Set deep in the Louisiana countryside, Dockside Studio has attracted some of the brightest and best recording artists over the past 30 years. Hundreds of talented musicians have made albums there, from New Orleans legend Dr. John to Levon Helm from the Band, Rod Stewart, and of course the legendary B.B. King, who loved it so much he donated his beautiful guitar Lucille to the studio.
It all began in 1986 when Steve Nails, from Raceland, Louisiana and a lifelong musician on guitars, drums and bass, started the studio with his wife Cézanne, a painter, from Marathon, Key West, Florida. After a life-changing accident Steve found himself wheelchair bound, and decided from then on he wanted to take on a new musical role.
“I wanted to be on the other side of the window,” he explains, “Instead of me being in that room, I’m in this room now. Music is healing.”
The Dockside studio
In 1989 the couple moved the studio to Maurice, Louisiana, a tiny hamlet on the Vermilion Bayou and created what we now know as Dockside Studio. A unique place where some of the best musical artists of the late 20th century have chosen to make some of their finest albums. BB King, at 75 years of age and by then a true blues legend, took his band, who he described as, “his best ever”, to Dockside to record his magical “Blues on the Bayou” in 1998.
Now the studio boasts 10 Grammys under its belt, and has recorded artists from Rod Stewart and Sammy Kershaw to Givers and Arcade Fire.
Where did the success originate?
Steve’s initial answer is to put it rather modestly, down to ‘luck, word of mouth.’ But, judging by the vast, eclectic and expertly chosen range of gear, including a vast amount of vintage equipment, plus Steve’s emphatic favourites, a Lexicon 480L, and a Pultec (“you gotta have a Pultec”), it can’t just be luck that has made for this studio’s success. It has got to be more than that, and when pressed, Steve admits it has taken years of dedication to build up such a collection.
“Just keep expanding, staying up with the gear,” he advises, then confesses, “I’m a gear slut, that’s the truth. I love microphones.”
A love like that can drive a man to do many things, as Steve demonstrates with his apparently vulture-like approach to acquiring new gear for the studio.
“I save my money and I wait for studios to die, and then I buy them.”
Nevertheless, with a reputation in the business as good as Steve’s, it’s not all picking over bones. In fact, the equipment from closing down studios often finds its way straight to him, especially when it comes to finding a new home for his one true love, microphones. This passion has helped Steve build a huge collection of rare equipment.
”When you have a vintage microphone, you care about it, it’s like a painting”, Cézanne explains, “So people will call Steve and say, look, do you want to buy this, because I’d like you to have it.”
“They know I’m collector”, adds Steve, “More than a studio owner, I’m a collector.”
This dedicated collector mentality of Steve appears to have given the studio the edge it needs to push something unlikely – a recording studio, far from the big venues and bright lights of city-civilization – to become a unique success.
“You have to have the insight to be competitive with the big cities,” Steve muses, “I had the outside, the property, but now I need the inside to compete with the big studios, in Los Angeles, Nashville and New York.”
The Dockside’s location couldn’t be more different from a big city, set in the rural Maurice LA, a village of just 642 people at the last count. The buildings are nestled in 12 rural square acres spotted with oak trees, with a spacious studio and four-bedroom lodgings, plus a three-bedroom pool house overlooking the pristine Vermilion Bayou. The Nails have created an oasis of serenity which invites recording artists to experience something completely different. Guests can swim, play on the basketball court, and take in the views after long days of recording.
The Nails’ recording process
The laid back surroundings are mirrored by a laid back approach to making music. Instead of recording by the hour, artists generally book in for days, or weeks, or months, and ease into the creative atmosphere, sometimes working for up to 16 hours a day.
Cézanne believes this way of recording really helps inspiration and originality to emerge and bloom.
“The musicians can do what they feel, rather than being on the clock. It’s much more conducive to a beautiful recording, because it’s all about the flow of the art.”
While some records, especially blues, take only a few days – one unnamed band took just 52 minutes to complete theirs – other artists find the place too good to leave.
“They get on the property, and they might not leave for three weeks,” says Cézanne, “Like, not leave the property for three weeks!”
“I don’t care so much about the studio, as much as I care about the commune, the living,” says Steve, “You wake up with music, you go to sleep with music. And it’s all friendship.”
It is certainly more than just a studio to the artists who go there. While recording at such a prestigious place might seem out of reach for new kids on the block looking to follow in the footsteps of their idols, the couple insists it’s not just about attracting the big, established stars to record with them.
“We choose carefully. We have a select list. All I record are my friends, really,” says Steve,”It’s not a question of money. It’s a question of fun.”
Cézanne continues, “You don’t have to be rich and famous to come here. We do record a lot of people. It might be somebody’s brand new album, from a 21 year old girl, with a beautiful voice, that fits. It’s just a thing when people fit together. People seem to gravitate here if they tend to fit here.”
Steve agrees, stating, “There are two types of recordings, people who like the city, and the people who don’t like the city.” He goes deeper into his own philosophy on his studio, and ultimately his life, in just a few words.
“Hippy. No time of day. Commune living. The love in. I’m just glad to be breathing. There is no stress on this property at all, none. I’ve had leukaemia for 12 years [Steve is now in remission], I don’t need stress.
“Music is a healing thing, as good as medicine.”
The Nails’ musical philosophy
Steve and Cézanne have seen a vast array of musicians and recorded them, so what is their advice to newcomers, or even old-timers. Steve provides the final few words of advice to aspiring musicians, backed by all his years of experience and success in all facets of the business. It reflects his own absolute dedication to his art, “Don’t stop. Never stop. They say music is a 10 year window. No, don’t stop, always stay in your genre, do your thing. Don’t ever quit.”