Nothing says North Bay like a world-class, Grammy award–producing recording studio built on an old 10-acre chicken ranch. At Prairie Sun Recording Studio in Cotati, vintage analog gear and state-of-the-art digital equipment coexist in buildings that used to incubate chicks and store grain. Transformed by founder Mark "Mooka" Rennick in 1980, Prairie Sun has welcomed the biggest names in the industry to this ranch location and has become renowned in musical circles and mythologized by Sonoma County locals.
As a music fan and Sonoma County native, I had heard countless stories about the place and had to get a look at Prairie Sun for myself. After passing the driveway twice (there's no sign on the rocky rural road advertising the studio's location), I greet Rennick in the parking lot, a sly smile on his face and two ranch dogs at his side. The 64-year-old's silver hair sways in the breeze as he offers me his hand. "Welcome to Prairie Sun," he says with a slight Midwestern drawl. "Ready for the tour?"
The rural site houses three separate studios and two farmhouses where local and out-of-town bands come to stay, like a music summer camp, while they work all hours of the day. In the last 30-plus years, Rennick and the staff have hosted performers of every conceivable genre, from Arlo Guthrie to Iggy Pop, and have recorded everything from Tibetan singing bowls to a Sonoma County forensics team.
Rennick brings me into Studio C first, an old egg-incubating room. Now a large echo chamber largely used to track drums, the studio features a mural painted by Tubes' drummer Prairie Prince that resembles the fields of Rennick's youth, where he grew up in Galesburg, Ill.
"So this is the Prairie Room," says Rennick, who took the name Prairie Sun from the student newspaper at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Prairie Grass Restoration Project, which Rennick worked for in his youth. "This is a prairie story in Sonoma County."
Prairie Sun Studio manager Nate Nauseda meets us there. With sandy blond hair and a Superman-cleft chin, the 27-year-old Nauseda doesn't look like a guy who was up until 3am recording the night before, although that's exactly what he was doing, nailing down a bass part for Sonoma County trio Rainbow Girls. The two immediately start swapping stories with each other.
"We had Kiss' drummer in here [in 1983]," Rennick says. "That was a big moment. Faith No More did their first record here. Testament did their first record here."
"Stuff like Racer X, stuff on the Shrapnel [Records Group]," adds Nauseda. Formed in 1980, Shrapnel is a Bay Area label dedicated to heavy metal. Rennick guesses that Prairie Sun has done at least a hundred of their releases over the decades.
Other big names that have come through the studio include Van Morrison, Booker T. Jones, Carlos Santana, Dick Dale, the Doobie Brothers, Gregg Allman, Johnny Otis, the Melvins, Primus and Les Claypool, Wu Tang Clan, the Mountain Goats, Delta Spirit and AFI. "You do this for 40 years," Rennick says, "who hasn't recorded here?
"We just had a reggae band here, Jah Sun and his backup band the Dubtonic Kru," he continues. "So we had an entourage of, like, nine Jamaicans and an Italian production team and their wives, cooking Italian food and talking Rasta. It was fascinating."
That's the beauty of Prairie Sun. Bands from around the world come in, stay as long as they need and bask in the communal vibe of the place.
The studio also owns any and all gear one would need—dozens of guitars, drums, a 1914 Steinway grand piano and everything in between—as well as both analog and digital recording equipment that's run by a team of expert engineers, all in service of the artist.
THE WAITS ROOM
"It's a really interesting room, because it should not sound good," says Prairie Sun chief engineer Matt Wright as we step into a bare-bones storage room just off Studio C, known as the Waits Room. "It's a cube, which violates all the rules of acoustics. But something about the cement floor and the bare wood walls—they're paper thin and not nailed down in very many spots, so it vibrates."
In 1989, after relocating from Los Angeles to Sonoma County, songwriter Tom Waits was looking to do something new. "Tom Waits wanted to do a record here, but he wanted something radically different, sonically," Rennick says.
At first, Waits wanted to bring Prairie Sun's gear to his own basement. Then he happened upon the room, little more than a closet and less than 200 square feet, which he stripped out, settled into and recorded in, most notably his critically acclaimed album Bone Machine. In a 1993 interview with Thrasher magazine, Waits said, "I found a great room to work in, it's just a cement floor and a hot water heater. . . . It's got some good echo."
"It really serves acoustic music, anything that should feel organic," Wright says. "It sounds like someone's living room."
"If you listen to Bone Machine," Rennick says, "you can really hear this space."
"It's a character on those recordings," Nauseda adds.
"And now it's a shrine," Rennick says.
Wright, nodding, says, "It's a pilgrimage for a lot of musicians."
These days, bands like Royal Jelly Jive and Brothers Comatose come to the Waits Room to record and pay homage. Royal Jelly Jive's recent release, Stand Up, even features a song called "Dear Mr. Waits."
Last year, Oklahoma's Turnpike Troubadours stayed a month on the property and recorded their self-titled album largely in the Waits Room. That album reached No. 3 on the Billboard country chart. Critics praise the album for its intimate sound. In an interview with PopMatters last year, bassist RC Edwards said, "We've never had that kind of time in the studio before, just to get in there and feel like the pressure was off. We could take our time, try new ideas and just get really comfortable. That's by far the most comfortable I think we've ever been in the studio."