BOSTON/NE BANDS, Interview, Music

Stoicism, Star Wars, and Stax: A Conversation with Sean McLaughlin and Zach Bloomstein About Bringing a Big Production Mindset to Boston’s Independent Music Scene

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Sean McLaughlin, owner of Rockland, MA’s 37’ Productions, doesn’t believe in luck. “Luck is the residue of design,” the music producer says while trying out his newest piece of gear: a Star Wars themed circular rug that perfectly covers the area where his command chair has worn away the finish on the hardwood floor of his control room. Named after Fenway’s Green Monster, 37’ Productions features two control rooms, a huge live room, and a treasure trove of gear. It resides in the Wright Building, a former mill in Rockland that’s been converted into cozy art studios and DIY shops. The building has a neighborly atmosphere, and passersby often stop to chat with the affable producer. If luck truly is the residue of design, these passing conversations are its load-bearing elements.

For instance, McLaughlin’s first client when he moved to LA was Elliott Smith, but it wasn’t by chance that he ended up renting the singer-songwriter’s Griffith Park house. For years, McLaughlin and Smith had been buying equipment from the same pro audio dealer. “I met Elliott because of one of my friends,” he recalls. “Elliott was a client of his, and I was like, ‘That Elliott Smith? The Elliott Smith?’” When his friend called Smith to let him know McLaughlin was headed west, Smith asked if McLaughlin needed a place to live.

The indie rock icon hired McLaughlin as an engineer not long after, and McLaughlin, still relatively green, had to call around to friends in the business to ask what he should charge Smith. It didn’t matter. After his first day on the job, Smith insisted he accept a raise. “That was kind of a big thing that made me realize that I’m good enough at this: that one of my all-time favorite songwriters wants to pay me more.” McLaughlin recalls an afternoon when Smith called him in to test out a new Royer microphone. The two spent hours trying it on every amp Smith owned, revealing the second structural element of the design: a deep love for the craft of recording music.

In 37’ Productions, McLaughlin and his business partner, producer Zach Bloomstein, have built a project-centric, artist-friendly studio designed to “offer independent artists a big production mindset.” The result is a vibrant, inclusive, and experimental workspace for Boston-based musicians that stays busy despite flying under the radar.

Given the success of 37’ Productions, it may be surprising that McLaughlin never intended to own a studio. In fact, when he was initially offered the space in the Wright Building, he turned it down, citing risk and overhead. Until then, McLaughlin split his time between working as a producer, engineer, and mix assistant at studios in LA and working out of his bedroom, using the gear that would eventually become the foundation of the 37’ studio. “I used to mix in my bedroom in LA,” McLaughlin says before summing up his relationship with the city in a quip. “There was an orange tree right outside my window. It smelled great when it wasn’t smoggy.”

Despite working with some of the biggest names in the business, McLaughlin remained undaunted. “Since I was a kid, I’ve always just looked at people as people” he says. “They might have an extraordinary job, but they’re still just people. I don’t get nervous or stutter-y around…well I do naturally around everybody…” he laughs, correcting himself. “But I’m not the type of person who gets nervous or starstruck.” Although he’s had the opportunity to talk meditation, Black Elk Speaks, and motorcycling across the midwest with Neil Peart, a conversation he describes as “a cool experience,” McLaughlin is more interested in discussing the role of legendary engineer and producer Jimbo Barton in shaping his approach. Asked when McLaughlin realized he’d “made it,” he says, “Working with Jimbo and having one of the greatest engineers to ever touch a console tell me that the work that I do for him is invaluable.”

McLaughlin understands that there’s a human relationship at the root of what he does, one built on a mutual love for the creative process. But McLaughlin says this wasn’t necessarily always the case, that his perspective evolved as he became more experienced.

Out of high school, McLaughlin was offered a scholarship to Quincy’s Eastern Nazarene College, but he dropped out after two years. “I just wasn’t ready for it,” he says of the experience. McLaughlin gave it another shot at UMass Lowell, but that didn’t work, either. “I just started working at factory jobs to make ends meet.” McLaughlin had been experimenting with home recording for years, but it wasn’t until a friend tipped him off about a music recording program at a local community college that McLaughlin decided to look into music production as a career. “My friend was kind of discouraged by what he heard in the interview, and I was encouraged, so he ended up not going, and I went,” McLaughlin says. “It was just one of those twists of fate, and an opportunity popped up.”

Working on the production side of the industry not only gave McLaughlin a more secure professional foothold, it also allowed him to explore diverse genres of music. “Being able to work in different genres and work with different people was a big thing for me,” the producer says of his early days. “I always felt like playing in a particular genre felt stifling. I was into Prince and Motown and stuff like that.” While finishing school, McLaughlin discovered a deep love for the recording process. “Any time I wasn’t in a class, I was in one of the studios…just constantly trying to immerse myself in it.”

Upon graduating, McLaughlin was poised to move to LA and make his entry into the industry. That’s when he was diagnosed with cancer.

Having no health insurance, McLaughlin took on the expense of his treatment himself. He had to put his plans to move to LA on hold to pay off his treatment. During that time, he worked as much as he could and waited for his next opportunity. McLaughlin describes himself as a Stoicist. Along with encouraging his students at Berklee to read Marcus Aurelius, he credits the philosopher with helping him navigate setbacks. “Never say ‘woe is me,” he says. “Say, ‘I’m thankful that I have this hardship because I know I can handle it.’” The philosophy allows McLaughlin to recontextualize challenges as opportunities. This mindset paid off big when, cancer free, he connected with Smith.

That’s not to say that it was smooth sailing from there. McLaughlin arrived in LA in the early 2000s, a time he describes as the fall of Rome. “I saw budgets drop about 90%,” he says. “It was huge.” Instead of fretting, McLaughlin saw the collapsing major label structure as an opportunity for independent artists. After working in LA for several years, he reconsidered the idea of opening a studio back home. “I loved the work I was doing. I learned a lot of techniques: how to work with artists, how to get better performances out of artists, how to act during a session, how to interact with clients better. [But] I didn’t want to stay in LA.” When McLaughlin moved back to Massachusetts and started teaching, he took over the lease on the space in the Wright Building and built 37’ Productions.

Even though he’d never intended to take on the financial risks associated with owning a recording studio, he saw the low overhead offered by the studio’s location as an opportunity to pass the benefits along to his clients. He could focus on acquiring more, better gear, offering more affordable rates and flexible scheduling, all while creating a niche for himself by serving a population of artists who both want to call Boston home and produce professional-sounding records.

“Usually the first year in a studio is pretty rough, but I was able to kind of maintain things,” McLaughlin says of the studio’s early days. “A lot of the time it was learning on the go. Hitting speed bumps and freaking out when a new challenge would arrive.” After producing two successful releases in the studio’s first year, including a record by Static of the Gods that got them signed, the investment started paying off. Despite never advertising, McLaughlin built up a steady stream of clients, allowing him to expand and renovate the studio, as well recruit a rolodex of session players to work as features or backing bands for solo artists. This versatility is what allows him to keep the doors moving at 37’ Productions, but it’s not the reason artists who record there grow quickly loyal.

The space McLaughlin creates is inclusive, easy-going, and predicated on one simple rule: “There is no ‘No.’ in the studio.” Years of learning from the best have given McLaughlin insight into the human element of the music production process. McLaughlin isn’t just cutting records. He’s making connections.

In 2014, McLaughlin hired Framingham’s Zach Bloomstein as an intern. McLaughlin took him on as a studio partner not long after. Bloomstein, now living in Portland, OR was kind enough to speak with me over Zoom. He’s a gracious, efficient conversationalist. He takes the call in his home studio, and I can’t help but notice he’s wearing a Star Wars t-shirt. The two producers’ mutual appreciation for the classic sci-fi franchise is only a passing similarity. What’s remarkable is how in sync they are when it comes to their artistic philosophy and approach.

Bloomstein describes his early time at the studio as an opportunity to “be a fly on the wall.” He’d later apply the learning he accomplished during the day with McLaughlin to overnight sessions he booked on the cheap. “I was learning so much during the day at the studio,” he says. “Then recording these bands at night…was an awesome way to get experience and get a bunch of stuff out there with my name on it.” When McLaughlin built the studio’s new control room, Bloomstein did much of the sound wiring, and in return, McLaughlin gave him 8 months in the studio’s second control room rent free. “I would come from a 3 week long tour and have negative money in my bank account,” Bloomstein says of his days touring with Framingham’s Snow House. “And working at the studio, I was able to survive doing that.”

Key to his success at 37’ Productions is that Bloomstein and McLaughlin are on the same page about how to conduct a session. “I just try to make people feel comfortable and be the conduit for them getting what they have in their head to come through the speakers,” Bloomstein says. “The most important skill is to be able to work with people, to be able to be a supportive person in the room. It doesn’t matter how good you are technically at placing a certain mic, the most important thing is to give someone a good experience while they’re recording.” The two producers are so alike in mindset, Bloomstein even echoes McLaughlin’s words when I ask about the role gear plays in his process, describing it as important, but reinforcing that it should be “invisible to the artist,” an exact phrase McLaughlin used to describe his relationship with gear.

Bloomstein also shares McLaughlin’s rule of “no” regarding the word “no” in the studio. “I’m down for anything. If an artist wants to try to record underwater, I’ll do it.”

This adventurous spirit comes across in Bloomstein’s production on boys cruise’s most recent record. “I used a different combination of (guitar) pedals on the drums on every song. I was changing the settings on the pedals as the band was playing, and that sound became the backbone of the songs.” This penchant for creativitys is echoed by McLaughlin in expressing his central philosophy on experimentation, “We can spend ten minutes arguing over whether or not it’s going to work,” the producer says. “Or ten seconds trying it.”

Bloomstein moved to Portland this year, but he remains involved with 37’ Productions. He left enough gear in the 2nd control room to maintain a working studio and continues to work on projects with Boston clients when he comes back to the area. “I’m going to have to do a lot of travelling once more people get vaccinated,” he says. Having already spent time at two prominent Portland studios, he’s eager to bring his artist-centric approach to a new community of musicians.

It’s easy to tell that Bloomstein’s success is one of the aspects of his business about which McLaughlin feels most proud. “His studio demeanor has grown so much in the past 6-7 years,” says McLaughlin. “I can’t say enough about him.” He cites Bloomstein’s work on recent releases by Laura Laura! and Honey Cutt as moments when he realized his protege was having his own arrival. “When I heard that [stuff], it kind of blew me away.”

At the core of their shared creative philosophy is, again, that Stoic tendency to look for a way to turn  challenges into opportunities. By centering the artist and their vision, being open to experimentation, and centering human relationships in their process, McLaughlin and Bloomstein use their studio to amplify the vision of the artists who entrust them with their material.

“My favorite part about Zach is that he is just as passionate about your projects as you are,” Maria of Laura Laura! says on working with Bloomstein. “He completely absorbs the energy of the project and acts as such a strong support system to getting the music to sound the way the artists feel is best.” Bloomstein recorded the Laura Laura!’s most recent single “Sharkbite,” a swaggering vocal R&B piece characterized by its immaculate sonics.

Singer-songwriter Matt Jackson’s comments on working with McLaughlin emphasize the importance of this collaborative mindset. “My favorite part about working with Sean is that it feels like a true collaboration,” he says of recording Growth 101, his most recent EP, with McLaughlin. “In this industry, you end up working with a lot of producers/engineers and it feels very much ‘wash, rinse, repeat.’ But Sean makes you feel like you have a partner in manifesting whatever vision you had.” Jackson describes Growth 101 as “an introduction to a healthier narrative when it comes to loving ourselves and those around us.” It drops on May 4th and features the lead single “Show On Up.”

Independent country singer-songwriter Annie Brobst has only ever worked with McLaughlin. “Sean’s always been a composer as much as he is a producer on our tracks,” says Brobst, who released Where We Holler earlier this year. The album reached #2 on the iTunes Country Country chart. “We often bring him acoustic scratch tracks of the songs and we all sit down together to build what we believe is a masterpiece. He’s also introduced me to some of the best session players in the business.”

Jordan, of Lowell’s daisybones, credits the producer duo with keeping the band on track while making their upcoming third album. “Both Zach and Sean make the process very easy. [Bloomstein] contributed a lot when it came to songwriting and general energy of the album. Sean is the one who makes sure everything we have sounds exactly how we imagined it.”

The producers will even sometimes reach out to artists directly to let them know they want to work with them, as was the case when McLaughlin caught up with Boston singer-songwriter Prateek after a show. The two ended up collaborating on a single, an experience McLaughlin describes as “joyful.” Together, the two producers are building a network of artists who appreciate the supportive, creative, community-oriented vibe they cultivate.

Toward the end of our interview, I pick McLaughlin’s brain about albums he would have liked to have been involved in recording (Revolver, What’s Going On, Nefertiti, & Fear of a Black Planet)  and what’s going to happen with the Sox this year. We also talk about his 17 year career in education, including some sound advice he got from Berklee’s Susan Rogers, “She said this to me, ‘You need to get them to realize that when they graduate from here they have the word ‘service’ tattooed across their forehead.’” And in talking about teaching, we arrive again at the idea that seems to reside at the core of 37’ Productions: “I always end up learning things from the students. They always bring a perspective that I haven’t had on something. It makes me step back and rethink.”

That’s why there’s no ‘No.’ in the studio at 37’Productions, the Stoic belief that in every obstacle there is a hidden opportunity. “Even if we try something and it doesn’t work,” McLaughlin says, it might lead to a different avenue that does work.”

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