Beginning with its aesthetic, the Rare Book Room studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York City, is atypical. Erudite literature lines shelves alongside kitsch paintings. Whitewashed brick walls, remnants of the site’s industrial days, and threadbare Persian carpets provide an offbeat backdrop for recording sessions. This is not a white room with a black microphone hanging down the middle but a lived-in space reverberating with inspired echoes from the past.
“I hate the antiseptic vibe of commercial studios,” says the owner, Nicolas Vernhes. “I filled this space over years – 18 and counting – with objects and furniture that are pleasant to be around. [There are] books about music, art and Greek philosophy, since the latter was my major in college. People who first walk in generally have a positive reaction because it is a cosy place, which makes it comfortable for the long days we spend in there.”
In 2000, five years after moving to Manhattan and playing music, Vernhes found a ground-floor warehouse on Dobbin Street and filled it with equipment, realising this would be a smarter investment than renting out a smaller, more expensive Manhattan alternative. The name Rare Book Room came from Baby Tooth bandmate David Mecionis. The day they were naming their album, he “stepped into the rare book room of the medical library he worked at and it hit him that that should be the name of our record”, explains Vernhes. Following the band’s tradition “to repeatedly steal from ourselves”, Vernhes christened the studio with the same name.
The nominal origins signal the owner’s philosophy towards music. “Every drum beat has already been invented – but hopefully not,” says Vernhes. Recycling, then, is unavoidable, especially in a world saturated with historical precedents available for never-ending consumption on the web. How it’s done makes the difference between imitation and innovation; as Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Vernhes describes how Bruce Springsteen once confessed about unintentionally grafting an existing riff into his own melody. But The Boss’s unique style and talent for incorporation somehow made it sound fresh and new.
In New York City, musical influence emanates from every corner of the compass – headphones blast on the girl riding the train next to you, reggaeton bumps out of windows as you cruise your bike through summer streets, and bass-heavy rap pounds out of an SUV at the streetlight. Such diversity makes artists more willing to “try the unknown” and bring new vernacular into their own style, says Vernhes. He adds that artists gain much “awareness” from random connections and interactions arising from the city’s large and motley population and compressed surface area. “All great art is born of the metropolis,” said Ezra Pound. New York City, though more gleaming and suburbanised than it once was, could still be such a place. Furthermore, a musician in New York City has already proven some of his merit simply because he lives here. To still have energy to create after working a day job belies a quality that Vernhes believes is key to good musicianship: passion. Vernhes works with people who are “up all night” because they’d rather be exploring the sound forest than sleeping. Josh Dibb, otherwise known as Deakin of Animal Collective, first collaborated with Vernhes in 2002 on the album Campfire Songs. Noting his broad knowledge and personal investment in the project, Deakin says, “Nicolas knows what you want and how to push you to see something you aren’t seeing or trying in a new way. It’s really amazing to me in hindsight how seriously he took us from the get-go. You might know the basic building blocks of what you want, but [at Rare Book Room] the process of getting there is an adventure; Nicolas is just as excited to discover what is emerging.”
Building on an encyclopaedic knowledge of music as well as his own trained ear, Vernhes is also an expert with the tools of his trade. He has methods that will make a track sound “pristine” or “damaged”; he knows which microphone will suit a certain vocalist. Add to that the ability to mediate a sometimes-gruelling creative process with all kinds of personality types, and you get an idea of the dynamism required of his job. Vernhes works closely with musicians throughout the recording and postproduction process, funnelling creative juices into a cohesive mix and producing records known for their individuality. Warren Fischer, of Fischerspooner, who has also recorded at Rare Book Room, suggests the prowess of Vernhes’s vision: “The value of Nicolas is that he approaches any music with a tenaciously punk attitude. Namely that there are no rules, only results, and that anything and everything is worth trying. I think that’s why his catalogue is incredibly diverse. He can do electronic as easily as psych or folk, or, what usually happens, some rare convergence of multiple ideas. In fact, I think Nicolas sits down and thinks, ‘How can we make this the wrong way?’ – which usually leads to the best approach.”
Most recently Vernhes created a label that represents artists including Lia Ices, Talk Normal, Palms and Sebastian Blanck. With its mission to experiment still clear after almost 20 years, Rare Book Room continues to explore the sonic realms – happening, every now and then, on an elusive, never-before-heard rhythm that resonates like sonar in the depths.
Words by Nicky Stringfellow
Photography by Christopher Sturman