TOE RAG STUDIOS
What made The White Stripes come to Clapton? We went to Liam Watson's recording studio to find out.
WRITER: ANNETTE RUSSELL
PHOTOGRAPHER: JØRN TOMTER
Hidden down an unassuming alleyway between the Victorian terraces of Glyn Road, you will find one of the most unique recording studios in the world. Toe Rag is an exclusively analogue recording studio, packed full of vintage equipment. Musicians make something of a pilgrimage to record there.
Liam Watson moved from his original space in Shoreditch in 1998, after finding the Glyn Road warehouse in the back pages of Loot. When he started out in 1991, “Shoreditch was not cheap, there were not many people around, and lots of small industry: furs, woodworkers, metalworkers. Live/work took over and it became a pain to be there, and the place wasn’t ideal acoustically.”
Liam set about building his dream studio in the empty warehouse, taking seven months to do the bulk of the work, and then finishing it off as he went along. The space had been empty for a while and had previously been used as a pottery, and later a smelters, while the unit next door housed Homerton Book Binders. Toe Rag’s current neighbours include a woodworker and an audio company, and a friendly reciprocal arrangement has resulted.
Preferring analogue methods over digital, Liam explains he has been working in this way “…since before digital really took over. In 1991 obviously there was digital recording but it wasn’t the norm in any way. I haven’t had a reason yet to change, the equipment that I’ve got works well, and it’s not a lot of work to maintain it.” The studio has its own carefully organised workshop for repairs. It’s an inviting space in which one could happily tinker away the hours. Liam is not averse to experimenting with modern equipment, having bought an Otari RADAR II digital hard disk recorder four years ago, though he confesses to having never plugged it in. “I’m not at all against digital, I’m not at all pro this or that…the music’s the thing that’s important.” He admits that working with computer audio would allow a way out of tricky situations. With the lack of correctional capability on analogue recording, things like pitch or timing cannot be changed, so bad vocal parts have to be re-recorded, rather than tweaked on a computer; a more time consuming endeavour. According to Liam, “If the musician can’t quite do it, it’s because they need to go away and practise…it’s better for everyone.” Looking at the state of the current pop charts, one could argue that it’s a shame more modern music is not recorded this way.
He has been approached by electronic artists trying to translate his approach into a computer based production, to which he says, “You could make a techno record in here if you wanted to. It would just be so long-winded.”
Looking to the future, aside from ongoing improvements to the studio, Liam has already spent two years building a bespoke console for the control room, and this should be finished next year. Work is also underway creating an acoustic echo chamber. For now, an empty hallway provides the same effect.
There is talk of starting a record label, which seems a natural progression for Toe Rag. “I’ve found my first band, it’s going to be quite a low key thing to begin with, but I’m hoping that I’m going to be able to build it”. Given Liam’s love of all things vintage and the integrity in his approach, we might expect some carefully considered vinyl to make its way into record stores before too long. Liam has quietly gone about his business off Glyn Road for the past sixteen years. I asked if there had been any memorable experiences in the neighbourhood early on. Other than a near mugging on his way to The Priory Tavern (now known as The Elderfield), the area has been good to him.
Liam has fond memories of the long-closed Jim’s Café on Chatsworth Road, which boasted great breakfasts and a lovingly tended tea urn. “That was possibly the best caff I’ve been to in London. A lot of people go on about Arthur’s in Dalston; for me, the best tea I’ve ever had was at Jim’s, and the set breakfast was really good. Good caffs like that are getting rarer, and the ones that are still around, none of them have ever made a tea as good as Jim’s! It was a pretty class act really”.
Nowadays Liam frequents Too Sweet and can often be found grabbing an egg roll in Percy Ingle, the long established East London bakery. On his first day working with The White Stripes on their ‘Elephant’ album, he took drummer Meg there, who was suitably impressed by their cake selection.
In his free time, he might peruse the extensive beer selection or pick up a burger at Eat 17 at Spar. “It’s quite nice with the second hand shops now on Chatsworth Road, I’ve had a few bits and pieces out of there”.
On the subject of East London gentrification, and indeed London as a whole, Liam says: “It’s a shame…it’s almost impossible for anyone to afford anywhere now…something’s got to change”. Looking on the positive side, he appreciates that our wealthiest boroughs will still have social housing sitting alongside multi-million pound houses, noting that “it’s one of the things I like about London, it’s a good mixture”.
While Hackney evolves around him, Liam continues working in his warehouse, honing the sound of an eclectic mix of musicians. Often he works with artists for just a day or two, but those who stay for longer grow to like the area very much. So the next time you see an artfully dishevelled or incongruously glamorous group of people buying lunch in Percy Ingle, who knows, you might be standing next to the next big thing in music.