Smile Politely

Long live Pogo Studio

Growing up in Champaign with an interest in music and a guitar on the wall of my bedroom, I knew the name Pogo well. I had dreams of recording my own songs there, having my guitar riffs mixed by Mark Rubel, and seeing the tape roll as it cataloged the sounds I created.

Alas, my dream was not to be. Pogo Studio, as we know it, is dead. Long live Pogo Studio.

But the venerable studio, formerly housed on Taylor Street in Champaign, which I learned about through both word of mouth and the liner notes of many fantastic albums, lives on. As of now, the website for Pogo still exists, like a digital tombstone marking what the studio once was.

On that site are the things that built my dream of recording at Pogo. Including the jaw-dropping list of equipment, with treasures too numerous to recount here. There’s a virtual tour of the space that allows me to see all those wonderful instruments in the space they occupied—so happy looking, just waiting to be played.

The rates are still there for anyone who wants to take a peek at how much it cost to record at Pogo, too. And the price of recording at such a spectacular studio was always exceedingly reasonable.

Of course, the client list is probably the most impressive thing about the website (the 1935 Gibson acoustic in the gear section notwithstanding). The list, which is surely only a drop in the bucket of the full roster of those who recorded at Pogo, reads like an abbreviated history of my appreciation of music: musicians I heard in my parents’ car (Allison Krauss), bands I liked when I first started to find music on my own (The Red Hot Valentines, Hum), artists I discovered as I dug deeper into music (Jay Bennett, Adrian Belew), and contemporary artists I’ve enjoyed at local venues (Cameron McGill).

Those clients help make Pogo attractive to anyone perusing its website, but what made Pogo so valuable to Champaign — and such a spectacular place, in general — was Mark Rubel, the owner. Since opening the studio in 1980, Rubel was the guiding hand behind both the soundboard and the sounds coming from Pogo.

Rubel was more than just Pogo, though; he was a part of the community. He played bass in Capt. Rat and the Blind Rivets; he taught recording classes at Eastern Illinois University (84 semesters!) and Parkland College; he supported local musicians. He was a major factor in what made C-U such a cool place for music.

It’s hard to think of an area of the C-U music scene not affected by Rubel and Pogo Studio. Even now, after his departure from our community, Rubel’s legacy lives on, most obviously in the recordings of C-U bands from Pogo that are forever preserved on wax, on plastic, or digitally; less obviously, that legacy lives on in the form of other producers. Matt Talbott, guitarist in Hum, no doubt uses his experience recording at Pogo as he builds his own incredible studio, Earth Analog.

Likewise, Ryan Groff, whose band Elsinore was one of the last to utilize Pogo as it was when they recorded PUSH/PULL in 2013, credits Rubel with helping them evolve to the place they are at currently:

He exposed me to the world of microphones, guitars, and amps. The first time I recorded electric guitar on a song, it was because of him, and I bought my first Fender amp directly after that experience. In a lot of ways, he was responsible for our departure from Americana toward the brand of pop and rock we explored on Yes Yes Yes. He also taught me about the importance of trying different sounds, layering things Phil Spector-style, new mic placement techniques, session workflow, and basic studio etiquette.

That guidance helped Groff as he built his own studio, Perennial Sound, as well:

Between the things he instilled in me while working together and his advice while I was still in the planning phase of my studio, Mark helped point me in the right direction for getting what I wanted out of a brand new musical space, and he was never weird about the fact that I was wanting my own studio space. He’s been such a huge part of me wanting to get into audio production and not just stay on the songwriting side of things.

So, in many ways, Rubel is still a large part of the C-U music scene, even if his role is no longer an active one. Pogo Studio will also continue, but not as part of C-U.

Rubel has acquired a space in Nashville (where he relocated to work at the Bluebird Academy) that he intends to turn into Pogo South. Those wonderful instruments from the Pogo website’s gear page, the sound board, and, of course, Rubel’s engineering, will be accessible to musicians in the country music capital of the world:

It’s essentially paradise for a recording engineer. This is a wonderland of music studios. To have the chance to start a recording studio where students are studying what I do—audio—full time, intensively, six to twelve hours a day, and to be able to shape the school from the ground up and help to set the direction, to really teach to people who are completely interested in what I’m doing, is a dream come true.

Living out a dream in Nashville doesn’t mean Rubel is done with C-U, though:

I don’t want to make myself too self-important. There’s so much talent and such a wonderful scene, the Champaign music community will do absolutely fine without me. To have worked with so many people and have so many students, hopefully I have a little bit of legacy there. But it’s not up to me to say.

Of course, Rubel still has his band, and he plans to continue to play with them in the area on occasion. Rubel added that some area bands have already proposed taking a trip to the new Pogo Studio when it opens in Nashville.

Such an arrangement would allow me to live out my dream of recording at Pogo Studio, but I know it wouldn’t be the same as what I imagined. So, for now, the website is there for me to gawk at and drool over and continue to imagine what it might have been like to record in that beautiful space on Taylor Street.

Photo by Della Perrone.

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