In the heart of Larchmont Village, among the rows of cafes and retailers, Brushfire Records' headquarters looks like an antiquated mansion from the street. Look closer, though, and it's likely the most modern construct in the neighborhood. The roof has been entirely outfitted with solar panels. Peek inside: The floors have been varnished with a VHC-free enamel. The decor is sparse; wooden tables and a few posters greet visitors, many of whom arrive looking to connect with the company's co-owners, singer-songwriter Jack Johnson and his manager, Emmett Malloy. The two have created one of the most environmentally efficient studios in the world: They recycle; they use energy-efficient lighting; to conserve power, laptop computers are used wherever possible; all paper products are FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), which grades the tree from which the paper came; the toilets are low flow.
Dressed casually in a T-shirt, jeans, a cloth belt and running shoes, Malloy, 35, is sitting in his office listening to Mojave 3 founder Neil Halstead's most recent recording, done at Brushfire. As the sound system purrs, a monitor sitting on Malloy's desk tells him the exact amount of energy being expended by the solar-paneled roof. Not that he's an obsessive. Malloy avoids using the word "green" not only because the word seems so trendy right now, but also because it's vague. He laughs affectionately as he relays that one contractor initially thought that Brushfire simply wanted its studio to be painted green. Malloy and Johnson chose to insulate the studio with blue-jean scraps, and when the bags of cloth first arrived, Malloy says, the work crew pulled on their gloves and masks before handling the fabric. They spoke very little English, and the only way for office manager (and Johnson's stage manager) Josh Arroyo to demonstrate the safety of the insulation was to shove his face into the bags and rub the material all over his face until the crew understood that it wasn't fiberglass.
The attention to detail is paying off. Ozomatli has done some mixing here; Zach de la Rocha recently laid some tracks at Brushfire as well. And impressed by Brushfire's environmentally conscious ways, James Blunt hosted a MySpace special from the studio.
Though Malloy is obviously committed to minimizing the studio's carbon footprint, he retains both a sense of humor about it and a willingness to concede the downsides. "The solar panels took up our whole roof to get enough panels to get it to work. I mean, it would have been great to have barbecues and hang out on the roof. That's valuable space to give up — and I guarantee you that in a year they'll be the size of a pocket mirror and generate twice as much energy... And the fluorescent lights probably aren't great for vibe, but we're working on that. Studios are all about the vibe and creating an aesthetic. I don't think we got exactly what we wanted from the vibe standpoint, but give us a few months while we get that all sorted."
"Maybe my next songs will be biodegradable," speculates keyboardist Money Mark later, over the phone from Brushfire, where he too is working on recordings. "People can listen to them for a few months and then they'll just disintegrate. Maybe I'll wear biodegradable clothes in front of the audience. I'll dress in potato sacks and rice bags." Though he's joking, it doesn't seem like too wide a stretch. On tour, the erstwhile Beastie Boys key man uses biodiesel fuel, biodegradable utensils and rechargeable batteries for his gear. He inspects venues to see what generators and lights they use, and he was the first musician to use a recyclable plastic tray for CD packaging. He can't remember the last time he bought new clothes; he makes thrift-store purchases exclusively. "It's sort of something I've always looked for."
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"In the late '80s," he adds, "this phrase 'DIY' was going around and I was labeled as this DIY person. When you're that kind of person, you'll look for resources. You look for those things that are a reflection of your personality. "
Money Mark has played a few live dates around Los Angeles in January (if you're lucky enough to read this on Thursday, January 24, he's playing the Echo tonight), helping to ignite an upcoming year in which Brushfire hopes to expand greatly. Singer-songwriter Matt Costa's sophomore release, Unfamiliar Faces, came out this past Tuesday. Fitting with the record label's sensibility, the video for Costa's first single, "Mr. Pitiful" (co-directed by Malloy and Tim Wheeler), features Costa wandering around L.A. with all of his instruments strapped to his body in one-man-band style. Former Sub Poppers Rogue Wave have just released their latest record, Asleep at the Wheel, on Brushfire. Recent signees Neil Halstead, Mason Jennings and Ray Barbee, along with label mate G. Love, will all release records this year. And, most prominently, label co-owner Jack Johnson, who has sold close to 14 million records worldwide, will drop his highly anticipated fifth record, Sleep Through the Static, on Brushfire in February. (Though manufactured and distributed by Universal, the label stresses that as a business, they represent themselves. They are their own parent company. And you can tell by the feel of the place.)
The lights are off in the recording studio on this day, but sunshine paints the room with a comfort and intimacy. Malloy points to the secondhand timber that adorns the walls. In-house engineer Robert Carranza is sitting at his desk in a meeting with Ozomatli's Raul "El Bully" Pacheco, who says, "I think that the fact that they [Brushfire] took the time and to really give a shit... If you really care, you have to take the steps. I know they've put extra money into it. Running a studio on its own is a pain in the ass. You really have to want to do it. But then doing this and having to deal with the city and a whole different set of laws, I think it's very commendable. "
Finished with a tour of the facility, Malloy hands over his business card, which still has his old contact information on it. He explains that he didn't want to print up new cards until he had burned through his old ones. "You do what you can," he says. "Riding your bike and living with nothing. That's ultimately where we need to go."