Loud and fast
Rock engineer Joe Johnston locks in the tones
Just before noon, the three women in the band Social Concern show up at Pus Cavern to get busy. Recording studios that specialize in loud rock ’n’ roll bands often have a reputation for operating on a lunar-rotation clock, but owner and house engineer Joe Johnston likes to keep slightly less nocturnal hours; 10 in the morning until 8 at night sits about right with him.
The local trio—guitarist Sarah Shintaku and drummer Noelia Ramirez live in Sacramento, while bassist Ami Rose commutes from Chico—is in the third day of a five-day stint at Pus Cavern, which is sited in an industrial strip mall just off Orange Grove Avenue, a couple blocks west of American River College. Their entry is a bit sheepish, but Johnston—who looks more like a suburban baseball coach than a member of the studio-tanned demimonde—immediately puts them at ease.
“You own the place right now,” Johnston says. “It’s all yours.”
“Can I sit in your chair?” Shintaku asks, laughing and motioning toward the leather-covered glove positioned commandingly behind a huge recording console. Through the large glass pane behind the console, in the big room beyond, Ramirez’s drums await their next beating.
That main room is a mark of pride for Johnston, who moved the studio to its current location in 2001, after a decade in more ramshackle surroundings on I Street in North Highlands, just off Watt Avenue. “Dirty and grimy” is what Johnston calls the first location, inside a building that was a warren of practice spaces for local bands, including 58 Fury, which also included horror comic artist Darin Wood, who went on to front local band Soul Motor.
“That place was just a warehouse,” Johnston says, “and musicians deserve a designed, finished place.” Indeed, Pus Cavern is riddled with enough 30- and 60-degree angles to pique a Freemason’s curiosity, and the gridded parquet makes it easier to locate sweet spots for mic placement.
Today, Pus Cavern has competition not only from other studios, but also people with home Pro Tools rigs. But back in the early ’90s, there was a period when Pus Cavern was, according to Johnston, the principal game in town. Cake cut its debut album, Motorcade of Generosity, there, along with parts of Fashion Nugget and Prolonging the Magic. Other bands recorded the demos that got them signed.
“I had my finger in about every local demo there was,” Johnston adds, mentioning such major-label acts as Papa Roach, Oleander and Deftones.
If Pus Cavern has a specialty, it’s amps on 11. “I do mostly loud guitars, drums and bass,” Johnston explains. “That ends up being a lot of rock and punk.” That said, he just finished a project with local country band the Nickel Slots. Teen phenoms Dog Party also put down its debut release at Pus.
The latter band is what Lesa Kinsey Johnston—Joe’s wife, business partner and what both Johnstons describe as the “bad cop” who makes sure the bills get paid—calls one of the Pus Cavern’s current core of sustaining loyals, along with Arden Park Roots and Brown Shoe. The collapse of rock radio, brick-and-mortar record retail and the major-label system has changed the landscape dramatically for recording studios, and acts aren’t cutting demos to get signed as much as they’re pursuing muses—often with friends who record for cheap.
But acts that want to bring the noise need someone who can dial the tones. “Joe can get tones,” she says. “Fast.”
Indeed, aside from his ability to nail down loud music, Johnston wants people to know what they’re getting for their money. “I don’t think people realize how fast I work,” he says. “I know what I’m doing, and there’s not a lot of down time.”