While it may not be by design, Matt Ten Clay’s workspace is fitting.
Ten Clay, 32, owns, operates and sometimes lives out his recording studio, Amber Lit Audio. Located in the industrial southwest side of Grand Rapids, the main engineering room looks out on the Grand River and the infamous “Punk Rock Island.” The small sandbar, only accessible by climbing down a makeshift ladder from the rust-covered train bridge, the island has been home to some drifters and misfits. And probably some musicians, too.
The setting makes sense, given Ten Clay’s history as not only a recording engineer and producer, but a musician as well, having spent years playing bass in vaunted Grand Rapids band, The Wildfire, in addition to his own side project, Matt Ten Clay and The Howlers. Both acts embody the roots-rock, Johnny Cash-esque scene-scape one gets from looking out Ten Clay’s window.
While Ten Clay continues to play in The Wildfire — in April the band did a nearly two-week tour through The Netherlands, which he said showed him how much better musicians in Europe are treated, compared to the states — he has reached a point where he sees a greater future in producing and engineering than he does in just playing music.
“I like traveling, that's for sure. But I think (engineering) is a little more rewarding financially," Ten Clay said. "I feel like I can grow a little more. And I enjoy communicating with bands.”
That communication is something Lazy Genius guitarist Jonny Bruha appreciates about his time working with Ten Clay. Ten Clay has recorded a number of projects that Bruha has worked on, including a couple of unreleased songs from the now-finished band The Fainting Generals and two records from Bruha’s current band, The Real Lazy Genius. Bruha said Ten Clay is currently in the midst of doing the band's third full-length record, set to be released in December.
“He’s extremely patient. For the first album, we didn’t have all the songs done and he actually helped us hash those a little bit quicker, sort of just by listening and giving his response," Bruha said. "Having worked with other people in recording, (patience) can be the biggest flaw. He’s not trying to keep you there to make money. But at the same time, he’s not acting impatient that you’re going over your time limit.”
The bands that Ten Clay has helped to get their music produced, mixed and/or engineered reads like a laundry list of Grand Rapids talent. From Nathan Kalish and the Wildfire to Pistolbrides to The Dead Alives to North Lincoln, Ten Clay’s resume is long. In many ways, he is the thread that ties the Grand Rapids music scene together.
“(The local music scene) feels pretty friendly and it feels like people are getting along well and supporting each other,” Ten Clay said. “I was thinking about how technology is changing the last few years. It used to be really hard to find shows or fliers. People used to get mad because they would miss shows. Nowadays it’s to the point where people get too many virtual invites ... But I think its a good thing overall.”
“He’s definitely right in the middle of things,” Bruha said of Ten Clay’s ties to the local community. “I know for one thing, he’s not afraid to try something different. I think what he really wants is to get as much stuff out there as possible, but at the same time he probably learns more than any of the bands.”
While Ten Clay largely produces music in the vein of rock and roll and its various sub-categories, he has been branching out into new genres as of late. Brooklyn, NY via Grand Rapids hip hop/electronic producer, Brilliant, My Boy utilized Ten Clay’s skills to master his November 2012 release, Blissed Out.
"I'm super weird about who I work with musically, so when it came time for mastering, I needed somebody that I already knew and trusted," Brilliant, My Boy said. "(Ten Clay) hasn't had much experience with electronic music, but was super excited to get into the project. With not much more direction then "make it loud and sexy," I got the masters back exactly when he said I would and they were perfect. That to me is what makes a dope engineer. Hungry for challenges, ready to learn and understands that it is a collaborative process. It also helps that he is the nicest f*****g guy on the planet."
Photos: Jonathan Brandt