Rocks Off Goes To Synth Central: Montrose's Fjardeson's Studios
Photos by Jef With One F
Right in the warm, arrhythmic heart of Montrose is a convenience store on Richmond just east of Montrose Blvd. The D&Q Food Store has two things. First is the largest selection of beers in the Houston area. Seriously, they put Spec's downtown to shame. Plus the have a deal where you can mix and match a six-pack of various brews to try.
Just to the left of the entrance, the store also has a small, unmarked, barred door set in glass that has been blacked out. Behind this door lies Fjardeson's, the pulsing center of Houston's electronic scene for the past decade. From there, Al Rutter has guided, produced, recorded and hosted the cream of our fair city's synth-crop. Bozo Porno Circus called it home, as did Bamboo Crisis, Violent Blue, Asmodeus X, Silenced Within, M87 and Provision.
Rocks Off recently sat down with Rutter for a brief interview, mostly as an excuse to kill a Friday afternoon drinking Woodchuck Raspberry Cider. The studio is a one-room affair, all stone and dimly lit. At the far end is Rutter's CPU, where Freddie Mercury raises his arms to the sky on the desktop.
Just behind Rutter's workstation is a small, cozy vocal studio with a stool and a convenient ledge for alcohol. Behind that is a small restroom with a sign reminding you that throwing cigarettes in the toilet makes them soggy and hard to light. Currently, the room is full of arcade cabinets like Pac-Man and Space Invaders.
Rutter explained that when business is slow, he stores them there for repair work and resale later. Business has apparently picked up: The walls are lined with each of his tenant bands' equipment. Dire penalties befall anyone who diddles with other people's gear.
Rutter's odyssey as overseer of the electronic scene - a scene once so widespread that synth-pop legends VNV Nation mentioned it in an interview with us this spring - began back in 1998. He had been dabbling in sound mixing for years, and agreed to help his friend Alfred McAnespy of Violent Blue with a music project.
"The first place we worked at was an un-air-conditioned office building on 290," said Rutter. "Looking back on it now, I don't think the landlord even owned the place. I'm certain he just broke in, changed the locks and charged us rent."
The circle of musicians grew, incorporating members of what would later be M87, Bamboo Crisis and Bozo Porno Circus. Eventually, Rutter and company moved their operation to an office above a wood shop, where they were eventually forced to vacate at gunpoint by a deranged landlord over a dispute. At the time, Rutter was the only member of the group with good enough credit to sign a lease, and that's when the little room on Richmond opened for business.
Fjardeson owner Al Rutter
Rutter never put up a sign. He rarely advertised, working mostly through referrals from his friends, all of whom where primarily electronic artists. The studio became a close-knit group that eventually spawned Houston's Tone Zone Records, with Rutter doing almost all the engineering and producing for the label.
Though acts like Bozo Porno Circus have a well-deserved reputation for debauchery and mayhem, Rutter has always maintained a calm atmosphere at Fjardeson's. No fighting, no drugs and, in general, no bullshit. Rutter himself is a computer security expert who dabbles in locksmithing and firearms as a hobby. Coupled with the respect he commands as a producer and his forceful personality, he rarely has trouble enforcing his rules.
Recording at Fjardeson's is an incredible experience. Your humble narrator has released four albums, and has never had an experience like it. Ten minutes of spoken word was subject to a tireless and flawless engineering at Rutter's hands, painstakingly removing any hint of pop, background noise and imperfection. But the true purpose of Fjardeson's is to be a home for musicians as a rehearsal studio.
Rocks Off has been there, too, spending several months working out the kinks for a run of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Fitzgerald's. Here again, Rutter's skills of encouragement and constructive criticism were invaluable for whipping a group of dubious talent into something resembling something worth watching.
Hard times have befallen Fjardeson's like everything else. Asmodeus X, who had been with the studio since it's beginning, recently went on hiatus. Other bands like Silenced Within have also ended moved on. Rutter credits the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to dealing a severe blow to the scene.
"Once that happened," he said, "people just stopped going to shows. They stayed home huddled and scared. A lot of acts lost their steam during that period and never recovered."
But things have begun looking up once again, and it may be that a new breed of dark and lovely sounds may be gearing up to ransack Houston under Rutter's tutelage. Chris Vasquez, formerly of Asmodeus X, has moved his band Skeleton Dick to the studio as a permanent residence. Opulent as well now call Fjardeson's home.
But there is still room, and take it from Rocks Off, there is no place in Houston where you can live the rock and roll dream better than behind that door next to the convenient store.
Fjardeson's 806 Richmond Ave. Contact Al Rutter for details: firstname.lastname@example.org
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