A drab brown building on Fourth Avenue has been the birthplace for some of Seattle's most important musical history, from Soundgarden's "Superunknown" to Nirvana's "In Utero." Longtime manager Reed Ruddy, who's overseeing the studio's move from Belltown to Capitol Hill, has been there for the amazing ride.
Sometimes Reed Ruddy will step outside of his office for lunch, and there will be someone standing there with a camera, taking a photograph of the unmarked front door of Studio X at Bad Animals.
The other week, it was a kid from Brazil, his phone out, his eyes wide with wonder.
“I came to see where grunge was made,” he told Ruddy, who shook his head at the memory.
“They come to Seattle,” Ruddy said, “to mecca, in their minds, to see where it was done.”
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Hard to believe to look at it, but this drab brown building has been the place where some of Seattle’s most important musical history was created. Where dynamite was wrapped and readied.
Soundgarden’s “Superunknown.” Nirvana’s “In Utero.” Alice in Chains’ untitled “dog” album. R.E.M. recorded “Automatic for the People” here, and Pearl Jam finished their third album, “Vitalogy,” here, as well as parts of four others. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have recorded here. So did Chance the Rapper, Death Cab for Cutie and Dave Matthews Band.
It is also the place where orchestral soundtracks have been recorded for movies like “Office Space,” “Into the Wild” and “Carol,” as well as video games like “Halo” and “Age of Empires.”
And because this is Seattle, all that history is about to be reduced to rubble. Studio X is one of three properties in the 2200 block of Fourth Avenue that were purchased for $21.6 million last October by Skanska. The development firm plans to build a 346-unit multifamily tower with ground-floor retail.
On Oct. 31, Ruddy and his staff will move up to Capitol Hill, where developer Michael Christ has offered a space in a former church. Ruddy is taking the name, Studio X, and all the equipment he thinks he’ll need.
Some of the equipment will be sold, and some elements of the old studio will stay. Skanska has promised “to incorporate music practice or performance in the project” and is working with the Seattle Music Commission and others “to determine how to best support local artists,” according to spokeswoman Ann Marie Ricard.
That would be great, Ruddy said, considering that so much happened within these walls, and so much is gone. The Black Dog Forge, where Pearl Jam first met and rehearsed together. Clubs like The Ditto and The Off-Ramp. Ruddy has seen them all disappear. Slowly, at first, but over the last few years with a speed and regularity that he finds disorienting.
“I’m a Seattle native,” said Ruddy, 63. “So I have seen where we’ve gone. And it’s so bizarre for me to walk down here. All I know in South Lake Union is Whole Foods and Guitar Center. Everything between is like, ‘Where the hell am I?’
“When we go to Capitol Hill, we’ll circumvent that scene. And that will be fun for me.”
The studio was opened in 1976 by the actor Danny Kaye and his partner, Lester Smith, who owned and operated radio stations and that year became part owners of the brand-new Seattle Mariners baseball franchise. They needed a local outpost, so they opened an office and studio and called it Kaye Smith Studios, where they held press conferences and booked sessions.
A man named Thom Bell brought in soul and R&B acts like The Temptations, The Spinners. Singers like Dionne Warwick and Johnny Mathis. Elton John recorded an EP here. And Steve Miller recorded two of his biggest records, “Fly Like an Eagle” and “Book of Dreams,” here.
In 1989, producer Steve Lawson bought the two music rooms, three post-production rooms and a cavernous studio and called it Lawson Productions, where records were made, and commercials were recorded in an adjacent soundstage.
In 1992, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart wanted to build a studio in Seattle, where they lived. Lawson agreed to partner with them and opened Bad Animals. Five years later, the sisters sold the studio to Charlie Nordstrom, and the adjacent soundstage was turned into Studio X.
The only constant has been Ruddy, the smiley, white-bearded studio manager and engineer who still can’t believe his luck. The work, the place, the people that he’s spent time with. The art he has witnessed.
“If somebody works in the same building their whole life, they can’t wait to get out, probably, in a lot of careers,” he said. “I’ve been lucky … I’m passionate about it, still, to this day.”
Ask him for some memories, and the one that percolates to the top is the time in 1982, when jazz singer Diane Schuur came in for a week.
Producer Dave Grusin, “one of the old schoolers,” played piano, Ruddy remembered. Grusin’s brother, Don, played synthesizer. Stan Getz played saxophone. Howard Roberts played guitar and Schuur sang and played a Fender Rhodes piano.
“It was just one of those moments when you just go and record and it’s ‘Great! Let’s move on to the next tune,'” Ruddy remembered. “That doesn’t happen anymore because we have all sorts of devices to manipulate the sound.”
Ten years ago, Van Morrison had a night off from tour and wanted to come in the next morning. Ruddy gathered all the equipment they needed.
“They came in, the band set up, Van Morrison is playing piano and pretty soon, they called the violin player,” he remembered. “She comes in and gets next to the piano. Background singers came in and gather around the piano, just rehearsing and doing stuff and I’m just sitting here, going …”
He knocked on the table.
“That was one of those moments,” he said. “That’s why you do it because it was, like, a true great. And I’m not in awe often.”
Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron remembered walking into Bad Animals for the first time in 1993, as a member of Soundgarden. The band had just returned from “constant” touring to promote its 1991 album, “Badmotorfinger” and had a new batch of songs, ready to go.
“Bad Animals was a state-of-the-art facility in the heart of downtown that we chose as our home/laboratory to record what would become our signature album, ‘Superunknown,'” Cameron said via email. “The studio had a fantastic sounding live tracking room that I instantly took over with two full drum kits.”
Cameron credited drum tech Gregg Keplinger, engineer Jason Casaro and producers Adam Kasper and Michael Beinhorn with helping him capture “landmark drum sounds at Studio X that have stood the test of time.”
“We used every inch of that studio,” Cameron said, “and let our imaginations run wild in the process.”
He remembered eating lunch at the Sit & Spin or the Two Bells Tavern across the street — both now gone. And he thanked Ruddy and his staff for their “tireless contributions to our city’s music culture.”
Cameron’s Soundgarden bandmate, guitarist Kim Thayil, considered Bad Animals/Studio X “a weird tree fort where I was camped out all day.” He remembered doing the test mixes of “Superunknown” and running into the studio garage with the band’s late lead singer, Chris Cornell, where they would sit in his car and listen to them on cassette. (“How was the mix?”)
You could play in one room, he said, listen back in another, sit in the area between reception and the studio and make phone calls and do interviews. You could try something out in one of the other studios, visit with another band or go across the street to the Two Bells Tavern for a sandwich, or a meeting with your lawyer, if you had to.
He remembered that area of Belltown as “this little triangle that I would define by my footsteps” that included another studio called The House of Leisure, where artist Reyza Sageb did the booklet art for Soundgarden’s “Superunknown.”
But Studio X was the center of it all.
“And it actually had sunshine!” Thayil said. “In the rare case that we weren’t caught up in a meeting or recording, you could step outside and the sun would strike your face. Now it’s being turned into this weird valley.”
Ruddy will sell the equipment the studio hasn’t used or doesn’t need. The rest will be carted up to the new location. Some of it dates back to the ’70s. Teletronix tube compressors. Limiters. Pultec equalizers.
“There are 24 hours in a day, right?” Ruddy said with a laugh, then paused, looked around.
There’s still plenty of work being done here. Alice in Chains just recorded “Rainier Fog,” a new album that releases Aug. 24.
“I want to do sessions for as long as I can, for obvious reasons,” Ruddy said. “Not just for the monetary part, but because this has been our home. I have my whole life here and I’m kind of going, ‘Well, I’ll be out of here one day.’
“If you go into that room,” he said, looking through the glass at Studio X. “There’s something about it. After all these years, I think a lot of people would agree with me on that.”