Features, Print November 11, 2019

The Blasting Room: FoCo’s Punk Rock Heart Beats For 25 Years

by Dan England

The Blasting Room didn’t start with a Big Bang, as you might expect, but a drunken nap. The sound engineer for one of the Descendents’ mid-80s records had a drinking problem, and one afternoon, it won, as drinking problems will. He fell asleep at the recording console. As he snored, Bill Stevenson, the band’s drummer, songwriter and founder, rolled the engineer’s chair out of the way and began to work the dials. Hey, he thought, I’m an engineer now.

Stevenson had no training, but he figured his years of playing with punk legends Black Flag as well as his own renowned bands ALL and The Descendents was enough. That attitude was what got him into punk rock in the first place: he heard the Ramones and rightly thought if those dudes could do it, so could he.

The Blasting Room Founder and Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson with a custom snare drum made for him by DW. Photo by Michael Olivier.

That can-do attitude fit punk rock more than the snarl that many associated with it, and so Stevenson, plump from a fat record deal, decided to build a studio in Fort Collins. He could spend the money renting out a studio, he thought, or he could build his own for his band. He brought a punk-rock friend along, drummer Jason Livermore, who knew some things about engineering by eight-tracking his own groups but knew a lot more about his desire to stop selling beer and start recording bands. 

Now the two are celebrating their 25th anniversary of the studio and a long history of recording punk bands such as Rise Against, metal bands such as As I Lay Dying, and a wide variety of folk, electronic and, yes, a few pop bands with producers and engineers with real pedigrees and chops. Stevenson gladly lets them each contribute to an identity of the place far beyond its punk rock roots, when Livermore made the studio couch his home and Stevenson and his bandmates slept on the floor. “That’s the model we were 20 years ago,” Stevenson said. “We really aren’t that now.”

Jason Livermore, the studio’s co-owner at the console in the Mastering room where he spends most of his time. Photo by Michael Olivier.

Indeed, The Blasting Room has four studios, all with different characteristics, including a mastering room so exact that it muffles your voice down to HAL’s eerie soft tenor from 2001: A Space Odyssey and more rooms so modern they still smell like a new car. The studio’s staff, Andrew Berlin, Chris Beeble and Jonathan Luginbill, along with Stevenson and Livermore (who became co-owner in 2015 and has worked on 95 percent of the albums that left the studio) are all part of the package. They’ve rented out The Blasting Room maybe only a half-dozen times in the 25 years since it was built. That’s an unusual but vital part of their reputation.

“It’s funny how little of that [renting] we’ve actually done,” Stevenson said. “Honestly, though, our actual space isn’t the greatest. But it’s us, the people – that’s what they come for. That’s what makes it great.”

The Blasting Room’s entryway is lined with dozens of posters from bands who have recorded at the now legendary Fort Collins studio. Photo by Michael Olivier.

When the studio opened, Stevenson and Livermore continued to play, but it became clear that The Blasting Room would take up much of their time. Even before the paint dried, they said, punk bands began calling, begging to book a spot. Stevenson had produced more than a dozen records for his own bands and others, so the interest wasn’t unwarranted, but it also was a knock at the way many other studios recorded punk.

“Back then, there weren’t many engineers who understood punk rock,” Stevenson said. “You’d end up with effects on the vocals and something that didn’t sound like a raw snare drum, and it would suck. And then you’d find out they got all your money.”

Stevenson and Livermore did understand it, of course, because they lived it. And if that first wave of bands to swarm the studio were just fans of the Descendants and Black Flag who simply wanted to work with Stevenson, that changed quickly. Livermore said bands who wanted to work with engineers who knew how to put out a good record without losing the energy of a live show began to seek them out.

“We knew how to straddle that vibe between not sounding amateurish but also not sounding too slick,” Stevenson said. 

Guitar speaker cabinets in The Blasting Rooms Studio A. Photo by Michael Olivier.

Stevenson and Livermore know they no longer hold a monopoly on three-chord rock, especially as punk – or more accurately – the palatable pop punk movement led by bands like Blink 182, The Offspring, Sum 41 (and the more classic Green Day, Bad Religion and Rancid) emerged from the underground and sold out arenas. But they still shoot for that mix of raw power and polish.

“I’m always going for something that’s honest,” said Berlin, who has worked at The Blasting Room since 2001. “You want to feel the impact of the snare in your chest. It’s all about capturing what happens when you play that instrument. I feel like part of it is recognizing what is coming from that person rather than what would be considered perfect.”

Engineer Andrew Berlin with a painting made for him by a Blasting Room client and a coffee mug – perhaps a reference to “Coffee Mug” from The Descendents 1996 album Everything Sucks, but definitely a totem of the studio’s fuel of choice. Photo by Michael Olivier.

As a result of today’s pop music scene, the studio does not limit itself to guitar-bass-drum bands, although that is most likely still its specialty, Livermore said. Beeble, who counts the other three as his biggest influences, probably does boast the widest range of expertise. He studied jazz bass and composition at the University of Denver and has experience in synth programming, string arranging and something called signal processor construction, so he has more of an argument as any for stretching the boundaries at The Blasting Room.

Beeble, who wanted to work at The Blasting Room since he was in high school, is cozy with pop music’s emphasis on electronics, dub-step and instruments other than a loud guitar and nasty snare. “If I have to do something with a keyboard,” Livermore said, “I’m yelling at him, ‘GET IN HERE.’ He is really versed in that kind of thing.”

Engineer Chris Beeble, the Blasting Room’s go-to guy for electronics and synth, at an old console he stripped and re-built. Photo by Michael Olivier.

Yet Beeble also wants to keep the roots grounded in the basics of rock and roll. “We have a great history here, and I think it’s cool that we’ve kept that energy and feel,” Beeble said.”I don’t want to get away from that.”

That demonstrates the camaraderie the guys pride themselves on, which all starts with Stevenson, who knows that the tale of a punk rocker who started his own studio is a great story but not the complete one.

“We don’t let our egos get in the way of the work,” Stevenson said. “We listen to each other. What we want is the best thing for the band.”

Jonathan Luginbill, the youngest member of The Blasting Room staff, is a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and engineer with a music degree from Bluffton University, seen here at his meticulously arranged workbench, a testament to the studio’s attention to detail. Photo by Michael Olivier.

In fact, Stevenson is just one vote in the democracy of The Blasting Room, even if he is the founder and co-owner. They even voted on the 25th anniversary show. Some of the bands they named will play at Washington’s on Nov. 23, and others had commitments, but it will be, as Livermore put it, without irony, a “big rock party.” 

Odell’s Brewery is making a beer for the event, and the show’s headliners are The Descendents and Rise Against, making it one of the hottest tickets in town. In fact, the show has been sold out for weeks. “I have 50 enemies already,” Stevenson said. “I’ve had to tell a lot of people that I’ve already given away all my passes.”

Stevenson’s other band ALL, will play too. It would have been strange for them not to play, the guys said, and Stevenson is looking forward to it, even if he’s upset that he can’t get too drunk.

He still loves playing live, and he still tours, but many years ago, even as he was deep into the punk rock lifestyle, Stevenson became a father, and decided that he needed to be home at least half the year. Ergo, he and Livermore committed themselves even more to the studio, and that meant, in 2007, he and Livermore once worked 92 days straight, for 12 hours a day. “Jason and I had nine days off the whole fucking year,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson is 56 now, and all the guys have a wife or kids, or both. That may not evoke an image many associate with youthful, anti-establishment punk rock attitudes, but it means they have come a long way, and are settled and happy with who they are and what they’re doing. Yet settled though they may be, the heart of the original Blasting Room still beats like a punchy snare: the studio where Stevenson used to sleep on the floor is now a bedroom, a place where young bands living the life he once lived can crash for the night while making their punk rock dreams come true.

The Blasting Room Staff from left to right – Chris Beeble, Bill Stevenson, Andrew Berlin, Jonathan Luginbill and Jason Livermore. Photo by Michael Olivier.

Washington’s in Fort Collins will host the 25th anniversary party of The Blasting Room on Saturday, November 23, featuring The Descendents, ALL, Rise Against and more. The event is sold out, but check out theblastingroom.com for more on the studio.