BY JOSHUA M. MILLER | PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
Wauwatosa-based production collective Wire & Vice takes a Swiss Army knife-like approach when it comes to music and entertainment. The collective doesn’t just house Wire & Vice; it is also home to two recording studios, filmmaker and photographer Stephen Spurlock, mastering engineer Justin Perkins’ Mystery Room Mastering, and production music company The License Lab.
Leading the charge are producers Daniel Holter and Nick Rad, experienced industry pros who have worked with the likes of Rihanna, Skillet and Field Report.
Holter and Rad took some time to talk to MKE Lifestyle about their vision.
Tell me a little more about yourselves.
Holter: Nick and I are both record producers. I think I have more interest in the mixing side of making records. And while I think Nick enjoys mixing records, I think it’s safe to say he’s better suited at making records with artists and crafting full projects over a long period of time. I like to come late in the process and mix what’s been worked on. Sometimes we work together on that process, but usually we’ve got our own clients. But we’re both record producers, a catch-all way to describe it. Songwriters, mixers.
Rad: All of the above. Except that we don’t master. Justin (Perkins) does that.
How did Wire & Vice come about?
Holter: I’ve had a studio in the building for a very long time, about 18 years. And a few years ago — four, five years ago, The License Lab was operating and had its own business arc and path toward success. I wanted to brand the building as a record-making place. Nick was exploring moving back from Los Angeles, which I had done almost 20 years prior. In fact, we both moved to Los Angeles for a season.
I liked (Nick’s) stuff when he did some freelance work here a few years ago. I was thinking about the rebrand of the studio facility and bringing him aboard as a tenant and producer. He could be working on the fantastic records he’s working on, and I could be working on the records I’m working on.
We have The License Lab, and we have Justin doing mastering. That was the genesis for this idea of having this creative production hub called Wire & Vice, where there’s a whole lot of high-level projects being done in record production and songcraft. I want Wire & Vice to be the place where that’s done in its highest form. And we happened to be in Milwaukee. It’s a fun, collaborative, creative environment where there’s a bunch of people working on really great stuff.
So yeah, it’s really a rebrand of a studio that I’ve had here. But there’s a new intentionality over the last few years. Because the studio I had here was really for our internal stuff. And this is more about the record making with other artists on the highest level and collaborating with other people here.
So you want to be more than just a regular recording studio?
Holter: Yeah. I’d describe our combined enterprises as not being a studio for hire. I’d describe us as a bunch of carpenters owning our own workshops. Usually if you want to work here, you’re working with one of the carpenters, a master craftsman who has a relationship with these people. And these people want to build a house. This is where we build that house.
It’s one of the reasons we don’t really compete with other studios in town, and we’re not really in that world — because we don’t necessarily have an hourly rate. It’s not like we’re looking for people to work here on a Wednesday because we have an open Wednesday. We have our own projects that we’re working on. So most of the stuff that comes through our door is for people who want to work with one of us. We’re working on projects larger in scope than “I need three hours of recording time.”
The building used to the be the original Wauwatosa post office.
Holter: Yeah. It was built in, I think, 1922. So we’re four years away from throwing a big party. Almost 100 years ago this was the post office for the village. We took off the loading dock, where the mail trucks would roll in. In fact, the divider by the front door is repurposed from the loading dock doors when (the space) was a post office. I kept the ladder that went up to the catwalk that went around the building, where post office workers could look down at the sorters. We also have the post office safe.
How do you think you’ve made the space your own?
Holter: In an era where you can legit make a record on an iPad or iPhone, to have a facility that stands out and is a place where people want to make records is a function of the people who are here and those relationships and that collaborative environment. And, also, the physical environment being inspiring. Having great instruments to play, having great lighting, having great snacks, having great food options in the neighborhood, having free parking — all that stuff feeds an artist’s mood when they’re here to make an intimate creative moment public.
When they’re going to create something, ideally it’s genuine and meaningful, and they’re going to share it with the world. Providing a space where artists feel comfortable to do that is the role of the studio life. I think it’s a big reason why we’ve drawn the people we have to us and why we continue to work, and the records get better and better.
How did you come up with the name Wire & Vice?
Holter: I loved the imagery of Wire & Vice. Wire being the technical part of what we do. And Vice being the aesthetic component. I also have a shelf of single-malt and blended whiskies that is the vice component. I like the wordplay on fire and ice, which is a classic way to describe balance in the universe. And I think our job is all about balance. Balancing desires and realities and balancing tones and instruments and songs. It speaks to the balance of the nature of what we do in multiple ways, but it’s also an imagery associated with the wire being the studio and the vice being the aesthetic and other.
Who are some of your biggest clients lately?
Rad: Within the last two years I’ve been doing a lot of work for Skillet. Jen Ledger is the drummer for Skillet and has a side project on Atlantic Records called “Ledger.” Her EP* came out earlier this year, and I helped engineer on it, along with Korey Cooper (of Skillet). I didn’t mix that record.
I also produced a song for Francesca Battistelli called “Where Were You” that was in the movie “The Shack.”
Holter: Probably the biggest thing I’ve done (over) the last two years was the Field Report record, which got signed to Verve (Records). They took the record that we had made and put it out. I’m over the moon about that. It just came out this year.
What are some upcoming projects you’re excited about?
Holter: I’m working with Abby Jeanne, who has a little bit of heat around her locally and nationally. There are some people who are sniffing around to what she’s up to, which is great. We have some Field Report stuff going on with the current record, and Chris (Porterfield) is in the middle of writing his next record. He has a room here at the studio as well.
Rad: I just finished a record that I produced and mixed for an artist called Finding Faith, which came out in early June. I’m very excited about the Ledger record, of course. Last week I put the final touches on a record from a Milwaukee rock band called Modern Echo. There’s also an Australian artist named Adam Reily that I’m currently mixing an EP for.
Holter: I’m in the middle of doing some new stuff with WebsterX. He’s got some nice visibility locally and nationally. He’s one of the National Public Radio artists to watch for 2018. Trapper Schoepp was here earlier this year. He’s got a real career going and is based here in Milwaukee as well. They did the record here with Pat Sansone producing. I was engineering. They were here for a couple weeks. I just heard the finished masters. I don’t know what the release plan is, but he has a new album done that’s really good.
Any favorite stories from working here that you’d like to share?
Holter: I have a good Rihanna story (from about 10 years ago). I received a tweet from an artist in town saying they recommended me to (Rihanna’s people), and they’re going to call. Long story short, they ended up calling, and Rihanna ended up booking a session here. Now, we aren’t open for that kind of work. But if you’re Rihanna, I’ll open the doors.
She had some autograph seekers, so she signed some things and gave them to her security guy to take outside. She wanted to smoke, so I was like, “Hey, we’ve got a patio out the back door.”
So I waltzed her and her friend (outside) — the three of us go to the back patio, and we’re smoking on the other side of the building. No big deal. I walk back through the back door, and her security guy is running through the facility freaking out. I wasn’t tuned into Rihanna’s life or anything. I was not clued to pop culture stuff at the time. This was months after Chris Brown, and everything blew up with her life. So security is clearly concerned they can’t find her.
That was a fun couple of minutes. It’s usually not that exciting in the studio.
*Editor’s note: EP is a music industry term for extended play record — or a recording that contains more tracks than a single.