Sometimes a musician’s work as studio producer and engineer makes his story as engaging as his own original music and performances. Doug Kwartler of the folk duo The Lied To’s has kept his Chelmsford, Massachusetts based Hollow Body Studios in business for 20 years. His knack for turning the knobs is a labor of love that he gets to do in his own home.
“I realized how long it’s been. 20 years is a pretty good run,” he said. “I’ll probably have some kind of official celebration at some point, maybe next year or so.”
What’s kept him going over the years? “It’s partially out of desperation to avoid going to work in an office and partially out of my love of doing it. I like doing it a lot and interacting with different artists and musicians and songwriters. It’s just a great feeling to be able to share ideas both musically and otherwise with creative people.”
Kwartler’s Hollow Body Studios was named, naturally enough, after his favorite kind of guitar model. When he started playing guitar, at age 15, back in the 1980s, he was heavily interested in rockabilly music, the Stray Cats, and Cat’s leader Brian Setzer, whom Kwartler considers one of the greatest guitar players and who also played a Gretsch hollow body guitar.
“The first guitar I owned was a Gretsch Chet Atkin’s Nashville model. It was a hollow body guitar. I’ve always owned hollow body guitars,” Kwartler said. “That’s where it came from.” (A hollow body has a hollow center. It’s thicker than other solid electric guitars and usually has f-holes that give it a deeper, throaty sound).
Songs Kwartler produced and engineered have been included in the episode soundtracks of soap operas like The Young And The Restless and All My Children as well as the night time drama Dark Blue. One of his clients have had their songs featured on the educational TV show Animal Planet. Yet, his Hollow Body success story began in a bedroom in East Rockaway, New York. That bedroom set up began after Kwartler had been working for another person’s studio in Long Island, Late Nite Studios. Kwartler wanted to then record his own band, Foundry. He began using his employers studio while also producing some of it at his own house.
“I bought some equipment at that point,” he said. “ADATs were really big, which were kind of like tape recorders but they recorded digitally. I bought a board, and I started doing it in my apartment, and that was where I was living at the time in East Rockaway.”
Kwartler eventually decided to transform his recording activities into his own business, bringing clients to his house. He could also stretch his recording work into his living room to set up larger items like a drum set. Eventually, Kwartler moved to Floral Park, New York where, from 2004 to 2009, he ran a small basement studio. His family relocated to Newton, Massachusetts, buying a house with a large finished basement, which he ran for three years until he got divorced. After leaving his gear with a friend, Kwartler moved to his current home in Chelmsford, Massachusetts where he continued living out his dream as a studio producer.
“It’s a small house and the studio comprises a lot of it,” he said, “which is fine with me.”
Kwartler’s name is on CDs all over New England and even further. Kwartler’s clients, according to video testimonials on his website, admire his work because he pays attention to detail and because of the way he interprets how they want their records to sound like. “It’s kind of a collaborative experience,” he said.
Being in the midst of numerous creative people accounts for a lot of the joy Kwartler receives from his job. “Usually, by the end of a recording session, I feel very energized. You would think after a bunch of hours working, you’d feel tired, and I do,” he said.. “But, there’s a certain energy that comes from working with musicians and nice, creative people.”
Working the knobs from the producer, engineer side of things rewards him in ways that compliments what he derives from writing, recording, and performing his own songs, as he often does with his partner Susan Levine in The Lied To’s. In some cases Kwartler may be hired to solely record and engineer but mainly he produces the records which means he inserts the more creative aspect of it as opposed to just documenting it.
“When you’re asked to produce or co-produce you have to contribute creatively to what you think would sound best for their songs,” he said. “When you’re doing it yourself for yourself, or you’re playing music, you’re your own boss, you’re your own person. You don’t have to collaborate, but there are also great things about the collaborative process where you’re learning about other peoples’ creative processes and their songwriting.”
One of the greater rewards of Kwartler’s job is recording acoustic instruments for folk, singer-songwriter-Americana albums. He grew up listening to Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan which lead him to listen to Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and other legends who played and recorded with natural instruments.
“I’ve always felt a connection to that acoustic music, since I was young,” he said. “Naturally, that’s the kind of music I want to reproduce in the most authentic way possible. I just like the natural sound of that. I don’t only do acoustic music. I like electric music, but music that has a grit to it, in a way, which I guess you would call Americana that blends into folk music as well.”
Some of the songs Kwartler has worked on rose up the folk charts. Although seeing those songs climb the charts isn’t the motivation for his work, he said “It certainly feels good that people are responding to the work that you do in a positive way. It means a lot to me that the folk DJs respond to it. Obviously, they’re responding to the songs themselves of the songwriter’s and the artists. But, there is something I contributed that worked synergistically with the artist that made people, and in this case specifically, the folk DJs, respond to it. It feels good.”
Kwartler’s house full of equipment was not something he collected overnight. Most of it was acquired over a 20 year period. “It took a long, long time, and if I had to do it now, I wouldn’t be able to,“ he said. “I would say the vast majority of engineers and studio owners have taken a long time to accumulate a lot of their stuff unless they were fortunate to come into a lot of money.”
Having a studio in his home makes for a more comfortable atmosphere for Kwartler’s clients. Things have changed since the larger studios were more prevalent, and at the time, many musician couldn’t imagine the proliferation of the smaller, more independently owned and operated studios of today.
“I think over time those studios have struggled, unfortunately,” he said. “There is also something to be said for a very warm feeling and a home feeling. It doesn’t even have to be a home, but something that doesn’t feel very sterile. I think the people who do decide to work here feel very comfortable in this environment.”
Built in the 1920s, Kwartler’s house was constructed with a lot of wood. The floors, staircase, some of the doors, and his deck area offer a good amount of reverb. “Any kind of wooden surfaces with some acoustic control usually provides a warmer sound than a lot of plaster and things like that. It depends on what you’re looking for.”
Kwartler has certainly found his own niche in the singer-songwriter scene, not only as a member of The Lied To’s, but also as the person who contributes to the song and sound of many a great artists around New England.