Interviewing Cap’n Mystery

Posted: November 21, 2011 in Other Key Interviews

Chris Hanzsek, aka Cap’n Mystery, is one of Seattle music’s unsung heroes.  He opened Reciprocal Recording (twice), the studio that gave us Green River, Mudhoney, TAD, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and many others.  Chris discovered Green River…and he put together the first “grunge” compilation (Deep Six), in 1986 on his C/Z label.

Chris and I have some geography in common.  He grew up in Upper Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and I grew up in Lower Bucks (Upper is better, trust me.)  We both went to Penn State (ugh…this fucking scandal)  “My last years at Penn State were the exciting ones,” Chris remembers.  “I got involved with radio….I got to do what they called the “New Wave Show.”  Or, I thought of it as the “Punk Rock Show.”

“[We] did a radio show at Penn State called “Too Much Too Soon”….and he called himself Stu Dent.  Did he tell you who I was?  I was Poli Dent,” says his then girlfriend, Tina Casale.

Upon graduation, in 1980, Chris and Tina ventured to Boston.  “Then I found [a] job in Boston, kind of working in a warehouse that was just completely stocked full of musicians,” Chris recalls.  “And I think that’s where I got the idea I was gonna go in to the recording business ’cause there’s all these people sittin’ around talking about music, fightin’ over the stereo.  And quite a number of them were….going into studios and making recordings, and I just looked at that and went, ‘Oh man, that’s just too much fun.  How can I get involved?’

“So I just decided to start saving my money, my minimum wage money, whatever I was making, and I just started buying recording gear, and then trying to weasel my way into helping some of these developing bands with their demos and stuff.”

“And Boston at the time was just full of bands, utterly absolutely full of ’em….what convinced me to move there was I think the very first show I went to…we just wandered into the Ratt in Kenmore Square.  And opening that night was Mission of Burma and then the headliner was Gang of Four, playing their second show in the U.S.  I was just utterly impacted, very stunned.  It was just amazing for me to see this music happen.”

Chris remained in Boston for two years, immersing himself in the vibrant music scene there.  He found himself starting to struggle financially, however, as the cost of living began to outpace his earnings.  He then began to consider another place, perhaps cheaper, that also afforded an opportunity to record bands.  Some of his friends were living in Seattle and they suggested he move there.  “I just came out here [Seattle] and stayed in somebody’s basement for about, I think about two months or so, while I was looking for a job,” he says, “eventually found some pathetic job that would keep me afloat out here.  And then I stayed.

“I think my [day] job…was cleaning Xerox machines, and making paper tablets out of scrap paper for this little print shop.  So, it was sort of a go-nowhere, dead-end job.  But that kind of thing really fuels your dreams.  You really are motivated to try to do something with your life when what you have is a dead-end street staring you in the face.  So, I borrowed a little money from my mom…bought an 8-track recorder, and then the studio started…”

“[Chris] started buying all this equipment and then at one point he needed a place to put it all,” says Tina. “So he rented this place down…by the train tracks and he started Reciprocal Recording.  And then through meeting all these bands coming in and going out and seeing bands, like we saw the first time Soundgarden play.  And I remember Chris, we were looking at each other saying, ‘These guys are really great.’”

“I think we were 10 bucks an hour at first,” says Chris, “slowly moved up to $12.50 an hour.”  Competing studios were charging as much as $75 per hour.

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Reciprocal Recording offers high quality 8-track recording services at incomparable prices.  We’ve got good equipment and a versatile space.  Check us out for your next demo or LP project.  $12.50/hr, $10/hr block rate.

—Ad for Reciprocal Recording, the Rocket, July 1984.

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“…Seattle only had about four or five actual working studios that people could go to, and some of them weren’t really approachable,” he continues.  “So, there was a lack of inexpensive musician-friendly, independent-friendly studios and I quickly became one of them.

“Seattle was pretty fertile ground for that because it hadn’t been done that way before.  The studios that were here were more of your traditional, bigger studios that were a little too expensive for people on their own money to do things in.”

Chris soon crossed paths with Green River, and the band recorded its first demo at Reciprocal in the Spring of 1984.  Even in those early days, Green River was kind of an unstable compound, especially after Stone Gossard joined the band.  Stone and Jeff Ament would begin to push Green River in a hard rock direction, while Mark Arm and Steve Turner would steadfastly stick to their punk roots.  By 1987, the split had become irreconciliable.  Mark and Steve would form Mudhoney, while Stone and Jeff would eventually form Pearl Jam.  “I thought [Jeff and Stone] were being far too studious and serious about it,” says Chris.  “But, I guess time has proven that their efforts were valid as well.  I mean, they got their wish.  I don’t know if being in Pearl Jam hurts you any–but probably not.”

In the late summer of 1985, Chris and Tina formed a partnership called C/Z Records.  The label’s first offering would become a landmark compilation album.  “…I forget exactly who had the idea,” says Chris, “but someone said, ‘Why don’t we have a compilation record and put some of these great bands on a compilation?’….And I said, ‘Well, that’s a great idea.  Let’s go do it.’  I got my girlfriend [Casale] to bankroll the thing.  That was the spawning of the idea of having the Deep Six compilation.”

Deep Six featured Green River, Malfunkshun, the Melvins, Skin Yard, Soundgarden, and the U-Men.  Chris, Mark Arm, and Jeff Ament selected the bands…although no one is quite sure who and how they made the final determination (and I asked Chris, Mark, Jeff, Stone, and Jack Endino…it remains the mystery question of life.) “I think that it was just the…bands that were just kind of well-known around town,” says Green River’s Alex Shumway.  “Everybody went to a Melvins show.  Everybody went to go see a U-Men show.  God knows, you wouldn’t miss them.  Everybody went to go see a Malfunkshun show.  Jesus Christ, you’d never want to miss a Malfunkshun show.  Green River, because we were just the fucking greatest thing on Earth, right?…Soundgarden…we were just all the bands right around the area that were the really popular bands.  That’s the only way I could figure that one out.”

“I remember, I was there, and there was Mark Arm and probably a couple of the Melvins, and Malfunkshun, and everybody,” Jack Endino recalls.  “[Chris] said, ‘Hey, I want to put out this record.  We’re probably not going to make any money on it, but I’ll pay for the studio time.  And if we make any money on it, you can all share in it.’  And everybody signed a little two-page contract.  Yeah, he basically never made any money on it.  In fact, he lost a lot of money on it.”

A year later, Chris re-opened Reciprocal (initially with Jack as co-owner) in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.  The studio became the center of all things grunge by the late ’80s.

Since then, Chris has worked on a number of projects, and continues to do mastering out of his home.  He has contributed a hidden, but important legacy to Seattle music.  “If [people] ask me what I want to take credit for,” says Chris, “it’s just that when I came to town, I had a little bit of a vision, and a little bit more confidence, and I just wanted to push people and say, ‘Let’s go.  Let’s do it.  Let’s do it.’  And working with Green River was sort of a keystone for me, because all the guys in that band were enthusiastic.”

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