A COTTAGE INDUSTRY BECOMES THEIR CASTLE
by Harry C. Tuniese
Every city has their creative indies with everyday people striving to promote art, music, film, concerts, etc. Here in Boston, we are more than blessed with a bounty of local folks trying to make a big difference rather than a big buck. Of course, with luck on your side anything more is extra change! I recently sat down with Tim Casey and Glenn Williams, two old friends from Roslindale, Mass., who turned their interests into a multi-year effort, Lowbudget Productions, which oversees a record label, two cable TV shows, a vintage film series, concerts, audio and video productions, and even a classic model collection.
Noise: Give us some background on what steered you into music.
Tim Casey: I’m the only musician in my family—none of my older sisters play. We had an old Victrola and my mother loved listening to Nat King Cole or Ray Charles back in the ’50s when I was very young, and as I got older, she encouraged us by buying the new releases by the Beatles or the Monkees, whatever was new and different at the time. Once, I went to the local music store in Roslindale Square and I thought I was buying a magazine about the Monkees, but when I brought it home it had all these little figures and guitar chords—and I thought, wow, this is how you play music. From that little spark, I ended up getting a guitar and started to learn. Also, at that time, hearing Sgt. Pepper and other albums by the Beatles got me excited about recording, engineering, and the technical side of making records. I liked both aspects, but soon I started favoring the “how did they get that sound?”
Glenn Williams: Unlike Tim, I grew up in a very musical family. My father, Floyd Williams, was a major session drummer on the local jazz scene. People like Lionel Hampton would come to town and my dad would get the gig. There would also be occasional tours, so this was all around me. When I was a kid, I sang in the choir and then learned upright bass in my grammar school, and progressed into classical music through the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, which gave me an early appreciation of music. But by the late-Sixties, I turned to rock and was hooked on The Beatles and other pop music. I took up the electric bass and played in a bunch of garage bands—just to impress the girls! I was also a Summerthing Coordinator in the 1970s—a program that brought visual arts, crafts, music, and performances to local neighborhoods.
Noise: How did you two meet?
Glenn: I was playing in a band called Feedback and we wanted to do some recording—just to gauge our level of expertise. I knew this neighborhood friend [Tim] who worked in the audio department at Northeastern University, who got to bring some equipment home and was very interested in recording. It came out pretty cool and we talked about various projects. A bit later, his band, Blown Glass, was looking for a bassist and I ended up joining them. This was about 1980. We eventually released a cassette album, Rough Cuts, and just stuck together.
Tim: Since I’m rather a private person, meeting Glenn was great because he’s such a catalyst to make things happen—very much an extrovert and a showman, setting up gigs, pitching our music to the public, and generating the excitement that comes with live performances. I’d take a back seat, working the sound, the recordings, and sometimes act as the mediator if he got too wild. It led to some funny moments and just cemented the bond between us as we set up Lowbudget. Even now, when he encouraged me to take the video courses, learn studio production, and fill out the paperwork for my cable TV show, Transmission Hour, it was his pushiness that got it going. My idea—his insistence!
Noise: What were the goals of Lowbudget Records? Was it more of a community venture, because you seemingly avoided the Boston rock scene, yet still put out quite a few albums?
Glenn:: We wanted to have a form for our efforts and the low-key approach really kept us in check. Besides, we both had full-time jobs, started families, and became parents, which kept us close to home—no late nights for us in those clubs. We would do little gigs here and there, and just never sought the spotlight. We enjoyed the studio more. Tim became the mastermind and recorded us constantly, learning the technical side with incredible focus and determination. We kept pounding out a project every nine to 10 months. Sometimes we would use different group names [i.e. Boys with Toys, Casey Williams, Random Access Memory], but the chance to improve within ourselves never wavered. As the kids got older, we were able to hook up with some other musicians and actually became more serious about playing live.
Tim: Yeah, instead of playing live, I was more interested with that inner universe people could do on tape. Through the years, we progressed through all the formats—from Portastudios, to Teac reel-to-reels, VHS, DAT, hard drives, right up to digital computers.
Noise: That’s an arc of 20-plus years. Since you have a natural affinity for technology, what prompted you to pursue recording?
Tim: I would read these Stereo Review magazines all the time. As a teenager, playing with tape decks was more fascinating than toys or sports [sounds like Mr. Brian Eno! – ed.]. Starting with bouncing tracks from one cassette deck to another, with each pass adding a bit more, I realized to be a respected engineer—and maybe get to Abbey Road studio!—it would have to be in steps. I advanced through 4-track reel-to-reels and noticed the sound getting better and better. Then, getting a job at Northeastern in the audio/visual department gave me the hands-on experience for all that followed. Recording lectures and concerts, editing, splicing tape, using their music library—even the mundane things like repairing cords or headphones—was just wonderful. All the while, I noticed my fave groups like the Beatles or Pink Floyd—even Stevie Wonder—kept making their albums sound more incredible. When I moved up to an 8-track cassette deck, using a sync track to hook up synthesizers, sequencers, and such—so everything was running together—that was major for me. As the years passed, I finally made the leap to the computer and have never looked back.
Noise: What about those values of trying to find that mixture of tradition and innovation?
Tim: I know people worry about the difference between analog and digital—i.e. which is better or truer sounding—but if you know what you’re doing by using good mics, capturing good sound, using good converters, understanding bit-rates or dither, you can make it sound killer!
Noise: How did this crystallize your plans for Lowbudget?
Tim: When people started coming to me to help with their recordings, artwork, etc, I realized it was piling up and I just had to take the whole process more seriously. You could run off cassettes very easily, but at the beginning of the CD era—when they were $100 a pop—if you didn’t do it properly, you were sunk. We were very do-it-yourself, though not too intuitive. Everything we did was reactive to something, like with our first website, initially run by someone else, but gradually taken over by me as I learned what to do. Since it was smaller at the time, we would get interest from around the world, and just started selling our product. This was before mp3s or samples that lets anyone hear what you’re offering now. As we did different projects, people would keep coming back to our website and we would start getting seven to eight orders a week. Amazing!
Noise: So now you’ve got the bug and gradually move into cable TV, film restoration, local concerts, audio/video productions—even a coffeehouse.
Glenn:: I started It’s All About Arts with my wife, Janice, in 1997, as a way to introduce Boston audiences to the exceptional local talent in our city. We are currently in our 16th successful season. The mission was to educate viewers of all ages and enable aspiring artists and musicians to showcase their talents. Through the years, our TV show has featured over 1,000 guests. As a TV host, I’ve been able to bring different cultures, different communities, and different lifestyles to an even plane. Art is the only true international language. As I like to say: “Do something artful for yourself this week.”
Tim: For a while I had a job that was very unfulfilling, but paid quite well, and I thought to coalesce all my different interests in a coffeehouse. I was extremely optimistic but very naive. It was a eclectic affair—we had films, poetry, music. In essence, it was a bust and didn’t work out at all—only lasted less than a year. It ended up lower than low budget! Although, the entertainment was great and I met a ton of lovely people, who still support my efforts to this day.
Noise: And finally, bring us up to date with your latest project, Transmission Hour—an hour-long music show shown monthly. You mentioned earlier, Glenn helped you get this up and running. What led you to this?
Tim: While I was at Northeastern, I did do some work in their film department, but it wasn’t until I got a job at Boston Film & Video Foundation that I learned how to edit—back in the tape days—and it was a total nightmare. My first attempt was a score to Phantom of the Opera using primitive equipment. Then I borrowed some of their cameras and I learned how to do multi-camera shoots, which became our “Random Access Memory—Magic Lantern Show” project, using an entire crew. I also reworked some classic silent films with new scores, which helped sharpen my skills. I do this all at my home studio. This led to pop video shoots for Jon Macey and Thea Hopkins, among others, and eventually spurred me onto doing Transmission Hour, using a professional studio [BNN-TV] with great cameras, lights, and set-up. We focus on one musical act per show to highlight their material and feature a short incisive interview to let them explain their vision. We’ve got a great crew, it’s so relaxed, and the artists themselves think it’s wonderful. As a bonus, the BNN staff think it’s one of the best shows on the channel. And, that’s way okay with me!