Pressing pause at the former Smart Studios building
The east-side property has hosted underground shows and endured setbacks under a new owner.
The east-side building that once housed legendary recording studio Smart Studios has undergone a rocky transformation over the past year.
Musician and entrepreneur Phil Parhamovich bought the building, at 1254 E. Washington Ave., in early 2018, after winning a high-profile civil-forfeiture case in Wyoming that had tied up the cash he'd set aside for a down payment on the property.
After closing on the building, Parhamovich hosted a series of underground events in the space earlier this year, promoting it as an off-the-map venue called Press Play. Lineups usually featured electronic music but included punk and indie rock.
Smart Studios, which opened in 1983 at another space on East Wash and moved to its final location in 1987, went out of business in 2010. Parhamovich isn't the first to try and breathe new life into the space: A studio called Clutch Sound operated in the building from 2013 to 2016. The actual equipment Smart founders Butch Vig and Steve Marker and their colleagues used to record and mix music by artists including Killdozer, L7, Smashing Pumpkins, and Nirvana is long gone. But photos posted to Imgur in May show wood floors, studio partitions, and some lighting intact, and apparently the space still sounds good.
"It was awesome," says Donna Madden, who DJs as Diva D. "The sound was tuned properly and I could feel the vibrations through my feet."
The events didn't last, in part because event organizers were basically operating an unlicensed underground venue, but still publicizing the shows online. Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Zilavy says that after the city cited Parhamovich for noise violations and received complaints from neighbors, Press Play agreed to stop hosting shows. The building lacked an entertainment license, which city ordinance requires for businesses hosting consistent "live or amplified entertainment." Multiple sources who attended or performed at Press Play events have also confirmed to Tone Madison that the venue sold alcohol without a liquor license. Parhamovich says he's now working to bring the building into compliance and move forward with revitalizing the space.
On top of these setbacks, the building sustained damage during this summer's floods.
In a story Tone Madison published in December 2017 about Parhamovich's civil-forfeiture case, Parhamovich said he intended to use the old recording studio as a personal, multi-use music and arts space, and did mention the possibility of hosting some events there.
"As long as I can live and do my projects, I'm going to kind of treat it as my house," Parhamovich said at the time.
At one time that meant recording electronic music under the name Star Monster. But starting in May, audiences (of up to 150 people, according to a capacity listing posted on the electronic music site Resident Advisor) attended shows at the space. Some events lasted until 6 a.m.—much later than above-board venues are allowed to operate or serve alcohol in Madison—and were promoted through Facebook and Reddit. Some of the promotional posts for these events touted the building's history as "the recording studio that Nirvana, Garbage, L7, Killdozer, Smashing Pumpkins, and Butch Vig all called home up until 2010."
Parhamovich's former venue manager, Thomas Stavlo, says the Press Play team considers the site a private residence, where Parhamovich happened to host music.
"The idea was for stuff like punk-rock one night, a photo gallery the next, a yoga class, and then to feature electronic shows for the weekends," Stavlo says. "It's [Parhamovich's] private residence that he is deciding to host private parties at."
But the venue charged covers and sold alcohol at at least some of its events, which means it was operating as a business, or at the very least in a legal grey area. Some shows at the space were promoted as BYOB events, suggesting the team backed off on alcohol sales at some point.
Madison-based musician Isaac deBroux-Slone, whose band Disq played at Press Play in June, says organizers instructed attendees not to linger outside and didn't allow anyone who left the building to re-enter. Smokers were told to take cigarettes to the basement.
"It wasn't as bad as that would make you think," says deBroux-Slone. "It'd be a great space for hi-fi sessions or something like that."
DeBroux-Slone also says that while organizers pitched the show as 21-and-up, bands could bring in minors by putting their names on a guest list.
For his part, Stavlo says he advised against liquor sales.
According to Parhamovich, Press Play isn't currently seeking an entertainment license or a liquor license, but is instead exploring ways to "rezone" the location for a variety of community arts activities. He also says he organized shows without realizing they weren't allowed.
"We haven't really known about how to do the proper zoning," Parhamovich says. "The city's helping with that."
Though Parhamovich didn't elaborate on what he meant by helping, Zilavy said that city officials have directed him to the proper channels for obtaining permits. However Parhamovich ends up using the building, it's an ambitious undertaking. New, high-end developments are popping up fast along that stretch of East Wash, and the Smart Studios property is currently valued at $251,000, Dane County property records show.
Stavlo also says he wasn't paid for four months of venue management, but says that's "part of the business." Press Play did pay performers—Disq earned around $50 for its show there, deBroux-Slone says.
The former Smart Studios building's use as an underground party space brings into question how Madison protects its cultural landmarks, especially when a new business trades on that history.
"We would love to see an independent group of people work together to bring a sign of cultural recognition to the location," says City of Madison Alder Ledell Zellers, whose district contains the building. "It's clearly had a massive cultural impact."
That recognition could take the form of an official marker or placement on a landmark listing, which might limit development on the property.
Parhamovich has said he wants to lay low while he decides on the future of the historic building. Earlier in October, Parhamovich listed the building's studio A space for rent. A Craigslist ad describes the studio as "just how they left it minus the equipment," and uses a photo taken in 2010.