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Originally published April 26, 2013 at 12:01 PM | Page modified May 3, 2013 at 10:00 AM

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Family-owned Bear Creek Studio makes music and magic

"It was such a pleasant place, we didn't want to leave," says Chris Cornell, singer with Soundgarden, which recorded the early grunge classic "Bad Motorfinger" there.

Seattle Times music critic

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A lot of recording studios have come and gone, mostly gone, while bear Creek endures... MORE
I was watching "live from Daryl's house" recently, & it reminded me a lot... MORE
Very Cool. I drive right by that place almost every day and would never have guessed... MORE

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EVEN THE street signs seem to be part of the conspiracy.

If you're heading north on Highway 9, a sign says turn right for Maltby Road. But actually, the place on Maltby Road you're looking for — a beautiful old wooden barn snuggled next to a near-century-old house on 10 acres of pasture and woods — is to the left. Once you get there, you'd never guess that behind those barn doors, in this peaceful glen, James Brown and Eric Clapton once recorded. So did Soundgarden, the Foo Fighters and the Lumineers, whose catchy Top 10 single, "Ho Hey," snagged a Grammy nomination this year. Last June, Seattle pop vocal firecracker Brandi Carlile even named her album after the place, so taken was she by its idyllic atmosphere.

Despite all that — and despite a 35-year history that rings an astonishing number of bells in Seattle's cultural landscape (those zany old Rainier beer commercials; Kenny G, back when he was Kenny Gorelick; free-form rock station KZAM; neo-folkie local heroes Fleet Foxes) — Bear Creek Studio is one of our region's best-kept secrets.

"We didn't really want a lot of people to know we were here," says mild-mannered Joe Hadlock, half of the husband-and-wife team who founded Bear Creek in 1977.

"We've been booked solid for 35 years," adds Manny, his wife of 42 years.

Through word-of-mouth, on a grapevine that extends across the U.S. and over to the U.K., Bear Creek is known as one of the most desirable recording studios in the world.

"It was such a pleasant place, we didn't want to leave," says Chris Cornell, singer with Soundgarden, which recorded the early grunge classic "Bad Motorfinger" here.

Aside from its rural setting, part of the Bear Creek mystique is that it's family-owned — a family that encompasses two generations, now that the Hadlocks' 39-year-old son, Ryan, has taken over the switches. But there's also something quintessentially Northwest about the way the Hadlocks have balanced their entrepreneurial spirit with a laid-back (call it "hippie," if you like) community ethic. They're tuned in to the Northwest's whimsical quirkiness, too. ("Want to do your background vocals outside in the snow? Fine. We'll run a line out there.")

And then there's the fact that they just do flat-out great work.

"I've never been in a more productive and functional recording environment," attests Carlile.

Most studios are sterile, artificially lit bomb shelters walled with acoustic tile. By contrast, the "big room" at Bear Creek feels like a cathedral, with its struts and open roof beams, wood-framed windows, Oriental rug and 30-foot-high gable window funneling soft streams of light. From the hot tub out back, you can hear the creek rushing below, 10 feet wide in winter. Musicians often stay on site, cooking their own meals.

"I would call it a retreat studio," says Aaron Semer, who interned at Bear Creek and now works for the Seattle Theatre Group. "You can really hunker down and focus on what you want to do, and not have any distractions."

Manny Hadlock, who loves to cook, has thrown many an elaborate dinner party for bands here.

"We would make it really, really nice," she recalls, sitting with Joe in the living room of their 1919 vintage Craftsman home that stands about 100 yards from the barn. "We used to have bonfires, too, to make the musicians more comfortable, take away the stress."

"These guys are on the road all the time," reflects Joe, "so the idea of coming to a place that's set up like a home, and not a hotel, is very attractive."

With her long, hennaed hair, expressive voice and contagious energy, Manny is clearly the forward thrust of the Bear Creek engine. The daughter of the late Cole & Weber ad-agency Chairman Hal Dixon, she is never at a loss for a colorful story. Joe, a natural musician (keyboards, guitar) with great ears, is the perfect foil. Soft-spoken and steady, with short, gray hair and a mustache, he occasionally jumps in to correct her exaggerations.

"They are really kind of a power couple," says former deejay Marion Seymour, who met the Hadlocks back when they hosted live broadcasts for KZAM in the 1970s. But whether it was New Orleans hero Dr. John or a struggling local band on stage, Joe and Manny always treated everyone as equals.

Says Manny, "We never do star blush here."

MANY STUDIOS suffer the fate of great restaurants, abandoned by their founding chef. Not Bear Creek, which is strictly founder-operated. Joe and Manny Hadlock bonded through music from the git-go. Joe, raised in Bellevue, and Manny, from Tacoma, met on her first day as a freshman at Central Washington State College, in 1967 (Joe was a sophomore).

"I'm walking into the student union building and I see this guy on the stairs," says Manny. "He says, 'Hey, girls, you want to go to a party tonight?' "

Manny not only went to the party, she wound up booking Joe's band and designing the musicians' fringy outfits. When he was offered the chance to record a commercial for Washington apples, Joe, a ham-radio enthusiast as a boy, took one look at all the knobs and meters and said, "This is it. This is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life."

Joe and Manny married in 1971 after he graduated (she did not) and Joe went to work as an engineer at Seattle West studio in Greenwood. The following year, he and Manny borrowed $5,000 and bought into the business. Some of the bands that came through included 1970s soulsters Cold, Bold and Together, and Black and White Affair, both revived on the "Wheedles' Groove" album a few years ago.

Joe had a passion for recording random, off-the-wall sounds, including the warbling of a virtuoso whistler from Kenmore named Bonnie Ann Gilchrist. When Manny finagled her way into Heckler Bowker, one of Seattle's most important ad agencies (the Bowker part of that nameplate belonging to Starbucks founder Gordon Bowker), the Gilchrist tape landed the Hadlocks the Rainier beer account. Thus began a 15-year run of goofy, groundbreaking TV ads, including the notorious "Wild Rainiers" (giant beer bottles) galloping through the wilderness and a recording of frogs quietly croaking the words "Rainier beer."

Kelly Harland, a fine jazz singer who teaches voice at Cornish College, says she was making $50,000 a year doing commercials at Seattle West: "For a musician in the '70s, that was huge!"

Harland recalls a young saxophone player named Kenny Gorelick. "He was an accountant, with short-cropped hair and horn-rimmed glasses," she remembers. "He would be making deals in the lobby on his breaks."

Eventually, Joe and Manny had so much work they decided to build a studio of their own. Manny had wanted to move to the country ever since spending the Summer of Love (1967) in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.

"You know that Neil Young song (with the lyric) 'Are you ready for the country, because it's time to go?' " asks Seymour. "Manny told me she wanted to live that."

In 1975, the Hadlocks bought the land in Woodinville. Manny, who had practically grown up on horseback as a show jumper, pastured horses and developed a prosperous business raising Dutch Warmbloods.

"We bought untrained horses in Europe and flew them back," she says. "For many years, the horse farm was as important as the studio to us financially and passionately."

Joe, as much a craftsman with wood as with sound, converted the barn into a studio. Early clients were a mix of local musicians (folk singer Linda Waterfall was the first) and ad agencies. But by 1985, name acts started to turn up. Ryan, whose parents had given him an electric guitar and Fender Champ amplifier in third grade, remembers lending his amp to "a guy who looked a lot like my dad — he had a beard and brown hair."

It was Eric Clapton, working on Lionel Richie's album "Dancing on the Ceiling."

Clapton probably didn't know he was playing in a studio that also did ads. The Hadlocks kept the two sides of their business strictly separate.

"It was not hip to do commercials," says Manny.

Later, she found out the beer ads were some of the rock stars' favorite things.

According to Manny and Joe, Clapton was a perfect gentleman. James Brown, on the other hand, treated his sidemen like Marine recruits, playing the bigshot. And his check bounced, too, says Manny.

"Only for the last half of the bill," corrects Joe.

If you want to get on the wrong side of Manny Hadlock, get flaky with money.

"Manny was the muscle of the gang," says fellow producer Stevie Adamek, who recorded at Bear Creek years ago with the Seattle band The Allies. "She didn't take any monkey business from anybody. She got a reputation for that ... If you were getting yelled at, unless you knew her, it could be a little intense."

"She may have looked like kind of a hippie," says Ed Leimbacher, writer and producer for the Rainier ads and later owner of Mister E. Books, in the Pike Place Market, "but they had mortgages to pay, equipment to buy."

That mix of entrepreneurialism and egalitarianism has a peculiar traction in the Northwest, whether it's around selling software, books or coffee. In the late '80s, it was music's turn. But when producer Terry Date approached Bear Creek about recording the proto-grunge band Soundgarden, Manny was wary. Tales of unruly rockers such as Nirvana trashing hotel rooms were legion.

"Turns out they had the reputation for being far crazier than they were," says Manny. "Chris rode his mountain bike in from West Seattle. We really learned that the rock bands could be super-hardworking people."

Love Battery was next, then Alice in Chains, though the latter session only highlighted a need for more space. In 1994, the Hadlocks more than doubled the size of the studio. When the Foo Fighters recorded in the big room in 1996, they had all the space they needed for a grunge-rock drum sound.

BACK IN THEIR college days, Joe and Manny had spent a semester studying in Mexico City. An abiding love affair with that country led them to buy a place in a small village north of Puerto Vallarta. In 2008, they retired there, handing over production duties to Ryan.

The younger Hadlock, who grew up helping his dad in the studio and studied sound recording in London and at The Evergreen State College, has brought a whole new clientele to Bear Creek.

Though weaned on classic rock, Ryan came up through the rave and electronica scenes. In Seattle, he presented underground raves at what is now known as the Columbia City Theatre, where he lived in the loft.

In London, he produced albums at the fabled Abbey Road and by influential Olympia indie rockers The Gossip, as well as the first record by Johnny Flynn, a musician some credit with launching the neo-folkie movement that lifted Mumford and Sons, The Head and the Heart and the Lumineers to fame.

In the studio at Bear Creek for 24 days in January with Elephant Revival, another neo-folkie band from Colorado (like the Lumineers), the younger Hadlock evinces the same gentle but firm hand that became his father's trademark.

"My dad always said the experience of recording itself should be slightly magical," explains Ryan. "Sometimes, all you ever get is the experience of making the recording, so you better make that pretty good."

After meticulously capturing four takes of a moody, fingerpicked guitar part, Hadlock hovers over a purple computer screen showing five parallel streams of sound waves. Cutting and pasting with the industry's standard program, ProTools, he carefully blends the best bits. After five hours, Hadlock has tracked guitar, vocal, bass and percussion, then asks the band to play together in the big room.

"Production is the process of recording a song," explains Hadlock, who achieves that task with Bear Creek's classic Trident TSM 56-track console, made in London and used by Rod Stewart, Queen and Journey. "Some people start with a click track (a reference part played to metronomic time) and build it like you're building a house. I like to have everybody playing together ... I think there's that mystical thing where people feed off each other. They don't call it 'playing' music for nothing."

Back in the control room, sitting under walls decorated with drum heads signed by the likes of the Strokes, Carlile and Fleet Foxes, the band listens to the day's work, eyes focused inward, enveloped in sound.

"I'm thinking this song is really about the fast guitar line and percussion," says Ryan, mentally shaping the track. "They are the birds and stars. The fiddle is like the clouds coming in."

The musicians nod, but it's clear that while they have been playing their instruments Ryan is the person in the room making a record, carefully sculpting sounds into a work of art.

Such conversations in the control room — spacious and comfy with leather couch, easy chairs and shelves of books — are central to Bear Creek's philosophy.

"When I was in London with the Johnny Flynn project, we went to some iconic studio — Radiohead recorded there — it was really, really fancy," says Hadlock. "Fifteen hundred pounds a day! But there was nowhere for the band to hang out. How are we supposed to all play music together if we can't even be in the same room when we're listening back?"

Ryan is married now, living in Seattle, father of two. He has many happy memories of growing up at Bear Creek, playing in the woods all day, hacking trails with a machete. These days when he drives over the bridge to Bear Creek, it's work. But like he says, also play. And, whenever possible, magic, too.

That's Bear Creek. How long before his kids start fooling around with the console knobs?

Paul de Barros is a Seattle Times music critic and editor. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.

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