At first glance, it seems like any other industrial park warehouse. In daylight hours, Unit 21 is as anonymous and nondescript as the other blue-collar businesses along this stretch of Emerson Street. But after dark, it becomes a very different place.
“It’s crazy — if you came here at night, there’s like 20 cars in the parking lot,” says Ryan Turk, owner of Warehouse Studios, which rents the space as well as an adjacent one. “It’s like a haven for artists.”
Turk, 35, has spent the majority of his life — 20-plus years — seeking creative sanctuary in this very spot: a stone’s throw from the well-appointed homes of San Marco, and mere blocks from a dicey street that’s a known dope hole. “The police have never been called in,” says Turk, despite the loud guitar amps and ungodly hours. In truth, although the urban studio is centrally located, many are unaware it even exists.
“I guess I kind of suck at promoting and stuff like that,” says Turk, stretching his tall frame as he pulls on a cigarette in the hazy daylight in front of the building. “I probably should follow the industry more, but you know…” He chuckles, finishing his train of thought with a dismissive wave.
The fact that Warehouse Studios is near both historic homes and a crack house seems fitting, considering the studio space caters to bands that deliver sounds both lofty and lewd. Turk himself first recorded here at 14, when he was in a band with John Otto, who went on to become the drummer for Limp Bizkit.
“I had a band called Panik — with a ‘k’,” Turk recalls. “My mom paid for the session.” Panik’s sole contribution to Northeast Florida’s musical pantheon included a “heavy metal version” of Edgar Allen Poe’s “. The Fall of the House of Usher” for a school project. “It was really horrible,” concedes Turk. “But I have been coming here ever since.”
The studio has served many in the Jacksonville music community, too, and become something of a local legend as a result. There are widely circulated rumors about the place — that Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded “Free Bird” here, that it was the home studio to Molly Hatchet and the Classics IV. Some of the stories are true, some apocryphal (more on that later). But there is one stark reality facing the studio: insolvency. Between personal financial difficulties, an uncertain economy and a series of health problems in Turk’s family, the decades-old studio could be silenced.
To stave off that possibility, and to keep the “record” light on, some of Turk’s musical friends are banding together to throw a benefit concert. Turk, organizer Paige McMullen, and Skinny Records, one of the local labels that calls Warehouse Studios home, are hosting an event at Thief in the Knight Gallery in downtown Jacksonville, featuring the bands Opiate Eyes, RICE, Robin Rütenberg, Vlad the Inhaler and Wavefunctions, which Turk describes as “weird electronic gospel.”
Turk is hopeful the benefit will get the studio back on sure footing, and not just for financial reasons. In the darkened lobby of the studio, papered with fliers and posters by indie bands like Silver Jews, Sonic Youth and various Skinny Records acts, a large framed poster of the original version of the album cover for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Street Survivors” is prominently displayed. Turk points to the infamous image of the band engulfed in flames with a sudden and natural reverence. “That’s the real deal right there.”
Tom Markham opened the original Warehouse Studio (in the singular) in 1975, primarily as a cassette duplication operation. Bands recorded there, too, but not all the recording legends that have attached themselves to the place. Asked about the Classics IV, Markham explains, “We bought the original eight-track equipment from Wally Eaton [of Classics IV], but they didn’t record there.” As for Lynyrd Skynyrd taping the original “Free Bird” there? “No, my friend Jim Sutton and I recorded them between 1968-’70 when they were still The One Percent.” The recording did include the mythical early version of “Free Bird,” and Markham did remix the demo version that was eventually issued on 2000’s “Collectybles” anthology. But the legend that it all happened at Warehouse Studios overstates the case. Perhaps not surprisingly, the rumor continues to gain traction. While giving Folio Weekly a tour of the studio, Turk observes, “Skynyrd did their first versions here.”
In truth, of the countless acts that recorded at the studio, Markham says the most well-known are trumpeter-turned-gospel artist Phil Driscoll and Molly Hatchet. The latter’s eponymous album scored the studio their first gold record. “We helped a lot of careers, and our heart was really into doing that,” Markham says. “I’m glad to hear that Ryan is trying to do the same.”
Markham well remembers Turk’s work for him as studio lackey; he also remembers his early musical efforts. “Even then, he was a musician, a singer — and his vocals were commercially pretty good,” says Markham. “He could have been a lead singer for some, I don’t know, teenybopper Walt Disney-type group. He had a really good sound.”
When Turk wasn’t fusing Poe with a thrash metal soundtrack, he spent his teen years attending Douglas Anderson School of the Arts and playing in various garage rock bands. After graduating, Turk was intent on pursuing a career in music. He left home in 1995 and attended Art Institute of Atlanta to study audio engineering. He didn’t complete the degree, instead returning to Jacksonville, where he began working for Tom Markham. “I didn’t really learn anything at school,” says Turk. “My real education started when I came back here.”
In his 20s, Turk started the local indie rock band Lovecraft, and fell in love with his eventual wife, Angela. The couple originally met in high school and, while they didn’t date, Angela says, they did once sneak a kiss. (“I’m an obsessive with journaling,” Angela laughs, “and on Wednesday, Feb. 29, it will technically be the 20th anniversary of our first kiss.”)
Angela is no stranger to the music business and has her own bonafide indie roots. Her dad’s family once owned and operated Abe Livert Records from 1936 through the mid-’80s, which was once the largest independent record store chain in the area. Ryan even worked for Angela’s dad at the family pawnshop in St. Augustine, where the blossoming engineer bought more recording equipment.
In 2009, the newlyweds heard that Warehouse Studios was for sale. And though the pair had no money to speak of, they decided to make an offer.
They got the warehouse, but the costs were high. Ryan admits to spending “too much time” at the studio, and Angela Turk worked four jobs to keep the family — eventually including two children — afloat. “All of my jobs revolve around mental health and substance-abuse counseling,” Angela explains (an irony not lost on her, considering the many musicians who are friends of the family).
Buying the studio has been a test both emotionally and financially. “Trying to run a studio and have kids in daycare on a teacher’s salary — it was tight,” says Angela. The family also faced some personal hardships. Two years ago, both Angela’s mother and Ryan’s father were told within weeks of each other that they needed to have the same aortic valve replacement surgery. “That was a crazy and truly hard time,” says Angela. Last October, both underwent the same open-heart surgery, performed by the same surgeon at Baptist Medical Center downtown. The pair were even neighbors in the ICU. Angela’s mom has since recuperated. Ryan’s father, the Rev. Dr. Richard Turk, wasn’t so lucky; he died on Christmas Day.
“He taught me to play guitar and always supported my music,” says Turk of his late father, who was also a much-loved local Episcopalian priest. Recalling his first gig — May 15, 1994 — at Jacksonville Beach’s punk rock Mecca, Einstein-A-Go-Go, Turk remembers his dad documenting the day with his video camera. “I miss him so much.”
By the time Ryan and Angela Turk bought Warehouse Studios in April 2009, more than 10 years had passed since Markham had owned it. The facility had changed hands several times and had seen better days. The original tape machines had been sold off years earlier and Ryan began slowly upgrading the studio with digital recording gear. The pair merged with the Skinny Records label, helmed by Tom Essex, and began releasing albums by local groups like Opiate Eyes, Wild Life Society, RICE and their latest act, Wavefunctions. The latter two bands include Turk as a member, and there is an overlap between the studio and the label that creates what is essentially a community of players.
“It is more like a cooperative,” says Opiate Eyes’ singer-guitarist Drew Bond. “Just a group of artists making music together under the same roof.”
Skinny Records is part of a small but growing group of newer independent labels, including Synconation, Primal Vomit and Infintesmal. Of that group, the Springfield-based Infintesmal is the most prolific, having released nearly 30 albums in the past few years. And while the two labels cater to diametrically opposed tastes — Skinny Records leaning more toward a Pavement or Radiohead sound, Infintesmal’s opting for a druggier, trashy Pussy Galore bent — the competition, to the extent it exists, is healthy.
“There has been a lot made of a supposed beef between the two labels,” says Jimmi Bayer of Infintesmal. “I don’t really feel much rivalry between the two, since we don’t even occupy the same headspace.”
Turk is equally diplomatic. “I think they have some really good bands, and am happy they are doing their thing.”
Turk notes that the scene continues to grow. He recalls being cornered by longtime local rocker-label honcho Cash Carter at a local watering hole. “Cash wanted to know if I would be offended by him starting yet another indie label,” laughs Turk. Creative differences aside, the rival camps are collectively intent on cultivating the local music scene. “In a perfect world,” offers Bayer, “there would be a record label on every corner of Jacksonville.”
Back in the day, an entire sideroom of Warehouse Studios was devoted to cassette duplication — to the whirring tape machines that Ryan and his fellow studio lackey Chris Estes were tasked with frantically manning.
Today, Turk and Estes, the studio’s co-engineer, have transformed the space into a sort of therapeutic getaway in the form of a skateboarding half-pipe ramp. “Don’t you know that after the Beasties Boys, every studio is required to have a skate ramp?” jokes Turk. Estes makes a solid attempt on his board but Turk bails after a few unsteady tries. “Dude, I had a little too much wine last night.”
On any given night, one or all four of the bands that rent practice spaces from Ryan Turk are rehearsing. He charges each band $200 a month, with that price including two hours of recording time. “Once you get a few bands playing at once, it’s thunderous,” says Opiate Eyes’ Drew Bond.
The demand for studio space isn’t what it used to be, however. The availability of cheap recording software and user-friendly technology can turn most laptops into recording studios. It’s a reality that makes a place like Warehouse Studios seem almost anachronistic. “Everybody I know owns [recording software] Garage Band or Logic with a $300 condenser mic, and can suddenly make great recordings at home.” But Turk is also selling two decades of engineering knowledge, along with an overall sensibility.
“You record in your living room and your record sounds like you recorded in your living room.”
Turk notes that people love the Warehouse Studios’ drum sound so much that many bands track their drums at his space and then record the rest of their project at their home studios. Turk recently tracked the demo recordings by New York band The Silent League, featuring members of psych-rockers Mercury Rev. “That was a cool session.”
If times are tight at the studio, though, it may have as much to do with Turk’s somewhat indifferent business skills. At press time, the Warehouse Studios website was defunct and any contact with Turk limited to the studio’s Facebook profile or his cell phone. And he’s not inclined to record just anyone. “The first year I was here, I was doing a lot of gospel — which was fine — but also taping just horrible gangsta rap,” he says. “I mean just really bad, bad stuff.” While the money was tempting, Turk had trouble balancing his own creative code with the karma of commerce. “I got this horrible feeling like, ‘OK, now I’m the guy that’s going to be held responsible for all of this shit coming out.’ ” Depressed that he was selling out his very love of music, Turk simply stopped recording acts for whom he couldn’t find some measure of affinity. “I’d rather just be poor and record bands I like.”
This decision, if honorable, has not always been profitable. Over the years, Turk has tempered his hard line, and has recently been working with some acts, including a “big-sounding metal band” called Guilty Conscience, that falls out of his own field of personal taste. “I’m still recording things I might not like,” he says, but the band members are nice guys. “[And] at least it’s based on rock and roll.”
The benefit show for Warehouse Studios with Opiate Eyes, RICE, Robin Rütenberg, Wavefunctions and Vlad the Inhaler is held on Saturday, March 3 from 3-10:30 p.m. at Thief in the Knight Gallery, 115 W. Adams St., Jacksonville. Admission is $5. Warehouse Studios is located at 2071 Emerson St., Ste. 21, Jacksonville. 210-3408. facebook.com/warehousestudiosjax