By Darren Paltrowitz
A Hudson music business staple along with Bar/None Records and WFMU, Water Music Recorders opened in Hoboken over 30 years ago. Based on Madison Street, Water Music may look like a typical non-descript building, but recording history has been made there, right across the street from Shop-Rite. Beyoncé, Shakira, Ryan Adams, Cyndi Lauper, U2, R. Kelly, Taking Back Sunday, and the Dave Matthews Band are among the many artists whose music has been helmed there.
Owner Rob Grenoble – himself an RCA recording artist before his Water Music life — spoke to RIVER VIEW OBSERVER about his life as a studio owner, which is nowhere near as bleak as music industry critics have led many to believe. In fact, Water Music is currently in discussions to open a satellite studio and artist management firm in 2016.
RVO: What brought you to Hoboken in the first place?
RG: In September 1978, we were dying to get out of Long Branch, where we had moved months before, foolishly thinking it was close to Manhattan. A friend of the band was working as a receptionist at a commercial film production company in Manhattan. One day she turned to Bob Ramos, one of their sales people, and said, “Ramos, my friends want to move to the NY area. They don’t have a lot of money. Where should they go?” Ramos was running out the door. Without missing a beat, over his shoulder he yelled, “Tell them to go to Hoboken. It’s the next big thing.”
We drove down Washington Street a few mornings later. I remember thinking, “What a dump. It’s a good thing I’m only passing through.” Hoboken was down in 1978. Every building had a hose pumping raw sewage out of the basement onto the sidewalk. The first person we met was Rudy, the Hot Dog Man. He was wearing a “Nowhere Else but Hoboken” T-shirt. Rudy is now a fireman. He introduced us to Steve Fallon at Maxwell’s who got us a $250/month apartment.
A year later, when we found the loft at 201 Grand Street that would grow into Water Music, we figured out how Ramos had gotten the inside scoop. Another building on our block was filled with artists; one of them had invited Ramos to a Halloween party. Steve Zane, a photographer, still lives there in a magnificent loft. Steve was way ahead of the curve. When we bought our current building in 1991, Steve took pictures of us removing the “For Sale” sign.
RVO: What was the last session that you personally engineered or produced?
RG: Last week I was involved in a mixing session with the Jim Black Trio. That record had some of the most incredible musicianship I have ever heard. Today I worked with Jaimoe [Johnson] of the Allman Brothers Band. We did the last Allman Brothers Band studio record and then Jaimoe’s solo record. Jaimoe is one of the most wonderful people on the planet. He just had rotator cuff surgery. Ouch. When he walked in, I said, “I’m not going to hug you for fear of ripping your stitches.” Jaimoe looked at me and said, “Just hug the other side.” Is that great or what?
RVO: All these years later, do you have any goals for Water Music Recorders; or is there something you’re still hoping to accomplish with the studio?
RG: A recording studio does a specific thing. It is an “as needed” service. Its role and level of involvement may vary from day to day and from artist to artist, but fundamentally we help people realize a creative dream. That’s basically it. On the other side of the pendulum there is the social and psychological aspects of keeping people focused, happy, confident and moving forward. But at the end of the day, there is a product and we helped build it. Will another multi-platinum record or another Grammy change my life? Probably not.
Success is gratifying, but perhaps not in the way that people think. It looks like Water Music will win another Grammy this year. The piece itself won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Now our recording has been nominated. If we win — and we’ve recorded many Grammy-winning records — I won’t think, “Wow, we won a Grammy.” I’ll think, “What stranger did I stop and help on a dark highway that allows me to work with Julia Wolfe, Kenny Salveson and the other members of Bang on a Can?” I am the luckiest person on the planet. I am so happy to get to work in the morning because I get to work with incredibly talented people. That is the reward, not the Grammy. So to answer your question, as long as we keep attracting great artists and making great records, the studio is fulfilling its business plan.
RVO: Aside from you, who are the people that got Water Music up and running?
RG: The founder of Water Music was Robert Miller, our keyboard player. I didn’t want to open a studio. I correctly viewed it as a sinkhole that would take away from my songwriting time. It didn’t, actually! Robert was the heart and soul of the studio. He named it after a novel by T.G. Boyle. James MacMillan, our bassist, shared engineering duties. It was their baby. I just wanted to write songs. Robert is now the New York-based artist liaison for Avid, the company that makes the Pro Tools recording software.
The old Water Music made a lot of records: Chris Stamey, the dB’s, Marshall Crenshaw, Joe Jackson Band, Pianosaurus, Scruffy The Cat, Antietam. It was a blur. We’d be out playing shows and then have to drive all night to get back for a session. That wasn’t going to work so we hired John Siket as our first employee. John went on to do the first Dave Matthews record, Soul Asylum and many Phish records. One of the Phish records is named The Siket Album. It was Robert, James and John Siket’s juice that got the studio up and running.
RVO: Finally, for someone who’s considering recording or doing any sort of work at your studio, what’s the preferred way for them to reach out?
RG: If you’ve got a great idea or a special talent, please call us.
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