Why Steve Nawara's eclectic Beehive label matters
Published: November 30, 2011
Jesse Smith recently brought in an opportunity to record some music for a Coach handbag campaign.
"I didn't even know what Coach handbags were," says Nawara with a laugh. "They're really hoity-toity handbags!"
What's more, the recent trend of Detroit-based advertising agencies sourcing music locally may have created some interesting future opportunities for the Beehive crew. (Nawara is loath to say on the record exactly who and jinx things.)
For his part, Nawara — like most current underground artists who rely on the beneficence of cool-hunters bird-dogging original sounds to associate their brands with — has no compunction about providing music for the advertising industry.
"Before, the music industry was an open market and strange little novelty records could be regional hits and radio really played a ton of different music, and you could discover great records that were made around the corner — literally!
"Really, commercials are kind of like the new radio," Nawara says.
"I hate to say that, 'cause it's awful that radio is so bad now. But a lot of bands get discovered through commercials. Musicians don't have much of a choice. A commercial's going to get played thousands of times around the world. Radio stations only really play the same 47 songs every day, and that's barely a pin drop."
"I knew it was going to happen, but it happened a lot sooner than I imagined," Nawara says.
Building a buzz
For Nawara, the beating heart of the Beehive is the recording studio. It's where the threads of his passions come together, where his humility meets his skills, where his bonhomie meets his expert ear, where actual music gets created.
Whether it's accomplished veterans like Jackson Smith and Blackman knocking on his door or new blood like Duane the Teenage Weirdo or Growing Pains, the recording experience for Nawara has a — perhaps counterintuitive — consistency.
"It always starts off with uncertainty," he says. "I don't think there's a single person that walks in like, 'We got this shit.' That's important because that means the artist is humble. And I'm humble. And we're starting from the same place to try to understand each other right away."
The first decision sets the tone for what follows, Nawara says.
"The first thing I ask the band is whether they're into a high-fidelity or low-fidelity recording."
With expectations set appropriately, the real work can get started.
"You just start doing it," Nawara says simply. "You get in there and you do it and you do your goddamned best to make sure it sounds good and you make sure the band's happy."
Equally important to Beehive's approach is remaining open to mistakes. Nawara says he takes particular pride in creating a safe place to find happy accidents and the revelations that can come from being free to fail.
"You're supposed to make mistakes," Nawara says. "This is the place you go to to make mistakes. [The musicians] hear [their] music under a microscope. So, naturally, things pop out that you never heard before. And it can make you feel like you're not as good a musician as you thought. But it shouldn't! Sometimes, like with the Growing Pains the other day, they can hear that maybe they're a little better than they thought!"
It's the nature of the beast that most studio heads, producers and engineers are, at some level, musicians themselves. But it's also true that bands and artists often turn to a studio to get a certain sound, to capture associative magic created by other bands — and the hands of whoever runs the boards. When you listen to a cross-section of Beehive releases, it's clear that Nawara's artist-driven, case-by-case approach is different. There's no questioning Nawara's bona fides. But his recording philosophy is different. In hockey terms, he's more Reg Dunlop than Scotty Bowman.
"I got to record at Abbey Road, which was pretty thrilling," Nawara recalls of his days in the Electric Six. "But the way they have it set up — and the way a lot of studios have it set up — is that the engineer is upstairs and we're downstairs, and you have to use an intercom every time you have to talk to someone. It's tough to communicate.
"I don't have a separate sound room. I like being in the room. You can have a very clear conversation. You can just talk to the band directly, and I think that makes everyone feel unified."
The clean, unified, monotonous sound of modern radio is anathema to the Beehive ethos, an ethos that emphasizes capturing a moment, a feeling, that je ne sais quoi that makes all artists worth their salt in this anomaly-rich town unique.
"That whole, 'compress everything, make sure everything's perfectly audible and nice and clean and shiny...' I just don't see any variation on that," Nawara says.
"You listen to Little Richard, and he's screaming into the mic, and it goes into the red, and they're like, 'Leave it.' It sends shivers down your spine.
"Professional engineers would be breathing down my neck and saying, 'You're an idiot,'" Nawara says.
"I'd say, you may know your tools, but you don't know how to use 'em. Are you the master of your tools or are the tools your master?"
By Nawara's reckoning, they do 80 percent of their recordings in the manner of that other Detroit label, Motown — live band, in the room together, cueing, catching vibes and working off each other. And when the house band is as strong as Beehive's, that can be a powerful difference.
"I don't accept apologies," Nawara says. "You hear that knock on the door, open the door, and feel that uncertainty. But when you close the door, I've never felt like we hadn't made something really worthwhile. It's always been like, 'Yeah, we got that shit!'"
If there's a knock against Detroit's music scene from an outsider's perspective, it's that it's still mired in the backward-looking rock sounds of the late-'90s and early-2000s. But that's simply not the case. Honestly, it's never been the case, but the hype often outweighs the reality. Detroit's underground is always strongest when operating by its own rules, populated by artists who hew to an idiosyncratic vision. There's no better way to get a snapshot of that fertility than by sampling the wares cranked out by Nawara and his Beehive compatriots and conspirators.
There is likely nowhere else in the world you will hear and be able to download for free as diverse a mix of music as Beehive. Psychedelic rock duo Dark Red is a quick scroll away from campy rapper esQuire; Bad Party's electro-noise conflagration snuggles up with a quick mouse drag to Jackson Smith's intricate country guitar picking; mysterious space rock outfit Unicornium ("I still have no idea who they are," Nawara avers), are neighbors to Detroit hip-hop and funk original the Blackman. The sense of discovery and diversity goes on down the page and direct to your hard drive. And it's all from just around the way.
The power of hearing and exposing people to new music, new musical art — and shining a light on as many fantastic acts from the Detroit scene, regardless of genre — has become a driving passion for Nawara.
"There is an absolute purpose for music and art, and if people don't see that they don't have a soul," he says.
"We've gotten to the point where we're so cold intellectually or so physically driven that the spirit is dying. And this is why music and art are so important. It makes you believe you can do things! This has awoken my spirit to a whole other level. And I'm seeing it with other musicians. And we're doing it together."
Like anyone, Nawara started where he was. With what he knew and loved. When Beehive started, his "A&R" side was (and remains) neighborly and organic.
"Initially, it kind of just happened, like, 'Hey, let's record this.' Mike Walker and Cuckold were the guinea pigs."
His most recent release, Duane the Teenage Weirdo, happened organically too. Nawara had caught Duane on a bill with Beehive artists Dark Red. After the show he went online, found a bevy of Duane's jams and videos and got excited about the prospect of working with him.
More often, he says, he gets requests from bands looking to release jams.
"I hate turning people down," he says. "I want people to express themselves, but I can barely keep up with music within the Detroit city limits. I had no idea! Things start popping out. I've been spending some time at the Jazz Loft in Greektown. And I met this guy named Clarence who played with Wild Cherry. And he came up to me — and I couldn't believe it — but he wanted to record with me!
"I mean, when Blackman was down there recording, he brought an all-star cast of people from Motown and Parliament and Thornetta Davis' band! When you first look at Beehive, it's a bunch of white kids playing rock and roll. That's where I started. But the more you meet people, the more I want to release polka music and mariachi music and Middle Eastern music — to make Beehive a completely accurate cross-section of the city. You just go from catalyst to catalyst to catalyst," he says enthusiastically.
For Nawara, it's that leap from moment-to-moment, person-to-person that has been both edifying and inspiring.
"For many years I knew I had connections to the music industry, but I was too timid to shake it up. And in the city, you knock on a door and it leads to other doors," he says.
"It's serendipitous. But once you ask, it's inspiring and it gives me a lot of love for the human race, really.
"All the people who come to Beehive — it's a humbling experience. Jackson Smith gets off tour with Elton john and comes down to my dingy basement," he says, laughing.
"There are so many people who want to contribute, I don't know if I can keep up. Every day it's a different adventure."
Besides assuring that there is a constant stream of top-quality Detroit sounds available to webizens worldwide — and making the wildly successful Beehive Ball an annual event — that daily sense of adventure has pushed Nawara in some interesting directions. Next on his event horizon is a summer soiree called the Silver Boogie Jubilee ("I'm not sure what the name means, it came to me in a dream," he says); he'd like to hold it, Bob-Lo Boat-style, as a revue on the Detroit River. More ambitiously, he's also considering opening up Beehive chapters in other locales.
"It'd be like a VFW or a Knights of Columbus, where there's a central lodge that provides support. But I can imagine there being a Memphis Beehive Local."
In fact, he's already talking to folks from Stockholm, Sweden, about the idea. A couple of new friends from Sweden who were in Detroit on vacation this summer — and for whom Nawara acted as tour guide — have expressed interest, and he's hoping to visit Stockholm with that notion in mind soon. Naturally, into this mix he also has plans to establish a Beehive studio that is not also attached to his home.
"For my peace of mind it's good to leave the house," he says.
But for now, the momentum that is building around the little label driven by Nawara and his friends — friends both longtime and brand-new and who sometimes seem to comprise the whole of the downtown music scene — is enough to get through for one day. Making a difference one recording at a time and putting your time and money behind your belief is a powerful way to do more than make a living.
"This is what I want to do for my life," says Nawara simply. "I make no qualms about it."
> Email Chris Handyside