Pure Punk: Recording with Mass Giorgini and Sonic Iguana Studios

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In a small town in middle America is an intimate recording studio that has been a cornerstone in the Punk Rock history books. Sonic Iguana is run by musician, producer, engineer, Massimiliano “Mass” Giorgini.

Mass Giorgini has a unique perspective on punk in the studio.

Mass Giorgini has a unique perspective on punk in the studio.

Girorgini began as a musician and a student, with an interest in recording. He was mentored early on by Paul Mahern [John Mellencamp, Iggy Pop, Blake Babies], where he soaked up what he liked and didn’t like about the process, the atmospheres and the industry. His interest quickly took a turn to ambition when he realized what he would do differently, and decided to carve his own path.

With a DIY spirit, Sonic Iguana, located in Lafayette, Indiana, is a history book of Punk Rock from the late 80’s to now. Hundreds of artists like Billie Joe and Mike Dirnt of Green Day, Mike Kennerty of All-American Rejects, Anti-Flag, Rise Against, Alkaline Trio, Screeching Weasel, Jesse Michaels of Operation Ivy, One Man Army, Common Rider, John Strohm of the Lemonheads, Squirtgun, Dusty Trip (Spain), the Groove Ghoulies, Horace Pinker, the Peacocks (Switzerland), SuckerBox (the Cayman Islands), Los Pepiniyoz (Puerto Rico), Viernes13 (Spain), the Manges (Italy), and many more have all made records there. His label clients include Vagrant Records, Fat Wreck Chords, Asian Man Records, Adeline Records, Go Kart Records, Lookout Records, Hopeless Records, Tooth and Nail Records, Red Scare Records, Thick Records, Insubordination Records, Knock Knock Records, Honest Don’s Records, Universal Pictures, Disney Studios, MGM Studios, and Offtime Records, to name just a few.

Giorgini’s impact on the Punk Rock music scene for the past 25+ years has roots in everything from Anti to Pop Punk and Ska, to his own genre, he calls “Ramonescore”.

I sat down with Mass to talk a little bit about the history of Sonic Iguana, and Punk Rock then and now. Catch his incredible sound and production techniques in Part II of this interview, coming up soon on SonicScoop.

1990, you opened Sonic Iguana. Did it begin in this building?

No, this is the 3rd incarnation of Sonic Iguana. I originally started it in an industrial area on Whitewater Drive here in Lafayette. There were a lot of construction warehouses and ditch digging services and stuff.

What was your first recording experience?

My very first recording experience was with someone else recording, it was in my own basement.

A friend of mine had a really nice 2-track Otari 5050. He came in and recorded us live with a little mixer, miking us up. He recorded that live to reel to reel. I thought it turned out nicely but there were things I wanted to change of course. The band was Rattail Grenadier, the album was titled Three Blind and the producer was Gary Higgins.

Then Rattail Grenadier did another recording, and we got signed to a record label out of Chicago called Roadkill Records. It was an early and influential Punk label that put out the first edition and the biggest selling Screeching Weasel album, called Boogadaboogadaboogada simultaneously with the first Rattail Grenadier’s album. They also put out Bhopal Stiffs record, Pegboy, The Effigies, lots of classic Chicago Punk Rock. We were the only non-Chicago band. For that album, we recorded with Paul Mahern.

What year are we talking here?

I think that album, (Rattail Grenadier L.P.), was recorded in ’88. And that’s Paul Mahern’s production which I watched very closely how he was doing things because I was very interested. He was the producer and engineer in that, and he’s gone on to do a bunch of other things, he’s pretty big time.

But he started a Punk scene and was completely Punk scene connected. He sang for the Zero Boys which is one of the biggest Punk influences on me. Because they were a melodic Punk Rock band. He had produced many, many bands in the Punk Rock genre so he was one of my early heroes and mentors.

I ended up working with him. We did a couple of albums together but the one that sort of changed things for me was when we worked on the Judybats. They were a band with a Top 40 hit and this is their follow up album, so there’s lots of pressure from their label, a Sony affiliate, for another big radio hit, right?

There were lots of issues on the way that made me realize I didn’t like working in that sphere and I wanted to work more on the Punk Rock, DIY and “keep it real” or whatever you want to call it…

(Mass smiles suddenly and shifts gears) Which I’ve changed a lot since then (laughs) and probably become more like the major label production style that I didn’t like then. You know as time went on, you change, you grow, you wanna call it whatever you want. You evolve, devolve.

I definitely have changed since then, but at the time, I felt like I wanted to do my own studio. So I pushed back away from the more major label production approach.

Step inside the simplicity of Sonic Iguana.

Step inside the simplicity of Sonic Iguana.

What was your first record that you did on your own at Sonic Iguana?

Well, I had been doing records on my own before that in what I thought would be my project studio. But my first Sonic Iguana recording from 1990, was also for the Rattail Grenadier album titled Too Much of a Good Thing, released in 1991.

You’ve worked with bands from all over the world. Do you know most of the bands before they come to you?

In many cases yes, but some cases I got to know them in the studio. Then I started to really appreciate them and then going to see them live.

So in the case of working with a band you don’t really know, do you participate in a rehearsal situation, do you ask for demos?

It’s gone both ways. Let me say that the majority of my clients are from far away. I would consider a hometown or local band to be a Chicago band. I’ve had bands fly in from Spain, or Italy or Germany. We’ve had South American bands, Australia, etc. etc. So in those cases for me to go to their practices is not very practical, but what I have done is asked them to send me demos. And I want the demos to be as live as possible.

A lot has changed since the early days of Sonic Iguana recordings to now. What do you feel was a turning point for you in the sonics?

One of the things that has changed is that I was dabbling in different recording styles by recording bands during the week on a 4-track recorder at a club I ran called Spud Zero from 1987 to ’88. I would dabble with recording a little bit there to see what I could get out of things and… I had some luck. Some things turned out beautifully.

I got some very good guitar tones and some moderately good drum tones, but I didn’t have the right mics really to capture the drums. I didn’t have small diaphragm condensers. I had a few Shure SM-57’s which you just can’t get a good overhead sound or cymbal sound with that. But I didn’t have serious recording ambitions at the time.

When I opened the first Sonic Iguana, I was still thinking of it more as something I was doing to save some money and hopefully eventually get to the point where I could professionally record. And the funny part about it was, I knew almost zero about the technical side of recording. I only knew that I wanted 16 tracks, that I wanted to be able to separate the drums. That I wanted to be able to close mic the guitar amp and things of that sort.

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