Recording Studio Is Phantom of the Teatro

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

John Travolta surreptitiously dropped by.

Drawling rock legend Bob Dylan quietly visited.

And punk forefather Iggy Pop was spotted strutting down the boulevard earlier this month.

Celebrity sightings on star-studded Sunset Boulevard?

Try modest Oxnard Boulevard in the rundown heart of the city slated for redevelopment.

The attraction: an abandoned Mexican movie theater converted into a recording enclave by record producer Mark Howard and his better-known partner Daniel Lanois--whom Rolling Stone magazine anointed as "the most important record producer to emerge in the '80s."

"Bob Dylan can walk down the street and nobody knows who he is," said the 34-year-old Howard, who has used the facility to produce new albums by Pop and Marianne Faithfull, the English rock diva better known for her liaisons with Mick Jagger and heroin than for her sporadic, critically acclaimed recordings.

"These people feel comfortable here," he added. "It's like a desert island."

Howard and Lanois, best known for his atmospheric work with U2 and Peter Gabriel, have succeeded in maintaining a low profile in the two years they have spent at Teatro producing everything from jazz artist Brian Blade's debut compact disc to the soundtrack of Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade" to Willie Nelson's new album.

Understanding municipal officials have aided the disappearance of Lanois and his famous clients into the Oxnard shadows.

"We don't usually publicize that stuff," said Oxnard code enforcement officer Brian MacDonald, who said even he hasn't been inside the building since it became a recording studio. "We don't want people bothering that guy."

Lanois' manager, Melanie Ciccone--sister of pop star Madonna--notes that Lanois works in the unlikely environs of the predominantly Latino community precisely because it is off the beaten track.

Ciccone repeatedly deflected requests by The Times for an interview with Lanois, saying word has begun to trickle out about the studio and that unsolicited visitors are becoming an increasing distraction for the French-Canadian producer and his famous clients.

But Lanois hasn't exactly done his part to keep the studio a secret.

The theater's interior was displayed on the cover of Bob Dylan's Grammy-winning "Time Out of Mind" album recorded in Oxnard last year, and the liner notes all but provided directions to the studio.

The exterior of the photogenic building with its historic marquee dominates the front cover of "Teatro," Nelson's latest offering.

And the country singer filmed a movie about the making of the album directed by acclaimed German filmmaker Wim Wenders during a two-day shoot in July that packed the adjacent municipal parking lot with tractor trailers bristling with camera gear and prompted locals to wonder what was going on.

"Kenny Rogers did a video over there," said Oscar Laburu, confused about his country stars. Laburu owns a photography studio across the street from Teatro. "I see they make music, they have a studio."

Humble Outside, Amazing Inside

The theater, which screened its last Spanish-language film in April 1993 after more than 80 years of operation, presents a deliberately decrepit facade to the casual passerby.

A makeshift gaudy blue tarp covers part of the leaky roof. Splotches of peeling green paint dapple a brick wall. And a padlocked, black steel gate across the entrance is intended to dissuade the curious from venturing farther.

Howard tells the nosy it's a biker hangout--a half-truth given currency by the gleaming expensive motorcycles Lanois and Howard likw to ride.

But it's the interior that is truly remarkable.

It's incongruous enough to imagine cutting-edge musicians and sometime recording artists like Travolta stalking the streets of the quiet agricultural community. Walking through the doors of the seemingly shuttered Teatro is an exercise in sensory contradictions.

This is no mere sterile recording studio: Think neogothic sonic sanctum.

Old movie posters of the risque Mexican comedies that once played in the cinema adorn the walls of the former lobby, now dominated by a large pool table.

The theater itself is a cavernous yet surprisingly intimate 10,000-square-foot space shorn of most of its movie seats, with a soaring ceiling and warmed by an eclectic decor.

A massive recording console taken from the New York studio where renowned producer Phil Spector once plied his trade bisects the theater.

Perched on the knobs of the 1977-era console is a black-and-white snapshot of John Lennon at the controls, an inspirational reminder that the former Beatle used the equipment to record "Double Fantasy" just before he was slain in 1980.

A dozen of Lanois' classic guitars sit on the few movie seats that remain. Six projectors flash images on the movie screen and a bank of monitors. Lining the walls are three drum kits and half a dozen pianos and keyboards, including a synthesizer once owned by Lanois mentor and electronic music pioneer Brian Eno.

The melange of retro recording equipment is surrounded by thick red rugs, plush old chairs and couches highlighted by strategically placed Chinese paper lanterns and a hanging glitter ball.

The theater's alluring darkness befits Lanois' introspective production motif. But this is Howard's creation.

"It's got the '60s vibe, but it's warm and it's comfortable and it's weird," said the slight Howard, who is reminiscent of Spector in appearance as well as production style. "It's pretty heavy. It's psychedelic in here."

Visual Approach to Music-Making

The almost surreal surroundings are fitting, given that heavy-metal pioneer Led Zeppelin once played an impromptu gig in the theater during its 1970s heyday--a tidbit Howard loves to share.

The moody milieu also reflects Lanois' trademark aural signature: a visceral, somber sound critics either love or hate.

Billboard magazine described Nelson's new Latin-tinged album as "an understated but powerful affair" that is "easily one of the most heartfelt country recordings of the year." Time magazine simply dismissed it as "turgid."

In a telephone interview from Beaumont, Texas, Nelson said he feels Lanois and Teatro provided a backdrop far more conducive to recording than the usual studio, where glass windows separate musicians.

"I really enjoy playing in the open like that," he said. "I'd never seen [a studio] like that--it did have an effect on you . . . . It's the best album I've ever done. I don't think the songs could be better, I think the performance is as good as I can do."

"Teatro," which Howard recorded and mixed and for which longtime Nelson friend EmmyLou Harris provided backup vocals, may be the 65-year-old recording veteran's best-received album in years. After only two weeks in release, it is already No. 17 on Billboard's latest country chart.

The theater is the base of Howard's independent label Real Records, but it also fits Lanois' modus operandi.

U2's "The Joshua Tree" was produced in a 16th-century Irish castle. Harris' critically acclaimed 1995 album "Wrecking Ball" was recorded at Lanois' New Orleans mansion.

So for Lanois--who has also reportedly recorded in such locales as a dairy barn--the motion picture heritage of Teatro is tailor-made for the kind of distinctive, ethereal production he stamps on almost every album he works on.

"Songs are visual," he told The Times in a 1993 interview. "You can paint a picture with sound if you're good at working with it; you can conjure up a visual image for the listener. The music that I do is quite moody, and it all adds up to being visual in approach."

Indeed, the listener almost sees as much as hears the Spanish-style guitar Nelson played, using an electric Gibson borrowed from Dylan for the mournful opening track of his album. Likewise the opaque longing that suffuses Dylan's "Love Sick," the first song of the album Howard recorded and Lanois produced.

It's been that way since Lanois built his first studio in 1970 in his mother's basement in Hull, Quebec.

And Howard, who dates his decade-long association with Lanois to their days in Canada, picked up that sensibility and has mastered the art of creating essentially portable studios.

For a Neville Brothers album he converted a New Orleans studio into a swamp-like setting, complete with hanging moss, stuffed animals and tie-dye decor. In Baja California, Howard set up a studio in a humid jungle-like house built into a mountain overlooking the ocean. And in San Francisco, a studio was constructed in the vast expanse of a four-story warehouse.

Atmosphere a Draw for Certain Artists

But there are trade-offs. Teatro has a gritty side.

Local thieves have tried to saw through the roof to reach the valuable equipment, prompting local police to beef up patrols. A couple of late-night muggings forced increased security measures. And Howard is quick to emphasize to wannabe rock stars that Teatro is an invitation-only "workshop," not a for-rent studio.

Still, it is the kind of dramatic environment that matches not only Lanois' style but the lush, almost tangible arrangements Howard prefers.

That is exemplified by Faithfull's upcoming album "Vagabond Ways."

"It's bigger than life," said Howard, as a track rejected by Pink Floyd in 1968 but recorded recently by Faithfull soared over the theater's sound system. "When the hair goes up on your arm, you know you've got a great tape."

It's not surprising that artists are entranced by Teatro's expansive acoustics and off-kilter snugness.

Alternative rock cum blues artist Chris Whitley--a former picture-frame factory worker who got his big break in the music industry after a chance 1989 meeting with Lanois--first came to Oxnard in 1996 when Howard produced his album "Terra Incognita."

Whitley may return with Lanois at the producing helm for at least a couple of tracks on his next compact disc.

He credits Teatro and Lanois, in part, with inspiring the organic vibrancy of his music, heard on his current effort "Dirt Floor," recorded in a Vermont barn.

"It's kind of like beyond technology as the only value," said Whitley, who will open for Alanis Morissette during a three-week tour that begins next month. "It's not a vacuumish studio."

Blade, a jazz drummer whose recently released debut album "Fellowship" was produced in Oxnard by Lanois, agrees.

"The space is in the sound," said Blade, who also provided percussion for the Dylan album. "The studio can literally put up walls between you and your music . . . . There's an openness to the Teatro that hopefully is projected through the music."

But Teatro will soon add the phrase "former recording studio" to its history.

Howard's two-year lease is almost up and he plans to locate his next studio nearer Los Angeles, a move that will be more convenient for people from piano tuners to prospective clients.

"We're nomads," shrugs Howard. "But this has been the best place I ever worked in."

Times researcher Robin Mayper contributed to this story.

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