Outside Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, three turbo chooks and a rabbit stand between NME and the recording console The Beatles used on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.
Anything can happen during Mona Foma festival, it appears, including sidestepping hen droppings while trying to enter the first recording studio to be operated out of an Australian museum. “They shit this horrible green fluorescent poo everywhere. I’m just waiting for the white carpet to have a stain on it,” says Chris Townend, the affable head-engineer and producer of Mona’s new recording studio, Frying Pan.
In the works since 2020, Frying Pan (named for its proximity to the nearby Frying Pan Island) is, by all standards, a formidably equipped studio. It’s packed with vintage gear including microphones, preamps and other assorted kit used at Motown and Capitol Records, as well as five HD cameras capable of live-streaming every session. And Townend is looking forward to musicians making the most of it: “I want composers working with ballerinas and 15 laptop players in there, doing something that really expands what a studio does.”
But at its heart is the historic REDD.17 recording, mixing and mastering console. Built in 1958, the unit first lived at Abbey Road, where it was used on several Beatles and Pink Floyd albums. At its next home, Toe Rag Studios in Hackney, the REDD.17 was used to record The White Stripes’ ‘Elephant’ and Tame Impala’s ‘Innerspeaker’.
“The tube preamps in the REDD.17 sound pristine and beautiful but drive into distortion in amazing ways. Humans can’t hear distortion until it’s really fucking distorted,” says Townend, who’s recorded with everyone from Silverchair and Portishead to Eminem’s supergroup D12 over a 30-year career. “Technically what we’re doing in there is getting these preamps to the point of distortion. where suddenly whoever we’re recording suddenly comes alive and sounds magical and present and really forward.”
“I want composers working with ballerinas and 15 laptop players in there, doing something that really expands what a studio does” – Chris Townend
The REDD.17 was purchased by Crumpler co-founder David Roper in 2014 who, together with Mona Foma artistic director Brian Ritchie, formulated the idea of building a studio around it and pitched it to Mona’s owner David Walsh, who saw the addition of the studio as another extension of the museum’s commitment to the creation of new work. The console is now on loan to Frying Pan for 10 years. The studio itself and Mona’s festivals, Mona Foma and Dark Mofo, will sponsor artists to use the studio throughout the year. You can pay for studio time at Frying Pan like any other studio, too, with locals receiving a discount.
For Townend, supporting artists as they find their most creative state “comes down to the psychology of the session”. “If the [artist] feels like they’re battling the person they’re working with then they’re never going to get to that point of playing that work with the right intention and intensity. It’s working with people to make them feel comfortable, not judged and supported to create great work.”
During our visit, NME sits in on a recording session with the towering Kutcha Edwards, the legendary singer-songwriter and Mutti Mutti Elder, and one of the first artists invited to use the studio (Peaches had been in the day before and, later, Vieux Farka Touré recorded too). Townend and his staff melt into supporting roles as Edwards records a spine-tingling refrain: djirrung, djirrung, djirrung. Edwards explains that its meaning can’t be truly articulated or even exactly spelled in English, but likens it to a Buddhist om chant.
“[Chanting djirrung] hopes to send you to that place in between the physicality that is yourself and a place of contentment,” says Edwards. “What it does is give the listener the opportunity to partake in an Aboriginal song, so to speak. Then we’re all heading in one direction.”
“I felt something in the room, something you don’t find in the great studios” – Kutcha Edwards
Housed in Mona’s cylindrical Round House, one of the property’s original heritage-listed buildings, Frying Pan dissolves the boundaries between its structure and the natural world outside. The expansive recording booth is awash with both artificial, coloured lighting and bountiful natural light coming in through a floor-to-ceiling glass window. Despite the glass barrier between the booth and mixing desk, the deep resonance of Edwards’ voice is eerily palpable. The clarity of sound in Frying Pan is startling. Chatter feels foreign inside the mixing space; one is compelled to simply bask in the frequencies.
Later, after NME’s visit, a moment of raw emotion: Edwards’ collaborator Emily Wurramara – an acclaimed singer-songwriter, and Warnindhilyagwa woman – stepped up to record her backing vocals.
“There was room for something else and I was thinking ‘Emily, you should just speak in Anindilyakwa’, [her own language],” Edwards recalls. “At first I thought it was a little timid, so I said you need to do it as if you’re on stage commanding an audience.
“It was so commanding because she was speaking in her own language. I turned to her brother … and he was in tears. I think we felt it more than we heard it,” continues Edwards. “I felt something in the room, something you don’t find in the great studios.”
Townend remembers it too, and hopes it’s the first of many unforgettable experiences to come at Frying Pan.
“It was an incredibly emotional experience for me. Emotional on a higher level. I was tearing up a bit because I’d witnessed how moved everyone was,” he says. “There’s certainly a potency to this place that gets rid of anxiety and will bleed into all of the thousands of albums that continue on from here into the future.”
Find out more about Frying Pan at Mona here