n 2008, when Justin Vernon debuted his Bon Iver alias with the release of “For Emma, Forever Ago,” the music world was forced to grapple with a project so far-flung from indie music at the time that it was soon shrouded in myth. Soft, sparse, and smoldering with emotional intensity, “For Emma” led curious fans to a Thoreauvian hunting cabin in northwest Wisconsin. There, Vernon spent three months licking the wounds from his musical and romantic fallouts, later emerging with a body of work infused with that pensiveness unique to remote places.
This narrative is commonplace; amid a personal or professional transition, the artist takes to the wilderness, later rejoining society with new a perspective (and, if he’s a dude, maybe a beard). Likewise, some local musicians find escaping to the wilderness to eat, sleep, produce, write, and even record together all in one off-the-grid setting is an effective way to unlock creativity and get to work.
Ten years ago, Terry Walsh embarked on the first of countless trips to a secluded spot on the Iron Range, too small to be considered a town and so dubbed a “location.”
“It’s the kind of place where even if you plug it into your GPS you might have a hard time finding Sparta,” Walsh, who fronts the Minneapolis-based Belfast Cowboys, says. “You can drive right past it and not even know it’s there.”
Walsh is not alone in his travels. Since 2005, dozens of artists have journeyed north from the Cities and other corners of the Midwest to Sparta for Sparta Sound—a small recording studio located in a former church. Musician Rich Mattson launched the studio not too far from where he grew up after spending years running sound at venues around the Twin Cities and recording artists out of a garage. “I walked in the door, and it was just the perfect setting for a studio,” Mattson says. “Next thing you know, I’m sleeping on the altar of this little church with my little dog and wondering what the hell just happened.”
Mattson used the money he raised selling the church’s pews to build a control room, insulate the ceiling, and install a shower. Above the control room is a loft and futon for sleeping. That and a of couple mattresses keep bands housed within the same room they spend all day recording. “People just kind of sleep among the instruments,” Mattson explains. “Nobody’s really complained. Most rockers are used to crashing on floors, and we make it extra comfortable for them.”
While its location, three hours from the Twin Cities, may be Sparta Sound’s greatest drawback for busy musicians, it’s also a “double-edged sword,” explains Walsh. Though he initially began traveling north for Mattson’s expertise after the two became friends in the Cities, Walsh says the studio’s setting became important as well. “Leading up to a recording session, I’ll be worried if we’ve prepared enough or done enough to maximize the use of the time, but halfway up there, I start to realize I’m leaving the worries behind in the city,” Walsh says. “It’s such a great entry into a creative space.”
During The Belfast Cowboys’ first weekend in Sparta, Mattson took them on a walk along the train tracks that run behind the studio. The next day, the band spent hours writing and recording “trying to catch lightning in the bottle,” as Walsh puts it.
“There’s an instantaneous thing that happens when you first create a song and then you can build on that,” Walsh says. “My idea was: if we get something down on tape right away, sometimes that’s the best version of a song you’ll ever get.”
The train tracks made it into a few songs, as did other scenes from the wilderness. In fact, many of Mattson’s clients have included elements of the studio’s location on the albums recorded there: Dave Rave and the Governors detail events from a lightning storm on “Everything Has Been Done;” listen intently to Trampled by Turtles‘ album “Duluth” for the sound of a chugging iron ore train.
“Very often we’ll take a break and just step outside because right out the back door, it’s wilderness,” Walsh explains. “At any time you can take a five-minute break and bring it back into the room with you.”
Walsh recalls swimming in the cold, deep waters of an abandoned mine pit near the studio. On the song “Looking for the Northern Lights,” he sings: “I’m up on the mountain, looking over the pit. I thought it would change, but it hasn’t changed a bit.
“I could have stayed there all day,” he admits. “But we had work to do.”
For Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree, venturing into the woods is a strategy for wrangling seven touring musicians into one space. “The function is to be able to get everyone together and locked in,” says Doomtree and Shredders rapper Sims. “We all have busy lives and stuff going on in the Twin Cities, so we had the idea to remove ourselves and just go somewhere for a week.” Though: “We’re not making a ‘Walden’s Pond’ sort of thing,” he laughs.
For almost a decade, Doomtree have spent periods of up to five days sequestered in a series of remote cabins found on Airbnb, Craigslist, or through family connections, starting with the conception of “No Kings” and, most recently, when the group wrote and recorded demos for “All Hands,” primarily in Sims’ family cabin outside of Hayward, Wisconsin.
A day at the cabin with Doomtree goes something like this: The group wakes up around 10am and gets to work by noon. By 8pm the “one or two cocktails becomes ‘okay, we’re drinking now,'” according to Sims, and by 12:30am work more or less ceases. From 12:30‒2am, the group listens to the day’s work and then “we party until like 4am and then get up and do it all over again.”
Throughout the day, the group will disperse intermittently for breaks. “Dessa and Cecil [Otter] are a little more whimsical so they would want to go on walks. P.O.S, Paper Tiger, and Lazerbeak are the more chillin’ type of dudes… so it’s a bunch of people all over, and it’s always really fun,” Sims explains. “There’s so much energy to commune with.”
Three hours south of Hayward and Sparta sits another music hub tucked along a creek in the forests near Cannon Falls, Minnesota. Once a family home, several musicians bought the three-acre estate in 1988 and built Pachyderm Studios.
Though Pachyderm’s enormous windows, high-end equipment, and five-bedroom house complete with an indoor pool make the space a comfortable retreat, the studio’s most substantial draw may be the lingering energy of musicians past. In 1993, Nirvana spent time recording their last in-studio album “In Utero.” One year prior, Babes in Toyland recorded “Fontanelle” in the same space. Many other local acts such as The Jayhawks, HALEY, and Hippo Campus have graced the studio in recent years.
“You didn’t have to leave unless you wanted to get out of there,” remembers Lori Barbero. “Instead of going somewhere and staying in a hotel every night, you just get the whole kit and caboodle. It was really super cool, except for my room was haunted.” (Barbero and other sources speaking about Pachyderm in this story talked to The Current for an upcoming music history podcast.)
In the mid-’90s, Pachyderm was a destination for alt-rock bands seeking reprieve from the chaos of celebrity and city life. “I like seeing New Yorkers out there,” Soul Asylum‘s Dave Pirner says. “We made a record with [drummer] Steve Jordan, who never gets out of the city. I just have so many fond memories of him going, ‘Let’s go take a walk in the woods,’ and being overwhelmed with nature and going, ‘God, I’ve never seen this much sky before.’
“The funniest thing I remember was trying to put a microphone way up in the trees,” Pirner continues. “We put a mic in the trees, and an amp outside and turned it up as loud as we possibly could. You’re out in the woods. You’re not bothering anyone.”
For another famous figure, the studio’s remoteness served a different purpose. “Kurt [Cobain] was in a critical period where he wasn’t using, but everyone was concerned that he might start,” recalls Pachyderm engineer Steve Albini. “It seemed like a good idea to keep him physically away from the people who would want to attach themselves to his story by procuring for him.”
Between sessions, Nirvana went antiquing in Red Wing and even journeyed to Mall of America, where Cobain spent $7,000 on a life-sized human skeleton, among other things. “He incorporated it into his videos and records,” Barbero says.
By 2011, the house and studio had fallen into extreme disrepair. They were restored to their original glory by sound engineer John Kuker before his untimely death in 2015, and today, Pachyderm is a fully functional studio where Twin Cities up-and-comers Gully Boys recently spent three days. “We got there Friday night and immediately started recording until 2am,” drummer Nadirah McGill recalls. “And then [we] went to the house, which was wild.”
This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler Magazine and The Current, Minnesota’s non-commercial, member-supported radio station playing the best authentic, new music alongside the music that inspired it. Find this article and more great music content at thecurrent.org.