Blue Cat Studios: where high tech meets the front porch
As always, it begins on the porch.
This is where the circus gathers. It is unclear which menagerie of San Antonio musicians will assemble here on any given day. Perhaps Henry Gomez will drop by in full mariachi regalia, or Juan Tejeda with his mustache and accordion, or maybe a tuba-wielding Bubba Hernandez. It's possible all three will show at once, uninvited yet completely welcome, along with several West Side Horns.
And as always, the recording studio waits in the background, its high yellow frame and bright blue door prepared to house whatever spontaneous musical permutations the porch produces.
"The real meeting of the minds happens on this porch," says Joe Treviño, 46, the ringleader and engineer in charge of harnessing the chaos that emanates from what he calls "not so much a studio, but a collective, a loose coalition of real good players with like minds."
Today the porch is relatively empty. Joe is waiting for Willie Jaye Laws, the Texas blues musician, so they can lay down some vocal and guitar tracks for Willie's nascent and unnamed album, his fifth. Jose Vasquez is here, too, decked out in full suit, sunglasses, and Technicolor tie, ready to fulfill his obligations as official Blue Cat Studio vibe technician.
"If you keep the vibe positive and cool, then good things are gonna happen," Jose explains.
Joe himself emits such a vibe. Sporting a gray beard and ponytail, he speaks with the relaxed, measured tone of his operation, which he describes as a "down-home, San Antonio thing."
It started 25 years ago "as a backyard form of expression," he says, but it was also a "punk thing." As one of San Antonio's first independent studios, Blue Cat embraced such bands as the Butthole Surfers and Fearless Iranians from Hell. Joe recalls one New Year's Eve when he and Kim, his now-wife, were both confined to the living room, sick with the flu and watching Kurt Loder on MTV opine about the lack of worthwhile rock albums from the past year. When Loder displayed the only album he considered great - "Die for Allah," a Fearless Iranians from Hell release recorded in Joe's garage - Joe and Kim perked up.
"It freaked us out, man," Joe says. "That almost made us well!" A quarter-century and two moves later, Blue Cat Studio lies in the heart of Southtown, nestled behind this giant wooden porch and two-bedroom home where musicians can play pool, eat BBQ, drink beer, and pass out between recording bouts. The output is eclectic: anything from raw blues to acoustic jazz to conjunto, and genres are often joyfully blended.
"A lot of experiments come out of Blue Cat," says Henry Gomez, whom Joe describes as San Antonio's "go-to guy" for mariachi accompaniment.
"The music can morph into anything at any given time," says Joe. "That's what keeps things interesting."
Things are about to get interesting today, for Willie Jaye Laws has just appeared, striding up the porch steps in black boots, blue jeans, sunglasses, and a leather jacket, his dreadlocks poking out from beneath a blue bandana and cowboy hat.
"Joe T, man, he's got golden ears!" Willie says.
Soon, Blue Cat beckons. Inside, the ceilings are high, the rooms are spacious, and the recording space is furnished with wood: three qualities that Joe says comprise "the essence" of a good studio. "It's a mud-on-the-carpet kind of place."
He calls his digital equipment "first-rate" and flicks a few switches so Willie can hear a recently mixed track, "Your Time to Cry."
Willie's soulful voice rides a blues beat and an organ riff while informing a wayward woman that this time, he's the one walking out the door. A female chorus lifts the song heavenward; soon it is returned to earth by the trumpeter Al Gomez and tenor saxophonist Louis Bustos of the West Side Horns.
Joe calls the mix of Mexican brass with Willie's all-black rhythm section a "happy accident" that proved a "perfect marriage."
"Yeah, man, we were pissin' jalapeños!" says Willie.
The spirit of collaboration that defines Blue Cat recalls Motown Records of the '60s and '70s, a comparison that is fitting considering how Joe first fell in love with the idea of engineering music. The summer before he started high school, he requested a tape recorder for recording lectures. His father bought him a reel-to-reel recorder, and Joe began recording songs off the radio. Once, after capturing the Marvin Gaye/Motown classic "What's Going On," the recorder broke. Joe spliced the tape back together, but he did it wrong.
"I said, 'Fuck, that sounds cool!'"
He's been doing it ever since.
"Once you get it in your veins, you can't stop. It's the greatest drug ever invented. When it's right, you're one with the universe. When it's bad you want to run like the wind!"
Right now, Willie and Joe are attempting a cosmic alignment. The bluesman is laying down vocals for his slow-blues cover of "All Along the Watchtower," and Joe's hands are poised on the controls.
"So let us not talk falsely now," Willie tells the mic, "the hour is getting late."
"Just a little more urgency, brother," Joe coaches. "The hour's getting late. C'mon, give me some Willie Jaye Laws."
Willie gives it another try and nails it, growling the verse before the lead guitar burns it down.
"Now you showed up to work!" Joe says.
After a few more takes, Willie needs a beer. So he and Joe retire again to the porch for another session of sorts. Jose the vibe technician is there, ready to provide BBQ ribs or reading material or anything else that might promote good vibrations.
Joe's cell phone rings: It's Flaco Jimenez, the Grammy-winning accordionist and a Blue Cat regular. Flaco will be dropping by later, with Lord-knows-who-else from the pantheon of San Antonio musicians.
From his seat on the porch, Joe grins and says, "I have a feeling it's gonna get unruly tonight." •