The Fight to Save Strongroom Studios Is Bigger Than a UK Story
The London recording studio and bar has hosted everyone from the Spice Girls and Chemical Brothers to Erol Alkan – these insiders tell us why it's worth saving.
All photos by Rob Kelly
Fair play if you don’t think So Solid Crew, Bjork and S Club 7 have much in common – at a glance, they don’t seem to. But, along with everyone from theBlack Madonna to the Spice Girls, they’re among the huge list of artists who’ve recorded at east London’s Strongroom studios in Shoreditch. Sadly, the 34-year-old studio’s future now hangs in the balance; the local council have approved a planning application to turn a neighbouring warehouse into a six-storey office block. And that will create enough noise and vibration to basically make the studios unusable, possibly forcing this British institution out of business. As people club together to petition against the development (sign it!!), we spoke to some of the studios’ champions about its history and importance. This is far bigger than a local London story.
Richard Boote, Co-founder
I first moved here because it was very, very cheap. I was in an office in Denmark Street just off Charing Cross Road, and when we got thrown out of there we needed somewhere else to go. Most of the buildings were old warehouses that sold hardware stuff – this was a zip factory when I took it over. At first I was sharing with the people from Denmark Street: there was a design company called Assorted Images who did artwork for Simple Minds and Duran Duran, then there was a furniture maker, a fabric printer, a clothes designer and some printers. I was restoring a car, and then when that was done I thought I might turn this into a recording studio. I’d already worked in music for a while, as a driver who toured Europe with acts like The Who, David Bowie and ABBA. Then I worked as a manager and tour manager.
We used to have a lot of raves here in the beginning, and the place even caught fire once (the DJ thought it was a smoke machine). Obviously a lot of things have changed over the years; when things were first going digital, I got some state-of-the-art computers which were about one-millionth as powerful as an iPhone and cost around £4,000. And with that new technology came the 90s electro bands, like the Chemical Brothers, who had a room here for two years, Orbital and The Prodigy. The first time I heard “Firestarter” we were building studio 4, and either Liam [Howlett] or The Prodigy's producer Neil McLellan came in and said, “Oh Richard look, we just finished this new mix, can we listen to it on these new speakers?” In around 1990, I decided to open the bar because there was absolutely nowhere in Shoreditch you could get anything eat or drink at that time.
Some of the comments people have been making about Strongroom have brought me to tears; people saying it’s a cultural centre for London. You can sit in your bedroom on your laptop and make a whole album but you've got to have a vibey place. We host performances in the bar, people meet each other, people go, “I'll work with you on that.” We're like this little oasis in the middle of all this change.
Emma Townsend, Studio manager
I started out as the receptionist here about six and a half years ago. Soon after, the studio booker left and so I put my hand up for her job. What I think sets us apart is the fact that we’re an independent community. Even the greenery outside was planted and watered by Richard in the 80s. There were no businesses here back then; we were the first. There was Bricklayers Arms pub (now The Barley Mow) over the road and there was Franco's, the little greasy spoon, but apart from that that was about it. I’ve heard there were even directions to Strongroom in Old Street tube station. There have been so many memorable days here; not long after I started working here I ended up watching the European football championships with the Klaxons in one of the leisure rooms – that was fun. I also did vocals for a Placebo song called “I Know Where You Live.” I had been transferring press calls to Brian Molko all morning, and later on the engineer came out of the studio and he was like, “Emma, Brian really likes your voice and wants to know if you will do a spoken thing on the chorus.” That was exciting but really terrifying.
Erol Alkan, DJ and producer
For myself and so many other musicians, producers and engineers, Strongroom is an institution. Studios can be quite sterile, but it is just the complete opposite of that. The main studio is one of the best-sounding mix rooms I’ve ever used, but it’s also a place that’s full of character, even down to the kind of garish decor by [Sex Pistols artist] Jamie Reid, which you wouldn’t assume would work but weirdly does. I’ve always felt that they operated in a very sincere kind of way, too, which I think is difficult to do in today's studio environments, because there's been a period where they don't particularly make a lot of money. But somehow Strongroom has managed to keep that balance – you feel like it's a place you want to go back to again and again.
It's also somewhere I'd bump into people I either knew or admired artistically, like [producer] Nick Launay who I had worked on the Mystery Jets with, or [French electroclash DJ] Miss Kittin. My fondest memories there are probably from mixing the Late of the Pier album in 2007; it was just a really fluid session, and every time we took a track and listened to it outside the studio it would sound great. When you’re mixing that doesn't happen all the time, so it was very exciting, especially on a debut album. In the same area we’ve already lost Miloco Hoxton Square and The Garden, which is now a Pret A Manger, so it’s vital that we don’t lose Strongroom, too.
Marta Salogni, Audio engineer
Strongroom is an essential entity to the UK arts, and business-wise it has generated huge revenues for the music industry. I first started working in-house at the studios in 2012, having moved from Italy in 2010, and my career took off thanks to the people I met. It’s where I built my experience, credits and contacts. One of the first jobs I worked on was with Philip Selway from Radiohead, and shortly after I started engineering for M.I.A. Strongroom is also where I met David Wrench, who I went on to work on Frank Ocean and FKA Twigs projects with. The studio has undoubtedly played a big part in my life; my professional path would have been different if it wasn't for it. The sense of community is very much alive among the residents – [producers] Rob Kelly, Duncan Mills, Haydn Bendall, Danton Supple, Gareth Jones and Ben Baptie are all friends and colleagues I had the pleasure to share my time with while there. Although I'm now freelance, it's still very important to me and I miss working there. Is a rare convergence point of both skills and talent. It's a powerhouse.
Richard ‘Biff’ Stannard, Producer and songwriter
I was at Strongroom quite early on, over 20 years ago, working in a small room where the cafe is now. It was pre-gentrification, and all the kind of cool kids were there, like The Chemical Brothers and Orbital. Alexander McQueen was even on the floor above. And then me and a guy called Matt Rowe were making pop records in the middle of it all. It was very different round there. Just up the road there was this old gay bar called The Bell so I used to wander up there. It was more bohemian back then.
The very first artist I worked with there was Jimmy Somerville. We had all sorts, though: East 17, NSYNC, and then in ‘95 we had the Spice Girls. It came about purely by chance. I’d gone to meet Jason Donovan, of all people, about working with him and bumped into Mel B. And it was like a love affair, really. Then the next thing we knew you were in this tiny room, me and Matt Rowe and all five of them, sitting on the floor. I think in the first week we wrote three songs, two of which were “Wannabe” and “2 Become 1.” So I have a huge association with Strongroom, of it changing all of our lives. I often wonder how it all happened. There was something about the Girls’ energy, in such a tiny room that I think maybe contributed towards the energy and bolshiness of “Wannabe” in particular. It was mayhem in there, it was fantastic. I think it was around that time when the band were thinking of changing management to Simon Fuller, so all those decisions were made there, and I feel like that’s where their spirit was formed – we were enhancing that concept of “girl power.” We would be there til 3AM, 4AM and I remember thinking that I had the best job in the world.
Even now, if I can I'll still write in studio 1. For some reason I’ve always written a fantastic song there, whether with the Sugababes or One Direction. That magic is a weird thing – it's just conducive to being creative, unlike a lot of studios. It's an inspiring place, so the thought of it not being there is heartbreaking.
You can sign the Save Strongroom petition, and find out more on further action to take for the campaign, right here.
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