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“Let’s try that again, the tape is rolling.” As sound engineer Anthony Arvizu twists knobs and pushes faders, Phantom Limb singer Yolanda Quartey begins another take of the song “The Pines.” It’s a mellow Friday at Arvizu’s Compound Studio in Signal Hill; hidden behind a gated fence in a bucolic corner of town, with sunlight hitting the high end of the street, dappled-golden rays across the old barn’s wooden panels. At the moment, Phantom Limb are working on their second album, enjoying the airy, inviting space and laid-back vibe.
Quartey wails, “But, baby, I got no hope/Could anything you said make it worthwhile?” Her voice purrs and wraps itself around each evocative line, while guitarist Stew Jackson nimbly plays along. At the end of the take, producer Marc Ford chimes in, “It sounds badass. Not every fool can make something musical.”
Ford, a former Black Crowes guitarist who now focuses mostly on production work, has helmed records by artists such as the Pawnshop Kings and Ryan Bingham. Years ago, Ford and Compound Studio proprietor Arvizu were in an LA band called the Neptune Blues Club. They had co-produced their band’s album, and it worked so well that they decided to also produce for other artists.
After Arvizu acquired the big, empty barn in Signal Hill in 2001, he renovated the building and began to piece together a state-of-the-art workspace that would become the Compound. Over the past decade, Arvizu has outfitted the studio with a large array of vintage guitars, basses, pianos and amplifiers for clients to play during sessions.
Artists such as Mando Diao, the Mars Volta and Crystal Antlers have sought Arvizu’s expertise and the Compound’s high-end gear, but how Phantom Limb, a country/soul band from Bristol, England, ended up recording music in Long Beach is all Ford’s doing.
“I didn’t really know Marc before this,” Jackson admits, sinking into his chair. Dan Moore first met Ford in Scandinavia while touring, and he gave him Phantom Limb’s self-titled debut album. Jackson and Moore grew up on Southern soul and blues and had admired Ford’s work with the Black Crowes. When they met again in London last year, Moore recalls the last words Ford told him: “I will see you at the Compound.”
As the combined appeal of Ford, Arvizu and the studio itself prompted Phantom Limb to record their sophomore effort in California, there’s no denying that the setting and production team are inspiring the band’s work. “If you can’t perform the song with conviction, you’re screwed,” says Quartey. “It’s nice to work in an environment where there is trust and understanding from the get-go.”
For a while, Phantom Limb feared that fate would stop their music in its tracks. While recording their first album, Quartey lost her voice from a combination of overuse and anxiety. Six months later, she couldn’t even speak. The band went on indefinite hiatus while Quartey worked feverishly to recover.
Later that day, Phantom Limb work on a cover of a Hank Williams tune. Ford stops Quartey halfway through the song, his heavy-lidded brown eyes focused intently on Jackson’s guitar playing. “I want you to play the same way Hank does, with that oomph, you know?” while using his hands to gesture a stronger attack. Quartey picks up a bottle of Don Julio tequila and takes a healthy sip. She stares at Ford for a moment, and then admits that she appreciates the direction he’s providing them. His 25 years of experience have sharpened his instincts in the studio, and he gets the most out of the band on each take.
Just after sunset, Ford takes a break on the Compound’s patio. “I don’t think artists would ask me to help with their music unless they understood my musical expression,” he reflects. Phantom Limb are reaping the benefits of this understanding; the group hope to lay down nine tracks with Ford before they return home for a European tour.
They already plan to return to the States next year to perform and possibly to visit the Compound to cook up another batch of soul. After calling it a day, Ford grabs the bottle of tequila from the table and takes a swig. He sniffs the air, then looks back to say, “Music is the universal language. It transcends boundaries, and I don’t want to understand it. I just want to know whether it moves me.” He pauses for a second and adds, “That’s the goal, right? It moves everyone.”
This article appeared in print as "The Rock Side of a Barn: Compound Studios lures bands from near and far with its laid-back vibe—and the expertise of its owners."