A decade of Crazy Beast

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February 14, 2011
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// Ben Durrant’s renowned Northeast recording studio turns 10 //

If you’ve tuned into 89.3 The Current at all during the last few months, you’ve probably heard Alexei Moon Casselle, lead singer of the band Roma di Luna, croon “Before I Die,” the bluesy single from the band’s recent record “Then the Morning Came.” The vocals are soulful, old-timey. You’d think they transported some singer from the 1950s into the studio to record with them.

But they didn’t. They just had a really old microphone — a ribbon mic, one of those boxy relics from the Golden Age of Radio. It’s one of the many antiquities that producer Ben Durrant, who recorded the album, keeps around his renowned Northeast studio, Crazy Beast.

“$59.99 at the thrift store down in Red Wing,” marvels Durrant, who also plays electric guitar in Roma di Luna. “I’m always on the lookout for old … everything.”

This month, Durrant celebrates his studio’s 10th anniversary. And over the past decade, Crazy Beast has become a sort of treasured musician’s secret, unadvertised and hidden away in Northeast. Soft-spoken and shy, Durrant prefers to let his clients find him — an easy enough task for someone boasting a co-producer credit on Andrew Bird’s “Armchair Apocrypha.” Local acts with an appetite for experimentation and a reverence for old-fashioned techniques — bands like Low, Dosh, Story of the Sea, STNNG, To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie — tend to seek Durrant out, tantalized by his collection of what he calls “funky old gear.”

On a recent visit, Durrant lead us down into the studio, which had the warm, insulated feel of the hull of a ship. A painting of the studio’s muse and namesake, a handsome brown ridgeback dog, Durrant’s beloved pet who passed away a few years ago, greets visitors.

He shows off several CB microphones, a miniature squeezebox accordion, a Tibetan funeral horn (“It sounds like some kind of throat-singing strange thing”), a Jaymar brand toy piano, impossibly teeny, as if made to fit inside of a dollhouse, and an ancient, 1930s resonator guitar, with a broken neck that someone tried to repair with bolts and a pair of metal plates.

He tells a story of a loud emo band he was recently recording. The singer eyed the resonator, picked out a few chords, “and the song went a completely different way,” Durrant said. “And that’s why I keep a lot of this stuff out. Musicians I think are naturally curious.”

If Durrant has a signature recording style — something he’s tempted to deny, given the breadth of genres he’s produced — it’s resurrecting the feel of a by-gone era. He prefers getting effects directly from his old objects, rather than trying to add them digitally after the fact. It’s an odd quirk for a guy who works a day-job as a computer programmer.

“I’m totally a computer guy on the one hand, but when it comes to the music thing, I’m the opposite,” he says. “I spend very little time wondering what’s the latest version of this software.”

Asked about his most memorable experience, he says, “One really strange one that sticks in my mind is Daniel Johnston,” the cult songwriter whose mental troubles were highlighted in the 2005 documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.”

Durrant met the singer when he was recording an in-studio performance for Radio K.

“He was actually incredibly nice. And after every song, he would say, ‘Alright! Did you get that?’ Like as soon as the song would be done. It’d still be ringing. And he’d be like ‘Alright! Did you get that?’ He was just an oddball. But a really interesting guy, and super gentle.”

When Johnston made his way out of the studio, the 18-year-old student DJ grabbed him for a quick interview.

“And Daniel took a little piece of paper and drew a little portrait of him,” remembers Durrant. “And if you’ve seen the movie, you know he’s an incredible visual artist. It completely captured this kid. And just that was so amazing to me.”

Asked about the 10-year anniversary, Durrant shrugs it off.

“It’s actually the 10-year anniversary of me getting a business name so that I could cash a check,” he says — meaning it’s still just the same hobby he started back when he was 15 and playing in bands.

Things got “serious” in 2001, when Durrant recorded Baby Grant Johnson’s album “All Over Your Town,” which won a Minnesota Music Award that year. After that it was on to recording Martin Dosh, the multi-instrumentalist who began his career in the experimental bands Fog and Lateduster. Dosh ultimately introduced Durrant to Andrew Bird.

Nowadays, Durrant stays busy with recording projects, playing gigs with Roma di Luna and simply being a dad. He has a two year old and two stepdaughters.

Does he have plans for this year’s milemarker?

“I thought about it,” he says. “But I honestly don’t have time.”