Tucked away on the fourth floor of an otherwise unspectacular brick building in Hamburg, Germany, a small and scrappy team is producing some of modern rock’s boldest records.
“It’s only 10 minutes away from Central Station, but in the wrong direction,” says Johann Scheerer, founder and owner of Clouds Hill Recordings. “No one really knows that part of the town, and (I like) that idea of being extremely close to the center, but it feels far away.”
Elbow lead singer Guy Garvey once said “a rock band that doesn’t get a good record out of Clouds Hill Studio won’t get one anywhere else.” Omar Rodríguez-López said “entering Clouds Hill is like coming home.” German punk rocker Bela B. of Die Ärzte said it’s where he wants to be buried, because “I have the guarantee that I can at least hear a perfect drum sound when I am already bored in death.”
Such endorsements are striking, especially when one considers that Clouds Hill captures its sound on vintage analog equipment and releases its music predominantly on vinyl — a strange take in 2021, but for Scheerer, it’s a matter of connection.
“It’s like working with humans,” he says. “I like working with people because they’re all different.”
Photo by Bernd Westphal
People are central to Scheerer’s story, a winding tale pushed forward by lightning strikes of human connection. He entered rock’n’roll as a guitar player, and he almost became a rock star in the mid-2000s. At 14, his band was signed to a major label and flown to New York City to record an album.
“We left the studio in the evening, came back in the morning and suddenly there were strings,” he laughs. “They had musicians come in at night and redo the stuff we did because we were not good enough. We were like, ‘Did we play that?’ and everyone was like, ‘Yup, you did.’”
Retouched as it was, the album flopped, though Scheerer and his mates walked away from the experience with enough money to consider themselves rich. He took some of that money and bought a minidisc player. It came with a microphone jack, and after discovering that one could record stereo sound by plugging headphones into the input, his creative mind was off to the races.
“I accidentally started the tech stuff with that headphone thing,” he says. “I was so fascinated by it because it all sounds weird, but you could do fancy shit with it just by experimenting.”
By the time he moved out of his parents’ house, Scheerer was ready to expand his techniques, but he remained fascinated with this idea of doing more with less. A friend maintained a garden in the center of the city, right next to the railway. Two shipping containers were fashioned on top of one another, and where his friend saw a gardening shed, Scheerer saw a makeshift studio. He approached his friend about renting the space, and soon, the hoes and shovels were replaced with a computer, a little mixing desk, and eight mic lines.
“I started recording bands, even though I obviously didn’t know what I was doing,” Scheerer says. “I did it for money, which was a bit embarrassing to look back. I did literally one great recording. I don’t know how I did it. It was like a Queens of the Stone Age-ish rock band. The record sounds crazily good, but the funny thing is, every five minutes you could hear the train go by.”
To this day, Scheerer finds beauty in unplanned byproducts. Little background noises stamp a record with a time and place more organic and true than any lyric, no matter how heartfelt. So, too, are the idiosyncrasies within vintage gear.
Courtesy of Clouds Hill Recordings
“Those old machines, they sometimes just do whatever they want,” he says. “Every mistake that happens is the fingerprint of that moment, and erasing that is just neglecting what happened. I like the mistakes because I like human beings — not all of them, but many of them. Digital, it’s just got endless possibilities. That’s not a creative way to work.”
Creative a constraint as the gardening sheds were, Scheerer was forced to grow once again when his then-girlfriend became pregnant. Inspired by an internship at a real record studio, Scheerer teamed up with a friend who owned a space. He worked days while his friend worked nights, but his friend also lived in the studio, and he wasn’t all that happy about day-time recording sessions. Undeterred, Scheerer took the last of his record company money and bought a studio of his own.
Clouds Hill was built on a dream and not much else. He dumped his money into a 56-channel mixing desk, only to find that 48 of them no longer worked. He had a giant analog monster to fill the room, but he was still recording eight tracks at a time. He barely knew how to use the thing anyway, so he started writing and recording his own album as practice.
Then, Napster happened. With the advent of peer-to-peer file sharing, the major label music industry fell to its knees. High-tech studios shuttered, but Scheerer’s phone rang off the hook. Bands needed a place to record, and an old friend with lots of contacts was looking to move somewhere with all his mixing gear.
Johann Scheerer | Photo by Georg Schmid
Scheerer also got a call from a mate looking to offload a piece of music history. Someone had their hands on a mixing desk custom-built for Beatles producer George Martin by Ruper Neve himself. Big bands came to studios with Neve mixers, and the chance to tell them his had been used to record Double Fantasy was too perfect. Because it was a vintage analog piece and limited in its capabilities, it was no more expensive than a new digital mixer, so Scheerer scraped his pennies and asked his parents for a loan.
“It’s back to the days of no flexibility but great sound,” he says. “That plan worked out extremely well. A piece of equipment like that is super attractive for everyone on the planet. I quickly learned the downside of that, because obviously, people came in like, ‘Oh, now our record has to sound great.’ First problem. The band is probably shit. Second problem, I can’t blame in on the gear anymore.”
Teaching himself the use the equipment as he always did — by producing his own album — Scheerer ran into his next human node. One day, he was taking the elevator up to Clouds Hill next to some older gentlemen in work jumpsuits.
“I thought they were plumbers,” he laughs, but the guys were there to have their album mixed by his famous friend, and they weren’t paying for it with their own money. In fact, they were signed by Polydor, and they were the founding members of the iconic Faust. Later, when they overheard Scheerer working on his record, they asked him to produce their next album, Something Dirty.
“What I learned from the whole Krautrock thing, they said there’s rhythm in everything,” Scheerer says. “They would start a song just by throwing something on the ground, recording it, and listening to it 100 times, just to find that one unique rhythm of the moment.”
Courtesy of Clouds Hill Recordings
“James and I fell in love basically,” he laughs. “I just thought he was such a cool guy.” Scheerer became Gallon Drunk’s go-to producer, and when it came time to release the album The Road Gets Darker From Here, Johnston asked Scheerer to do him the favor of not shopping for labels and to just put it out himself. The U.K. press was astounded. Why go to Hamburg of all places to record and release an album?
“He’s like, ‘I just like to work with someone who really listens,’” Scheerer remembers. “He was in his 50s or late-40s when we started collaborating 10 or 15 years ago. He’s seen every studio in the U.K., and in the U.K., people don’t care anymore about music. They treat musicians like shit, and I was super young. That combination totally worked for both of us, because I was able to learn so many things.”
Clouds Hill partnered on an avant-garde festival with Faust in northern Germany. Gallon Drunk played a show, and Omar Rodríguez-López, too. He was drawn to the wild, frenetic energy and Scheerer’s “in the moment” mechanics. Rodríguez-López returned the next year to make a film about the festival, and he used Clouds Hill to rehearse with a few friends. Side project Bosnian Rainbows was born from those sessions, and to Rodríguez-López, Clouds Hill became a second home.
Johann Scheerer (left) and Omar Rodríguez-López (right) | Photo by Marius Drews
“He called me and said, ‘dude, [Bosnian Rainbows] happen at your place. You have to produce the record,’” Scheerer says. “So I did, and we put it out with my label and, slowly, we got bigger.”
“Big” got huge when Pete Doherty entered the scene. The Libertines singer was in town to perform a cafe show for one of Scheerer’s friends. Scheerer was on vacation, but he opened his doors to Doherty and offered a place to crash.
“We have this artist apartment one floor below Clouds Hill, which I had to rent because the neighbors kept ringing me up saying, ‘Your music is too loud,’” he says. “Two days later, my phone rings and it’s Pete Doherty like, ‘I’m in your studio. You have an amazing typewriter collection. Nobody else in the world has a typewriter collection except me and you. I love this place. Do you want to produce my next solo album?’”
Management was not too keen on some small studio in Hamburg handling Doherty’s big show, but Scheerer made them a deal. He’d produce the record for free, and if the label liked it, they’d have to buy it off him. They took the offer, but not without threatening to “drop [him] like a stone]” if he got in their way. It turned out Doherty was more apt to get in his own way, living up to his drink- and drug-using reputation. It took Scheerer and Doherty months to get the record on tape, but once he was done, Doherty loved it. The rock star eventually fired his management and hired a friend in their place. Clouds Hill released Hamburg Demonstrations in December 2016.
“That’s a pretty cool title,” Scheerer smiles. “He basically gave his first interview saying, ‘That Johann guy saved my life.’”
Photo by Bernd Westphal
The last five years have been a growth spurt for Scheerer’s crew. About 10 years ago, he hired his first intern. Linda is now the in-house engineer and as important to Clouds Hill as Scheerer himself. They’re joined by five other women and one man. The eight of them make up the entire team.
It’s a small crew, closer to a family, and that’s how Scheerer likes it. Earlier this month, their metal was tested on the biggest bet Clouds Hill has yet to make. After helping record At The Drive-In’s comeback album, Rodríguez-López returned with The Mars Volta’s entire catalog. Amazingly, he owned all the rights, and he asked Clouds Hill to put together a massive box set.
For $450 plus shipping, fans could celebrate the punk prog rockers with 18 LPs, decked out with re-imagined covers and remastered tracks, and the case itself became a record stand display. Clouds Hill knew there was a market, but who was going to pay nearly $500 for a box set in the midst of a global pandemic? In the end, they printed 5,000 units and sold out within six hours.
“We just flipped the switch on our online shop and 3,600 boxes were gone when I woke up at 6 a.m. in the morning, without any promotion,” Scheerer says. “We can’t make anymore because it takes eight months to manufacture. Our processing plant in Germany, which is one of the last remaining plastic pressing plants in the world, said it’s the most complex thing they’ve done so far.”
Complicated and temperamental. Scheerer’s favorite, of course.
“When you manufacture splattered vinyl, there’s only one way you can do it,” he says. “Someone has to grab in the box with the black vinyl, has to grab a box with the red vinyl, melt them together and stamp it. Then, someone has to listen to it. There’s no machine on Earth that can do it yet. You have to involve people again.”
If you’re hoping to get your hands on Mars Volta vinyl, there’s still hope. Clouds Hill is set to rerelease each of the band’s albums individually, indefinitely.
“I’m also running a publishing company, and we have the merchandise and online shop which became pretty huge through the whole boxset thing,” Scheerer says. “I still listen to every demo people send me. I reply to every single email because it’s possible. It’s not that many, maybe a dozen a week, but they all get a reply. I listen to everything because I know how it feels.”
Published in partnership with Clouds Hill Recordings.