Squalor is out, sweeties and comfort in, for the musicians drawn to the Banana Row studio in the heart of the capital
BANANA Row, a recording studio and rehearsal space in the Canonmills area of Edinburgh, was once a dental technician’s lab. On a weekday morning, when the creatively hairstyled emo kids who throng the narrow pavement at the weekends are stuck in double physics, it could still be.
Anyone who misspent their youth in one of the mildewed caves which pass as “practice rooms”, or navigated the empty beer cans and burst sofas of an entry level recording studio, would not recognise the place. Banana Row is clean and tidy. With windows. Bins are regularly emptied by a charming Dubliner, Peter Homan, who is also handy with the Airwick spray. The kitchen would delight the pickiest environmental health inspector. The only drum in the reception area is being used as a plant pot. The plant is still alive.
This is, apparently, what the musicians of the 21st century demand. Compost-heap-with-dodgy-wiring is out, laminate flooring is in. “It feels almost homely,” says 20-year-old Dan Muir, guitarist with Bwani Junction, who has all but lived there for the past four years. “Like a nice flat instead of a workplace. Other places have grubby carpets and the owner smells a bit funny.” He wrinkles his dainty nose. “It’s not as rock’n’roll as people think.”
Craig Hunter started Banana Row 25 years ago in a disused fruit merchant’s hut in Leith docks. A diver-turned-drummer, he had entered the music business without the usual stars in his eyes. Growing up on a council estate in Ayr, “nobody did music. It was for cissies. Unless it was with the Orange Lodge.” So when, in his late 20s, he gave up his first well-paid gig he was determined to replace it with another. “I didn’t want to be in a band,” he recalls. “I wanted to work.”
As well as running the studio, which immediately took on the stevedores’ nickname for the huts where the banana boats from the Caribbean once docked, Hunter worked as a drummer, a drum technician, a sound engineer. “I’ve played Jewish gigs, country and western, brass bands, churches, theatres, pop, rock.” Three jobs a night are not unknown. “I still get texts asking: can you be in Birmingham tomorrow?”
After ten wild years in the docks – “the old buildings were totally bohemian, they could do anything they wanted to in the rooms, bring their pets, whatever” – the site was sold for development. Hunter spotted the present property on Eyre Place while driving home from his father’s birthday party and bought it the next day.
“The location is perfect. There is a pub next door, free parking outside at the weekends, a supermarket and a garage. I could not have planned it better.”
The Bwana boys, as they are known around Banana Row, drift in to practise. The main studio fills up with their mobile phones, rolling tobacco and bags of Tesco’s tiny cakes. Hunter sits in for a couple of numbers. “I had to put the fan on,” he notes. “It was getting a bit ... masculine in here.” During the day most customers are full-timers, professionals preparing for a tour, touring musicians needing to rehearse. Evenings are for the semi-professionals and the rock dads who want to play a few Velvet Underground songs at a forthcoming 50th birthday party. Friday is party day – “they turn up with their six packs” – and the weekends are all about the kids.
When the studio first opened there were no couches in the practice rooms. That changed when Hunter overheard one teenage guitar hero saying that he was looking for a new rehearsal space as Banana Row had nowhere for girls to sit. He was up to Ikea the next day. The two back rooms now have settees and slightly incongruous ethnic hangings on the wall.
They were a sound investment. The younger customers, according to weekend receptionist Gus Carruthers, use the place as a Starbucks overflow. “They can only afford an hour in the studio,” he says, “so they come in two hours early and just sit around having a chat. Half of them won’t even be in the band.”
Carruthers’ former flatmate, Fraser Allan, arrives. Hunter has booked him to play guitar with 16-year-old Claire Anderson, a promising singer he heard at a wedding and invited in to record some songs. If this goes well, he will encourage her to work on her keyboard skills and start writing lyrics. She will then go back to the studio with himself and Jamie Turnbull, the resident sound engineer, for some “notebooking”, putting chords and melodies to her words.
Anderson and her mother are 40 minutes late due to terrible traffic. She is much less nervous than she thought she would be, despite the fact the microphone cost £10,000. In fact it’s Allan, one of Hunter’s most experienced players, who gets it wrong. They break off a third of the way through Anderson’s spookily accurate version of Emile Sande’s version of Imagine.
“That was my bad,” he admits straight away.
“You know,” says Turnbull to him through the studio’s glass window, “for something different try getting it right. Mwah mwah, love you.”
“I’m going to come in while you’re sleeping,” retorts Allan, “and cut off your pony tail.”
The fourth time, they do get it right. Within two hours Turnbull has mixed it and burned it to a CD, allowing Anderson get back to Portobello and her CDT homework. “I will be able to listen to it in the car going home,” she says, amazed.
In the reception area, Allan and Carruthers are admiring Allan’s new guitar. (It’s his sixth, a Martin semi-accoustic.) Hunter has tried very hard to create a welcoming, unintimdating, non-cliquey studio environment but having an opinion about special-effects pedals does help.
Before opening Hunter, who is now 55, did some specialist market research. Having noticed that bands eat a lot of sweets while practising he decided to keep a small stock. “I went through the bins to see which ones were the most popular.” Twix, KitKat, Bounty, Snickers and Marathon are now available for that vital mid-rehearsal sugar hit. He also keeps a stock of drum sticks, drum skins and guitar strings.
Today Banana Row is much more than a building in which to work through tricky bridges and demanding harmonies. Hunter has built up a stable of musicians who use the facilities, work night shifts behind the desk (they are “counter monkeys”) and, in some cases, also play in his bands. Having entered the industry without wishing to join a band, Hunter now oversees several and does a shift with the sticks whenever required.
Callanish started out as a conventional band writing their own material and now play Celtic rock fusion covers for conferences, balls, weddings and the 2005 G8 summit. Hunter describes them as an “event band”, and as his biggest “brand”. There is also a ceilidh band, a poppier outfit and a Sixties soul group.
Each band’s membership varies from gig to gig, a fiendishly complicated process which is overseen by Rebecca Macmillan using a series of white boards. It operates like a model agency, with a main board of tried-and-tested performers and a new faces board of the recently arrived and yet to prove themselves. Each band must have at least one old stager, they must all get on and not have any ongoing romantic entanglements.
Most bookings are weddings: Macmillan describes her job as “dealing with 400 brides and grooms a year.” She talks them through the first dance, any special requests or must-play songs, whether or not Callanish can learn a David Guetta tune, or the theme song from the Muppet Show. Most people want Moondance and Greatest Day but there have been requests for AC/DC and Belle and Sebastian. Hunter monitors bookings closely: as soon as there is enough demand for a landfill indie band playing Keane covers while looking at their shoes, he will set one up. A wedding is just another gig. “After the first dance,” he says, “it’s a concert for us.”
Absolute, Hunter’s poppiest brand, who have provided the soundtrack for many footballers’ big days, need a new promotional video. Turnbull is behind the desk, mixing their version of Valerie. Snatches escape every time the door opens. Macmillan has Radio 1 on in the office and MTV plays softly in the reception area. Peter Homan, the studio manager, has learned to put up with it as he tidies the Tupperware boxes of nuts, bolts and leads, answers the phone and scoops up dirty coffee cups. “I get fed up with MTV, it’s garbage. I’d rather have a vinyl record player with classic smoky jazz bar sounds. But I’ve worked in enough quiet offices with people leaning over your shoulder for targets.”
Damp men carrying guitar cases and a strange wooden stool with a hole that Carruthers identifies as a type of drum, a cajon, arrive for their evening sessions. Danielle, a promising singer who abandoned her musical career to get married and move to Colorado, phones for a chat. Carruthers has changed TV channels and is surreptitiously watching a pool championship. Luci Holland, who takes bookings for Callanish during the day, is practising with a singer in the smallest rehearsal room. The rain is stotting off the pavement but inside it’s bright and cosy.
Banana Row, the studio where it possible to dream the rock’n’roll dream and buy a Twix. All with your feet firmly on the laminate floor. «
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