Musician and producer Tommy Schichtel likes to think of himself as a mad scientist when he's in the recording studio. He admits he can lose hours experimenting in his analog-only studio, Goon Lagoon, based in Grand Rapids' North side.
"You get into that other world where you don't know what time it is and you don't know if you're hungry," he says of time spent in his studio.
Describing Schichtel as a mad scientist isn't too far-fetched, especially when it comes to his work. One of his heavy influences is English producer and songwriter Joe Meek. An experimental musician himself, Meek would incorporate sounds like flushing toilets into his work to find the perfect sound combinations— something Schichtel likes to do when working on his own projects, because "bands don't want to pay me $50 an hour to record toilets."
"He's possessed when he's in front of that mixing board," said John Serba, Schictel's friend of 10 years and an entertainment reporter at The Grand Rapids Press/MLive."If you come and record at Goon Lagoon, you're not going to sound like any band anywhere."
Schichtel is different from most producers in that he refuses to record on popular software Pro Tools. It's not because he's a purist hipster snob, it's because analog is what he knows and loves.
"I wouldn't throw it out [using Pro Tools]," Schichtel said. "I would rather record than pooh-pooh it. And i know I sound elitist about the whole tape compared to computer thing, but this is really all I know."
While growing up on Grand Rapids' west side, Schichtel remembers a lot of vinyl and reel-to-reel audio tape music formats in his house. Particularly, he pinpoints his mother, Susan, vacuuming to The Beatles on vinyl during his childhood. Using analog equipment is not only nostalgic to him, but vivid and interactive as well.
"I think there's something sexy about the tape and the smell of the old stuff and turning real knobs than using a mouse and clicking. It's kind of like an artist painting as opposed to using an iPad," he said.
Schichtel combines all his influences into his studio, which is filled with vintage gear, kitschy toy monsters, an impressive guitar wall and an Austin Powers-esque white couch that brings the studio together. The name Goon Lagoon was inspired by the Island of the Goons on "Popeye" and Goo Lagoon on "Spongebob." It's weird and goofy, but that's the kind of guy he is.
"He's a weirdo,"Serba said. "And that's the ultimate compliment. He has an offbeat sense of humor to him."
The equipment he uses is vintage — and not the made-in-2013 products you can buy at Urban Outfitters. They're the real deal. Goon Lagoon is filled with amps, guitars, drum kits and more that date back to the 1960s or earlier. The guitar he uses is from 1959, while his amp is from 1956.
"I think everything has a soul, especially instruments," he said. "I pick up some of these new guitars and they sound great, but there's nothing there. It's too clean, it's too neat. There's no mojo there. I'm not knocking any of the new stuff, I'm just stuck in this analog kind of world."
The bands that record at Goon Lagoon appreciate the throwback appeal as well.
"The first time I was there it was like a dream come true," said Mickey Catalina, guitarist for The Boss Mustangs. "There are not a lot of people around here who think like him."
In 2009, Schichtel came to support his friend Derek Lancioni's now-defunct two-person band celebration, Fes2val where he saw Midland-based Beasts in the Field perform. After the performance, Schichtel bought a T-shirt and said hello to the band, when the band members told him they were looking for an analog studio to record their next record. Since their meeting, Beasts in the Field recorded three of its five albums under the Goon Lagoon label, and the members do not have plans of changing — even when guitarist Jordan Pries made a whoopsie that would make any producer lose his s***.
"I think I'm the only person who blew up an amp twice during a recording session," Pries said. "And he didn't even charge me. He didn't even care. He's too nice. With his capabilities and rates, you can't beat it."
Those vintage influences also carry over to Schichtel's three bands: The Concussions, The Fuzzrites and The B-Sides.
Schichtel (who goes by the stage name Dick Chiclet) is the mind behind all three bands, which explains the similar surf-guitar, garage-rock sound they all share. They do have their differences, however. The Concussions is instrumental, and the band's members frequently play with skeleton masks. The idea stemmed from the band's Halloween show that included black lights and turned out so well that the members wanted to incorporate it in their shows as much as possible — but not all the time.
"You lose five pounds every time you play in (the masks). And it's hard to hear," Schichtel said. "It's like having your head in a toilet bowl every time you play with them on. They're not conducive to good guitar playing."
On the other hand, Schichtel describes The Fuzzrites and The B-Sides as almost the same band, with The B-Sides sounding a little bit more grown-up and The Fuzzrites sounding more playful.
"Everyone I play with in the bands are beautiful people. They're just really good human beings," he said.
Band members are as close to home as his brother Christopher Schichtel, who performs with Tommy in all three bands.
"Christopher's got the easy job," Schichtel said. "He just shows up with the tambourine and sings our songs. But he looks the most handsome, so he has to stand up front."
For The B-Sides, Schichtel enlisted Pete Curry, bassist for Los Straightjackets, whom he met on a cruise 10 years ago.
"We have similar tastes in music, and I really like the guy," Curry said about recording at Goon Lagoon. "Plus, whenever I'm in Grand Rapids, I get invited to his mother's house for a meal."
Originally meant to be a recording band due to Curry's California residency, The B-Sides are instead seeing how the new album (released June 2013) fares, and the members will make decisions on whether to tour or not based on demand. And while he enjoys performing with his three bands, it's in the studio where Schichtel says he can get lost in hours of work.
"Playing live is a lot like sex. It's instantly gratifying, but once it's over, it's like, 'Let's get a beer.' ... In the studio, it's never like that."
In addition to Goon Lagoon, Schichtel also owns his own electrical company. The two endeavors create a balance in Schichtel's life that allows him creative integrity and financial stability. He could do the rock-and-roll thing full time, but there's more to Tommy Schichtel than being a vintage rock and roller.
"I grew up working on stuff ... so there's always that grounding source," Schichtel said. "So, as much as I'd like to give people that impression that I'm a rock star, there's so much more that I love to do."
Photos: Seth Thompson