Hey, You’re Cool! Detroit’s Assemble Sound
A recording studio, development hub, and community space in a “Gothic-as-fuck” church
Garret Koehler moved to Detroit in 2013 to help organize a bid to get the X-Games to relocate to the Motor City. Instead, ESPN went with Austin and Koehler lost all of his investors. But Detroit is not for the faint of heart and undeterred, he decided instead to open a collaborative music space in a roofless, “Gothic-as-fuck” church in the shadow of Detroit’s most famous abandoned landmark building.
Assemble Sound is a recording studio, development hub, and community space. There, Koehler and his partners run a residency program (which grants its members complimentary 24/7 access), and a sync licensing business (which lines its members pockets with a bit of dough, and helps fund the larger operation).
We talked to Koehler about intentional community building, project funding, and how to not be an asshole if you move to Detroit.
What is Assemble Sound?
We’re an independent hub for artist development operating out of a historic 1872 church-turned-recording studio complex in Detroit, Michigan. We’re hip hop producers and rappers, rock bands, electronic producers, classical pianists. Some of us just make Google docs and take out the trash, but whatever we’re doing we’re doing it because we believe that a more intentionally and broadly connected community of musicians sharing creative, technical, and industry knowledge is the best foundation for making great art and doing it sustainably. Honestly, we don’t even know if that belief is true (which is low key probably why we work out of a church), but we fuck with it and it’s been the driving force behind Assemble Sound since day one, some 2.5 years ago.
What does that actually look like in practice?
Well, we run an application-based artist residency where some 25 different Detroit acts have 24/7 access to the space to write and record for free, with the stipulation that all studio time is booked on a shared calendar and remains open to collaborators. The studios are open to non-resident musicians as well for really affordable rates. We then we program the space with things like song critiques, artist talks, production tutorials, a music industry education series; essentially, anything that convenes artists and equips them with shit they need to be better creators and better business-owners. We’re sort of this weird blend of an artist residency and a community education space. We use a studio to build a more collaborative music community. It’s a means to an end, not the end itself.
How are you able to offer the space for free to the Residents?
On the back-end of all of that, we’re running a music licensing company that works with independent Detroit musicians to place their music in TV Shows, films, and commercial advertisements. We take a cut of anything we bring in for them, and that’s how we’ve kept the lights on to-date and put almost a quarter million dollars into the pockets of Detroit musicians.
Once in a while, we release singles (Sunday Songs) as a “label”, but that’s just because there are a lot of songs that get made here that don’t end up on projects but they are too good not to be shared. Participating in the Sunday Songs series is also a way for artists to give back to the space.
Why a church?
From the day we conceived the idea we knew it had to be in a church. Functionally, a church was the perfect building for what we wanted to do. Building a studio out in the sanctuary would be acoustically interesting, small enough to record in, and big enough to do the sort of community programming we envisioned. The idea is “convening musicians.” Then there is the attached rectory that churches sometimes have, which we always envisioned as a space for touring artists or industry people to stay overnight while coming through Detroit, with sanctuary studio access with their stay. We want to connect Detroit musicians to each other and then connect that community to the broader national music community.
Spiritually, our concept has always been based on this notion of cultivating a shared belief in the music community around you, a belief that collaboration and cooperation are more conducive to wide success than alternatives. Practically, there happen to be an incredible amount of vacant or under-utilized churches in Detroit. Financially… well, financially it was an aggressive idea. It’s not cheap to heat a church, especially one that only had half a roof for the first three months we had it. But we knew it had to be a church so we went for it. We wrote letters to thirty-five vacant church owners in the city explaining exactly what we wanted to do. Unsurprisingly, we only heard back from one. But that one happened to be our dream spot: The Gothic-as-fuck church sitting in the shadows of Michigan Central Train Station, one of the most iconic abandoned structures in North America.
What was your timeline?
We came up with the concept in September of 2014 and bought the church in March of 2015. When we bought the church it didn’t have a roof, it didn’t have plumbing, it was in really bad shape. We got in here and pretty much within six weeks, we had our first studio session. And it was actually with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the MIT Media Lab and it rained through the library ceiling because we didn’t have a roof on the North side of the building yet.
How are you able to offer 24/7 access to the space?
Keeping a studio open 24/7 is actually pretty easy. Put combo locks on all the doors, and then give a bunch of musicians the combo. Artists work at weird times. At all times. We’ve got people who come in at 5:30 a.m. to track ambient piano tracks, and as they come in, a crew of hip-hop producers will be walking out. Berry Gordy kept Motown’s Hitsville open 24/7. We didn’t jack that idea from him, but I certainly wouldn’t apologize if we did because it’s really smart.
Tell me more about your back-end funding model.
The majority of our revenue comes through sync licensing, which is taking music and licensing it to people making video content, whether that’s a film or an Instagram ad. We’ve done it for companies like ABC, Comedy Central, and Netflix, and for brands like Ford and Red Bull. Our approach is a little different than most music houses in that the catalog of music we represent is location specific— almost all the artists live or were born in Southeast Michigan.
The thing about Detroit is that the region has a history of global relevance in almost every genre, as opposed to just going deep in a few and then, it has created entirely new genres. That means that our catalog can service any music need while sourcing only local music. We chose to do that because we wanted to make a targeted impact on a geographic specific community. Anyone can close the gap between creativity and commerce, but doing that within the context of community is the real game changer, we think.
What well-known Detroit artists have recorded there or who have ties to the space in other ways?
This is a bit of a weird question for me to answer because there are so many artists who work out of the space that people probably haven’t heard of yet but they probably will soon after reading this. I’m going to see Flint Eastwood, Yoshi Flower, and Black Noi$e play at Bonnaroo this weekend. Tunde Olaniran just got done touring the country with Sleigh Bells. Mass Appeal always shows love to Nolan The Ninja. Stef Chura is doing the lo-fi rock thing as good as anyone right now. No one has heard of Sam Austins, but if he doesn’t take over Rap Caviar in 2018 with the war chest of unreleased material he has I will probably give up on the Internet. Man, the list goes on and on.
But in terms of names people are more familiar with, Danny Brown has shown love by doing his Complex cover story interview for Atrocity Exhibition here, and then came back a month later to do a poetry workshop with Detroit Public School kids. GRiZ has been hella supportive from very early on and works out of the space almost every time he is home. Trick Trick, or “Unc” as Detroit calls him, is the OG and just shot a music video here with Stretch and Bumpy Knuckles. Eryn Allen Kane was just home (from Chicago) to track with the Mosaic Youth Choir for a BBC piece. Hundred Waters recorded a lot of their forthcoming album here in the sweltering August heat with sewage backed up in the basement. Mija did a Beats One Radio set from the sanctuary. Ray Dalton spent a lovely week here writing and filming Christmas covers. My Brightest Diamond (Shara Worden) had one of our interns helping with some of her production for a while. JMSN came home and sat down with all the residents to talk about doing his thing all independently. We just did a collaborative project with Underground Resistance, Waajeed, and Shigeto. I don’t know, I guess these are names that maybe people may have heard of, but we don’t really don’t think of them like that. This city is just full of musicians who are really, really good at what they do, and one of the things that makes Detroit special is the fact that most of them are just normal-ass people who value community and good work over money and fame, and that’s why we vibe with them.
Are the Assemble business partners Detroit natives?
It’s split between Detroit, Metro Detroit, and alien transplants.
How did you (Garret) end up in Detroit?
I started coming to Detroit six or seven years ago from Chicago because there is a very different energy and ethos here. People connected their work to their immediate community in a way I hadn’t experienced, and that was really attractive to me. I was freelancing for some Detroit-based organizations from Chicago, and then a project that I was helping with really started to gain momentum. I moved here 4.5 years ago to organize a bid to move the X Games here from LA.
When the X-Games bid fell thru, what was the transition to Assemble?
When the X-Games fell through essentially I said, “Cool. I’ll just start throwing events on my own,” and that’s when I started doing the speaker series and then I started throwing shows. That’s when I started working more with musicians. Assemble was the brand that we launched after the X-Games Detroit bid.
You’ve gotten a bunch of grants—can you run those down? What are you using the money for?
Our non-profit received a Knight Foundation grant to fund a film and music project where 20 different Detroit musicians create original collaborative tracks together. We’re in pre-production for that now. We also won a Motor City Match award from the Mayor’s Office, which, when we get it, will eventually go toward significant renovations to the sanctuary.
How many artists are involved with the space now?
There are about 25 artist residents, some 75 artists in the licensing catalog, and then countless others who come in the space to work or learn.
How many artists are Native Detroiters?
A bunch. I don’t count. Music is an incredibly potent instrument for bridging real and imagined boundaries, and in a city with a lot of those, I think most people would say Assemble Sound is a space that consistently works to bridge them. We have a lot of artists who have spent their whole lives in the city; some who were born here and then moved to the suburbs at some point in their upbringing; and a few who were born and raised entirely outside the city but have always felt a connection to it. We’re proud of that mix and hope we can continue to cultivate an environment where a diversity of people experience a sense of belonging. That’s a constant process though, and it’s really intentional work.
Is the space open to people from other places though?
We’ve been really focused since we opened on investing the space, our time, and programming into the community in Detroit. But just as the broader Detroit community is very welcoming to people coming here, I want our music community and the space to be welcoming to other people as well. Those conversations are starting but our first priority is investing in Detroit.
How does one move to Detroit, contribute, and not be an asshole? How do you enact change but not ruin the whole place?
People have quite literally written entire books on that (shout out to Aaron Foley), and while I don’t want to be overly simplistic in responding to a question that has really serious and complicated undertones, I think the most crucial thing is just realizing that there are almost 700,000 people living life every day, and they were here long before you moved here. As Detroit writer and oral historian Marsha Music says, very literally, “Just say ‘Hi.’” You have to do that before you can do anything more than that (unless you’re trying to be an asshole). Beyond that, this city and region, much like the rest of the country, has a very serious history of systemic and cultural racism; it’s seen some of the most violent and gratuitous manifestations of white supremacy. Detroit’s population is over 80 percent black, which is more than just a demographic statistic; it’s a rich and multi-faceted cultural identity. Because most white people are (problematically) raised to see themselves as “culturally neutral,” I think one of the most difficult things for white transplants in Detroit to understand is the way that physical space in a city is cultural space, and cultural gentrification is a very real phenomenon. It’s taking space in which one group of people has historically felt a sense of belonging and changing it in such a way that they no longer feel like they belong. Most white people, and especially white males, have been socialized to be completely blind to this, let alone comprehend it as violent or traumatic. If you are transforming space, which is usually implicit in “urban redevelopment,” it’s your responsibility to consider who will experience a sense of belonging in that space after it’s transformed, as well as who will participate in its transformation. That applies from the biggest to the smallest transformations (your presence alone is transformative). If you don’t take the time to realize that, there is a good chance people may look at what you’ve done when you’re finished and call you an asshole. With all of that said, it is equally dangerous to glorify poverty and economic inequality, and I hear a lot of privileged well-intentioned people do that everyday in Detroit in the name of “culture.” In short, all of this shit is complicated.
You’re in the shadow of Detroit’s most iconic abandoned building, Michigan Central Station. What does that mean? What do you hope will happen with it?
Man, it mostly just means that the owner is terrible. He also owns the only privately owned trade crossing in North America. 25 percent of trade between the U.S. and Canada goes over that bridge. Homeboy is TAXING to the tune of billions, yet he’s still one of the biggest slumlords and speculative property owners in the city.
Michigan Central Station is an incredible building. I would say Michigan Central Station along with the Packard plant are the two most iconic abandoned structures in North America. Michigan Central Station welcomed all of the immigrants to Detroit who were looking for jobs. It was like Detroit’s Ellis Island.
Honestly, there is a good chance it’s more beautiful in its vacancy than it would be if it got redeveloped by someone with the lack of vision that the current owner has demonstrated when it comes to property development. Where vacancy can be detrimental to neighborhoods in Detroit, I would argue that it’s a huge asset to our neighborhood. People come from all over the world to take pictures in front of that thing. The greater concern to me is redesigning and reactivating the large public park that sits directly in front of the station and behind Assemble Sound. It has the potential to be an iconic public space that bridges two of Detroit’s most historic neighborhoods, Corktown and Mexicantown. I think you start with the park, and then let Michigan Central Station be developed as an extension of the public space, hopefully by someone who has more vision than the current owner. I’m mostly just hoping that at some point we get to host a show in the lobby. Danny Brown in Michigan Central Station? I’m in.
Outside of the station, our block is awesomely lonely. We’ve got the church campus, which includes the old school building and adjacent rectory, Julie and her sister living across the street with their terrifying dogs, a delicious and enabling distillery called Two James Spirits at the corner, and a lot of empty land in between.
What’s the long-term plan for Assemble?
The five-year plan? Essentially, to be a development hub that has put some artists on the map, artists who have come through, done our residency, done our programming, and have built successful careers, in many ways, because of this space and because of things they have found in this space that don’t necessarily have to do with us organizationally. But it might have everything to do with that they cultivated in their skill set here working alongside other artists.