In an isolated glass booth in the middle of London's Air Studios, Ryan "Shmed" Maynes sat playing the piano surrounded by a gospel choir and 100 members of the London Symphony Orchestra. His bandmate from the L.A. group Holliston Stops, Jamie "Soup" Carpenter, leaned into the booth's mic and crooned the words to the band's rock song, "October Dream": "I have this dream where we meet the same time every year, on this Halloween eve. And when the evening is over it doesn't matter to me, I can still have my dream, strollin' around under the moonlight." As he sang, the choir voices rang out in "Ahhs" and the strings welled up in dramatic orchestral waves. It was a breathtaking moment, Shmed recalls: a whole cathedral's worth of musicians playing his song.
"It was surreal to see pages of music in front of the London Symphony that we had written 10 years earlier and recorded on a four-track high on ecstasy," says Shmed.
It was March 2007, and the two musicians had recently reunited temporarily to re-record "October Dream." Soup had shopped the song around to music companies and it wound up in the hands of Cornerstone Cues, a company that often produces music at Air Studios for film scores and previews. Cornerstone was looking for a chance to combine a rock band with the London Symphony, and decided to fly Shmed and Soup to England for the $300,000 gig and the possibility that the music could make it onto the silver screen.
"At the moment, when I was sitting in the middle of that room, it was so incredible," says Shmed. "It felt like the pinnacle, like this is as big as it gets."
But after walking out of Air Studios, reality set in. For more than 15 years, Shmed had worked as a musician trying to get a big break in the L.A. scene, and by all accounts he'd been successful in getting work. But he was always just clutching at the fringes of fame: Record deals would fall through, studio projects were never his own. The competition for recognition seemed to always require reaching higher and higher without any promise of satisfaction. He was tired of the big promises followed by dead ends and disappointments.
"I realized if I had my own studio and my own little band and I lived in a small town and cranked out albums, I'd be happier," he says. "I wanted to try to be the big fish in the small pond."
So Shmed set out to do the opposite of what most of his fellow L.A. musicians were doing. Two months after the recording at Air Studios, he packed up his life and moved to Missoula to build a studio.
"Everybody told me I was crazy," he says. "They told me that I was blowing my big chance in L.A."
Since he put down roots in Missoula three years ago, Shmed has made a huge impact on the local music scene. His studio has become the most popular place to record in town, cutting close to 50 albums by local groups from every imaginable genre, including bluegrass, rock, rap and country. His band, Secret Powers, is currently recording its fourth album, and plays consistently packed gigs at the Palace and headliner slots at festivals like Garden City BrewFest. Shmed's services are in demand to the point that he's often seen sitting in on keyboard with various other bands at live shows or during recording sessions.
After aspiring to be successful in the L.A. scene, Shmed has discovered the glories of making a big impression in a small town. And, in the process of building up his Missoula studio, he's realized that his own lofty dreams of "making it" can be achieved simply by giving other musicians a record of their own.
When Shmed was a child, he played piano to escape his father.
"My father beat me up and brushed my teeth with Comet," he says. "His whole theory was you break a child's spirit and beat them physically so that if they start to act up you just point at them and they stop. He'd beat me up enough times to where I was a robot."
To avoid the abuse, Shmed would spend long hours in his room at his piano writing songs and experimenting with chords. In a way, he says, fear of his father ended up making him a disciplined musician. When Shmed's mother—a piano player herself—realized he had the talent and desire to play music, she arranged guitar and piano lessons for him. He recalls one influential teacher who taught him Billy Joel, Elton John and jazz. Eventually, Shmed's mother sent him off to a music boarding school in ninth grade.
"Everybody just partied," he says. "It was a rich kids' school—way too expensive. I was a 14-year-old playing in a Grateful Dead cover band with a bunch of 18-year-olds. After that I went to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts where I started learning music theory."
When he was in 10th grade his friend acquired a cassette tape with a recording made on a four-track by another kid's father. It was a song called "She's So Far Away," and it was low quality, but the two kids couldn't get enough of it.
"We loved it," Shmed says. And he sings a few bars of it in a dreamy voice: "When I think of you, doo, da, doo."
"It was this amazing song that we used to listen to every day," he continues, "and I realized some guy who was not famous and who probably didn't ever sell any records had recorded it himself. And that stuck with me."
After high school, Shmed and his friends skipped college to tour in their rock band, Date With Dizzy, in the hopes of becoming rock stars. ("Big mistake," he says.) In 1995, Date With Dizzy scored a record deal with Interscope, a label that had signed popular alt-rock bands like Bush and No Doubt. It seemed like a promising step, but after recording the album, the label never released it.
"Right when it was done the head guy at Interscope said, 'Oh, I don't like this,'" Shmed recalls. "And I found out later that what they'll do is they'll sign 10 bands and pay for albums to be made and then they'll just pick one and only promote that album. So getting signed meant nothing."
It was a depressing lesson learned.
But Shmed's luck changed when he started getting work as a session musician, sitting in with bands when they needed a keyboardist and, in the process, learning about studio mixing and mastering.
He soon quit Date With Dizzy and joined Arlo, a pop band that already had secured a record deal with Sub Pop—a deal where the albums were actually released. He played bass, wrote Beatles-influenced songs for the band and toured across the United States several times, at one point hitting Jay's Upstairs, Missoula's former punk rock haven. At Jay's, Arlo shared the bill with local band Volumen, and the two groups became fast friends.
Off tour, Arlo played weekly gigs in L.A.'s nightly music scene. The non-stop schedule meant the band partied all night, every night, fueled with alcohol and pot, then cocaine and pills.
"It was fun for a while," says Shmed. "When you're playing with bands there's no other job in the world where you show up and they say, 'Here's your drink ticket.'"
While playing with Arlo, Shmed got a call that seemed to herald his big break. Indie rock favorite Weezer was enjoying a surge of popularity after a two-year hiatus—the band's songs were in heavy rotation on the radio and MTV, and the eponymous album dubbed by fans as "The Green Album" was a raging success. Weezer needed a keyboardist for some new songs, and Shmed got the job. He spent weeks recording on their 2002 demos, playing piano on tracks that never made it onto the band's 2005 release, Make Believe.
"They said I was going to be in Weezer," Shmed says. "I was going to tour with them. I was going to be the new guy."
And, momentarily, he was famous—at least in the Weezer community.
"I looked at the Internet," he says. "About 70 percent of people hated me. They're like, 'Shmed should die. He's ruining Weezer.' Because these kids, they don't think you're a real person. I'm reading it and going, 'Oh my god,' but I'm thinking, 'I'm going to be in Weezer. I finally made it. I'm gonna be a rock star.'"
The whole time he was recording Shmed dreamed of playing stadiums and having enough money to rent his own apartment in the city. Then, after just three weeks, it all came to an end.
"All of a sudden they were done with me and it was over," he says. "It was totally crushing. I cried."
Around the same time, during a tour with Arlo, Shmed found out that one of his bandmates from Date with Dizzy had committed suicide. Adding salt to the wound, the 2002 release of Arlo's second album, Stab the Unstoppable Hero, received a scathing review from the influential online media site Pitchfork, which accused the band of parroting more popular acts—like Weezer. Arlo split up.
Shmed continued to get work as a session musician and he did a stint touring Europe with recently reunited 1960s garage legends The Seeds. His longtime friend and mentor Ben Vaughn, who had produced Ween's cult album 12 Golden Country Greats, hooked Shmed up working on music projects for television shows like "3rd Rock From the Sun," "That '70s Show," the short-lived "That '80s Show" and "Weeds."