The music world is full of engineers and producers, many of whom make their marks and then seem to disappear. Houston's Dan Workman, the producer, engineer, musician and artist, is still making plenty of waves in and out of the music world.
As a member of the seminal experimental band Culturcide, he gave us plenty of music to get inspired by. As an engineer, producer, and owner of legendary studio SugarHill, Workman gave us gems from Beyonce, Destiny's Child, and a slew of other amazing jams from artists the world over.
Now, after selling the famed studio, Workman starts life post-SugarHill where he seems to be at peace with creating art with Mark Flood and making records the way he did when he began, on his own terms. The Houston Press sat down with Workman in his new work space to discuss how he got his start and where he sees his future.
For many of us, Workman is a household name who has helped shape how music gets made in this town. Though he's been here a long time, Houston isn't where he's actually from. "I was born in Austin, when my dad was in law school, but we moved here when I was two. Houston was a great place to raise a family, so we stayed, and it was a great place for me to grow up," recalls Workman.
"My parents were musicians, not professionally though. We played music around the house and I started playing my dad's ukulele when I was six. Then I got guitar lessons at eight, I got my first electric guitar at ten, and I had my first band at 12; The Remaining Few. Our drummer bought his kit used and that was the name on the bass, so we just went with it. We played covers by bands like ZZ Top and Grand Funk, though it didn't actually occur to me to play original music until I was in college. I met a friend and I realized that my part was writing my own stuff," recalls Workman.
Culturcide, an experimental punk band had a good run for 20 years, releasing multiple releases and playing all over. "We started in 1980, and we ended in 2000, but we were our most prolific between 1980 and 1996. Being in a band with Perry (Webb) made what I did easy, he was such a genius. Those songs recently came up on a playlist, and I miss performing them honestly," admits Workman.
Being in a band meant that Workman got to be around plenty of names we currently look at with quiet awe.
"Scott Ayers of Pain Teens and now Frog Hair, had this project called Naked Amerika and he'd have these jam sessions between friends at his house every Saturday," said Workman. "He had a four-track, reel-to-reel recorder, and there was something about how immediate it was that drew me to it. I'd been in a studio before, but I never wanted to become that guy. I really just bought gear from working at Rockin' Robin and recorded whoever would let me. I even recorded the Culturcide album Tacky Souvenirs. I bought courses from Radio Shack, and I liked it because it was all so accessible."
His first steps in becoming a producer would come from working with rock stars. "I lied my way into the job of becoming a producer. At Rockin' Robin, I took a call from Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) and replied that yes I knew how to program a guitar synthesizer. When I got there to his house on Sage, I figured it out and faked the rest. He showed me a whole studio on pallets in his garage, and asked me if I could build him a studio. So, we got a lease at a space on South Post Oak, I quit my job at Rockin' Robin, and I was the chief engineer there for three years. I did work on the ZZ Top album Recycler (uncredited), and got to be around and work with rock stars because I was his guy. But after having a moment of clarity and realizing that everyone had been there for forever in that camp and that they didn't have an identity outside of it, I left," says Workman.
Obtaining ownership of such a legendary studio as SugarHill would probably have been an incredible feat for anyone else. However due to a connection there already, Workman along with Andy Bradley and Rodney Meyers were able to purchase the studio from Modern Music Ventures.
"Well, I was already leasing studio B and Rodney was leasing space there while Andy was there basically holding things together. We purchased the business in 1996, and we had originally planned on moving it to an old Packard dealership on La Branch. The music world asked us not to move it because the space had so much history, and not moving it meant that we'd come out ahead because that property was later acquired under imminent domain to build Toyota Center. We bought the property the following year," recalls Workman.
In time, the way that people record and make music in general would change, thus leaving studios in a strange place. "When I got into it, electronics and physics knowledge went a long way. Now the gear is easy to use, it's fun, and musicians can purchase the equipment themselves. I started that way by wanting to do it myself, and none of how it's done matters if you don't start with a great song," says Workman. "A killer song that's written well goes a long way. People don't spend as much time honing their song craft as they used to. I quit engineering to produce, so I could help with how the song and not the way it's recorded. There's an ocean of well-recorded average songs."
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After 20 years at the helm of the "Abbey Road of the South," Workman and Meyers decided to sell the legendary studio. When asked why, Workman replies, "I can really only speak for myself. Rodney left in 2005 to pursue home remodeling and house building. I had to do more while Andy did tons and tons of sessions in that time as well. When Andy decided to leave in 2015, the extra work wasn't really what I had signed on for. I had planned to make it into something else, but all of the extra work deterred me from producing music. Last year we had three offers in six weeks. One from a label in San Antonio, one from someone who wanted the property, and one from those who purchased it. The new owners had a lot of great ideas and I knew the legacy would continue under their ownership, and after eight months it was sold."
When asked if he gets the same pleasure from art as he does when producing music, Workman pauses for the longest time. "It's a tough one. I'm much more facile with music, and I know what I'm doing with music. I approach art with ignorant bliss, and I have an overwhelming sense that I don't know what the fuck I'm doing. With producing, it always feels new to me. Seeing what (Steve) Christensen and (Chris) Longwood are doing alongside some of the younger guys, keeps producing exciting for me. With art there's a straight line from my heart to what's happening."
If you head over to Workman's website, there's a thing called the Dan-O-Matic that's pretty cool. While his lips were sealed about what it would be used as in the future, he did remark "it's a fun little thing that my friend Tony Endieveri created. The trick was to go through my body of work to find beats and sounds that would make it do something. Will it make the world a better place, I'm not sure."