SARANAC LAKE - If you've heard either of Frankenpine's two full-length CDs, Big Slyde or the Honey Dewdrops' new ones, some of a.k.a. george's old ones or Annabelle Chvostek's 2011 live album (recorded at Saranac Lake's own BluSeed Studios), then you've heard Jeff Oehler's intensely hands-on recording handiwork.
And if you've ever seen the album covers of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "What Hits!?" (1992), Erykah Badu's breakout "Baduizm" (1997) or hundreds of others for the EMI and Universal-Motown labels - or more recently, Big Slyde or the Dewdrops' latest album covers, First Night Saranac Lake pins or the Adirondack Explorer magazine - then you've seen Sue Bibeau's graphic design prowess.
Together as Beehive Productions, back from a 10-year hiatus, this Saranac Lake couple is a serious album-making machine. Lowell Bailey - Big Slyde mandolin player, Olympic biathlete and Lake Placid resident - goes so far as to describe them as "one of the most influential forces in the North Country music and arts scene."
Married couple Jeff Oehler and Sue Bibeau work in an office above their garage-turned-workshop in Saranac Lake, the headquarters of their company, Beehive Productions.
(Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)
A changed industry
Bibeau and Oehler met and got engaged when they were working for EMI Music in New York City: he in grassroots artist development, she in graphics. But the corporate music world frustrated them to the point that, in 1996, they started their own company, moved up here, got married and gave the indie thing a go.
Beehive Productions produced seven albums in six years under its Hive Music label. By 2002, however, this career, too, had let them down - this time logistically more than idealistically. The national record industry was in crisis as it wrestled with digital music, and their little co-op wasn't paying the bills, either.
So they set it aside and pursued other ways to make a living. For him, that meant renovating old houses and trying to rent or sell them. She had kept designing CD art for Universal-Motown, but as that work waned, along with her interest in it, she phased out and used her skills for local clients instead.
Now, 10 years later, Beehive Productions is back in action, but in very different ways.
Oehler credits Linda Fahey of Rainbow Lake for nudging him back into music and getting him paying work in it again. Fahey books the music at BluSeed and is senior content director for online radio site Folk Alley. Through her, one of his main jobs is recording for broadcast: at BluSeed, at the Newport Folk Festival and, this weekend, at the wildly star-studded Green River Festival in Greenfield, Mass. Today, since it would have been Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday, Fahey and Oehler are set to record Arlo Guthrie and the Guthrie family.
Fahey got to know Oehler during Beehive's previous incarnation, when he did sound at some concerts she booked at Paul Smith's College's old Cubley Library.
"He was very thoughtful and professional and careful," she said.
Fahey moved to Minnesota for a few years to work for "A Prairie Home Companion," and when she returned, she was disappointed to learn Oehler was no longer working with music. So she recruited him to work for her.
"He's so good, I just thought, 'You've got to get back and do this stuff,'" she said.
"We got out of it because the record industry collapsed 10 years ago," Oehler told the Enterprise. "And then when the rest of the world crashed, life happened again. And I really stepped back and took a look at my life and myself and the various choices I've made and the steps that I've taken and the directions I've gone in, and decided I wanted to give that a shot again.
"And the music industry is a different place now," he continued. "It's not about big, glamorous record deals anymore, which is what kept independents like us down prior to 2000. And now there are so many opportunities for musicians to be able to record music they want the way they want to record it, manufacture the product, own it, sell it themselves and make a living as, like, a cottage industry, boutique industry entrepreneur. Whereas before, you either had a record deal or you didn't, and if you didn't have a record deal, you were blocked out of being able to make a living. If you did have a record deal, you had to sell so much product and play so many gigs in order to make a dime that it was just a very difficult thing to do."
From studio to house
Back in the '90s, Beehive Productions' studio measured a whopping 2,000 square feet, tucked away in a big brick building behind Saranac Lake's post office.
"It was pretty cool," Oehler said as he showed photos of the rented space adorned with vintage instruments and high-end audio gear. But that kind of facility also carried a heavy overhead cost.
Now, the only recording space they call their own probably measures no more than 100 square feet - an office above their garage-turned-workshop. It's a good-sounding room, but Oehler only records bits and pieces of songs here. What he likes best these days is to take over a big house. That's what he and the Honey Dewdrops did this past winter in the husband-wife duo's home state of Virginia to record their new CD, "Silver Lining."
"It usually happens that houses that have interesting architectural details, like big, two-story vaulted ceilings, it translates into interesting acoustical properties," Oehler said. "We set up shop there for three weeks and worked on recording, and hung out, and drank wine and made food, and made music when it was feeling good and didn't make music when it wasn't feeling good."
He did the same kind of thing with Frankenpine, a Brooklyn-based band that includes former Saranac Lakers Colin DeHond and Ned Rauch. They recorded "In That Black Sky" in Rauch's parents' home in New York's Hudson Valley.
"As a result, our record sounds like it has a sense of place," Rauch told the Enterprise.
"The old-school model of recording studio, where everybody is behind glass and in separate rooms, it's very unnatural and it's very anxiety-producing for most musicians, especially musicians who have not had a lot of experience with that kind of recording," Oehler said. "There's no level of comfort, and in music, that's the most important thing, is that musicians are comfortable enough to deliver inspired performances.
"So the kind of notion of, 'Well, as a band, we have to get all our (act) together and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse and be tight, so we can just walk into the studio and nail it' - that almost never works out.
"There are all these huge studios in New York City that have now gone out of business, like the Hit Factory, super-famous places, because there's no work for them anymore."
Those who remember rapper L.L. Cool J's first album, "Radio," may recall that its credits said it was "reduced by," rather than produced by, Rick Rubin.
Oehler is a reductionist, too, and his influence is clear on the Big Slyde and Frankenpine albums. Both bands had big, choral, signature sounds, through which soloists had to punch through to be heard. Oehler separated the instruments and made them play their positions. Frankenpine, now that he's produced a second consecutive album for the band, sounds downright spare. Spend some time with "In That Black Sky," and it's likely you'll find that the title and starlit album cover are consistent with the sound - more like a constellation, with space between the stars where the mind draws shapes, than the overlapping flavors of a stew.
It wasn't easy to get there. Oehler is a devoted but demanding musical coach, and he said he had to "beat them over the head" with the idea. When he did this in 2010 for "The Crooked Mountain," Frankenpine's first full-length album, "they did an awesome job of dealing with that in a relatively short period of time, having never had that experience of having somebody else, like me, come in from the outside and sit down and say, 'Well, this isn't working, and that isn't working, and you need more space here, and you're stepping on his part.'
"The thing that blows me away about Frankenpine is that they took that experience and they left, after that album was done, and they went home and they totally woodshedded that, to the point where they built all that stuff into their new material.
"They just did an amazing job of learning how to self-edit into their writing, and into their live performance, too."
Rauch said Oehler earned Frankenpine's trust.
"Each of the four singers in our band feels comfortable singing in front of him, which is important, if you think about it," Rauch said. "I don't know why, exactly, but Jeff has a way of coaxing heartfelt performances out of each of us."
Also, Rauch said, "he's not afraid of or unwilling to put in lots of long hours. He's got a very good ear, which comes in quite handy during the mixing process."
Big Slyde, based in Lake Placid, is "more boppy, happy-go-lucky" than Frankenpine, according to Oehler, "less about the depth of the song and more about the chorus of the ensemble." Nevertheless, he recorded their tracks one instrument at a time.
"Jeff and Sue have been the guiding forces in the modern evolution of our band, from recording production to promotional media," Bailey said. "The new release has their mark from cover to cover. Sue did all the artwork while Jeff handled most of the recording and production aspects. The result is an album that can hold its own among the vast canon of independent label releases."
From co-op to for-hire
There's no more need for the Hive Music label, Oehler said. Artists release their albums independently and hire Beehive for Oehler's recording skills and/or Bibeau's art and video work.
"The last time around, it was a co-op," Oehler said. "We were trying to invest our time and resources in co-owned masters of the recordings."
"Yeah, we were trying to do too much," Bibeau said.
"We would share revenue on CD sales offstage and things like that," Oehler said. "The model was really largely based on, you know, after we go through the process of making the records, the bands getting out and pounding the pavement and selling some product. It was the wrong time then, and it didn't work out the way we had envisioned it, and we were essentially just 10 years too early 'cause that would work now."
But now, even though they strictly work for hire, "the collaborative nature of our relationships that we've developed with all these people is stronger than it was before," Oehler said.
"They're spending their own money making a record," Bibeau said, "so it's in their best interests also to get it out there, to get themselves out there." On the flip side, she said, it's also in Beehive's interest to help promote its clients as much as possible.
In the '90s, Oehler said, there was "still a sense that they would get discovered, and there would be a manager and A&R guy. ... It was almost a barrier to being able to do things on your own." He thinks the new reality is good for most artists.
"Of course, there are some people that just don't have drive in them to be able to handle those kinds of day-to-day tasks of keeping the thing rolling," he said. "And there are people you can hire, but a group like the Honey Dewdrops, with the exception of having a booking agent - and they hired a radio promoter for this last record - they do everything themselves. And they've been making a living for the last three years doing nothing but music.
"They're not rock stars. They're not living the MTV lifestyle that we all looked at in the '80s and '90s and thought that's what music was about. But they can do what they want to do."
Oehler and Bibeau are able to make some money at it, too. Their goal is to do music full-time, and while they still have to do other work to support themselves, at least they're not racking up debt.
"That's the beauty of having done it once before," Bibeau said. "We're really, really cautious about not letting that happen this time."
Beehive Productions is working on albums for local jazz band Le Groove and Saranac Lake singer-songwriter Theresa Hartford, plus concert recording for broadcast. In the near future they hope to record an album for Portland, Maine, duo Sorcha and Jo, and perhaps another one for Big Slyde, if after its summer concert schedule the local band has some new songs it's itching to record.
Contact Peter Crowley at 518-891-2600 ext. 22 or firstname.lastname@example.org.