Under The Radar With Chris Fogal
Behind The Music With A Big Part of the Denver Scene
Published: Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 00:04
When Chris Fogal describes his business as “under the surface” of the Denver music scene, he isn’t exaggerating.
Fogal, head engineer and co-owner of Black in Bluhm studio, is the unsung hero behind records by just about every local rock band imaginable. From The Knew to Tin Horn Prayer to The Gamits, Fogal has his hand in recording, mixing, and mastering the music that Denver loves.
The local entrepreneur brings a new meaning to underground rock and DIY. After recording in his basement since 2008, he built a new studio in January entirely without professional help—a team of friends and one helpful intern turned a space on Colfax into a massive recording space with two isolation booths, a handmade recording desk, an office, and of course, a great lounge area for bands. Fogal describes the effort as “super DIY—that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
Fogal’s DIY attitude spans the length of his impressive career. After graduating from high school, he chose to immerse himself in the local music scene.
“I started recording a long time ago with my old buddy who used to play in The Gamits,” he said. “We started recording in our apartment right out of high school and then we started the 8 Houses Down recording studio in my old basement.”
While Fogal gained experience in the field, he worked alongside Jeff Merkel, a CU Denver instructor and sound engineer at 8 Houses Down, who taught him about the recording industry. He credits his hands-on experience with Merkel as what has allowed him to bloom in the recording business.
“It just comes with time. Hands-on, mostly. I’ve always loved doing it,” he said, “I don’t think you can beat hands-on experience.”
After leaving 8 Houses Down, which still thrives as a hub for local artists, Fogal left the recording industry to support his family. As an assistant manager at Illegal Pete’s, a restaurant known for its influence in the local rock scene, he was never too far from music.
In 2008, Fogal took the leap into recording as a full time job. “I had been building my own studio at my house and I was like okay, this is it. I’m gonna quit Pete’s and go back to recording again,” he said with a hint of excitement. “I started in 2008 and was pretty much booked solid until we moved here in January of 2012.”
While Black in Bluhm is still a relatively young business, it can hardly be described as a fledgling. Fogal’s clientele reach far beyond the borders of Denver and he has worked with the likes of Joey Cape and Tony Sly. Most recently, he remastered the entire Lagwagon collection, which was re-released just in time for the holidays.
Fogal gets most of his international and well known clients through word-of-mouth recommendations. For these, he largely credits his friends Joey Cape and John Snodgrass who “are always hyping this place and sending people my way.”
But the attention Fogal gains from larger clients doesn’t change his opinion of the Denver music scene.
“I love it here. It’s awesome. Tons of friends and family,” he said, “All of the bands from when I was younger: we all worked together recording little seven-inches and all those bands grow up and keep playing music so everyone grows together. The recordings get better, the bands get better, the performances get better, and hopefully it keeps going.”
But even with an optimistic attitude, Fogal faces the same struggles that other independent artists and business owners face. “All the bands pay to play. It’s a totally different world out there in music,” he said, referring to the music industry. “It’s a modest wage, but I do it because I love it and so do all the bands I work with.” Nonetheless, Fogal believes that making it in the industry is just like any business: you can do it if you really want to do it.
Fogal’s awareness of the financial issues that many bands face, from his own time touring with The Gamits and struggling to break even as a band, gives him a view that other engineers might not have. He runs his studio as a collective, with practice spaces for rent in half of his building to keep costs down.
“It’s cool because it’s almost like a collective here. We want to keep it really cheap and affordable,” said Fogal. “It keeps us busy and it’s just good for the whole scene, so with all these practice spaces here it supplements our income and keeps the prices super, super competitive.”
The collective nature of Fogal’s business stretches far beyond the practice spaces and word-of-mouth recommendations. His initial investment into the business cames from his late grandmother, who bequeathed him with a secret savings that allowed him to start building his studio.
“Bluhm is my late grandma’s last name. She was a public school teacher her whole life and nobody knew she had started these investments for me and my sister and cousins,” he said. “When she died, she left a large chunk of money in her will for us to split up. It was enough money for my wife and I to put a down payment on a house and start phase one of this studio in the basement.”
Because of this story, naming the studio after her was only fitting, according to Fogal. “I wanted to pay some homage to that. I was trying to play with the word Bluhm and I’m kind of the black sheep of the family so it worked out and made for a cool logo.”
The nature of Fogal’s business echoes the namesake he chose for it: Rather than looking for a gain, Fogal is contributing to the local music scene because he loves it. He describes Denver as a music scene that isn’t snobby and he truly fits into it in that way. Even his equipment is humble. Fogal doesn’t use a console—what many of us think of when we think recording studio—he uses a control surface so all of his preamps are connected digitally. “If you’re building your studio around a giant console then more power to you, but we’re not going that route,” he said.