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New Haven Independent

Firehouse 12 Celebrates Rejuvenations

By Brian Slattery,

2023-03-14
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Brian Slattery Photo Lloyd.

For Nick Lloyd, owner and chief engineer of Firehouse 12 on Crown Street, the announcement of the space’s spring concert series — kicking off March 24 and running every Friday through June 23 — is both a return and a rejuvenation. As in the past, the concert series features many of the leading lights of the experimental music scene, locally, regionally, and nationally. Those groups, however, will get to play in a renovated space that reflects, after two decades, Lloyd’s even surer sense of what a concert venue can sound like, and what it can do for players and audience alike.

March 24 will feature the trio of Joe Morris, Sam Newsome, and Francisco Mela, followed by Joe Fonda and From the Source on March 31. April will see Mary Halvorson’s Clone Decay, Tomas Fujiwara’s Seven Poet’s Trio, Stephen Haynes and Knuckleball, and the Adam O’Farrill Trio. In May, Erik Friedlander’s THE THROW, Reggie Nicholson Brass Concept, Mali Obomsawin Sextet, and Kris Allen Quintet will pay visits. June will conclude with Nick DiMaria and Indigo Seven, Josh Lawrence Quintet, Ben Allison Quartet, and Ralph Alessi and This and That (see Firehouse 12’s performance calendar for details).

The schedule represents a mix of returning musicians and performers new to New Haven, seasoned veterans and young visionaries. Those coming back to the space for the first time since 2020 — bands and audiences alike — will notice that the space has been quite transformed; it is lighter and brighter, the sound in the room just a little more alive. That dramatic change happened thanks in part to Nick Lloyd making the best of calamity, and in drawing on years of experience to do it.

Lloyd bought the Firehouse 12 property in 2001; at that point it had been vacant for 45 years. His idea for what kind of studio and performance space he wanted to run at the time was shaped from going to jazz clubs in New York. It was ​“having a space for live music where you have a focus on the performance.… and then the bar area is your release valve, where you can have this experience, and go down to the bar, and hang out,” Lloyd said. He also wanted to have ​“a legit recording studio.”

Extensively renovating the space allowed him to build a state of the art studio and performance spot on the first floor, a bar in the basement, and an apartment above the studio. His first concert in the space was in 2005. Firehouse 12 Records, dedicated to promoting improvised music, was founded in 2007.

Over the next decade and a half, Firehouse 12 held a series of concerts and put out a string of records that established it as a national hub for improvised music, championing established giants like Anthony Braxton and Wadada Leo Smith as well as a younger generation making their marks, including recent MacArthur grant recipients Mary Halvorson and Tyshawn Sorey.

Then came the Covid-19 pandemic. Firehouse 12 closed along with everything else in March 2020, but, realizing clients could isolate in the studio, reopened for recording work that June.

“We were really busy right away,” Lloyd said. ​“People wanted to be able to come back in.” The studio also continued to get steady work mixing and editing projects that had been recorded elsewhere, ​“which is more the normal way things work now,” even before the pandemic started. ​“From a studio perspective, we’re happy to be involved in any of it,” from recording to mastering, he added.

But then came Hurricane Ida. One of the most destructive storms on record in the Atlantic, in late August and early September 2021 Ida cut a swath across the Caribbean from Venezuela through Cuba and made landfall in the United States in Louisiana. As a tropical storm, it then hooked inland and eastward, moving across Appalachia and through the Northeast, continuing through Canada’s maritime provinces. By the time it was over, the storm had killed at least 107 people. In Connecticut, Ida brought massive rainfall and killed a state trooper when his car was inundated by floodwaters. New Haven saw nine inches of rain and flooding in some parts of town.

That night in September 2021, Firehouse 12’s engineer Greg DiCrosta was ushering clients who had come up from New York to record into the apartment above the recording studio, as it was unsafe for them to travel.

“He went up into the apartment and it was like someone had turned a shower on inside the space,” Lloyd said. ​“Water was coming everywhere through the roof of the building.” The roof’s drains had gotten backed up, ​“so the whole roof flooded.” The water flowed through the building and into the recording studio. The studio’s wooden ceiling ​“was like a bowl that was holding standing water,” Lloyd said. ​“We were almost lancing the ceiling to get it to drain. We’d drill a hole and there’d be this jet of ganky water pouring out into buckets we had in here.”

Assessing the extensive water damage, Lloyd said, he realized ​“we were going to have to tear this thing out.” Which meant losing his performance space for 2022. But it also gave Lloyd a chance to redo the studio entirely — a chance he hadn’t had in nearly 20 years. In that time, he’d made a mental list of improvements.

He revamped the HVAC system to be completely silent during recording. He changed the lighting. He also revisited the acoustics of the room itself. In his 20s, he had built the studio to have the acoustics of a conventional recording studio, with no natural reverberation. That was attainable with a combination of fabric and wood. ​“What that sounds like is a very closed-sounding room,” he said. ​“Which can be really good, if that’s what you’re after — a tight, direct sound.”

This time around, Lloyd opted to ​“replace the fabric with wood, lots and lots of wood,” he said. ​“We didn’t change the architecture, the shell of the room, but the way we treated the inside is different. It’s a little more live.… the tone of the room is different, the resonance is different.” He enlisted the same firms — Walters-Storyk Design Group and Gray Organschi Architecture — who had designed the original space, with the goals of creating a space that would look and feel even better than the original had.

“With any recording studio, there’s always a footprint, an acoustic fingerprint of what the room is doing to the sound after the sound is activated in the space,” Lloyd said. ​“So this room, we just decided to have be a little more lively, give you a little back” when musicians played in the space. Lloyd still has smaller recording rooms off of the main space to get that dry, detailed sound some clients are looking for, and to isolate instruments from one another as needed. But the main room is designed to come to life when musicians play together in it.

The change was wrought by experience. Lloyd was 26 when he started the studio. He was already a talented engineer, but looking back from where he is now at the age of 48, ​“I had no idea about how to even think about acoustics in a coherent way, let alone have a sense of what my sense was, to be able to translate preference into architecture.” Doing so ​“requires a lot of life — to be in different spaces.… Now I’m almost 50 and I’ve been in a lot of recording studios, not just my own, and I’ve made music in spaces and know a little more of my preferences for how a room could sound.”

Lloyd also had in mind restoring the space’s role as a performance space, a place for musicians to play and for people to hear them in the same room. For Lloyd, live music at its best can be ​“a quasi-religious moment of witnessing and participating as an audience member with the thing, while it’s happening,” he said. ​“That is an analog experience. That is about sound waves in the air.… Being in a room with 50 other people and watching an amazing band — that is a powerful thing.”

With the spring schedule in place, Lloyd sees the return of live music to Firehouse 12 as a restoration of an integral part of the place’s identity after a long time away.

“This is what happens here,” he said. ​“You come in, there’s a show. It happens on Friday nights, at 8:30 and 10. There’s no video. It sounds really good. People have a good time. There’s a great bar downstairs. That’s what we do.”

Firehouse 12’s spring series starts on March 24. Visit the venue’s website for tickets and more information.

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