How Ojai became the music industry’s place of refuge
By Chris O'Neal 05/02/2013
Tuesday afternoon, a nondescript industrial office lot in downtown Ojai. The door to Brotheryn Studios melds in with its surroundings, bookended by a pot full of cigarette butts and a ramshackle old chair. Behind the door, the technology of today meets analog of yesterday in a sprawling complex of equipment and instruments.
“It would be really complicated to explain it all,” said musician and producer Todd Hannigan as we walked the length of the dimly lit studio. “We have a variety of gear, from vintage to state-of-the-art.”
Hannigan is part of the team behind the hugely successful recording studio along with Jason Mariani and Jesse Siebenberg. A multifaceted sound engineering and producing studio in Ojai, Brotheryn is in its fifth year downtown. Before relocating, it was situated on a ranch near Lake Casitas, and before that in an industrial park in Oxnard. Part of the reason behind the move to Ojai is reflected in Hannigan’s down-to-earth personality and the studio itself — dark and strangely homey.
We sat sandwiched between a flickering soundboard and an analog multitrack recorder.
“We are getting a higher level of artists approaching us with a bigger budget,” said Hannigan in between calls. Brotheryn recently won a Grammy for its work on the film Big Easy Express featuring Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Old Crow Medicine Show. In other words, Hannigan stays busy, in part due to the high traffic Ojai is experiencing these days.
Since 1874, the city has been the hideaway jewel of Ventura County for not only weekend city dwellers but for an always ebbing, always flowing artistic side of the region — the musicians and artists who flock to Ojai as if it were their calling.
“I’ve talked to people who have been here for decades — this has happened before,” said Hannigan. “All of a sudden, it’s the coolest place to go for people in L.A. This is the first time I’ve personally seen a real big buildup of good musicians.”
When musician and producer Brad Buley’s father, Pat Buley, worked the circuit, Ventura County was known for its concentration of blues players. Buley grew up in Ojai, his family of musicians an integral part of his learning.
“A lot of people come to Ojai for the performance side, not for the industry,” said Buley, from his seat in the corner of Bohemia Cafe in downtown Ojai. Much lore surrounds the rustic hamlet, and Buley recalled the tale of John Lennon’s somewhat ambiguous trip to the Ojai Valley to visit spiritual guru J. Krishnamurti during the Beatles’ heyday. Buley also remembers assisting Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek of The Doors in jamming and recording some post-Morrison material in Buley’s Ojai studio.
He agrees with Hannigan about the cyclical nature of his hometown’s popularity with the music biz. Ojai’s buzz-meter is through the roof as of late. “I think the peak was when the news first hit and the rumors spread,” said Buley. “It’s always been that way. When a band comes to town, there’s a buzz.”
He’s referring to the arrival of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, who opened a small, private studio in the hills and also played Libbey Bowl. Nora Kirkpatrick, who plays accordion for the band, discussed recording in Ojai with VCReporter last fall. “Ojai is a beautiful place — it’s just gorgeous,” she said. “We’d go on hikes every morning and have a really serene environment, which obviously is great when you’re recording an album. It worked with the music we were making.”
Singer-songwriter Elisabeth “Lissie” Maurus, named Paste Magazine’s No. 1 new solo artist in 2010, has lived in Ojai for four years and turned Band of Horses bassist Bill Reynolds on to the Ojai lifestyle. After meeting Reynolds while working in Hollywood, Lissie knew the two had a musical connection; and after returning to Ojai, Lissie and Reynolds worked together for her album Catching a Tiger, which Reynolds produced. In 2009, he also produced Lissie’s EP Why You Runnin’ in Ojai.
Photo by Angela Izzo, www.izzoimages.com
“He fell in love with Ojai and ended up subletting my place while our tour schedules coincidentally alternated,” said Lissie.
Lissie has partnered with other Ojai locals as well. Todd Hannigan and Emy Reynolds will be on the bill come May 25, when she plays the Libbey Bowl for a concert to benefit the Tides Orphanage. Brotheryn’s Jesse Siebenberg is also a member of her band.
As for Ojai, Lissie’s four-year residency has made her feel as much a part of it as the old-timers.
“Ojai is funny that way ’cause people are protective of it,” she said. “I get that way now, too! The reality is that even though there’s a nice music scene it’s a generally mellow place. I think that people looking for excitement and constant stimulation probably get bored after a while, or maybe people come to heal and once they have, move on. That’s what I came for but stayed because it suited me.”
Bill Reynolds took a break from gigs between Coachella weekends and a recent stop at the Ventura Theater with Band of Horses to reiterate the sentiment expressed by Lissie. After producing Catching a Tiger in Ojai, Reynolds fell in love with the environment and moved across the country from Atlanta, Ga.
“I feel like I’m getting away with something,” said Reynolds, who waxed enthusiastic about working with legendary producer and Ojai resident Doug Sacks. “I moved up here because my heart felt better.”
Reynolds also made it clear that due to his residence in Ojai, the recent gig at Ventura Theater was a no-brainer, as if stopping at home.
Thursday night, The Deer Lodge. Ojai’s long-troubled restaurant cum music venue was first established in 1932 right at the onset of the city’s boom, when the memory of Ojai being known as Nordhoff was fresh in the minds of local residents. Now new owner Tom Doody is taking The Deer Lodge from its unpredictable past into an environment better-suited to Ojai’s changing face.
On stage for the Jamboree, a weekly eclectic gathering hosted by Buley that welcomes any musician who feels the need to perform, are guitarist Rory Anton of Dr. Surf and Kyle Swan, who also hosts a jazz night there.
Every Thursday at the Deer Lodge is the Jamboree,
hosted by Brad Buley. Pictured are from left Chris Olds, Mickey McAtee,
Ryan Elliott, Ezra Robison, David Gorospe and Kyle Swan.
“These guys are some of the best,” says keyboardist Michael Kaufer as he watches the reggae jam band fade into “What I Got.” From the onset, Kaufer has seen big changes in the Ojai music scene, The Deer Lodge being a focal point. “The new owners really know what they’re doing.”
Doody has owned The Deer Lodge since January of this year. Before his involvement, the restaurant/bar was hosting music nights once or twice a week. Now it’s up to six.
“I think there’s a momentum to Ojai,” said Doody, who has a long and storied background in the music business and ran prestigious venues in Chicago and Mexico. “It helps to have a couple of studios and a couple of great engineers. The same thing happened in the ’80s with Athens, and it happened with Austin. If you have the component to make musicians feel that there’s a community here, then it’s going to continue to grow.”
In Ventura, Brendan “B Willing” James is in the middle of his run as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Peter Yarro (among other folk heroes) in Rubicon Theatre’s stage production of Lonesome Traveler. Before moving to L.A., James called Ojai home.
“It is hard to put your finger on what, exactly, it is,” he said while chewing on a massive burrito. “Energy spots, vortexes. The way it’s facing, the way it’s shaped. A lot of people seek it out. I think that’s real.”
James’ first album as a solo artist, Impossible Human, was produced at Brotheryn Studios. Before going solo, his act Shades of Day had its own studio in Ojai built in an actual barn in 2003. Now, as an outsider, James is keener to see the benefits of living within the boundaries of his former home.
“Just to get out and work on a record and be able to walk or ride 10 minutes and then you’re on a riverbed or overlooking the valley, those are things you can’t get in the city. It feels further away than it really is.”
Jesse Siebenberg, partner in Brotheryn Studios, was raised on music. His father, Bob Siebenberg, is the drummer for British rock band Supertramp, and it was during the production of a Supertramp album that Siebenberg met Jason Mariani in New York City. After Siebenberg moved to California, Mariani followed to work on an album Siebenberg was producing. The duo then met Hannigan and the decade-long relationship took root. Siebenberg has been a resident of Ojai for 10 years.
“I’ve seen people go stir-crazy from the inactivity, and eventually split,” he said. “And I’ve seen it the other way, where people nestle in.”
Siebenberg stays busy with Brotheryn, producing albums for famous international acts and locals alike, including Hannigan and the McEuen brothers. As for whether or not Ojai’s reached its peak in popularity with artists and musicians looking for a retreat, Siebenberg feels as though the city offers the right pace for certain types of people.
“From what I’ve been told by the older folk, there’s been a scene here forever, and it has waxed and waned,” said Siebenberg. “It’s funny, some of the late ’60s, early ’70s heavyweights have told me of Ojai, ‘Man, this place was wild back then. Everyone was naked and high as fuck!’ However, I think we all know you can find that scene anywhere if you look hard enough.”
Brad Buley sips an iced tea in Bohemia coffee shop, the scene for many a music night as of late, hosting the likes of Jade Castrinos (Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros) for an acoustic night as well as many other Ojai locals.
“It’s a place for people to get things done,” he says. “In one year’s time, we were pumping out 20 to 30 albums. It’s been very busy.”
His familial history gave him an opportunity to witness firsthand the coming and going of celebrities in the valley.
“Do you know who the Wrecking Crew is?” asks Buley. “Guys like Dwight Yoakam, guys who are singer-songwriters, would roll into town and they’d get the Wrecking Crew to do the backup. That’s what we’re talking about when we say that the same musicians come and play on all of the albums.”
Buley’s dad was part of the Crew, playing for Chuck Berry, B.B. King and others.
“One of the bands that contained many of these members was the Bombers. Those guys are still playing. They’re the guys who are playing on current artists’ records, and that’s what brings a lot of people up here.”
“Someone who is used to city life that visits might think they can hang out here with all of the peace and quiet and space,” said Hannigan from inside of his peaceful studio. “Some people can and some people get freaked out by it.”
His week has been busy; in fact, every week at Brotheryn has been busy, but for Hannigan, an avid surfer, Ojai is the perfect locale to concentrate on his heavy load.
“I’d love to say that I could move to Montana and have some sort of ranch, but I need certain comforts that you can only get here,” he said.
Hannigan took a moment to reflect on whether or not Ojai might be past its peak for this cycle, on whether or not the city is over-saturated with musicians, and artists seeking the same asylum John Lennon sought decades ago. He shook his head, the weight of an increasingly busy schedule pushing him and his partners ever onward.
“I’d say music is a good thing. [But] don’t have any fantasy ideas that coming to Ojai is going to make it happen,” said Hannigan, pausing to reflect on the empty sound booth across from us. In the coming months, the studio will host any number of musicians all looking to get the Brotheryn touch. In typical Ojai fashion, Hannigan plays it cool and welcomes the challenge.
“Follow your dreams . . . or whatever.”