Sparta, Minnesota is such a blip on the radar that you won’t find it on most maps of the state. Too small to be a town, the population of 50-odd citizens that reside in Sparta technically call their spot on the Iron Range a “location.”
Pulling off the county highway onto a dirt road, there’s no bank, no post office, no major businesses to speak of; the only indication that people once gathered as a community in Sparta is a petite, bright green one-room church at the center of the settlement. The little church looks abandoned, it’s path snowed over and it’s windows shuttered. But look a little closer at the display board at the front of the building, and it looks as if someone carefully arranged the plastic letters to announce today’s sermon: “Hey hey, my my.”
Someone’s been studying the Book of Neil Young.
The little church is situated next to a slightly larger, more modern church, and everything looks quiet and quaint from the outside. As soon as a visitor’s car pulls into the driveway, however, the doors swing open and Rich Mattson, his girlfriend, Germaine Gemberling, and a flurry of curious dogs and cats begin swirling about, welcoming any and all outsiders into their abode.
“Welcome to Sparta Sound,” Mattson says, grinning warmly as Gemberling wrangles the animals at her heels. Once inside, it’s a whole other world.
Rock ‘n’ roll bed and breakfast
Though you’d never guess it from the outside, Mattson’s Sparta Sound Studio has been the site of countless folk, roots, rock, and blues recordings over the past eight years. It’s where Trampled by Turtles recorded much of Palomino and Duluth, where songwriter Dan Israel just finished recording his 12th studio album, Live On, and where countless artists from the Twin Cities and Duluth have made the trek to the Range to disconnect and spend long weekends thinking about nothing but recording.
From the moment I set foot in Sparta Sound, the attraction is apparent. To the right, a church sanctuary has been overhauled into a recording space, its pews and altar replaced with a sound booth, foam padding, and a sea of scattered microphones and instruments. To the left, a cozy living room area is kept warm by a potbelly stove, and a mild-mannered, mellow golden retriever named Pookie—the inspiration for the name of Mattson’s band, Ol’ Yeller—seems to grin every time someone walks past. A bedroom is tucked at the back of the home, and lofts have been built over the sound room and drum booth in the recording space.
“It’s a rock ‘n’ roll bed and breakfast,” Mattson explains, speaking softly and with the slightest hint of a northern Minnesota accent. “Once we’re done recording, the bands can crawl up there and pass out.”
Mattson is a lifelong musician, starting his first band up in West Eveleth and then moving to the Cities to merge rock with folk in projects like the Glenrustles, Ol’ Yeller, and the Tisdales. After spending decades building and operating home studios in the Twin Cities, Mattson decided to return to his home on “da Range,” as he calls it, in 2005, where he could construct a more permanent space to record his own music and bring in bands he admired.
“In the modern age, you can kind of operate out of wherever you want to be, as long as you have an internet connection,” he says. “Since I know so many people in the Twin Cities, I figured I could go down there a couple times a month, keep the band together, it was just an idea. I looked online and started looking at properties, and this looked kind of interesting, so I came up to look at it. I stepped in the door, and just fell in love with the place.”
It was up on “da Range” that Mattson also reconnected with Gemberling, who he says he used to run into at parties back in the late ’80s and early ‘90s when she was fronting the riot grrl-era punk band Smut, and rediscovered when he found out she had moved to Ely and started playing in a folk-rock band called Shotgun Daisy. The two hit it off when Gemberling brought the band to record at Sparta, and a few years later they began dating. Now a resident of Sparta Sound, Gemberling’s presence is everywhere—she chats up guests, serves them tea, and is constantly tending to the animals of the household, her warm, bubbly demeanor the perfect complement to Mattson’s soft-spokenness.
A musician’s dream
Soon after I arrive in Sparta, Mattson gets to work setting up the studio for St. Paul songwriter Paul Seeba, an old friend of Mattson’s from Hibbing who moved to the Cities around the same time as he did in 1987. As soon as Seeba gets to work, Mattson becomes laser-focused on the tasks at hand; meals are foregone and sleep is shrugged off as Seeba records one song after another, Mattson’s interest never waning. From his position in the sound booth, Mattson notices every detail—a rushed drum entrance, an out of tune string, a muddled lyric, a slightly scratchy vocal take. He is detailed with his feedback, yet also supportive at every turn. After one take, he simply says, “Try again! I think you can do better.”
After watching Mattson at work, it’s easy to see why musicians flock to his studio. Dan Israel says that he wasn’t quite sure what to expect the first time he drove up to Sparta, but Mattson’s unassuming nature and the studio’s easy-going vibe helped to create a once-in-a-lifetime recording session.
“The whole experience was incredibly spiritual and liberating for me,” Israel says. “Rich and I really hit it off. He took an active, interested role in the project, coming up with great guitar, bass, and percussion parts on so many songs, and he and Germaine really made me feel right at home there, as it’s also their home. I was fed like a king, slept like a baby in the little loft above the studio, and ended up being extremely happy with the results of the project.”
Country-folk songwriter Jennifer Markey says she was so surprised by how quickly her album came together at Sparta that she named her 2009 debut album The Sparta Session. “One song was recorded in just one take, and nothing took more than six,” she remembers. “We recorded everything live, in the same room, myself in an isolation booth and drums and bass behind plexiglass; we could all see each other and I believe Rich captured our live sound perfectly. The physical place isn’t all that magical in itself. When I heard it was an old church, I pictured stained glass, old wood and the Holy Spirit everywhere. It’s hardly that—it’s not very old and it was built as a ‘modern’ church—but it is certainly filled with magic, and that magic all belongs to Rich Mattson.”
And singer-songwriter Martin Devaney summarizes his experiences thusly: “Sparta Sound has become one of my favorite places in the world.”
Building a new scene
Sparta may feel remote, but it’s actually at the center of a sprawling, populated industrial area that has a cultural history of its own. Bob Dylan’s childhood home sits just 20 miles west of Mattson’s studio in downtown Hibbing, and is just down the street from a Planet Hollywood-style Dylanophilia bar and grill called Zimmy’s. And nearly every town on the Iron Range is home to at least one music venue, with songwriter-fronted bands popping up more often alongside the cover bands that previously entertained barflies on Friday and Saturday nights.
“More and more, we’re seeing original bands start to play out,” Mattson says, piling everyone into his minivan after the recording session wraps and giving us a tour of the town. “It was always cover bands, and people are starting to get tired of it. With original bands, it’s more of a variety, and it gets people out more. The modern songs are kind of un-coverable, you know? You can’t sound like any of that Top 40 stuff.”
Our first stop is a Virginia bar called the 218, known for its selection of microbrews and tiny, two-foot-deep stage. Though the stage doesn’t look like it could hold more than a barstool and mic stand, posters on the wall advertise past shows by Charlie Parr, Two Many Banjos, and Mattson and Gemberling’s band Junkboat.
After the 218 we head to Gilbert, where two venues sit on opposite sides of the street on the town’s tiny two-block main drag; at the Alibi, a polished, Hibbing-based folk-rock band called the Slamming Doors gets the crowd dancing, while across the street, a family band called the Genetics plows through covers in a sprawling compound of a space known as Y’or Mudder’s Place. At Y’or Mudder’s, owner Wendy Bontems stands at the end of the bar and surveys the scene, receiving hugs from a line of happy showgoers who call her “Mom.” Bontems says she opened the cavernous bar three and a half years ago and has made a commitment to showcasing original music by local bands every weekend.
And though he is shy to take credit, it’s clear that Mattson has had a hand in kick starting the budding independent music scene on the Iron Range; in his spare time he has launched a non-profit, IROMA (Iron Range Original Music Association), and regularly books all-local lineups and prints free compilation CDs.
When asked about his work building the music scene on the Range, Mattson humbly smiles and shrugs. “I was just following the Twin Cities model, where you have three bands in a night that have similar music. That had never even been done here. The first time we tried it was just packed, people loved it,” he says. “It’s kind of a new era.”
Rich Mattson’s Ol’ Yeller are about to embark on a tour with Germaine Gemberling that will lead them to SXSW. Their trek includes stops in Duluth on Friday, March 7 at Red Star, and Minneapolis on Saturday, March 8, at Lee’s Liquor Lounge.