RVA #26: Virginia Moonwalker’s Russell Lacy talks studio’s early days & impact on RVA’s music scene

by | Nov 22, 2016 | MUSIC

There’s a note and a pattern to how music starts from one’s imagination and comes to fruition. A set of demos could be released into the universe with a particular ease that people couldn’t begin to imagine at the turn of the twenty-first century. With that in mind, it brings new questions to mind. How do we want the world to hear our band? What does it mean to be a band in 2016? What is the most logical way of answering these questions? For several musicians in Richmond, they have come close to an answer by venturing out to the Mechanicsville recording studio, The Virginia Moonwalker.

There’s a note and a pattern to how music starts from one’s imagination and comes to fruition. A set of demos could be released into the universe with a particular ease that people couldn’t begin to imagine at the turn of the twenty-first century. With that in mind, it brings new questions to mind. How do we want the world to hear our band? What does it mean to be a band in 2016? What is the most logical way of answering these questions? For several musicians in Richmond, they have come close to an answer by venturing out to the Mechanicsville recording studio, The Virginia Moonwalker.

This article was featured in RVAMag #26: Fall 2016. You can read all of issue #26 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now.

Russell Lacy has long considered Richmond home. That’s why, upon his return from Boston after studying at Berklee School of Music, he felt prepared to get to work as he rediscovered his sonic thirst before the unexpected would happen in 2011. “I get back from school and I am starting to work on music around town,” Lacy reminisces. “Playing open mics, starting bands, and then the car accident happened. I was supposed to play The Listening Room around that time and it completely set everything back. It gave me some perspective to really move towards trying to create my own things.”

A musician of close to twenty years around town, Lacy thinks that may have been the point when he thought of creating the Virginia Moonwalker, a studio in Mechanicsville attached to a farm Lacy grew up on. As he prepared to break the lease on his Fan apartment off Lombardy, he reached out to his family for a favor. “I wanted to see if I could take over that piece of property,” Lacy notes. “When I got out there, all I had was a tiny Tascam recorder and a bed, and I was fine with that. I remember spending time out there as a kid and feeling inspired. I was curious if some of that magic still remained.”

From his time spent at Berklee, he formed many connections, one of which would be singer-songwriter Jordan Tarrant. “When we met in Boston, we clicked immediately and realized we had a similar sense of humor,” he recalls. Tarrant and Lacy had collaborated over 2012 on Lacy’s solo record Charlestown and the bond grew due to the unpredictability of that experience. “We set up to record my record in this industrial district with limited means to record with,” he recounts. “I remember it was in this warehouse and next door, they were shooting adult films. We’d be working until the break of dawn when the crew for that would arrive and we’d have to work around them. But we still got the record done in a weekend with a little bit of extra post-production stuff thrown in there. That experience helped Jordan and I decide that when it came time, we’d work on his record together.”

Tarrant’s debut full-length, Lazarus, would be the first release to be recorded in the tiny house known as Virginia Moonwalker. Similar to their experiences working on Charlestown, Lacy worked with what he knew best: his reel to reel recording device. Given the environment, Lacy is quick to note certain methods that might surprise people with a background in more traditional recording spaces. “I threw a bunch of people off when I would grab what we had to record with and decided we were going to make it work,” he proudly proclaims. “Several folks standing around a single microphone to get certain vocal takes or using specific approaches to get instrument sounds. They made records with less.”

In what would strangely grow to become a theme for the Moonwalker, a party at the studio was planned to commemorate the release of Lazarus. Along with a live performance from the band, Lacy wanted to use it as an opportunity to properly showcase the new space, so he rented out buses to bring people from Richmond all the way to Mechanicsville on a cold November night in 2013. “I remember hand delivering every invitation for that party,” Lacy recalls. “Jackass Flats played on the bus ride there and the bus might have been half full. The one thing that I had on my side was having been a part of a fraternity at James Madison University, I knew how to throw a huge party with little money at my disposal.” The release party left many excited to see what The Moonwalker could become.

After recording Tarrant, Lacy was quick to start booking as much time as possible and help create the idea of what the Moonwalker could become. “There were times where I would be booking time with bands and we were complete strangers,” Lacy explains. “We would connect through a mutual acquaintance. By the time we would finish recording their songs, the unfamiliarity would vanish and what you would hear would make it sound like we were friends all along. That might be one of the more important things that can come out of recording bands.” He is also quick to mention The Milkstains as a great example of this when they came out to record their EP Gored, Kicked, Beaten. “I didn’t know any of those dudes and when they came out to record,” he says. “I think there were still things they were continuing to figure out about themselves as a band. When it got time to recording, things started gelling differently and it resulted in them making a record that we were all really proud of.” The Milkstains have since continued to reach out to Lacy about future recordings.

During the sessions with The Milkstains, Lacy would become better acquainted with several engineers around town, one of which included Bryan Walthall who bestowed a bit of wisdom on Lacy. “Bryan came by the Moonwalker during the Milkstains sessions and was quick to point out how some of the wiring was wonky,” Lacy laughs. “It is moments of honesty like that and hearing criticism on the technical side of recording that has helped me figure out how there’s a correct way to do things in a studio, and there’s the potential for a risk you can take to create a really unique sound.”

Soon after The Milkstains sessions, Lacy would take on one of his largest undertakings by recording the debut full-length from Mikrowaves. “I knew we only had eight tracks to work with and there were going to be a lot of things we needed to capture with limited options for recording to tape,” he says.

After the sessions, Lacy realized the ebb and flow of how his recording process was and how it reflected back to the advice received from other engineers around town. “When I was starting out, I definitely was working on a limited base of knowledge as to what I was doing,” Lacy adds. “Sometimes, that worked out in my favor. It was me doing it my way, even if it was considered the wrong way. I just needed to be aware of the technically proper way to set something up. I don’t know if the Mikrowaves record would have happened the way it hadn’t if I hadn’t broken a few ‘rules’ along the way.” Since the recording of that project, he would later be asked to join the band and continue on as an engineer for future recordings of theirs.

As the studio became to pick up a bit of momentum, Lacy would stumble upon a release that he considers to be one of the best engineered at the studio. This would be the debut full length by Pete Curry entitled Advice On Love, an eight-song LP that would give the singer-songwriter an opportunity to flesh out his compositions and challenge himself by playing every instrument on the record. It was an experience that left Lacy feeling little to no doubt that what they had created would be something that could potentially put Moonwalker on the map. “Pete is the real deal,” Lacy proclaims. “You can sense that pretty quickly and I was able to get that from spending time with him recording his first record. He played pretty much everything on there and we were able to just roll through songs at a startlingly fast pace. I just enjoyed that a lot of the stuff he worked with was pretty bare bones and there were no qualms about having to work within those parameters with the Moonwalker.” As the premiere release from Crystal Pistol Records, Advice On Love received praise from local and regional music blogs. The lo-fi nature of the recording is one of the things that is quickly mentioned as a strength of the release and a true identifier with what is slowly becoming the Moonwalker sound.

And in the same vein Curry felt inspired and discovered a sound worth capturing for Advice On Love, the group Lady God would have a similar experience over at Moonwalker, a studio they trace their origin to. Lacy introduced the band’s songwriters, Skye Handler and Chrissie Lozano, to each other and through sessions at Moonwalker, the two would meet and discover their own connective tissue that would come to define Lady God. “I brought Skye down to the Moonwalker and insisted that Chrissie meet him,” Lacy says. “The sessions might have gone beyond The Moonwalker, but the studio is where Lady God began and that always rung true to me. The power that getting away from the regular world could have on aspiring artists.” Since the initial recordings, the band has released two seven-inches, the first of which would include tracks engineered at Moonwalker and be the first release of music from theirs to be pressed to vinyl.

If 2015 was a year to cement Moonwalker’s reputation, 2016 was the year for bands to truly discover themselves in the space and cement their own reputation. Debut records from newer bands Camp Howard and The Wimps were engineered at Moonwalker and much like other artists, the two bands really seemed to discover their own sound in the space.

“The Wimps had planned to come out to the Moonwalker to record a few songs and just fell in love with the studio,” Lacy states. “We had a few days to track a few songs and we ended up walking away with an entire record. They just loved the vibe and how isolated they were from recording at home or close to too many distractions.” Camp Howard was a similar situation, and the first time Lacy felt his engineering talents had begun to grow. “I could sense [Camp Howard] was something I wanted to work on as soon as I heard about it,” he remembers. “We started tracking it and I was just impressed with how good the material was. Also, I remember finishing the tracking and sending it off to Bryan and having him compliment how much of a step up it was for the Moonwalker. That meant a lot to have one of your peers notice the improvements you’re striving for.”

As he quickly started ramping up the booking of the space, there were things that Lacy would continue to learn along the way. “It took me a really long time to get comfortable with referring to myself as an engineer or even refer to the Moonwalker as a studio,” he notes. “I felt like I was more of a guy who just wanted to record bands and would figure things out along the way. I know there are a ton of places anyone can record in this town and I knew that there might be a point where I might be considered competition.” Despite the number of places to record in town, Lacy has seemingly avoided that competitive streak by initiating an open door policy. With peers like Walthall, James Seretis, Tim Falen, and Joe Lunsford dropping in at the Moonwalker, the opportunity to utilize the studio to its fullest potential is available to all.

Lunsford in particular would end up becoming a great inspiration for Lacy. “Joe has not only provided a great amount of gear to really make things sound better than ever, he’s just a wealth of knowledge with how to make bands sound awesome with vintage gear,” Lacy gushes. “His studio in Roanoke, Mystic Fortress, works against a lot of norms brought on by the digital age and it’s with that in mind that I try to strive to provide that for a lot of the bands I work with.”

At the end of the day, Lacy can’t help but approach recording the way that he envisions songwriting. “When I’m working with bands, I try to think along with them about what directions their songs are going,” he reasons. “If someone comes in with a part that might not be fully formed, I might be quick to point that out and see how we can fix that. That level of honesty might frustrate most people, but it doesn’t really fix things. It’s like thinking of a song as a house. You don’t have doors in a house that don’t go anywhere. That’s a fun house and I don’t want to do that. Every part of a song builds a house and it should be serving a purpose. If I can help facilitate that with a bit of input, I’m more than happy to think along those lines.”

In the span of a few years, the Virginia Moonwalker has already left an impression on the Richmond music scene. With bands discovering their identities, finding inspiration, and crafting a sound, Lacy can sit back and hopefully watch with keen eyes as The Moonwalker continues to leave Richmond artists with a home away from home, and a place to add to Richmond music’s rich legacy.

Shannon Cleary

Shannon Cleary

Radio/Words/Stories/Jokes/Bass Booking Agent at Flora, Bassist at Clair Morgan and Music director at WRIR 97.3 fm Richmond Independent Radio

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