Bob Schwenkler is an important force behind Olympia’s music scene. From founding Bicycle Records while a student at Evergreen, to recording some of the Northwest’s best bands, Schwenkler now helms K Record’s legendary Dub Narcotic studio. Schwenkler has made a lasting impact on the music Olympia listens to and the local music heard in countless other cities.
IS: What’s the story behind Bicycle Records?
BS: I started that my last year of college at Evergreen. I had no idea what a record company was–I just knew to make a website and put some albums on it. So I did that. A friend who was doing web design at Evergreen built me a website. And then Ross [Cowman] came along, and that’s the reason it became anything at all.
I was never born to run a record company, and I actually quit it last year. It was running from 2005 to last year. It definitely came in stages and plateaued over that last few years, just in terms of what we were doing with it, and how many albums we were selling and putting out.
IS: Where were you recording those albums?
BS: I was doing some of them out of my house. I moved into a house specifically that had sort of a side room that was separate from the rest of the house, and bigger than a bedroom. So I had that available to me, and I had been building up a home recording setup.
And then we would search out any spaces that we could that were interesting and unique.
I’ve done records all over the place. I did some recording over at the old K Big Room, and I did some albums in chapels. I did an album in the basement of a big old industrial building in Portland that Marriage Records was running out of…Whatever decent spaces we could find.
IS: How did that process influence the music you put out?
BS: Sonically it was influential, because we would use the room, and let the room come into the recording. And just the mindset of being in a new space that is different from what everyone is used to, and having it be something special. Something where we’re all there and the energy is really focused, and people aren’t going home at night. We’re basically just there recording the entire time. So it’s hard to say what would have happened otherwise, but it definitely affects the energy and the fluidity of the creative process.
IS: What does it take going into recording to make an album that stands out?
BS: Good songs. I feel like I’ve heard it said a thousand times, but it’s true. I think that for the records I tend to like, which are more studio albums than live representations, that having demo’d songs beforehand and gotten a grasp on the concepts that a band wants to hear in an album are super important. Unless you just have tons of time in the studio, which most of the bands I work with don’t.
Also, I think a commitment to the craft of songwriting is huge. And that can mean a lot of different things, but there are people who really stand out, and [who] think really well about their music and I can tell are really inspired by their music. They are constantly looking for the next thing, or are looking to refine what they’re already doing. There might be ways that people can cultivate that for themselves, but what it looks like for me is more of an inherent thing that someone comes to the table with.
IS: What are you currently working on?
BS: Recently, I’ve really been putting my energy toward studio management and promotion. I think there’s a lot of people who don’t realize that this studio is now open to the public. It’s been this sort of legend for 20 years. People in the past have called, even The Black Keys called about 5 years ago trying to get in the studio, and the infrastructure wasn’t in place here to allow people to come in and record from the outside world.
And so I’m still working on letting people know that we are open to the public now. It’s like a dream come true for a lot of people to come in and do an album at Dub Narcotic Studio. It is very rewarding to be the driving force behind making it available.
IS: Why do you think it has so much significance?
BS: It’s K Records – it’s these seminal recordings that are pivotal albums of peoples’ lives. The music by Mirah, The Microphones, Beat Happening. I know people were really moved by some of the stuff KARP put out. And some of Calvin’s collaborations, like with Doug Marsh for The Halo Benders. A lot of this music was done at this studio.
There’s a vibe around the whole business, the label and the studio. It’s really relaxed, it’s really inviting, it’s really friendly. I think a lot of people don’t have that conception, but it really is.
I know before I came into town I had the word “hipster” in my mind, but it’s one of the friendliest groups of people I have ever collaborated with. And it shows in the proliferation of music that has occurred because of K Records. Even off the top of my head, Sub Pop wouldn’t be around without K Records. A bunch of labels [wouldn’t be]. It’s just been hugely influential.
IS: It seems like K is the main thing about Olympia that is known around the country.
BS: Totally. And with good reason. And K is still very local-centric, even if they’re not putting out local bands all the time. Mariella [Luz], who manages K, opened Northern [the volunteer-run all-ages music and art space], and that’s been going on for 5 years now. They are all just very locally motivated people.
IS: How do you think their approach has impacted the Olympia arts community?
BS: I think the combination of K and Evergreen draws a lot of artists to Olympia, and together there is a whole cultural association of what Olympia is. And a large reason why there is such a thriving arts scene for such a small town is because of that cultural association all over the world.
By Issac Scott