Travis Seminara and Chris Macowski are fiddling with the PA system in Studio IV at Smacktone Studios as the Waking Lights single, “The Sounds,” streams through the speakers in the room. They’re playing it for me because I’ve never heard it before, and the band is recording their music video on the stage at the end of the hall that night. The two of them crack jokes and sing along as we all listen, and it’s easy to see that they are closely related – cousins, in fact. The impromptu listening party was caused by Chris discussing Thrice Noble – an LA-based electronic producer who Chris manages – and how he’s working on a remix of the Waking Lights single to turn it into a club anthem.
Smacktone also happens to sponsor NJ-based Waking Lights, with whom the two owners have a close relationship, and Travis has begun managing the band Live Wires (they played one of Lamplighter’s May shows, remember?). On top of that, Travis handles the financial side of the business, as well as daily operations like scheduling and maintenance, and Chris works a day job in the city while simultaneously handling the PR, marketing, and website for Smacktone. Clearly, they’ve got their hands in a lot of different things right now, and that’s exactly how they prefer it. Smacktone Studios has taken off in its short span as a company, and there’s no sign of it slowing down.
Smacktone gets its name from the connection that Travis and Chris share – as cousins, they share Tone as a family name, and Smack is a combination of both their last names (fitting since, as Travis puts it, “we do tend to smack each other around”). And it doesn’t hurt that the result sounds faintly musical.
The studio was born of a suggestion by family members and close friends who knew that both Chris and Travis had wanted to break into the music business for a long time. When Backstage Rehearsal, the studio company that formerly occupied the space, planned to go out of business, the cousins’ family and close friends offered to invest in the opportunity.
Chris has been in the music industry since he’d graduated college, but he had always wanted to do something entrepreneurial with it. When Travis got out of college as well, he was new to the job market, but music had always been a huge part of his life as a guitarist since high school. The two had even discussed the idea years ago, “when we were in Amsterdam, of all places,” Chris jokes. So when the opportunity presented itself, they went for it. The suggestion became a reality the first week of January, 2011, and construction began immediately. After completing renovations, the studio officially opened March 25th of that year.
Now, Chris and Travis are watching the studio flourish as more and more bands come through each day to use the space. When you visit for the first time, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find. Different from the typical studio, which can be intimidating upon first arrival, especially for newer bands, Smacktone welcomes you as soon as you walk in with a colorful lounge outfitted with couches, a TV and an Xbox360, two pianos, and a line of guitars on the wall for you to play with. It’s not uncommon to see people relaxing and hanging out in the evenings with Travis, who runs the day-to-day operations. Chris explains that “it’s not an accident that our lounge is like a living room,” and the whole studio is deliberately designed to make their clients feel at home.
Even the aesthetics are based on this ‘family first’ philosophy. Matt Macowski, Chris’s brother and Travis’s cousin, was the resident artist for the past year, and his art pieces are hung in various places on the walls. He was also the one who designed the look and feel of the studio, choosing the color themes for each room and painting the vibrant mural in the lounge. The idea was to move away from the sterility of most studios and make it feel as though you were walking into a different world as soon as you open the door.
As the guy who runs the shop, as it were, Travis always takes measures to uphold that atmosphere. “I like to think of it as when you go to a nice restaurant and they make everything on the plate look nice; I want the room to look perfect when they walk in.” Each rehearsal space is meticulously prepared for whomever reserves the room, with specific equipment set up based on the band (two mics for two singers and so on), and PA systems for every room that are checked and maintained daily. Jim Catania, one of the former drummers for The Misfits, uses a left-handed drum set, and Smacktone always makes sure to have it ready for him when he comes to play. Travis takes pride in these specifics; “I don’t know if a lot of studios do that, but when we tell bands we can offer that, they’re always surprised.”
These fastidious tendencies stem from the main goal of the studio, which is to give the best possible customer service to every client. The focus for Travis and Chris is always on the relationships that they have with their customers, making them feel welcome and making their experience a positive one from start to finish. Travis affectionately refers to their customers as “the Smacktone family,” an attitude that is evident in the way the business is run.
In addition to offering rehearsal space, Smacktone is expanding its services: the next big project is the addition of a recording studio. Matt Maroulakos, frontman for Waking Lights, is heading the endeavor as its operator. Chris and Travis had always kept the idea of a recording studio in the back of their minds, which is why they never removed the glass from the room that Backstage had left behind. Chris explains how the project was born: “Matt came to us with the idea and we loved it, so it just took a little bit of conversion to get it back to that state.” Having known Travis and his family since they were toddlers, Matt is another person with close ties to the company, and he was readily welcomed into the fold, now already referred to as “the third employee of Smacktone.”
This addition is exciting for the studio because it promises the prospect of fostering a band’s musical process from start to finish, from playing music together in the rehearsal rooms to recording songs in the studio space to playing live shows on the stage in the back of the suite. This is where DIY philosophy really comes into play, since bands can come in with little to nothing in the way of equipment and still have the opportunity to develop their sound at every part of the process. Travis reiterates that point when he explains “you can just come in and start working as a band together before you have all the equipment that you need. It’s there and ready to go. You can have almost nothing and you can get together and just write music. ” Bands also bring in recording devices that they can set up in the rooms so that they can play it back later on. This way, the band can get an easy live recording to use without having to rent or buy recording equipment, which is outside of the budget for a lot of musicians. You can come in and “do it yourself,” Travis cheekily adds.
The stage also offers bands who are just starting out the opportunity to host DIY shows, since the only thing they really need to do is rent the space out for the night. Rather than contact venues, go through booking agencies, and sell those involved on your music, you can simply pick a day and invite whoever you want to come out. Live Wires, the band that Travis manages through Smacktone, did just that: “they booked the room maybe two months after they started, invited all their friends – maybe 50 people – and they just played a set. They didn’t have to worry about the other stuff that comes along with it.”
All things considered, Smacktone Studios has thrived in its year and a half as a company, and the two owners are incredibly happy with what they’ve seen. Chris remarks that “when we started, we were just doing rehearsals. But in a year’s time, before we even had a minute to think about it, all of a sudden we’re having concerts here, the recording studio is launching, and we’re both managing acts. We’re lucky to know so many talented people, and we’ve been lucky enough to have very few challenges so far.” Both look forward to what’s next for them, especially since they’ve seen such success with all that they’ve done up to this point. The long-term goal is to open a second location (most likely in Brooklyn where Chris lives), and in the distant future, to open a Smacktone in every major city. Travis and Chris recognize that this is a lofty objective, but they’re hopeful about the future, with good reason.
Bottom line: if you are an aspiring musician, now you know where to go. Smacktone even offers a discount for high school and college students. Chris encourages this age group to come out: “we would love to see younger bands come through.” So if you’ve got a student ID, you can knock 20% off the price as long as your session starts before 6 p.m.
Travis sums it up best when he says that “what we want is everyone coming back time and time again and to have fun doing it. You come in, play, go home, and go back to your regular lives. We want it to be kind of like an escape.”