Studio A Smashing Pumpkin Can Call Home May 1, 1999
By Brian Hiatt

James Iha opens recording facility with Adam Schlesinger and Andy Chase of Fountains of Wayne.
James Iha plans to record his second solo album at new studio.

NEW YORK -- There are plenty of recording studios in this city, but only one where Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha can truly feel at home.

That would be Stratosphere, a hideaway in Manhattan's meat-packing district that Iha and two members of Fountains of Wayne opened in the spring. Iha and Fountains of Wayne both plan to record there, as does Fountains of Wayne guitarist Adam Schlesinger's other band, Ivy.

The idea, said Stratosphere co-partner and Fountains of Wayne drummer Andy Chase, was to have a studio that not only had state-of-the-art equipment but also was a cool place to hang out -- a place, he said, "that's comfortable, that feels like you're at home, but also one where the record company can't possibly say, 'Well, you can't go there; you've gotta go to a better studio.'"

"We've worked in a lot of studios where ... you almost feel like you're a trespasser." -- Adam Schlesinger, Fountains of Wayne guitarist

Stratosphere boasts a prized vintage Neve mixing board, a Steinway grand piano and dozens of other pieces of top-of-the-line gear. But it's the environment that seems to mean the most to Iha, Schlesinger and Chase, who are also partners, with Smashing Pumpkins bassist D'Arcy Wretzky, in the indie label Scratchie Records.

Sitting in the studio's cozy lounge on a recent Saturday afternoon, Schlesinger, Iha and Chase talked up the newborn facility like proud parents.

In the lounge hangs a gold record for the soundtrack to the Tom Hanks-directed rock movie "That Thing You Do." Schlesinger first came to prominence as the writer of the title song. He got to know Iha through familial happenstance.

"I met James because a friend of mine married the sister of the bassist in [the Pumpkins]," he said.

The two musicians got better acquainted when Fountains of Wayne toured with the Pumpkins in 1997. That jaunt is commemorated with a rare, framed tour poster in the studio lounge. "We saw the road and a whole new life together," Iha said of that tour.

Iha played guitar on Ivy's Apartment Life (1997) and Schlesinger and Chase returned the favor on Iha's solo album, Let It Come Down (1998), which included the tracks "Be Strong Now" and "Lover, Lover". Schlesinger played piano and bass and Chase engineered some demos for Iha's album.

The musicians said they hope Stratosphere will encourage more collaboration.

"Who knows, if there's something that happens outside of any of those established things, [the studio is] a way to do that quickly and easily," Schlesinger said.

"One day we'll have time off to do some side project or something, but I never have time," Iha added wistfully.

Iha also hopes to record a second solo album at Stratosphere. "I'm still writing," he said. "I'm sure I'll end up here."

The studio is meant to be an easy place to end up.

"We designed the space itself to make it feel more like you're working in your own living room as opposed to working in some cold, corporate facility," Schlesinger said. "We've worked in a lot of studios where they have nice gear but you almost feel like you're a trespasser."

Stratosphere is in a space formerly occupied by the Place, a studio Chase ran with two different partners. The Place had metamorphosed over the years from a demo studio to a professional facility and had hosted recording sessions for Ivy and Fountains of Wayne as well as such friends as Luna and Cornershop. But a year ago, Chase was on the verge of closing it down. He was ready to move on.

That's when Iha and Schlesinger each suggested "it would be cool" to start a new studio, Chase said.

"Over the last few years we've all been involved in so many different records, and at a certain point it made sense not to be funneling all these recording budgets into someone else's studio," Schlesinger said. His most recent album is Fountains of Wayne's Utopia Parkway, released in March. It includes such songs as "Red Dragon Tattoo" and "Laser Show."

Scratchie Records plans to take advantage of the studio, too. The first band to record there are Fullflej, a genre-hopping Scratchie act who were in the studio in April working on an upcoming album.

After Iha and Schlesinger became co-owners of the new studio, they and Chase tracked down that vintage Neve mixing board, which Iha called an "endangered species." Only about 30 of that particular 32-channel model, which is prized for its warm, rich analog sound, still exist.

Though the studio is theoretically open to the public, "the truth is it could be a semi-private studio and still operate as a commercial entity," Schlesinger said. "If you have enough friends cumulatively who are in bands and need a place to record, you can still give them a good deal and keep your business going."

Some of those friends may be better known than others -- it's not out of the question, Iha said, that the Smashing Pumpkins could find their way to New York to record some of their next album at the studio.

Not bad for a "living room."