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How Boston’s Fort Apache Studios Captured the Sound of an Era

on July 11, 2016, 12:00am

Boston in the mid-to-late ’80s was a fertile, if underrated, hotbed of musical talent. The city boasted scores of bands that were poised for big things just a few years around the bend, among them the Pixies, The Lemonheads, Buffalo Tom, Juliana Hatfield, Morphine, Belly, and Throwing Muses. The talent was flowing over the proverbial brim, but it needed a hub, an outlet through which the various sounds coursing through the city’s veins could be heard.

Fort Apache Studios filled that void. When Sean Slade, Jim Fitting, Paul Kolderie, and Joe Harvard officially opened Fort Apache in the spring of 1986, it was a no-frills operation run out of an industrial space in Roxbury — hardly the stuff of legends. But what started as an effort to document the local scene quickly grew into an enterprise that would produce some of the biggest guitar rock records and acts of the ’90s. The Fort Apache story is one steeped in the DIY ethos that defined the American rock underground and helped pave the way for grunge and alternative to explode into the mainstream. More than the story of a studio, this is the story of a largely unsung underground movement that helped define a musical era.

Fort Apache South (169 Norfolk Avenue, Roxbury, MA)

“We were the most grossly overeducated rock music studio in the history of the fucking world,” estimates Joe Harvard, co-founder and one-time owner of Fort Apache Studios. Harvard joined forces with three other Ivy Leaguers — Slade, Fitting, and Kolderie — to open up the studio in a seedy section of Boston’s inner city. The foursome carved out Fort Apache in their own crude, DIY vision, and bands quickly came flocking.

Sean Slade (producer, co-founder): Three of us were in a band called the Sex Execs. Paul [Kolderie] played bass, I played rhythm guitar and saxophone, and Jim Fitting played saxophone and harmonica. We were all in the same class at Yale. Strangely enough, they put all of the freak musicians in the same dorm. They might have done it on purpose.

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The control room of the first Fort Apache on Norfolk Ave.

Dicky Barrett (Mighty Mighty Bosstones): I liked all things Boston and all bands Boston. [The Sex Execs] wore suits and had some horns in the band, and that appealed to me. They had a great sense of humor. A lot of people don’t know about those guys, but they were a great band and smart songwriters. They knew what they were doing.

Paul Kolderie (producer, co-founder): Three of us — me, Slade, and Fitting — met at Yale. We were in bands together, and later we recorded at our house. When the band broke up, we kind of felt like that was the next step, to build a studio.

Joe Harvard (co-founder, former owner):  They were doing 4-track stuff at their house at 82 Kenwood Street in Dorchester. They recorded my band, The Bones, as a matter of fact. We knew each other from bashing around. I realized from watching them that “Hey, you can do this.” I got a little 8-track and was working out of 117 Columbia Street.

Sean Slade: Joe’s a Harvard guy, and I think word got out to him that “You should meet these guys.” He came over and we became friends. When the band broke up, he was looking to expand his business, and we were just looking for something to do. Kolderie and I, in the last days of the band, spent a lot of time messing around with the 4-track, more than we did working with the band. So it seemed like a logical approach to join forces.

Joe Harvard: Paul actually found the place in Roxbury. He saw it from Mass Ave., across the baseball field. I came up with the money and bought the 8-track. I drove out to Chicago and bought a great board, one that was used more for broadcasting. It was great. We actually moved in in October 1985.

Bill Janovitz (Buffalo Tom): Roxbury, back then, it was the height of the crack era. It was a frightening place to go into, especially for lily-white kids from the suburbs.

Dicky Barrett: It was very, very street. For them to put a studio there was borderline crazy, but also cost-effective. If you made it from the car to the studio safely, it was worth it.

Joe Harvard: Billy Conway [of Morphine] had his car broken into twice in the same day. They’d stolen some tools. This was the height of the crack epidemic, and we’re right around the corner from two different projects. I just said, “If we’re gonna stay here, this place is gonna have to be like Fort Apache.” Sean just thought, “That’s a really good name.”

Paul Kolderie: We were just looking for a cheap commercial space, just whatever we could get. We found this guy who had this commercial laundry on a full city block. It was a place where they washed and repaired restaurant uniforms. It was in a really bad part of town, and by 1985 he was just looking to get tenants. He had a big empty building and said, “You guys take this part. Put a wall here and close it off. There you go.”

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The first Fort, 169 Norfolk Ave.

Joe Harvard: I was selling pot because I thought I was getting ready to start a family. I was getting ready to buy a house and all this stuff. That didn’t happen, so I had all this money. I just thought, “Why not put the money up? Why not be the money guy?”

Paul Kolderie: You could go to an expensive 24-track studio, but it was hard to imagine paying for that. I think we had the idea that there could be a studio somewhere in between. It could be cheap but have good recording gear. And there was a need by bands to record. There were a lot of good bands with good songs, and they needed demo tapes. We just saw an opportunity there.

Sean Slade: We were all a part of that DIY kind of culture. The whole idea of getting someone in to design it wasn’t part of the plan. The plan was, “Get a control room, get a playing room, get the wiring right, get a console, and then just start recording.”

Joe Harvard:  Right across from the studio at night, we could open the door to another room, and there was nothing built. It was all concrete. We’d use monitor speakers, pipe them out there, and re-mic it. We essentially had the world’s biggest echo chamber.

Sean Slade: We had to put up the window between the control room and the playing room. The playing room was pretty unadorned, and we left it that way. We might have put down some rugs here or there, but really not much. One of the guys that was working with us, Billy Conway, he worked construction jobs around town. He came to us one day and said, “I can get you tons of brown shag carpeting. Do you want it?” We said, “Sure, that’d be great. We’ll put it on the walls.”

Bill Janovitz: I don’t mean to over-romanticize that period of time, but the Boston music scene at that point was really intense and really vibrant. Fort Apache, to me, really was the binding agent of all of it.

Sean Slade: We didn’t want to be all things for all people. We only wanted to record bands. People said, “You’re crazy. You’ll never get any business.” But we got tons of business because we got every single rock band in town.

Joe Harvard: The Connells came out, and that was our first check. That was our first release on a label.

Paul Kolderie: We were working every day. At one point, I worked 54 days in a row. It was just a different band every day. We were really prolific, and that’s how you learn. We just tried to make the best records we could day after day. We didn’t have a lot of time to think about it.

Dicky Barrett: Those guys, that team, they worked around the clock. They got obsessed with working on whatever was in front of them. If those tapes were running, they were there. They didn’t want to stop, the same way we didn’t want to stop.

Peter Prescott (Mission of Burma, Volcano Suns): They were totally professional, but they were learning their craft the same way a lot of the bands they were working with were. There was never a sense that they were lording their know-how over you or rolling their eyes because they thought they knew more than you did. It was a very relaxed and fun way to do stuff.

Joe Harvard: It was our attitude that really made people come. If you wanted to put a microphone in the toilet — which we did — or if you wanted to put a microphone down your pants — which we did — we didn’t give a shit. We were willing to try it and give you the benefit of the doubt. Not all of it stuck to the wall, but some of it ended up being really brilliant.

Lou Barlow (Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh): That was my place for years. Sebadoh went to Fort Apache South to do the Gimme Indie Rock single. Sean and Paul were working and we had this amazing day. We did the single and it did really well and sounded really great. The cool thing about it was not only did we record in the studio, but we brought our 4-track down. They transferred our stuff from our 4-track onto reel-to-reel. That was a big deal. To have someone with sympathetic ears at that point, it was crucial. They made our home recordings sound great. J [Mascis], he sort of shadow-produced Buffalo Tom’s first album. Just a lot of the seminal records from Boston were being turned out at that studio.

Bill Janovitz: It was hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. You’d turn the AC on between takes and then turn it off. There’s something about that that’s easy to romanticize. I’m as prone to nostalgia as anyone. But there’s a cool thing about being together in a sweaty room facing each other with our ears ringing from being in the same room as the amps.

Sean Slade: We were doing a lot of local bands and we were doing fine. We did one record by a band called Big Dipper that kind of put us on the map.

Paul Kolderie: We were pretty selective. We went after bands that we liked and thought were good. We didn’t just wait for the phone to ring.

Joe Harvard: I went out every night. I went to The Rat and told people, “We have a studio! You’ve got to come and check it out.”

Kim Deal (Pixies, The Breeders): Pixies got off stage at The Rathskeller, and a tall, personable man with a wide smile introduced himself to me. He said we played a fantastic show and asked if we were recording anywhere.

Paul Kolderie: Gary Smith went down to see the Pixies, and he said, “You guys are great. We should record.” They said, “Yeah, that sounds cool.” There was a little bit more to it than that, but basically they agreed to do a demo. We sent it to 4AD and another label here in the US. The guy at 4AD was all over it.

Kim Deal: I think it was on a Saturday morning. We set up quickly and recorded 18 songs that weekend. Charles’ [Thompson IV, aka Black Francis] dad paid for it. I think it was about $1,500. We drank a lot of Jolt Cola, and I remember spending the night on the floor of the control room. It was non-stop. We barely slept the whole weekend.

Bill Janovitz: I don’t think Fort Apache’s impact can be overstated by any of us. You got a tape made; you got a record deal. It was an amazing time. I do think back on it as a fantastic time to get swept up in. All of a sudden, people were asking us about Fort Apache and if we were friends with The Lemonheads. It was like, “Oh my God, people care about this stuff.”

Sean Slade: One band I learned a lot through working with them was a band called the Volcano Suns. That was great for me. The first album I did with them was kind of crude. I was a decently good engineer, but I was still learning. But they liked it, and they booked me for the next record and the one after that.

Peter Prescott: Those records were kind of interesting because it was a looser version of the band. We had changed members, so we had friends come in and do overdubs. Michael Cudahy from Christmas, Gary Waleik of Big Dipper, and a few other people came in and helped us out. It was a real clubhouse atmosphere, which made it so fun.

Fort Apache North (Camp Street, Cambridge, MA)

In only a year, Fort Apache had established itself as an in-demand (and affordable) recording hot spot, especially for younger, up-and-coming bands coursing through Boston’s fervent music scene. It was also gaining attention beyond its own backyard, prompting the operators to find a bigger space to house the studio’s growing operations. The timing of Fort Apache North on Camp Street couldn’t have been more perfect, as legions of bands — many poised for big breakthroughs — waited in the wings.

Joe Harvard: We were a collective for a year, and then I just said, “I’ll be the owner and we’ll just run it like a regular business.” I said I wouldn’t sell any more pot. This was the Reagan era, so it was zero tolerance. We knew that if they could prove that even a dollar went into the studio from drug money, we could lose the whole thing.

Sean Slade: The three of us said, “Joe, you be the owner. We don’t want to worry about running the business. We just want to work here. We’ll work for you and be your trusted employees.” And that’s how we all wanted it.

Kim Deal: I got the idea that [Gary Smith] and maybe Joe Harvard co-owed it, but maybe I’m wrong.

Joe Harvard: We had a couple of studio managers, and then I hired Gary Smith.

Paul Kolderie: We started the studio without him, but it never would have been as successful as it was without Gary. He came in and got us organized, installed some accounting so records could be kept and taxes could be paid. He turned it into a real business. He also managed Throwing Muses, Belly, The Breeders, Juliana Hatfield, just a lot of artists.

Bill Janovitz: He brought a lot of people together and facilitated artists. He’s a manager, so it was all sort of part and parcel for him to support artists and create an atmosphere where they can create.

Paul Kolderie: Gary landed this Throwing Muses record, House Tornado. There was a substantial budget there, but they weren’t going to record it on our 16-track, you know?

Sean Slade: It was really Joe who took a chance on trying to get the Camp Street space. He saw an opportunity.

Joe Harvard: I got a call one day from someone who knew we were looking for a bigger space. He said, “Hey, I know a place that’s going on the market that would be great for you guys. 24-track, nice room, above Rounder Records.”

Lou Barlow: It was a great room with these checkerboard tiles, and the recording room was a nice, big room with a little isolation booth on the side. It was a big studio, but it was also kind of compact. The control room was really great. They had a big board, big speakers on each side, a big window. The setup was extremely logical.

Bill Nowlin (co-founder, Rounder Records): The space was built by a guy named John Nagy. He had worked on a number of records with us in earlier years. George Thorogood and the Destroyers, he did their first three albums.

Joe Harvard: The money from Thorogood transformed them. Rounder gave John a sweetheart deal to say thank you for that. Rounder’s thinking was, “Great, now we have a studio upstairs where we can work.” But what happened was John barely got the place done and then put it up for sale.

Bill Nowlin: The agreement he had with us was, “Listen, you let me in here and let me pay you a certain amount in rent” — which I believe was about $20 a day — “and I’ll help you out and let your artists do stuff there. When I leave, you can just have the place for yourself.” We gave him this very favorable rate and in exchange we could use the space.

Joe Harvard: I think he wanted $300,000, and I knew it was worth it. But there was no way I was getting that kind of money together. So I told him, “We work our asses off. We’re hungry and we love what we do. We’ll take your beautiful thing and we’ll do something special with it.” I got that place for $75,000.

Bill Nowlin: At a certain point, we kind of became proud that we were sharing the same building with them. How it came about was through this weird mess, but over time we became aware of what they were doing, and they were doing a lot of cool stuff.

Bill Janovitz: There were concurrent spaces for a little while. There was Fort Apache South in Roxbury and Fort Apache North on Camp Street in Cambridge. I think a lot of it just had to do with having a lease. When the first Fort Apache went down, they opened up another one in Dorchester.

Paul Kolderie: We ran them both full-speed. We did Uncle Tupelo in Roxbury, Sebadoh, lots of stuff. There was tons of stuff being recorded in both places. If a band had a bigger budget or was on a label, they could go to the 24-track place. J Mascis had enough of a budget, so Bug was done at Camp Street.

Sean Slade: We had a mutual friend named Mike Whittaker who was doing publicity over at SST. He was a Boston guy. He told J, “If you want to record in Boston, you should check out Fort Apache. They’re rock guys.” He showed up at the studio, and one of the things that really made him like us and the studio is we never told him to turn down. He comes in with his Marshall and everything turned up to 11. We thought, “Well, it’s excruciatingly loud, but we’ll find a way to record it.”

Lou Barlow: J put the record together and really dictated what he wanted from Murph and I. The record before that was a little more freewheeling and collaborative, but here J was locking down the style of the band. At the time, it almost seemed like a step backward, but in reality the record’s great. He did a great job. J was sort of left alone to do all of his stuff. Murph and I went in and did our parts and then just got the fuck out of J’s way. At that point, he just wasn’t happy, so we stayed clear of him.

Sean Slade: I would say when Dinosaur Jr. first came in, J refused to talk to us. Whenever we made a suggestion like, “What if we put the amplifier over here?,” he’d say, “I don’t know.” But we had a breakthrough the next day when I turned around and said. “What’s all this ‘I don’t know’ shit?” He started to laugh; then we became friends.

Lou Barlow: Sean and Paul, those guys were really busy. I remember feeling lucky that they’d take the time to deal with our fucked-up shit.

Sean Slade:  Throwing Muses and Dinosaur Jr. put us on the map for major labels. They showed we were a real 24-track studio that could make major label records.

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The Fort Apache crew poses for the Boston Phoenix

Paul Kolderie: The classic lineup was me, Slade, and Lou Giordano, who produced and engineered records for the Goo Goo Dolls, Paul Westerberg, and stuff like that. Then a little bit later it was Tim O’Heir. Everybody was working. Those were the four main engineers. There was a period where me, Slade, and Lou did all the work.

Peter Prescott: I remember walking down the street in 1993 or 1994 and just seeing people and thinking, “Wow, that guy’s on a major label. That girl’s on a major label.” You just saw all these people who were playing in scrappy, little bands, but they were signed to a major. It changed radically kind of fast.

Sean Slade: When Nirvana came along and killed the hair bands, suddenly this music that we were doing in the 1980s, this college rock stuff that we were dedicated to, became mainstream. It was all over MTV, which is something that nobody ever expected. The whole idea that grunge, this deliberately ugly-sounding underground music, would become top of the charts … even thinking about it now seems absurd. But it happened.

Dicky Barrett: Stuff was happening to them at the same time that it was happening to us. We knew who they were. Sean and Paul are super-talented guys. They were working with Radiohead at the time, who then were just a strange band from England. When they blew up, we hesitated to credit the genius of Thom Yorke. To us, it was like, “Of course they blew up. That’s Paul and Sean.” We credited our boys, and they deserved it. That “Creep” song is 100 percent Paul and Sean.

Paul Kolderie: We were suggested to Radiohead, and they said, “Well, what did they do?” The Pixies, Miracle Legion, and a few others got their attention, and they said, “OK, great.” The label suggested us, and they liked what we had done.

Sean Slade: We recorded that in England in a great studio called Chipping Norton in Oxford, but then they put us in another studio where the board sucked. It just sounded awful. The A&R guys kept coming down and ruining the vibe. At one point, we took the main A&R guy aside and said, “Hey, this isn’t working. Let us take it back to Fort Apache. Let’s mix it there and see how you like it.”

Dicky Barrett: Our best albums were Fort Apache-associated. I wouldn’t say our best, but our best-known were linked to the Fort. There was the first one, which people call a classic. Question the Answers was done at Fort Apache. From there it was Let’s Face It; Sean and Paul did that.

Lou Barlow: I was given $1,600 to make the third Sebadoh record, and I took it to Fort Apache. I came out after three full days of recording and had a completed work at the end. That’s pretty remarkable, you know?

Bill Janovitz: Fort Apache had this thing going for it. Radiohead came, Hole came, Uncle Tupelo came, Weezer came. It became this place that bands from around the world came to. I think Jack White was there with his band Goober & the Peas before the White Stripes.

Dicky Barrett: There were some fucking monsters coming out of that studio. You could have this interview with Dave Grohl, and he’d lose his mind talking about Fort Apache.

Edmunds Street, Hiatus, and Camp Street Studios

Harvard moved to Ohio in 1991, selling his ownership to Smith. Under Smith’s watch, Fort Apache spread its wings and grew beyond being just a studio. In 1995, another studio space was purchased nearby Fort Apache North on Edmunds Street. In addition to serving as a second space to mix records, the Edmunds Street space also included a performance area, which was used to record bands live for radio, among them Beck, David Bowie, Goo Goo Dolls, and Radiohead.

Smith would eventually close down Fort Apache North and move Fort Apache, then a business focusing on artist management and concert promotion as much as studio production, to Vermont. Kolderie, meanwhile, made a second effort at recording out of the Camp Street studio before closing the studio down for good in 2010. Kolderie continues to record under the Camp Street name from his home studio in upstate New York while Slade has since joined the faculty at Berklee College of Music.

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Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade on the roof of Fort Apache. Photo by Ali Smith

Bill Nowlin: At some point, they moved a few blocks away on the other side of Mass Ave. There were three or four years where we actually had our Christmas party at their studio.

Sean Slade: The move to Edmunds was the beginning of the end. It was a fine space for the series of live radio broadcasts we did with WFNX and WBCN (and fun parties), but it was an inferior studio space to the original Rounder/Camp Street location. Plus, we had our Neve board refurbished and recapped, and it ended up sounding worse, not better. I personally never liked that place.

Paul Kolderie: Camp Street in Cambridge stayed open until 2000, I would say. Then Gary Smith ran it for a while, just as his office.

Sean Slade: In 2000, Gary basically liquidated the business and took the board and most of the equipment up to his house in Vermont. He tried to keep it going as Fort Apache, but it didn’t really work. He was in the middle of nowhere, and the whole thing had just lost its vibe.

Paul Kolderie: I took [Fort Apache North] over in 2002 as Camp Street and ran it until 2010. The overhead was high; the budgets were dwindling. You used to get $200,000 to record a band, then it was $20,000. Now it’s $2,000, you know? I was maintaining a place that had hundreds of thousands of dollars of vintage equipment and instruments … and people just stopped caring.

Sean Slade: Having a professional recording studio with a lot of equipment and a lot of overhead in today’s world, you’re lucky if you break even. Meanwhile everyone’s got their own home studio. You’re finding that all over the world. What used to be the way to make records is no longer the preferred way to make records. Studios are just not surviving.

Lou Barlow: There was a really nice vibe within the Boston scene. I’ve never really experienced that again, just in terms of that home that we were able to create. But there’s still people that do that. There are still ways that that happens. Studios are not dead. There are still good spaces.

Sean Slade: [Paul and I] still work together. But two years ago or so, I got the opportunity to teach music production and engineering at Berklee. At that particular stage in my life, that was a godsend. I really needed a regular job. The whole thing of being a freelancer, I was just too old to do that kind of stuff.

Kim Deal: It was such a fun time for me. Gary and Fort Apache are a big part of the Pixies’ history.

Dicky Barrett: Those guys, Paul and Sean, are the yardstick. I knew that Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade got us and understood us. I’m forever indebted to those guys. Whenever somebody says the words “record producer,” those are the first two names that spring into my brain.

Paul Kolderie: I’ll say that’s the most satisfying thing in my career, to have a record that gets through to people and becomes a part of their life. I think that’s great. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few. When someone says, “This is my favorite record,” or, “I play that record constantly,” that’s really big for me.

Joe Harvard: Climbing that mountain was a lot of fun. It was all about, “Let’s find some great bands and make some records that don’t fucking suck.”

Sean Slade: We did it because we were young, and in a lot of ways we didn’t really have anything better to do. The main goal was to get ourselves a job that wasn’t a real job. None of us were thinking about any of that self-conscious entrepreneurship kind of crap. We just wanted to have a studio and we did it. It’s pretty wild that I’m even sitting here talking to you about it, but it was a really great time.

Paul Kolderie: It’s like George Clooney in A Perfect Storm. You’re heading out, it’s a beautiful morning. You’re the captain of the boat and you just think, “You know, this is where I’m meant to be. This is what I’m meant to do.” The best sessions were the ones where it was getting dark and the band’s playing great, and you’re the first person to hear those songs come to life. It’s a privileged position.

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