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The stars of Track & Field

Increasing rent forces the Carrboro studio out

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The blood-red hallway is long, high and narrow. It's lined with sconces that make it feel like a windowless train car. Vibrantly colored flyers for bygone shows pepper its length. At one end, a stairway climbs up, disappears around a bend. At the other, there's a closed door. It's the kind of room David Lynch's camera would eat up: one with its own personality.

Click for larger image • Stains and memories: Facing a steep rent increase in a building shared with screenprinter Ron Liberti, The Reservoir bar and a car wash, Track & Field studio wizard Nick Petersen will close his Carrboro studio this weekend. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Click for larger image • Stains and memories: Facing a steep rent increase in a building shared with screenprinter Ron Liberti, The Reservoir bar and a car wash, Track & Field studio wizard Nick Petersen will close his Carrboro studio this weekend.

That sense of latent energy owes to more than aesthetic. For a decade now, the corridor's been a conduit for creative power in Carrboro. The closed door opens into The Reservoir, the Brewer Lane watering hole and part-time venue that once housed the dearly departed venue Go! Room 4. The Reservoir occupies the old Go! space like a ghostly superimposition: A bar where there was once a stage, tables where there was once a crowd. But the layout—from the jukebox in the corner to the corrugated metal stairs leading to the balcony—remains virtually unchanged.

At the other end of the hall, another set of doors leads into the practicing, recording and mixing spaces known collectively as Track & Field studios. Those mysterious stairs lead up to Ron Liberti's art studio, where some of the flyers festooning the walls were screenprinted. This space used to be Go!'s green room, a comfy lounge with tatty couches and overflowing ashtrays.

But just as the space has been creatively blessed, it's also been financially cursed. Go! succumbed to the financial difficulty of sustaining a small room for offbeat bands. On March 15, Track & Field will end its three-and-a-half year tenure here. The rent will triple, and general manager and chief engineer Nick Petersen says he can't afford it. A few dozen bands have rehearsed off this hallway since 2003. Hundreds of EPs, LPs and demos have been recorded here. But now it's almost over.

"We had a really good situation," Petersen explains, "with an expiration date."

It's a familiar story: The artistic class energizes a community space. Rents rise. The artistic class can no longer survive there. Track & Field's landlord has been sympathetic to their plight, but at last, reality overtook sympathy. With rent tripling from $800 to $2,500 per month, according to Petersen, the only way to make ends meet would be to raise fees to a level that few local bands could afford.

Landlord Thomas C. Tucker would neither confirm nor deny the price increase, saying only, "They were paying 25 percent of what they should have been paying for seven years ... 25 percent of market value for that property." Tucker paid $900,000 for the property that includes Track & Field, The Reservoir and Carolina Car Wash & Detail in 1997 and owns many other rental properties in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, according to county land records.

Mike Clayton, the owner of Clayton Commercial Realty in Chapel Hill, estimates the market value for a 1,800-square-foot office space, like the one that holds Track & Field, with similar amenities in Carrboro rents at $14-$16 per square foot per year, or $2,100 to $2,400 per month. Petersen says the renters were also responsible for all repairs in the space.

"Maybe the town that loves us and uses us as a beacon could also have our backs. I feel a little let down that that hasn't happened. They want people to come here for all the things that we built, but now we can't be a part of it," says Liberti, a visual artist and musician with his own archive in the Southern Folklife Collection at Wilson Library. He led Pipe and co-founded Hypno-Vista Records. A New Jersey native, he's been here since 1991. "I feel as bad for the 40 or 50 bands who are displaced as I do for us. There are going to be some pissed-off neighbors when everyone starts practicing at home."

Beyond those disappointments, though, Petersen, Liberti and former studio manager Ben Dunlap are far from bitter: Rather, they're thankful for the time they had at Track & Field and proud of what they accomplished. "We got really lucky to get a space," explains Dunlap, "and our landlord's been really cool. This is a pretty prime piece of real estate, and we knew that at some point we weren't going to be able to just do what we wanted to do with it."

But Dunlap and Petersen made the most of their turn. Before Track & Field, when Petersen was still "doing professional recording at home, on 2-inch, 24-track tape," both were employees at Go!, dispensing hand-stamps and cold bottles of beer by the drafty side door. Petersen and Dunlap were friends with Lyle Collins, Mike Ellis, Bill Fischer and Wes Lowder. When those four turned the former Go! space into The Reservoir in December 2004, they allowed Petersen and Dunlap to keep running Go!'s old practice rooms along the hallway.

Petersen soon moved his recording rig into the space. Liberti imported his art studio. Track & Field was born. Liberti, Dunlap and Petersen worked together to run the studio and practice spaces and separately on their distinct but symbiotic creative efforts. All of them play in bands: Petersen in Monsonia, Dunlap in Transportation and Shallow Be Thy Name, Liberti in Bringerer and Poncho Holly. They didn't pay themselves. Their impetus was never to make a living but to keep the space running for the benefit of local acts.

And the bands responded: Track & Field's production credits read like a partial who's who of local music this decade. Des Ark, Snatches of Pink, Alina Simone, Bellafea, Adam Thorn, Witchcraft by a Picture and Red Collar are a small sample of Track & Field bands. Petersen mastered Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago at Track & Field last year, and the practice spaces have catered to bands as diverse as Caltrop and the Wusses. And what's perhaps most remarkable is Track & Field's reliance on word of mouth for all of its business.

"I've never even cornered a band and been like, 'I really want to record you guys,'" says Petersen, who wouldn't consider compiling a sampler of the bands he's worked with at Track & Field. "The bands come here for a service that we provide, and I wouldn't feel right drawing from their release to put something out showing off how cool I am."

Click for larger image • Screenprinter Ron Liberti, who has his own archive in the Southern Folklife Collection, will search for a new studio - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

This reticence speaks as much to Petersen's humility—"Nick's being modest," says Dunlap, "but I can tell you that bands come to him because he's good"—as it does to his philosophy of accessible, unobtrusive, band-centered recording. At Track & Field, Petersen worked to make the recording process as educational, comfortable and open as possible. On his favorite records, he can't hear the engineer at work. He tries to realize the band's vision without getting in its way.

"I don't have a template," he explains, "where you have to record with a click track or anything like that. I might have an idea of how a band can realize what they're trying to do, but it's important not to grind the conversation to a halt with it. Always keep things moving and positive, without technically speaking over anyone's head."

Aaron Smithers, who's recorded at Track & Field with Mount Moriah and In the Year of the Pig, supports Petersen's claims: "Nick makes [Track & Field] special; he's the perfect guy for that job. He knows his equipment really well, but he's comfortable letting you direct recordings. He can give you the input you need without being overbearing. Recording there is really comfortable and cheap, and the cheapness doesn't reflect the quality of the equipment." And bands that practice at Track & Field, Liberti adds, are naturally more comfortable recording there. They already know what they sound like in the space.

With so much momentum and support for Track & Field, why not just pick up and move to a new space? "I've looked at dozens of places since December," Petersen says. "Take an arbitrary amount of money, say 1,500 bucks per month for rent. To move in, you need first month's rent and security deposit. When you think about turning the lights on, insurance, security system, construction and moving expenses, you're approaching 10 grand really fast." Too much: For now, Petersen will continue recording at home, and Liberti will keep making art while he searches for a new studio.

All told, the Track & Field experience has been a lesson in community solidarity and sustainability for everyone involved. Petersen "can't say how much [his] heart goes out to everyone who came through to record or rehearse, or did benefit shows for Go!" Liberti is grateful for the bands who made good music to inspire his art: "I liked the bands so much," he says, "that I wanted the art I did for them to be as good as the music was."

Ten of those bands and several visual artists will join at the studio for two nights of music Feb. 29 and March 1. It will be less of a lament for the space's end than a celebration of its years of artistic symbiosis.

"It's funny, the fine line between community and family. Nothing we've done has been about civic responsibility," muses Dunlap. "It's been about bands coming together to make this thing happen. We sort of steered, but it was a train with a lot of cars on it." That train may be pulling into its final station, but the tracks on which it traveled—community solidarity and artistic ambition—hopefully stretch far into the future.

Bringerer, Blag'ard, Hazerai, Caltrop and Transportation play Night One at Track & Field's farewell party Friday, Feb. 29. Bringerer goes on at 8 p.m. Bastard Sword, Monsonia, The Curtains of Night, In the Year of the Pig and Black Taj play Saturday, March 1. Bastard Sword goes on at 8 p.m.

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