at Rock Around the Clock
by Stacy Brockett
I have never really had much of a reason to visit NW Portland. Although not that long ago I was witness to a spectacular annual event – a gang of chimney-sweeping swifts dancing in the sky during dusk at the Chapman Elementary School. When I moved to Portland, I also had the pleasure of working in the NW industrial area long ago when 800.com existed. I worked in their call center housed in a remodeled, plush, once-was warehouse. It was so elaborate they apparently couldn’t afford it and closed their doors and business for good in 2001. For someone who lives in a different quadrant of Portland, like the Eastside for example, most essentials can be found without driving out of the local comfort zone. Taking an adventure out of my Eastside barrier consisted of driving into a foreign concrete & brick jungle, the industrial NW. I was there this time to meet David Wall and get the scoop on Rock Around the Clock.
Before we delve into my interview with David, however, I must give you a little self-context.
I consider myself an amateur musician, playing all instruments, taking a stab at recording, and playing in a 3-piece chick band. For a while, a few of us from different bands came together and rented a rehearsal space in the industrial SE. This was our first rehearsal space ever. Moving in was a monumental and exciting experience. Coupled with the idea that we had our very own room to practice whenever we desired, and to be as loud as we wanted, the location was very surreal. Living in Portland for a little under ten years, I realized the prime spot for a photograph & movie-worthy setting was this exact area – industrial SE under the Hawthorne Bridge. As a matter of fact I realized that I had seen many band pictures and watched a few music videos filmed in this very location. We thought it couldn’t get much better than that. However, after a full summer & winter, we realized the location was all that was considered positive; the rest – little to be desired.
The, Rock Around the Clock, snack machine, also holds strings, batteries, ear plugs and other things the musician might need at 2am.
Summers were extremely uncomfortable during the day. There was no cooling or ventilation. Winters were unbearably cold. There was no central heat. The building had originally been used for office spaces, with a couple of kitchens and bathrooms throughout. Walking in, one would think they were in the 1970’s. Nothing had changed since then, except the addition of several fine van couches outlining the communal area. A third of the lights worked, the shower was disconnected, the kitchens were disabled with hollowed stoves, and there was a mildewy refrigerator. It was like a scene out of a Nightmare on Elm Street movie. And of course if you tried to heat or cool your room, the breaker would overload and you had to feel your way to the fuse box. It was always challenging and quite an adventure to find the right breaker … especially late at night in a place with very little lighting to begin with. It’s really easy to psych yourself out in a building like the one I am describing. It even stores an internal breeze that seems to flow late at night when the building is empty on all floors, except for the only person there – you. And how can anyone forget the guy who lived in the garage below? Fortunately his name was not Freddy, but his cracked out lady friend was found sleeping in our space before we moved in.
I personally liked battling with the Death Metal band on the other side of the flimsy wall. Or the tummy-rumbling drone of synth bass coming from the room of a very popular Portland band. And I’ll never forget the night I heard the Duran Duran cover band play Rio fifteen times in a row … while I was trying to record vocals at one in the morning. But you could almost always count on the guy who practically lived next door … the guy with the goddamn roto-toms … playing his rudiments over and over … and over. Maybe it’s all just the joy of being a tenant in a rehearsal space.
I moved back into my basement.
Walking into Rock Around the Clock restored my faith in Portland rehearsal spaces. Granted, I have only been to one other rehearsal space building, but the building that David Wall owns deserves printed mention … and lots of praise.
I arrived at said location and sat outside of the building for a bit before David let me in. It was shortly before 6 PM, and the workers in the area were exiting their industrial offices and hopping into their modest cars to go home for the day. All became empty & quiet, except for David and a handful of rehearsing bands inside Rock Around the Clock. I telephoned David to let him know I had made it. He opened the front door, which led us right into the stage & loading area. I was comforted by the smell of guitars and equipment … a very pleasant smell almost like that of a music store combined with your favorite music venue, minus the stench of body odor & old beer. Actually, it was immaculate and well lit. I was immediately intrigued.
Rock Around the Clock is open 24-7, all 365 days. The building primarily consists of about 30 rehearsal spaces, a loading & stage area, a lounge area, and a small office. I noticed that every area of the building as well as the outside was equipped with mounted security cameras, those of which David has monitors for in his office. This would not be a good building to tamper with. Security is not an issue, especially since the only access is via card entry … through a very large industrial-strength door. The stage is sizable with colorful concert lighting and a full PA system. In front of the stage is not only where people can stand to be entertained, but it also serves as the loading dock. Next to the standard-sized entry door, there is a rolling garage door which would allow a large vehicle or moving truck to easily load … completely out of the rain and other not-so friendly weather elements. The loading dock also alleviates the duty of constantly having to be on guard when moving equipment in & out of the building. When looking at the walls, it is evident David has also spread his diverse, popular art collection throughout the building. You can find anything from band portraits to classic product advertisements. And of course I have to mention the biggest plus of all – a vending machine that sells guitar strings, pics, earplugs, and Doritos.
There is certainly a sense of community throughout the building. This is made evident by the bulletin board where tenants can communicate with each other for various announcements and needs. The tenants are also contributing old sticks & guitar parts towards a future art project that involves the performance stage. Every once in a while, maybe quarterly, the tenants come together to sell equipment … a garage sale of sorts. They open up the door, give out hot dogs & sodas, and make a day of it. Then there is the funky lounge room is a common area where the tenants can mingle and get out of their rooms when a much needed break is in order. The room consists of an electric fireplace, games, magazines, a fake rolling fish aquarium, and relaxing furniture. Tenants can eat, play games, or simply chat with one another in this cozy space. Upon visiting the lounge I felt like stretching out on the long black vinyl couch and taking a nap.
David was proud to point out the massive, white, 3-blade, propeller-type fans circulating high above the arched, once-was warehouse ceiling. Forget central cooling – the fans are actually quite efficient and put out a considerable breeze … not the same kind you’d get at one in the morning in a spooky space. The floors in the spaces all have different kinds of carpet. For the walls, tenants have taken it upon themselves to put up different types of treatment for the right mix of acoustics. David encourages shelving as well, so tenants have a spot to stack cases and other items that can otherwise serve as tripping dangers. Another benefit he pointed out was the heavy wood doors leading to each space. He chose to use wood as opposed to metal, which is not ideal for desired sound waves. Some tenants will even add a little more security by installing locks on their doors, which only the Fire Marshall would have to grant or initiate entry to. Another important point to mention is the fact that there is certainly no shortage of outlets – everyone has dedicated circuits. The rooms are also amazingly grouped accordingly. The metal bands are in one hall while the pop & rock bands are found in the opposite hall. David also considers rehearsal times when it comes to band placement in effort to allow the most efficient practice opportunity.
S: Do you have to be a tenant to use the performance stage?:
D: You know, I will do it for national acts … or I’ll do it for a good cause. But typically, yes, you have to be in here in order to use it. So whether it is for a CD release, a showcase for club owners, or maybe you got a hundred of your closest friends … yeah, we’ve had parties here. In the summer months we just open up the door & who cares? There’s no one around. Inside there’s 30 rooms. This used to be just one big warehouse. Years and years ago we used to rehearse in here. From the front to the back it’s a hundred feet long, so I put up all of the walls. They were not here back then. The rooms vary in size and shape. They have ten-foot high ceilings so everyone doesn’t feel so boxed in. And I put the recessed lighting in because … well … you might know what it’s like to throw your guitar up and it a light … then it comes down & breaks!
S: This place seems pretty warm … much more comfortable than I would expect.
D: Thankfully I’ve had some great experiences where I got to tour with some large bands and actually made my living doing that for a long time. I’ve been in a lot of places … and they were really bad. I was hopeful without trying to be so antiseptic about it.
S: Do you have a waiting list to get a space?
D: You know what … it’s odd because I hear that about other places. I always have one room available it seems like. And if I get to 100%, the next day someone says to me, “Hey my band broke up … or they didn’t pay me … or I’m movin’.” So it’s funny like that – I always have one room.
David did say however that he does have some people waiting due to room preferences. Once the sought after room becomes available, you must complete a five-page application. There is also a background check for each tenant as part of application process. When bands have $20,000 worth of equipment in their space, background checks can be vital. David has denied space rentals to people when their identity was not 100% clear … or maybe had any hint of theft history. He has been able to overlook more common background items such as marijuana possession & DUIs. Once a tenant is approved, David gives them the grand tour. He makes sure to point out the essentials – the fire extinguisher, fire exits, lights, and breaker box. As a matter of fact, he has battery back-up in case there is no power to the building itself. David is pretty tolerant of certain hobbies, but he will not allow any hobbies that involve needles, cook-spoons, or prostitutes. He has never had to kick anyone out because of it. He said the worst thing that ever happened was when a tenant took a plastic guitar off the wall by the bathroom door. Of course the guy failed to realize it was all on camera.
When David made the decision to buy the 6000 square ft building two years ago, he originally had another idea in mind for the building that would cater to his current and primary business based out of Hillsboro. He quickly realized that rehearsal spaces would be better suited for the building … way more interesting than portable restrooms. The building is mostly constructed with wood and consists of a huge 19 ft ceiling with a crossbow design. It was built as a warehouse sometime during the Depression era. The floor consists of thick timber with a layer of carpet on the surface. David did not want to stuff it entirely with insulation, leaving room for the sound waves to bounce around on the wood a bit. A natural reverb chamber occurs in the building with the help of a 39-inch crawl space. The walls are thick enough so that no one on the outside can hear anything happening on the inside. The location itself is ideal for folks who live in NW Portland … especially those coming from the Pearl District where housing does not include a basement. And parking is typically not a problem, especially after 5PM and on the weekends.
David finds pride in the idea that his rehearsal studio business shines above that of which the local competition offers. He firmly believes in making his place cooler and more unique than the others, and succeeds by providing a rockstar experience for his tenants. He believes in open communication with and amongst his tenants … and the whole place simply has a welcoming, friendly vibe without attitude. He has done an excellent job in providing the most ideal environment for all practicing musicians, whether they are screaming death metal sweet-nothings or drumming the same patterns rhythmically and relentlessly. Considering this business is a second job of sorts, it has the potential of being the best damn system of rehearsal studios ever known to Portland.