When Cameron Kerr lived and studied engineering in Austin, Texas, he briefly imagined recording albums in the thriving southwestern music Mecca, where professional studios pop up a dime a dozen with initial investments of millions of dollars. But with neither the competitive capital nor, Kerr admits, much liking for the cutthroat politics of the high-powered music industry, he found himself last year coming back to Montana, where he had family ties and had spent time at the University of Montana studying anthropology. Kerr’s return led back to his dream, just in a different place: three months ago he launched his own state-of-the-art recording studio and full-service label, Habbilis Records, on the south side of Missoula.
Kerr and his business partner Blake Bickel coyly refer to themselves as “young professionals” rather than reveal their ages, but they’re candid and humble about the assistance that helped make their dream business a reality—most notably, an inheritance left to Kerr by his grandfather, a former investment banker.
“He left me enough money to start my own business,” says Kerr, who got his first taste of engineering running sound for his father’s church in Florida. “I’m definitely not ashamed to say that at all. Yeah, [it’s] a wonderful thing, but a lot of people would squander that kind of opportunity, and I immediately developed a business plan. I did exactly what he would have wanted me to do with it and I’ve poured it all into this place.”
The studio itself—named (and purposefully misspelled) Habbilis after the first human species to use advanced tools—is housed in a small Quonset hut. The interior has been transformed by newly decorated, brightly colored walls, local artwork (including some of Bickel’s), plush couches and warm lights. But the place was a disaster when Kerr first bought it.
“We came in here and gutted the whole place out,” he says. “I got a sketch pad and all my notes and books and just kind of sat here in this empty warehouse [thinking of how to rebuild the space].”
After making sure his designs were compatible with the acoustics he wanted from the room, Kerr helped his friend Travis Flack frame and build the actual recording areas—three rooms, each with different acoustic features. One produces what Kerr calls “dead sound,” where a musician’s playing is absorbed by the insulated walls and does not resonate. Alternately, in the piano room, perhaps the most captivating with its hand-cut wood panels, sound reverberates and produces a brighter tone. Kerr then filled the studio with top-of-the-line equipment.
“This place is good enough to compete anywhere…we have literally the absolute same signal flow as any professional studio,” says Kerr. “We could have gotten stuff that was half the cost and it would have been good enough for Montana because we would still be able to compete. But it needs to be good enough, period.”
The hybrid analog/digital system that Kerr and Bickel use is similar to having a digital and traditional camera all in one. For example, some musicians prefer the ability to perfect and layer their sound digitally, while others go for the live, less refined, and more traditional recording.
“The digital is going to have high clarity and easier editing capabilities, and analog’s gonna have tone,” Bickel explains.
Kerr and Bickel clearly have their own opinions about what makes a record sound good, but running a business in which the selling of a service is imperative makes the young engineers—even while excitedly explaining their philosophy—a bit wary of offending anyone’s musical sensibilities. The Habbilis label includes bands like locals Team Owl, who just released an album, and Minus My Thoughts. For the bands on their label, Kerr and Bickel prefer the more rudimentary sound of analog. “We even keep imperfections in there occasionally because it’s human to err,” says Bickel. “I think unfortunately music has gotten to this robotic stage. You know, I don’t want to listen to a perfect recording…”
But their approach to recording clients not on their label is simple: give them what they want.
“We’re both musicians and engineers,” Kerr says, “and the most frustrating thing in the world is to walk into a studio and have a guy who is [only] an engineer and hasn’t been on the other side of the glass so he has no idea how to relate to the artist.”
Members of local bluegrass outfit Broken Valley Roadshow, currently recording at Habbilis, say their music is completely different from anything with which Kerr or Bickel is familiar. Still, the band expresses enthusiasm about recording there.
“We’re not extremely experienced as recording artists, we’re really green,” admits mandolin player Nathan Biehl. “But it seems like they do it the way it’s supposed to be done.”
The band’s confidence ticked up when fiddler Naomi Biehl mentioned feeling a little uptight during some recording sessions, and Kerr showed up moments later with a bottle of Maker’s Mark.
Altruism may be the antithesis of business to some, a naïve passion that eventually burns out, but Kerr and Bickel insist on it as part of their philosophy. Kind gestures and a comfortable environment, according to Kerr, influence the good performances that generate quality records. It’s all part of their business plan, one that will hopefully lead to the label financially supporting its talent.
It’s an ambitious idea for Missoula, where even the best musicians hold at least a second job, but it’s easy to understand where the concept comes from when you hear Kerr refer to his grandfather, a businessman whose career was based on funding new ventures.
“Unfortunately it’s not very good to be a nice person in the music industry,” Kerr says, laughing and shaking his head. “But I don’t know, I guess we didn’t pay attention to that.”