The Hippo


Jun 17, 2019








Rocking Horse Studio owner Brian Coombes (background) plays with Pat & the Hats. Courtesy photo.

Star spotlight

Tom Dixon
Country music artist Tom Dixon won Country Act of the Year last year at the New England Music Awards, recorded his album with Grammy-nominated producer Kent Wells and has opened for a number of big-name acts such as Eric Church, the Zac Brown Band and Sugarland.
Less than a decade ago, Dixon was the country boy playing in rock and metal clubs in central New Hampshire.
“Country music wasn’t where it is now,” Dixon laughed.
Before he moved down to the country-mecca Nashville, Dixon started his music career as a kid growing up in Pelham and Londonderry, singing in his church choir. He didn’t start playing guitar until he was attending Hesser College in the early 2000s.
After he picked up a few chords and learned to play some of his favorite pop-country hits, Dixon gathered a group of his friends together and started playing in Manchester. The musician said that country clubs were scarce in the Granite State at the time, which forced the band to plug in at rock and metal clubs.
“We were kind of looked at as the country guys,” said Dixon. “But I wanted to be more than that. We wanted to be musicians that were part of the Manchester music scene.”
Dixon said he and the rest of the band would try to play everywhere they could, refusing to write off a gig because of the genre clash. Members of Dixon’s band were rock and roll fans as well, so through networking with other local bands and collecting club owner contacts, the band took chances with the right people who would give them a spot to play.
“One of the first things when you start out and you don’t have any gigs lined up is trying to say to club owners, ‘Take our word for it, we’re good,’” said Dixon. “Then right away, when we started to play out, I had my wife go out and take as many photos as possible. The ones that weren’t blurry, we used to market ourselves.”
The band was around before Bandcamp and ReverbNation and had to rely mostly on MySpace to spread the word. 
“Even before Facebook, [online marketing] was a tool,” he said. “If you can tell a club owner how many people you can market to, or how many people you’ve got on your marketing list who could be brought to their club, you have a good chance [of getting the gig].”
While Dixon was looking to make a career out of his original music, the band used covers as a tool to grab the ears of the audience.
“It helps fans connect to you,” said Dixon. “I played a lot of Toby Keith at bars and grills; we played Eric Church right out of the gate when we first started. I actually heard Brad Paisley make a comment that you have to go out and play other people’s music and find out who you are as a musician. You don’t grow if you play your own music.”
Dixon said aspiring musicians should never stop trying to improve and evolve.
“I’ve told people over the years, ‘Never get complacent, you’re just going to lose out,’” he said. “Ask yourself, ‘What I can do better?’ That’s the most important thing.”

The Record
Take the big step at Rocking Horse Studio

By Michael Witthaus

 A record is a statement, a window into an artist’s vision. However, most initial efforts are sonically raw, born in a basement on a MacBook Pro running Garage Band. The challenge is making a really good record, one that’s more than a calling card for a cover band. 

Pulling it off requires a real studio and an experienced producer. In New Hampshire, a winning combination is frequently Rocking Horse Studio and Brian Coombes. Countless musicians have worked in the Pittsfield studio, and recently, business is booming. Pat & The Hats, Dusty Gray Band, Tristan Omand, Rachel Vogelzang, Black Agnes and The Connection are among the acts that have made records at the facility this year. 
“If you’re professionally serious and not trapped in your bedroom, you’ll get to Rocking Horse,” said Coombes, as he kicked back next to the studio’s 32-track mixing console that looks out over the studio’s large performing space. 
Coombes talked as his feet rested on a stuffed rocking horse given to him by one of his production clients. 
Designed by renowned studio designer Michael Blackmer, the state-of-the-art facility took two years to build and was completed in 2006. It sits in an unassuming-looking barn, but its fortress-like walls could withstand a mortar attack, and allow for round-the-clock work.
Performers come for more than the Trident soundboard, spatial reflectors, isolation rooms and cool toys like a vintage Mellotron and Moog synthesizer. When people call Coombes the Godfather of New Hampshire music, they’re talking about guidance and gravitas, not just the projects he’s helmed.
Great gear may help create a good record, but without the right people, it won’t be a great one. Coombes learned this as a member of Tristan Park. He played keyboards in the progressive rock band, which released four albums. 
They once worked at a Boston studio at the same time as singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke. 
“When her record came out, it sounded so much better technically than ours,” Coombes said. “They were recorded and mixed in the same place but by different people. That was a light bulb going off.” 
Coombes realized that even if a musician wanted to make a record in a bomb shelter, he wouldn’t flinch. 
“I’m proud of our facility [but] I have the expertise and sensibility to make a good record anywhere,” he said. “The wonderful studio we’ve built is only part of the experience.”
A lot of personal energy is invested into his work — “Sometimes too much, which causes me to be disappointed,” Coombes said with wry chuckle. 
Projects can hit a snag; when that happens, the struggle is as much his as the performer’s. In early autumn, musical differences brought months of effort with one performer to an abrupt end. As he talked about it, the producer was still reeling a bit from the experience.    
“You’re part therapist and psychiatrist; you’re there for emotional as well as musical support.” he said. “It’s not like other jobs. If we were accountants, we wouldn’t get as involved in our — I don’t use the word clients — these are artists. This is what I do for a living, and I need to be compensated, but music is a personal thing that comes from deep down.”
Coombes brings decades of experience as a touring and recording musician to the table. Thus, working with him is very much a collaborative process, up to and including taking the stage with the acts he produces. 
“I always make the offer to go out and play live … usually, it’s an organic process of making the record.”
He’s joined Pat and The Hats on keyboards a few times, including a recent show at Concord’s Capitol Center. 
“That was the best set I’ve ever played with them,” said Coombes. “It felt really good.” 
The ratio of acts Coombes seeks out to the ones who court him is about 50/50. 
“Sometimes acts have heard of me — that’s happening more often now.” 
Receiving a New England Music Awards Producer of the Year nomination this year and producing a Christmas special on WMUR-TV last year raised his profile significantly. 
“Word of mouth and success with artists leads to more inquiries. If there are talented people that inspire me, I will certainly reach out,” he saad. “We’re busy enough with work that comes to us that if I am reaching out, it’s usually to someone I really want to work with.”
A top-notch studio house band is an integral part of most projects. The group will often join for CD release shows  large or small. Meg Josalen recently completed a second album at Rocking Horse and planned an intimate event at Tilton’s Black Swan Inn to celebrate. 
“She’s 50, she’s not going to be a pop star, but I adore her as a human being and I love her songs,” said Coombes. “It doesn’t have to be high-profile. The idea is that we can help Meg achieve her goal of being a performer and getting her music out there.”
Not all projects are quite so hands-on. The Connection arrived in late summer to make a Christmas EP with clear ideas; they simply needed Coombes to take them across the finish line. 
“I was Phil Spector to their Ramones, I was only going to be able to do so much,” he said. “We were both at the top of our game.”
But most performers choose to benefit from Coombes’ collaborative instincts. 
“In our studio we see a vulnerability that may not present itself when someone is on a stage doing what they do best,” he said. “They’re baring their soul and singing things that may be new and working through parts. … It takes a level of trust. If you’re confident enough to share the vision, that’s a sign of maturity.” 
As seen in the November 13, 2014 issue of the Hippo.

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