There’s something electric in the air on this particular Thursday afternoon at Rialto Row studio. Band of Horses’ Creighton Barrett rolls in at noon, heads straight for the kitchen, and proceeds to squeeze the juice from several fresh grapefruits. “Greyhounds,” he affirms, and continues the essential preparation for what will turn out to be another long, intense, but productive, and, well, euphoric recording session with producer Wolfgang Zimmerman. By midnight, the crew is only halfway done with the song they came here to track (they stick around for hours still), which also happens to be the first Band of Horses song frontman Ben Bridwell reckons he ever wrote: “Boat to Row.” 

That song is the energy source in the studio today. It was only ever released in 2005 as “(Biding Time is a) Boat to Row” on the live Tour EP, which preceded the band’s debut Everything All the Time. What prompted the Horses’ return to the song now is the time they’ve spent with Zimmerman, inspired by his commitment to making the band, and every artist for that matter, sound like themselves. “He takes you back to home base,” Bridwell says.

Bridwell’s wife also suggested returning to the track the night before at their home in Mt. Pleasant. Soon after, Rialto gets the call to scrap the day’s plans to fine-tune other tracks, paving the way to revisit a “new oldie.” Bridwell’s excitement turned into an all-nighter. “I got maybe an hour and a half of sleep last night,” Bridwell says. “I slept in my chair, just trying to figure out how it all comes together. But we’re gonna see if Wolfie can breathe the right life into it that no one else could.”

From the Space to Rialto Row

Buried beneath an interstate overpass, the exterior of Rialto Row is unassuming, nothing special. But walking inside, through its multiple layers — the front office, decked out in leather couches and vibrant, multicolored walls (and other surfaces, like the fridge) spray-painted by Douglas Panzone, past the misprinted “Cane the fuck in or fuck the fuck off” doormat, to the massive wood-paneled studio — you get the feeling you’ve entered a goldmine. And you wouldn’t be too far off — Zimmerman and company are making musical magic here.

But it all started at the Space, the old storage unit Zimmerman so cleverly utilized for years, churning out favorites like his band Brave Baby’s first two records (Forty Bells and Electric Friends) as well as Grace Joyner’s Young Fools and SUSTO’s self-titled debut. That’s also where Rialto CEO James Hynes’ friendship with Zimmerman began to take shape, after first meeting him through SUSTO’s Justin Osborne at the Royal American. It’s where multiple connections were made. Hynes would drop by the Space often just to hang out and listen to music, watch the masters work. It was also Hynes who told his old pal Bridwell about all the good music going down inside an unsuspecting little storage unit in downtown Charleston.

“James tipped me off to SUSTO and my dad was also like, man, you got to listen to this record, that first album of theirs,” Bridwell says. “And that was it. I mean, I fell in love with that record. And then the curiosity began, and I learned about all the people who are associated with SUSTO and that led the way to Wolfie.”

Barrett, also local, chimes in, “We got to chase that scent to all these great things that were happening in a fucking storage space. Beyond bedroom lo-fi shit — this guy’s doing this radical stuff and paying monthly rent on a storage space.”

After years of cheering on the Space and all that was created within it, Hynes got the chance to be a part of the team. Hynes quit a secure 11-year job to facilitate the move into and help run the backend show at Rialto and has stayed busy commissioning artists like Panzone and championing the everyday operations. He leaves Zimmerman and friends to concentrate on what they do best.

“Most days, I’m just here making sure nobody bothers Wolfie,” Hynes says. “I’ve seen him go for 18 to 20 hours on one song with no one else in there, just mixing. Most people would end up in a straight jacket mumbling incoherently — he’s continuing to dig deeper. I don’t know what the hell he does; I just know when he’s done with it, it’s probably my new favorite song, until he finishes another one.”

And Hynes’ encouragement has been of value to Zimmerman, ever since the Space days. “We get so caught up in our own heads all the time, just being too serious and working on music, and James is kind of a lightning rod … he had this magic ability — as soon as he walked into the studio, the songs had just turned a corner,” Zimmerman says. “And just his presence would make us realize that song was good, mainly because he was celebrating them. He has a talent where he knows good songs. It’s crazy.”

The Space was far from super shabby, but Zimmerman still had a hankering for better things. And when Bridwell expressed interest in recording demos with him, it was the motivation Zimmerman needed to think a little more seriously about the future. “It was kind of the thing that set the wheels in motion. I was like, ‘I gotta get a legit space: I’m about to record the Band of Horses,'” Zimmerman explains. “It didn’t line up in time — I wanted to get this place opened up in time to record the demo. But then again, Ben was like, ‘Dude, honestly, I don’t even want to record there. I want to record out of the storage room with you.'”

After eventually saying goodbye to the spot that served as a creative home base for the growing Elliotborough music scene, the guys began the move into Rialto over a year ago, with Hynes at the helm to ensure the new space didn’t disappoint. “I could have come in here with some duct tape and a few microphones and would have been more than happy,” Zimmerman says. “But James was like, ‘We gotta build for the future.’ He’s a visionary.”

The result is still evolving but the clubhouse vibe of the Space is definitely present. There’s no mistaking that: From greyhound cocktails at the ready and the Budweiser in Hynes’ hand the morning of this interview to the cornhole, darts, ping-pong, and basketball hoop, the new space is clearly a cool and comfortable place where the musicians can unwind, refuel, and keep the creative juices a-flowin’.

But it’s not just a spot for Zimmerman and the artists he works with. He’s opened Rialto up for other producers, like Calvin Baxter and Rodrick Cliche, to come in, collaborate, learn from each other, and utilize the boards for their own projects. “I like to have other people out here who are working and not just have it be my spot,” he says. And he’s also brought in the prodigy that is producer, musician, emcee Khari Lucas a.k.a. Contour with an apprenticeship. “I really, really believe in what Khari’s doing,” Zimmerman says. “I think he’s got the sauce and he’s got the vision … just his presence alone makes me hear things a different way.”

New Perspective

Some of the bands produced at the Space were part of Hearts & Plugs, the local label that dissolved following a racially insensitive drawing posted on its social media in the fall of 2016. What followed was a forum entitled Southern Discomfort, where everyone could speak out, face to face, away from the impersonal nature of computer screens. The conversation was tense, uncomfortable, and moved from talk of the initial incident to race and lack of inclusion in the Charleston music scene.

It was at this forum that Zimmerman first met Lucas, who was part of the day’s panel. With several venue owners present, over 100 people in the room, many being musicians, gained new perspectives on the state of the scene, and new creative relationships were formed, like the one between Lucas and Zimmerman — two producers who similarly live and breathe their work in music. From that day, they found each other on Facebook and began a friendship from there, trading each other’s songs. The path eventually opened up a few months back for Lucas to come on board at Rialto.

Good things came of Southern Discomfort. Though there’s a long road ahead yet, certainly more dialogue has opened up, perspectives have shifted, multiple genres are sharing the same stages. Productive conversations and awareness are at work.

“I think for a long time it was like, ‘Oh the Charleston music scene’s awesome, the Charleston music scene’s doing great things,’ but I think that before, it was two music scenes that were pretty cool that didn’t know each other at all,” Zimmerman says. “And I think now there’s this very beautiful convergence going on in Charleston that didn’t exist before. There’s people like Niecy Blues [R&B] using ET Anderson [rock] as a backing band, Poppy Native [R&B] backed by HoneySmoke [Delta-Americana] and Jordan Igoe [country]. Then there’s me and Khari producing together. And that kind of stuff can’t be highlighted enough, even though we have light years to go.”

As for Rialto, it’s home to artists from every genre, from funk and R&B to indie rock, country, jazz, and gospel. Zimmerman says, “I think there was a lot of divisiveness and clique-y-ness just with the way things had been, that I’ve just been trying to let people know that, hey we built this place to facilitate anyone and to bring people together, rivals and friends and fans — whoever it is. That’s the point.”

With Zimmerman’s sights set on releasing his first solo album in the near future, he wants producers like Lucas, Baxter, and Ciiche to have the ability to take the reins during nights and weekends when he’s away. “I don’t want to just produce 24-7,” Zimmerman says. “I want to be a little bit more selective with how much I do everybody’s stuff all the time.”

That’s fine by Lucas. Rialto has become a space that’s conducive to the way he likes to create. “I like the atmosphere. Because of my background, like doing all my music in my room and stuff, everything always has kind of a casual feel as far as my creative process goes,” he says. “Not like I’m not taking it seriously but it’s not like I’m putting a suit on. I like that this has a similar vibe. I don’t feel intimidated coming here. I don’t feel like I have to put on a face or anything — and then obviously all of the talent that comes through here [is inspiring].”

The intertwining, supportive nature of the scene these days along with the resources joining forces at Rialto is unique when you look at music communities elsewhere. Just ask Band of Horses. That is, after all, what drew the world-renowned band to record their new album at Rialto.

Big Things

Charleston natives Bridwell and Barrett moved to Seattle in the mid-to-late-’90s, at the backend of grunge and the uptick of indie rock labels like K Records and Suicide Squeeze. In Charleston, there were few bands they really loved, whereas the Pacific Northwest seemed to be dripping with breakout talent. And that turned out to be where the band formed; where they signed to Subpop Records; where they released their debut; where they made it big before relocating back to the Lowcountry. But Bridwell remembers the music scenes there being less welcoming and collaborative as the ones he’s found here. “It was so cliquish and competitive and cutthroat,” Bridwell says. “So we decided to come home. We decided, ‘Let’s just go and be normal. If we’re gonna travel this much in our life, let’s just be home and near our people.’ But we didn’t see this one coming, that there was actually a damn scene happening here, better than anything we’d seen, and we’d traveled for a decade.”

He doesn’t recall ever even participating in a “scene” out west. “What we saw in Seattle ain’t a fuckin’ scene. This is real. People are helping each other out and there’s raw talent, diamonds in the rough,” he says.

After hearing albums like SUSTO’s, Barrett and Bridwell had to know exactly who was behind them, who was helping these bands. “It’s not just production,” Barrett says. “Wolfie’s also a great writer, a great musician, an incredible drummer. And it’s not like he’s pushing ‘record.’ You know he’s in it. Even on our level of working with producers, that doesn’t happen much. Usually guys are known for one thing, and this thing is something they’re really good at. But you work with Wolf, and his passion is as much as yours. Behind anything. All those songs that we’re talking about, SUSTO and stuff, that was so evident that it wasn’t just the band making great songs — it was also the guy they got producing it.”

It’s Zimmerman’s total immersion in finding and making a band’s unique, authentic sound shine that influenced Band of Horses to return to the sound that made them a band to begin with. This is also the first time these members — Bridwell, Barrett, Ryan Monroe, and Matt Gentling — have been in the studio together recording live, which definitely conjures an altogether different feeling than multitracking. Bridwell says, “It was really needed for us just to reestablish that we are this band. And we needed someone to help us really realize that vision again.”

Bridwell’s excitement for the studio is underlined on Band of Horses’ Instagram, with one recent video featuring he and Lucas messing around with Taurus bass pedals. He continues, “And Khari’s out here doing an apprenticeship and growing with Wolfie and his equipment. Really big things are happening here and it’s all built out of really positive shit — not like Seattle, the stuff that always seemed so backbiting. It’s the opposite of that. It’s just everyone helping each other and trying to lift each other up just because you want to see each other succeed. Not even for commercial reasons — you just want to see people fucking elevate their art, and it’s so refreshing. I’ve never seen it anywhere else in the world.”

Future Plans

Word of Zimmerman even reached the ears of big-deal producer David Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips, MGMT), who, without much prompting from Band of Horses, mentioned that he’d heard “good things about that Wolfgang Zimmerman.” Bridwell says, “It was like the tea leaves unfolding, another sign that we’re supposed to be fucking with [Wolfie].”

Zimmerman travels to Echo Mountain Studio Recording studio in Asheville, N.C. with Band of Horses this week to finish the new record, after which they’ll all head to New York so the album can get mastered by Fridmann.

Back at Rialto, the Row continues to grow. The complex includes a place for out-of-town artists to comfortably crash. Hynes continues to beautify the joint, bringing in more artists and landscapers to keep the polish coming. And Todd Anderson’s CharlieTown prints has become part of the family, moving to and expanding his operation at Rialto. He still screenprints merch for venues and more, but he’s now Rialto’s resident screenprinter. “In a perfect world a band would come from outside of Charleston, stay here, cut a record, and get all their merch from Todd,” Hynes says. “And then go to Royal or something.”

Soon, Rialto will roll out a sampler along with T-shirts designed by Barrett, keeping Band of Horses a part of the family. (Which makes sense: It was Bridwell after all who came up with the name Rialto Row, after performing at the Rialto Theatre in Tucson, Ariz.)

New Rialto-produced albums on the go include those from She Returns From War, Zimmerman’s solo album, Christian Chidester of Brave Baby’s solo record, Futurebirds, Contour, Brave Baby, SUSTO, Bill Wilson, Atlas Road Crew, and Poppy Native, to name a few. And of course Band of Horses’, which should be in the can sometime this summer.

And yes, it will include “Boat to Row.” About 12 hours after this interview was conducted, when the guys were halfway done exploring the song’s possibilities, Hynes says there was another serendipitious moment at the studio: “Wolfie says to Ben, ‘Uh, don’t you think it’s crazy we’re doing this song, it’s called ‘Boat to Row,’ and there’s a boat in the parking lot at Rialto Row?’ Ben stopped and we all had a laugh. There’s something bigger at work here on most days. We can feel it.”

As for Zimmerman, he’s taking this moment to soak it in — all of it: upgrading from a storage unit to a state-of-the-art compound; working with many genres; having the ability to mentor and be mentored by other local producers; coming out of his shell as a solo artist, which he says is why he began producing in the first place; and recording with Band of Horses, a band that’s long been on his musical and personal journey — from singing the words to Everything all the Time with SUSTO’s Justin Osborne during a cross-country drive a decade ago to watching Bridwell and his father sing the words to SUSTO songs during a sold-out Brave Baby-SUSTO concert at the Music Farm four years ago.

“I’m not overlooking how amazing this is, and if this is all that happens, I’ll be really thankful for it,” Zimmerman says. “But I really think that we’re headed in such a crazy direction … You know so many times when as an artist your ego says, ‘Ooh you want to be involved with this’ or ‘You should throw in your idea on this,’ sometimes the best thing that you can do is just step back and be part of it and just be thankful that you’re part of it. I’m happy to have a role in it and happy to connect whoever I can connect but also to listen and grow as much as possible. Because the people I’ve worked with even just in these past couple of years, it’s awakened me to so many things I was blind to, and still am. That’s one of awesome things about life: we’re all a work in progress.”

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