When Arne Frager took over the Plant in Sausalito in 1988, he wasn’t much interested in sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
"I was really interested in rebuilding the studio into a really great sound emporium for making records,” Frager said.
If hits are what a studio’s judged by, it generated plenty of those over the next decade and a half or so. It held sessions for big albums by Carlos Santana, Metallica, Dave Matthews, John Lee Hooker, and Mariah Carey, as well as for lesser-selling but celebrated artists like the Kronos Quartet.
“It was a party studio throughout the '70s, until the government seized it in 1985,” says Frager, as the first two parts of this series illustrate. “I had Herbie Herbert, the manager of Journey, tell me he’d never go there, even though he knew I was rebuilding it and was more serious about business. He said, ‘I tried to talk Journey out of going there, and they went there and wasted lots of money just partying. I didn’t like that.’”
So if the partying, if not eliminated, was no longer as much the focus, what was drawing so many acts to the Plant, both from the Bay Area and beyond?
“You would have the ability to step outside and be surrounded by these gorgeous, tall eucalyptus trees, and walk a few steps out to a beautiful dock by the edge of the bay,” remarks producer/engineer Enrique Gonzalez Müller (now also a professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music), who was on the staff for several years starting in 1999, and continued to work on Plant projects until its 2008 closure. “But at the same time, you didn’t really feel the need to step out of the studio because the vibe was amazing!
“One of the studios that had a lot of use, called 'the Garden' -- which used to be Sly Stone’s personal room back in the day —- the lounge for that studio was literally outside, in the open air. The lounge was this beautiful little garden that had fish in a pond and a Jacuzzi that you could relax in. It wasn’t really the type of atmosphere that you find in a lot of big studios where you do want to step out for air and escape the pressure of making records. People just relaxed, hung out, and that level of ease and comfort definitely transpired onto the music being captured within those walls.”
Just because Frager was the owner didn’t mean he always got special treatment. When Van Morrison was booked for an album, “the only words he spoke to me in the month he was at the Plant were ‘Hi, I’m Van’” as Arne was waiting to greet Van the Man at the studio’s front door on the first day of the sessions. When Frager went to Studio C to introduce himself to Starship, their manager “blocked the door and said ‘hey, you can’t come in here,’ and locked the door in front of me.” When Stephan Jenkins from Third Eye Blind kept parking his motorcycle in Arne’s space by the front door, according to Frager, Metallica bassist Jason Newsted relieved himself on the vehicle in rebuttal, though by the time Jenkins came out at night hours later, the stink had evaporated.
Such hijinks, however, seemed to take a back seat to more serious work, such as sessions Gonzalez Müller worked on for the Kronos Quartet’s You’ve Stolen My Heart. “Kronos decided that they were going to record and re-create every single element heard in these [vintage] Bollywood scores, which have gigantic orchestral, super-quirky, unconventional instruments,” he recalls. “We needed to do a ton of overdubs. If they wanted to record one melody, they would record it three, six, eight times to create the sound of a larger orchestra. It became this beautiful monster for us engineers. We had to be on top of this massive amount of musical input that then we had to filter, sift through, and condense into something palatable.
“They brought in Asha Bhosle,” the Indian singer on the original recordings of this material, composed by her late husband, R.D. Burman. Then in her early seventies, “Asha had more energy than any of us, and the Kronos Quartet are an energetic bunch. When she started singing, it was an exact photocopy of what you had heard her do in the '50s. Every single peak and valley of her vibrato seemed to be performed perfectly, deliberately, and assertively.
“Here we were in a laboratory making this beautifully layered, complex Persian rug one little tedious hair at a time. I might be misquoting the year, but to paraphrase, she shared this anecdote: ‘In 1943, I had to do two albums in one day. I remember reading the score as a young singer, and it had instructions for when to ‘duck,’ because the entire orchestra was recorded with one single microphone, live!’ The flutes were behind her, and if she didn’t duck, the microphone couldn’t capture their fragile sound accurately. That was such a profound story for me for how there’s a million ways that you can capture emotionally captivating music.”
While Frager takes great pride in hits like Santana’s Supernatural (where a Polygram executive who signed Carlos came to sessions for a couple weeks just to hang out because he was such a big fan of the guitarist), he’d also sometimes let up-and-coming bands use the facilities. “We did a band on spec, just to help them, called the Monophonics,” who are from San Francisco and are “kind of a funky horn band. They’re out there touring all over the world doing really well. We gave ‘em the time at the Plant just for their first record. No charge.
“I always felt it was a crime to see a studio with a million-dollar investment, or 2 million, sitting there empty. If people approached me, and had a project — sometimes I had an interest in the project — sometimes we just gave ‘em the studio,” though he acknowledges he also did so for “a long list of bands nobody’s ever heard of.” 4 Non Blondes’ 1993 hit “What’s Up” was also cut at the Plant. But as Arne notes, singer-guitarist-songwriter Linda Perry never brought “another dollar’s worth of business into the Plant” after leaving the band for a solo career.
Frager sold the studio in 2008, although it kept running for another month or two. Since then the Plant in Sausalito has ceased operations, though the building’s now being used by Harmonia, “a health and well-being social club” (as its website describes it).
“We started losing money in 2000 because of Napster,” says Frager. “Young people who used to buy records suddenly found out that you could get music for free. I kept it alive for eight more years with my own money. I put [in] over $1 million, thinking ‘this can’t possibly stay this way. These record companies are gonna figure this out.’ I ran out of the ability to use my own personal funds. By the end of 2007, I could no longer afford to keep the doors open. Nobody’s making any records there, and that’s really what that building is for. They’ve been trying to sell it ever since I closed the doors.”
While Frager has moved on to a new chapter in his life and is now “signing and developing unknown artists,” he maintains the Plant Recordings Studios site “because that’s my brand. Above any studio I’ve ever been in that was a major studio, this place kind of had a laid back, relaxed feel. It was very conducive to making records. I always felt there was magic in that building. I still do.”
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.