Brian McTernan and his Salad Days Studio creates a punk-rock paradise in Fells Point
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"It's pretty funny, I always hated Baltimore," admits record producer and Bethesda native Brian McTernan of his adopted hometown. "The extent of my Baltimore experience was going to shitty clubs in shitty neighborhoods. I grew up in the hardcore scene in D.C., and the guys that would come from Baltimore were always like the thugs. I would do anything I could to avoid coming up here."
McTernan, the 33-year-old owner of Salad Days Studio, set up shop in Fells Point four years ago, but he's been using that name for home studios and DIY-recording setups since the early '90s, when he was still playing in Washington punk bands such as Ashes and Battery. "I started recording in one of my band members' basements, the band had an 8-track," he recalls one afternoon at the studio between projects. "I was 17, I dropped out of high school to tour, and moved to Boston, and I started my little ADAT studio."
Ten years ago, McTernan and his wife returned to Maryland, and for a few years he operated Salad Days out of Beltsville, before they began to feel the unlikely itch to relocate to Baltimore. "She got her internship up here and said to me, 'Baltimore's awesome, there's all these cool people, there's all these cool restaurants,'" he says. "So we started coming up from time to time to hang out with all the people she was meeting here. And I was like, shit, this is . . . this is cool."
By the time McTernan moved to Baltimore, he had accrued a steady clientele of prominent hardcore and emo bands, including Hot Water Music, Snapcase, and Thrice, and had become a go-to producer for powerhouse indie labels such as Vagrant, Epitaph, and Victory Records. So when it came to finding a new space, he went big, building a studio in a loft space large enough for a band to live in for the five or six weeks it typically takes to record an album at Salad Days. "When this building became available, I thought I'd never ever find something like this in this area, because it's a 3,500 square-foot building with 25-foot ceilings," he says of the homey, expansive space, tucked away on a nondescript side street. "To find that in Fells Point is wild."
Much of the Salad Days building is living space, where band members can relax between recording and practice sessions, and the comfortable accommodations have become one of the studio's biggest selling points. "The thing that's interesting was, I didn't think that it would help my business," McTernan says. "But, really, the bands that come here are obsessed with Baltimore now, they love it. Fells Point is such a small town. Everywhere they go, you go in once, and they know they're a band and they're here recording and they get treated so well. They just love it."
He even turned one of his other producer friends onto the area, and Paul Leavitt now has his own space next door. "Believe it or not," McTernan says, "on the other side of this wall, my friend has a recording studio, too."
McTernan's own extensive experience playing in bands means that his role as producer often as much about creative input as it is recording; he usually spends the first week of a session letting the bands practice and write. "Usually we'll kinda strip songs down to just acoustic format, so I can understand all the changes, and it's much easier," he says. "You can actually talk it over, and it's much easier for me to say, 'OK, sing the melody, and I'll play the basic version of it.' I had one band last year where they were trying to write the record and they couldn't agree on anything. Their label decided to have them come here for five weeks to write the record, and I just kinda hung out, and only chimed in when I felt like they were hitting a brick wall. They demoed and wrote, and once they got on track and had five or six songs, they went home."
Even though he named Salad Days after a Minor Threat song that expressed disillusionment with changes in punk--"the core has gotten soft"--McTernan appears to have made his peace with being a grown-up family man in a perennially young scene, working closely with bands and labels that have helped make hardcore into a profitable business model. It's not uncommon for albums he's produced to sell in the six-figure range, and last year Senses Fail's Life Is Not a Waiting Room debuted in the Top 20 of the Billboard albums chart.
A few years ago, McTernan had a consulting gig at Atlantic Records and a short-lived imprint of his own, but he's happier focusing on the recording process now and stays as far as he can from label politics. And though he, like everyone else in the music industry, has felt the crunch of plummeting CD sales, far lower overhead costs than studios in Los Angeles or New York have helped Salad Days continue to do steady business with increasingly international clientele. "I'm mixing a record now and I had a band that left yesterday," he says. "I have another band in town killing time until I finish this. And then I have two separate bands from Australia coming back to back."
McTernan currently lives in Mount Washington and commutes, but he's trying to find a way to move his family closer to the studio or into the same building. "I just don't see my own wife and my daughter that much," he laments. Instead of becoming jaded or focusing on the generation gap between himself and his younger clients, though, McTernan appreciates his role in assisting their recording careers, and takes the job seriously. "I'll probably make a hundred or two hundred more records in my life," he says. "But these people that come in here, they'll make two or three if they're lucky. And that's a big responsibility. They put that in your hands."