Leaders of the Pack

Unconventional label searching for success with free recording sessions in custom motorcycle shop

Friday, October 7, 2011, Vol. 35, No. 40
By Brad Schmitt

“Sticks or brushes?” asks drummer Matt Prince, a young Florida transplant dressed in white T-shirt, brown corduroy cut-offs and flip-flops.

“Sticks. Definitely sticks.”

The producer/engineer, Gregory Lattimer, wavy dark gelled hair and thick Elvis Costello black glasses framing his face, further instructs the drummer.

“If Phil Collins was hanging out in Brazil ... .,” Lattimer says. “Country shuffle, but definitely sexy.”

Lattimer and his mixing board are sandwiched between two partially disassembled Harley Davidson bikes on repair lifts, oily motorcycle parts, rags and tools scattered around each.

Today’s recording – like all NOW Records sessions – is happening in the garage of Music City Motorcycles, a high-end custom bike shop near 17th Avenue North & Church St.

The “studio” is the opposite of the pristine, endless maze of studios about a mile away on Music Row.

And that’s by design of NOW Records operators, two mainstream-label artist veterans, Lattimer and Kevin Smith.

“You have to take the artist away from the sterile environment. A studio looks like a hospital,” says Smith, wearing sunglasses and pulling on an American Spirit cigarette.

“It just takes the whole element of artwork out, the creativity’s gone. But when you throw a bunch of musicians in a motorcycle shop, with vintage Harley Davidsons around them, all of a sudden it creates a spontaneous environment.”

NOW Records hopes to flip everything about Music Row upside down. The three-man start-up cranks out singles – and accompanying videos – at no charge to the artists, up front or on the back end. Then the label puts the singles and videos for sale online, on its own site, and splits any resulting profits 50-50 with the artist.

Lattimer, a member of ‘90s major label rock band Thin Lizard Dawn, and Smith, who was in alt-country band The Mary Janes, found each other in Nashville a year ago.

“I’ve been the artist behind the microphone with the dream of sharing the music with as many people as possible,” Lattimer says. “It seemed like the people making the records didn’t really care. Ultimately they just wanted to be paid.”

NOW Records, its founders say, is about creating an artist-first, it’s-all-about-the-music atmosphere that inspires creativity.

“Our goal is to help out the artists, to give them a product so they actually have some legs to stand on,” Smith says.

“They’re not gonna get a professional product like what we have to deliver unless they pull out their wallets. We alleviate that challenge.”

Says Lattimer: “We just want to make timeless, great art.”

Singer-songwriter Rebecca Jed – also a beauty school student – sits on a couch in the motorcycle shop’s office, strums her guitar and sings her song “Boom Chicka Boom Boom” several times through for gathered musicians.

Jed’s friend, backing vocalist Mae Bliss, who co-wrote the song, sits in silky top, gauzy skirt and cowboy hat, staring intently and mouthing along with the lyrics.

“Boom chicka boom boom, all night long,” sings Jed, a black halter-top dress revealing a fleur-de-lis tattoo on her chest.

Kevin Smith, left, a former member of The Mary Janes, and Greg Lattimore, former frontman for Thin Lizard Dawn, are hoping their no-cost, no-frills recording sessions will change the music industry.

-- Photo: Brad Schmitt | Nashville Ledger

After some quick feedback and a few adjustments, Lattimer jumps up and shouts, “Let’s make a record!”

“This is where the New York comes out in me,” he says on the way to the “studio.” “Tennesseans will sit around and talk about it for hours.”

But even creating selfless, timeless great art takes some money. For that, Lattimer and Smith turned to one of Nashville’s most colorful characters.

They found “Panhead Phil” Hipsher, owner of Music City Motorcycles, custom bike builder, tour bus driver, entrepreneur, recovering alcoholic and veteran of the U.S. Navy.

Hipsher was hip to the idea of new artists being able to get quality recordings of singles online for sale, and to make those recordings for free. So he offered some room in his shop, some website assistance and about $1,500 cash.

“I told them, you’ll kind of have to do like I did, you’ll have to make chicken salad out of chicken s---,” Hipsher says.

So far, NOW Records has accumulated several dozen singles from artists ranging from veteran Nashville jazz singer Benita Hill to pop-punk band The Grayces to alt-country twang of Jed.

The musicians gather in front of microphones set out in a semicircle. The garage door closes.

The drummer stands up, takes off his white T-shirt, sits back down, grabs his sticks. “It’s time to get serious!” he declares, smiling.

Jed turns toward Lattimer. “Gregory, I can’t handle the smoke,” she says, softly.

“I’m sorry, that’s right,” the producer says, mashing his cigarette into a nearby ashtray.

“If you want me to be a strong race horse. . . ,” Jed continues.

Lattimer nods quickly and moves on.

“We’ve not made any money, just poured money into it,” Hipsher says matter-of-factly.

“But that’s OK. These guys are staying out of trouble, and we’re helping a few folks out, which is really cool.”

Smith and Lattimer are hopeful that maybe one artist will hit big, become a Web sensation of sorts, and that will help fund others.

“If we make great artwork, the money will follow the artwork,” Smith says.

Hipsher strikes a more practical note, saying he’ll give NOW Records about two years before reassessing what’s happening.

In the meantime, Smith has an outside job as an accountant and Lattimer has picked up some outside pay producing gigs.

“We’ll keep going as long as the Creator sees fit or the universe allows us to be prosperous in our other ventures,” Hipsher says.

“I truly believe what we’re doing will take off as long as it lasts long enough.”