In the busy basement studio of Logan Severson and Isaac deBroux-Slone.
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Thousands of dollars worth of instruments and recording equipment collected over the years glistened under Christmas lights in a dimly lit basement.
“It’s not like we’re recording Nirvana or anything.”
Logan Severson said this before he probably realized I’m a big enough narcissist to think I’m the next Kurt Cobain.
The room we were in seemed like one musicians entering Smart Studios in the late ’80s would have found: dark, cozy, lots of pedals, an overwhelming amount of amplifiers.
I met Severson a couple years ago. I thought it was cool that he played guitar and sang in the band Disq, which is signed to independent record label Saddle Creek. Little did I know his work in music went back much further.
At the time, my band, Mickey Sunshine, didn’t exist. Now, I was in the home Severson shares with fellow Disq member Isaac deBroux-Slone. Along with me were noted Madison drummer Chris Di Bernardo, the manager of Mickey Sunshine and my fiancé, guitarist Skylar Nahn, Tony Duvall (the band’s original bassist), and Alex Kaiser (our new bassist). We were recording our debut EP.
My friend, Tim Anderson of Able Baker, worked with Severson and deBroux-Slone on his 2021 EP, Spiral Bound Songs, and strongly recommended I work with Severson. The two had been making a name for themselves locally, also working with artists including Interlay and Graham Hunt. My low-brow, high concept post-grunge band was about to be added to their growing roster of Midwestern musicians.
Severson has been interested in recording music ever since he started playing it at an early age. As soon as he was able to get his hands on GarageBand music production software in school, he spent much of his free time recording his friends with different instruments, his bands, his friends’ bands—experimenting with microphones and learning along the way.
“One of my first favorite bands of all time was Nirvana and as soon as I found out they recorded music here in Madison, ya know, that was it,” Severson says. “We used to come here, me and my friends, just to go look at Smart Studios.”
In 2015, Severson moved to Madison from Lake Mills and studied briefly at Madison Media Institute, continuing to hone his craft.
Shortly thereafter, he met deBroux-Slone, who along with Disq co-founder Raina Bock eventually asked him to join the band. Recording music has always been a foundational part of their relationship, but they started taking it more seriously when Severson moved into deBroux-Slone’s place.
“It’s been a nice way to stay active and a part of the Madison-scene, which is an underrated music scene if you ask me,” Severson says.
Since then, the two have recorded about 20 bands collectively, and things seem to be picking up at their basement studio. Along with Severson’s work with Mickey Sunshine, deBroux-Slone is currently working on an album for Mission Trip, a post-punk indie shoegaze band.
“It has always been very special to me—the idea of Smart Studios and them starting out by fostering the scene—the Midwest scene, the Madison scene,” Severson says.
In 1983, Butch Vig and Steve Marker founded Smart Studios, recording a host of regional and local bands (including Killdozer, Die Kreuzen, and Rainer Maria) and making a national imprint through its work with artists ranging from L7 to Sparklehorse. The building along East Wash—once home to a whole range of gritty and aggressive sounds—has changed hands a few times and the bottom floor is now a kitschy Airbnb.
Similarly to Smart Studios, the Disq duo keeps recording affordable for musicians—as most are just friends they want to help support. Their duties, which might start and end with simply recording the bands and their songs, sometimes grow to the point of producing a session, offering creative input, or even playing instruments on the sessions.
“Getting the best performance possible from some great, great bands—that’s the best part, for sure,” Severson says.
Mickey Sunshine spent the first of our four-day session just playing the songs as a band with Severson behind the board, getting a rough recording and offering small suggestions. Much of his feedback came from his research into Mickey Sunshine before the recording session.
“I think it’s important to have some understanding of the band beforehand,” Severson says.
He had been listening to my demos for as long as I’ve known him. He spent time hanging out and getting to know the rest of Mickey Sunshine, as well as attending a live show.
“From there, you kind of start to get a picture, like okay, so this is what they sound like live—that’s what we’re going for really—but we want it to come across the best way it possibly can,” he says. “Imagine a live show in a perfect setting.”
Along with his background, Severson picked up a few tips working with producers and engineers who had a hand in crafting Disq’s sound. While recording Disq’s 2020 Saddle Creek debut, Collector, he had an opportunity to work with one of his idols in the studio.
“Just to watch Rob Schnapf, who recorded Elliott Smith, do what he does was so fascinating,” Severson recalls. “He fosters great ideas and environment. I tried to study these little tiny things you’d never notice until you do. He’s quiet about it, but he’s always making artists feel comfortable. I took major inspiration from that.”
While recording Disq’s upcoming album, Desperately Imagining Someplace Quiet, out October 7, Severson had another chance to learn from a producer he admired. Matt Schuessler engineered Collector, and served as both engineer and producer for Desperately. He’s also worked on recordings from Mdou Moctar, X, and Steve Gunn, among others. Severson says working with Schuessler was particularly enlightening when it came to production and post-production tricks.
“We’re really just trying to get a performance that comes across in an honest way,” Severson says.
As an artist, I noticed Severson made me feel at ease and understood. His skills as an engineer were obvious. At our fourth session, as I recorded my guitar tracks, I almost cried. Untouched, it was already close to a perfect capture of what I wanted to create.
The next day, Disq played at Orton Park Fest, before kicking off a short tour opening for Neko Case. They played some old favorites, as well as some new cuts from the upcoming album. The record was a new endeavor for the band, with an even split among four different songwriters.
As Disq tours through the winter months, Mickey Sunshine will be putting the final touches on the EP, which is set to be released in early 2023.
It’s easy to reduce the legacy of Smart Studios to the shorthand of Nirvana, Garbage, and The Smashing Pumpkins. But the impression it has left on Severson, 12 years after closing up shop on East Wash, has more to do with collaborating and supporting within the local music community.
“If there’s some truth to that, it’s that we want to certainly foster a similar thing, you know,” he says. “As far as helping the scene and stuff like that, that’s what I feel the best about.”