On a sunny Saturday afternoon the sounds of live guitar music filled a building in an industrial Anchorage neighborhood. The sounds leaked out of the building through a cracked door hung with a sign reading "Employees only."
Behind the beat-up door, down a short hallway hung with framed compact discs and cover art from classical, religious and seasonal albums (including Hobo Jim's "Iditarod Trail Song"), past an odd selection of musical instruments, Kurt Riemann was mixing away in his musical laboratory.
On this particular day, Riemann was busy giving direction to guitarist Edward Guzman of Lamplighter, a black metal band. The young musician listened and played again. The band's vocalist, Daniel Kirwin, bassist Aric Hanley and drummer Avery Irish sat on a battered beige couch behind Riemann in the production room. The four musicians joked continuously, the only thing separating their wisecracks from Guzman a sheet of soundproof glass. Riemann occasionally joined in, adding a snarky comment here and there.
"This is a pretty hardcore session today," Riemann said, paying close attention to colorful bars jumping and moving on his computer monitor. He focused on each aspect of the band's sound, guiding the musicians through an all-day session.
For many musicians, especially the young ones, getting into the studio for the first time means approaching their craft in a completely new way.
"Often (bands) are rehearsing for a show, and it is like they are just getting it close enough so that when they get on stage they can completely flip out," Riemann said. "But here it is like, 'I need you to play that 'deedily-deet-deedily-deet-deet' thing again that you've been ignoring.'" Lamplighter, though, a band that had at that point only been together for about a month and a half and had yet to play a gig, were actually "pretty good" by the longtime producer's standards.
Guzman played, and then Hanley and Irish joined in. Vocalist Kirwin went in separately and performed less than the rest, a tactic Riemann said is intended to keep the singer from losing his voice. When Kirwin took a break, he sipped on a cup of hot tea.
Riemann, who got his start with electronic music, said running Surreal Studios was a "natural step" from his beginnings in the business. He started the operation in his house in the early 1980s and moved into the West Potter Drive studio in 1985.
He estimates he's produced more than 500 records, "but I have stopped counting. I lost track." The longstanding recording studio has at some points employed an entire staff of professionals, but these days it's a one-man show. Political advertisements bring in regular revenue while the music business rides in waves.
Riemann could talk all day about the musicians who have come in gone, the genres Alaskans love and the history of the Anchorage music scene. He said when he started in the 1980s many musicians were trying to be the next great pop band or Journey cover band, but these days metal has a huge calling in Alaska. Riemann added that metal shows are frequent and popular in Anchorage -- a fact with which the guys from Lamplighter agreed.
"To a lot of people, they don't get it. It is not something you go seek out in a dance club, but there is a culture that loves it," said Riemann, who added that shows are always packed. "It is a pretty cathartic event."
Unlike some of his peers, Riemann has never been tempted to take his talents to the Lower 48. People in Alaska's music industry, he said, seem to think that "if you're any good you have to leave," but Riemann's never had any interest.
"Some people like to be good here," he said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing