A Labor of Love: Dojo Baby Records

Brack Cantrell of Dojo Baby Records is thoughtful, kind, and kind of a music whiz. You might not know him at all, but if you do, you probably recognize him from Denton bands Cozy Hawks and Bad Beats. You may not be aware of the fact that he’s also a sound engineer and producer who has recorded tons of local bands. Actually, it’s entirely possible you’ve heard his stuff and not even known it, since his original songs and recording work have been broadcast on radio and TV multiple times.

Recording and writing music have always been inseparable for Cantrell. “The first time I can remember writing music, I was actually doing it while recording. That’s kind of how I started composing music,” he says. Brack and Cozy Hawks bandmate Rob Paine (who is also a Dojo Baby Records co-operator) began playing music early on and decided as teens to record a studio demo in Fort Worth. “I loved the experience,” he says. “It was so wild, coming from a garage and then hearing your stuff sound kind of big. It was kind of scary.” Scariness aside, he was taken with the recording process. He got ahold of an inexpensive USB interface that year and never looked back.

Cantrell spent many years recording his solo and band work before branching out to recording other bands and musicians. He’s recorded albums under multiple aliases, including Balance Problems, Glass Caverns, and even his own name. (Several Balance Problems and Glass Caverns tracks have been picked up by MTV; if you’ve ever watched 16 and Pregnant or one of MTV's Vans surfing promos, it’s likely that his work has graced your ears. Cozy Hawks’ “L.A. Girl” was one of the network’s most recent grabs.) He’s spent the last three years recording groups and individuals. “I got interested in reaching out to people and saying hey, let’s figure out how we can make your project the coolest thing you can reasonably do within your budget and your time,” he says.

As lifelong DFW residents, Cantrell and Paine both knew there were innumerable Denton groups who needed a place to record. This is how Dojo Baby was formed. But calling Dojo Baby a “record label” might actually be a bit of a misnomer. Cantrell tells us it isn’t exactly a record label per se; rather, it’s an entity that helps support the musicians who need it. Dojo Baby is sometimes a recording studio, sometimes a record label, sometimes a mastering lab—within reason, it’s anything people need. “It’s like, what are you guys trying to do? How can we help you?” Cantrell explains. For instance: one of Pearl Earl’s first recording goals was to put out a cassette tape. Cantrell recorded the tracks digitally and worked with the band to get the tapes produced.

Due to its freeform nature, Dojo Baby exists basically wherever Cantrell and Paine are. The business’s “home base” is Cantrell’s roomy, open house on Sherman Drive. Much of the recording work done in the house is done in the living room, which opens to the kitchen—this allows groups to be able to see one another as they play. Cantrell’s approach to recording is as open as the studio’s floor plan. “It all depends on what [the client] is trying to do, how many songs and members they have, what their budget is like,” he says. “That’s why I don’t have a flat-rate cost for anything…everybody needs something different.” For instance, he recently did some work for an Austin-based band with a sizable budget and knew immediately that the work would move beyond the scope of the home studio. “I know my limitations—I know that recording drums in my kitchen isn’t going to be the most ideal place for everyone,” he says.

The one part of Dojo Baby that doesn’t really budge is Cantrell’s recording style. He is a firm believer in keeping the live feel of the music on the record. “The way I record bands is always live first. Even if it’s to a metronome, it’s always with everyone playing,” he explains. This is certainly not an easy way out. Live takes often yield one good instrumental track and nothing else: “A lot of times in a live session, drums or bass may be the only keepers,” he says. “Guitars get re-recorded, vocals get re-recorded.” Basically, this is a process that creates a lot of labor for Brack. But that’s what makes his work so impressive. Nothing ever sounds forced or unrealistic.

Cantrell is in his mid-late twenties, but he’s already amassed a pretty impressive portfolio. In 2015 alone he recorded or assisted on albums by Mink Coats, Bad Beats, Pearl Earl, She Banshee, The Angelus, The Noids, Jack Malonis, Particular People, Moniker, and Duncan Fellows. (That’s nearly a one-band-a-month average or, in other words, a ton of work.) Credits from previous years include work with Sundress, Sky Eats Airplane, Seryn, Sam Robertson, Dalton Kane, and many, many more.

The last year has been a big one for Cantrell, so much so that it takes him a moment to call everything up. One of his more recent projects with Duncan Fellows was recorded at Redwood Studio, which is owned and operated by Midlake’s McKenzie Smith and Joey McClellan. This was one of Brack’s first projects outside of the home studio. He’s also been working with Pearl Earl at Elmwood Recording, a Dallas studio helmed by John Congleton (who—no big deal—has recorded St. Vincent, Nelly Furtado, Swans, and Baroness, among others.) He also mentions some work at The Echo Lab in Argyle, which is where Claire Morales recorded her upcoming album. “They have a great live room,” Cantrell says. He cites the studio’s high ceilings as being particularly conducive to great sound.

All in all, great sound is Cantrell’s end goal. And “great” doesn’t necessarily mean “flawless”: what matters to Brack most is how real an album sounds, and a willingness to take risks and improvise. While recording Jack Malonis’s most recent album, Cantrell and Malonis spent a day recording in the attic of a tiny house. At some point, both men realized that one track was missing some small detail. They spent the next couple of hours opening and closing the door of an armoire to get one noise: a constant, specific squeak that would run just beneath the sounds of one track. “That’s the thing that gets me excited,” Cantrell says. “Making a quick decision in the moment that makes a song unique.”

If Dojo Baby had a mission statement, it might be that perfection isn’t the goal—that imperfection often yields a much more desirable result. “Go back and listen to any classic record. I can’t tell you how many Led Zeppelin records there are where you hear a flub note on a guitar, or a squeaky pedal, or a missed cymbal hit,” he says. “That’s what makes it feel human and alive. That’s what gives it that visceral energy.” That’s the kind of gift he wants to impart to anyone who comes to Dojo Baby Records. “I want to record people as they are on their best day,” he says with a smile.