Since the late ’90s, Mike Kamoo’s Earthling Studios has been a vital cog in the San Diego music scene. The studio, headquartered in a corporate park in El Cajon, has a well-worn path to it carved by years of tattered converse All-Stars and rock-and-roll dreams.
The clientele skews toward the indie- and punk-rock crowd, with such local notables as the Heartaches, Lady Dottie and the Diamonds, and Billy Midnight taking turns cranking up their amps at Earthling.
Entering the studio, it feels like the type of environment a band like Black Flag would feel at home in: dirty rugs, grimy walls, and well-worn vintage equipment.
Besides running Earthing Studios, Kamoo is a member of several San Diego bands, including the Stereotypes, Lights On, and the Loons.
How did you get into recording?
“I started recording on four-track in 1989 with my first band, the Gist. Shortly after that I spent a couple of years tracking my own songs, playing guitar, bass, and drums. I think that’s when I really got into recording. It became my tool to write songs and make things sound the way I wanted. After a while I began to buy better equipment, trying to improve the sound quality of my recordings. I moved into this studio space in 1995 and started Earthling as a business in 1999.”
Describe the typical clients at Earthling — what are they looking for when they hire you?
“Typically I record bands who want a raw or organic sound. I’m probably associated with making dirty-sounding records or having an older-style approach to recording. Although I don’t consider my sound ‘vintage,’ most people who come to me probably feel I am the closest thing to getting that type of sound. A lot of bands want their music to be captured live, and that is also something I’ve been able to accommodate. I’m finding that musicians that come to me are inspired by classic recordings and gravitate towards performance-based music over the heavily produced ‘perfected’ stuff.”
What’s the most common mistake you see bands make when they come in to record?
“The thing I’ve noticed about some bands is that they tend to try recording too many songs in a short amount of time. Once in a while this works out, and you get some really immediate cool results, but most of the time it seems like the songs don’t get the attention they deserve. Rushing through things goes with the territory at this level, and I don’t blame bands for having to do it, but I often wish I had just one more session to iron out the kinks when things go that way.”
How do you decide what new gear and upgrades you will get for the studio?
“Tape Op magazine. I recommend it to anyone who has an interest in recording. I flip around and read articles of my favorite bands and producers and try to get an idea of what they are using. I also go online and read reviews if there is something I’m honing in on. I have to keep both my needs and my clients’ needs in mind. That can get tricky. I have vintage gear, but I also need the studio to be solid for business — good computers, digital converters, etc. These days I usually opt for newer equipment modeled after the classics to get the sounds I’m looking for but also for some reliability.”
What is the strangest recording experience you’ve had at Earthling?
“There was one time when this guy — sorry, no names — couldn’t get a vocal take. One take after the other, he just couldn’t quite deliver what he was capable of. Out of frustration he took off his clothes and — fortunately for us in the control room — lowered the lights. I just remember this naked guy jumping around like a monkey falling over chairs, beating on his chest, basically going berserk, singing this song. It ended up being a great performance, and we used that take.”
Out of everything you have recorded, what album are you most proud of?
“I can’t say there is any ‘one.’ The Silver Sunshine self-titled record stands out because we invested a lot of time and energy. The band had very specific ideas, and I remember doing as much as I could to fulfill that without compromise. The recordings I did for Low Cloud Cover still stand out in my mind. The Heartaches, Too Cool for School, and most recently Lanterns’ Apocalypse Youth EP.”
If you could record anyone, who would it be?
“I’ve always been fascinated with Johnny Marr’s guitar work. So I’d have to say the Smiths, even though that is the most improbable scenario ever!”