richard Thompson meets Big Al Anderson. You can see great guitarists aplenty in our neck of the woods, but you haven’t seen anything till you have seen the Big Bear on stage with those sausage-sized fingers play with such minute finesse, then pick and tear a guitar apart a minute later on a solo. He’s choice in his licks, understands how to not overplay and leaves you wanting more and never does he bore. But good luck catching him playing out. He stopped touring with the Riveters. He settled into a longterm relationship, bought a house in North Austin, is laying down roots and is committed to overseeing the success at Six String Ranch for the next decade and beyond. He’s found a new niche. He’s going to teach you music. He’s going to take your guitar abilities, songwriting abilities, and push them to the next level. He’s going to record your next project and you are going to grow like a flower in Springtime. Say what, sailor? I sat down with Matt and Kris Wade in the nice outdoor lounging area of said Secret Studio. Smith is a reservoir of musical knowledge and is always eager to talk shop in his baritone voice. That voice of his is something special,too. He is one of the best deep baritone vocalists I’ve heard.
Here’s some of our chatter.
SPM: What is Six String ranch?
Matt Smith: It’s a place for people to evolve. It’s not just a studio, it’s a school and event center and video place. It’s private, so it’ll never have a sign out front, it’ll never be “open”, so we prefer you not tell anybody where it is, but that it exists. What is it is, is that for years and years I did clinics with Command Music and Bill, the big boss who ran the company, his father was the guy who invented Ovation Guitars. The stockholders eventually bought the family out, the stockholders didn’t want anything to do with the musical instrument division because it didn’t fit in with the profile of the rest of the company. They sold the musical instrument division to Fender, who cannibalized it and basically fired everybody. That happened around 2008. Around 2009, all my work had dried up and I moved here. I was working here, playing, doing my thing and teaching and making records… I guess what happened then is Bill came to visit me. Bill really like Austin and he ended up buying a ranch outside of town. And he made a record at the old studio and he looked at me one day and he said, “Are you gonna stay here?”, and I said, “I have to stay here, I can’t afford to move.” Then he said, “Well, alright put together a business plan.” The business plan is basically everything I have already done, just in a place. So we looked at commercial properties and all the commercial properties were over-priced and I didn’t feel real comfortable because it puts a tremendous amount of pressure to come up with a nut every month, so we started looking at places to buy, and they were real junky. Then I had two operations this year on my ear. I developed what they call a cholesteatoma, which is a cyst that develops behind your ear drum, and I had to have that operated on, and the first one didn’t work. I had to have a second operation, and after I got home I thought we were going to start from scratch, and instead Bill goes,”Will this place work?”, and he showed me pictures of this property. I said,”We’ll make it work.” So he bought the place.
SPM: What next?
Matt Smith: So then I said, “This is what I’m going to need in order to for me not to wreck the house. I need to use curtains like this[ points to thick curtains], so basically he put up the money for everything I needed and allowed me to build it the way I thought it should look. Bill is not only my boss, he also is a good friend and a student and I worked for him for 20 years, so he knew my work ethic, he knew how I did things, my sense of professionalism. Basically said, “Ok, let’s do this.” So far it’s done really well. It’ll never be advertised in Austin, only on the web. Most of the clients we’ll have here will be people who have worked with me over the years like yourself, and also people from around the world and around the country. I just did a video shoot for the relaunch of Hagstrom guitars. So we brought in the guitar player for Paramour. He came in, we did a two day video shoot with Kris Wade, basically he’s my partner and assistant engineer. One of my students, Ben, came by, we had done an album together and he came by to get his hard drive and I asked him what he was doing now, he said, “Well, I’m in film school.” and he said was looking for an internship everywhere and couldn’t find one, and I said, “Look, you have an internship plus I’m going to pay you.” Ben is now the video director here.
The idea with this place is that this is where they can come and learn, you can have existing bands come in that want a producer. I’m not really interested in working with people who don’t want to do anything different than what they are already doing, they don’t need my help to do that. I’m really interested in helping people evolve. If someone wants to evolve, I’ll gladly work with them regardless of abilities and regardless who they are. So that’s what this place is. Where someone can come in and learn how to play, learn how to write, sing, perform, learn how to record, then record, all at the same place. That’s basically the idea. So really I don’t work with kids, I work with adults. Just doing everything I’ve ever done, just all of it at the same place. So it’s set up as a school, a performance space because all that stuff clears out, and also live recording and live streaming, video and live video, all that stuff can happen. Then somebody comes in from out of town and they want to stay here we have facilities for them to stay here,too.
This opportunity presented itself to me so I jumped on it. I committed to doing this. I’m not going to do a million different things, this is what I’m going to do for the forseeable future. I basically record and teach. What I’m going to do after New Years is to produce a whole stream of videos here, instructional videos, on all kinds of things. Videos on teaching people how to teach and then videos on different things. For different musicians around town, I want to make them a deal , if they want to make a video and they are a great teacher and they have something to say I’ll make them a free video and they can do what they want with it , I just want to put it on our site. And that’s the deal, to help make this a vibrant site. You know how hard it is to do stuff here in this town, that’s why you are doing what you are doing now. I think the problem in Austin is many times people don’t work together and it’s really hard to get people to work together towards a common goal. It’s just not gonna happen here. It’s not gonna work. But what DOES work is creating something that can be branded. So Six String Ranch will be a brand, an educational brand, a recording brand, a unique brand where people come and evolve. I’m being very selective with the teachers here. A few of them ask,”Well, where am I going to get my students from?” and I tell them “Look, I’m not going to get you your students, that’s your job. You teach here, and the same deal goes for me, I pay to teach here, I pay to work here. There’s a certain number that goes into the business that is sacrosanct. Kris pays it, I pay it, everyone pays it.
SPM: Any other irons in the fire?
Matt Smith: I’m still playing out and have been extensively involved with Supro, the rebirth of Supro USA, which is really exploding internationally now. Also consulting on the development of their guitars and stuff. Still working with Fret King in England, D’Addario and Planet Waves. The rest of it are things near and dear to my heart, like the kids at Phoenix House.
SPM: Tell us about Phoenix House.
Matt Smith: Phoenix House is a drug and alcohol rehab center for kids between 13 and 17. Most of them have gotten in trouble, and on a court order they can either be booked into juvenile or they can go there and straighten their life out for up to a year. They stay there, live there, go to school there and they’re locked in. It’s not an open facility where they can go in and out. So what I’ve done there is first of all, when I first moved to town, Leland Parks contacted me and said that there was a student who donated a studio for Phoenix House and they were going to try and put it together and could I help them with that. I said sure, so I went over there and helped them put it together. Then a couple years went by and this guy who was one of my former students got ahold of me and said ,”Hey, I used to study with you and now I’m the clinical director for Phoenix Houses in Texas, and we have this studio in Austin and its been sitting empty for 2 years , will you help us set up a program there?”
So I started to develop a program with the kids there where they would address the issues they were dealing with; their families, drugs, pressure, violence, anger…and they would turn it into music. To date we’ve done over 250 songs and I put in a second studio over there, there’s two studios now, and I go in there and work with those kids, it’s very important to me. The other thing I started to do was after my dad died, I started to think of legacy recordings. What we do is we go into senior centers and record seniors singing to one of their favorite songs. We ask them to make sure they get the tracks they want to sing to so they have the right key and then we just record them and give them the mp3 and a cd to take home and we mail them a cd so they can disseminate to their families. To me, that was super important because shortly before my dad died, I brought him into the studio at my house and recorded him singing to a couple of songs and when he passed we able to listen to his voice. I see the power in all that, it’s a soulful reward. I’m doing that about once a month up in Round Rock. We are going to keep doing it, it takes someone there at the senior center to take the ball from there and give us a place to do it because I have little portable studio that I have in the classroom that I bring. I’m very interested in the idea of Legacy. In other words, what does your life mean? Most of us that are musicians spend most our lives trying to make something happen and also we are now at a point where we are basically in a de-monetized industry, it’s not going to come back the way we ever knew it before, it’s gone so I’ve always been much more comfortable in this role of trying to help people out, the very reason you and I met. I kicked your ass really hard [referring to the 2012 Arcana Mundi release he co-wrote and produced.] It was a point of calling you on bullshit. Which is what we all need to be calling on ourselves. To me, in our industry and the people we work with, being really responsible and working hard is exceptional, whereas the rest of the world, it’s normal. It’s how you’re supposed to be. So when you do work that’s just normal, in our industry sometimes it’s looked upon as exceptional but to me coming from New York these things are normal. What happens is that…being on time, being professional, being clean and listening and caring about what you’re doing is not exceptional, that’s just what you are supposed to do as a human being. I never looked at any of that stuff as anything other than what I would want, even as a teacher, what I would want. I never pushed people any harder than they were able to be pushed. But I think people need to be pushed, because you don’t grow if you aren’t pushed. Students have always been a big part of my life and a big part of who I am.
~~~~~~~~~~~ On Playing Out~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The reason I haven’t been playing out a lot the last few years is I made a record and I don’t really have anything new to say. When I have something new to say, I’ll go out and say it. But I’ve also done a number of new things. I did a video for “Chop Shop”, done two revisions on books, toured with Guy and the Hot Nut Riveters. And right now I’m in the process of writing a bunch of stuff for different things and especially embrace the next part of this [ studio ] and the journey of what this can be. So Six String Ranch basically hasn’t even begun yet and we are already super-busy. Next year I’m going to start bringing in master artists to do classes here, and I’m not going to advertise it except on the web. The website looks great, I still have to tweak a few things on it before I advertise it exists.
“Matt Smith’s World ” was his last solo record.
~~~~~~~~~~~~My Own Experience~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Matt Smith is driven and will succeed, as he has in all his many musical adventures. Back in 2012, a musical brother of mine, Benz Kimberlin, suggested repeatedly that I meet Matt and see if he’d take me under his wing. That eventually happened. Having worked with him on my first solo record in 2012/2013, I found it to be a rewarding growth experience I was in sore need of. I had left my then-band of a decade, The Figurados after two well-received records, and was looking for a producer to literally kick my ass and reinvent me as a writer and a singer. I had grown out of being in a rock band and had plenty of tunes that didn’t fit in that category, and I told him to go hard on me, and he obliged. I got the New York Matt. That experience allowed me as a songwriter to turn a corner, and from that point, the dam broke inside of me and I embarked on writing something like 60 tunes over the next few years with his bass player and brother producer-in-arms, Mark Epstein.
Here’s Matt’s website
These are the types of teachers that we artists search for. It has led others to the doorstep of Mr. Smith. Guy Forsyth, a tour-de force musician if ever one existed, is an ardent believer. They click like two peas from the same pod. There are plenty of recording studios where one can archive their material. But very few where you go in and come out a better musician and writer and feel the growth. So goes the Matt Smith Way. Here is a clip showcasing Matt’s beautiful baritone.
Here’s some early work with Popa Chubby…