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Homerton’s Toe Rag Studios where The White Stripes recorded Elephant turns 20

PUBLISHED: 17:30 04 April 2018 | UPDATED: 17:38 04 April 2018

Liam Watson in the studio at Toe Rag. Picture: Sam Gelder

Liam Watson in the studio at Toe Rag. Picture: Sam Gelder

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Homerton’s Toe Rag Studios is 20 this year. It’s best known for being the studio where The White Stripes recorded Grammy-award winning album Elephant. The Gazette dropped in for a chat with owner Liam Watston.

On the back of the success of Elephant, guitar bands including The Datsuns and The Kills flocked to Toe Rag. Picture: Sam GelderOn the back of the success of Elephant, guitar bands including The Datsuns and The Kills flocked to Toe Rag. Picture: Sam Gelder

Walking along Glyn Road in Homerton, you’d never know one of the biggest albums of the 2000s was recorded there.

But among the Victorian terraces in the quiet residential street is an alleyway leading to Toe Rag Studios, where Jack and Meg White spent two weeks recording the Grammy award-winning album, Elephant, in 2002.

The record has just turned 15 and is regarded as The White Stripes’ best. Released at the peak of the garage rock revival, it catapulted the band into the mainstream. Its signature song, Seven Nation Army, is now an anthem both on the terraces and at political rallies.

Jack White on stage in May 2003, shortly after Elephant was released. Picture: Aurellen Gulchard (CC BY-SA 2.0)Jack White on stage in May 2003, shortly after Elephant was released. Picture: Aurellen Gulchard (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Toe Rag, run by Liam Watson and famous in the industry for its vintage analogue equipment, is also marking a milestone. It’s 20 this year. But Liam told the Gazette this week that, the way things are going, he might not be around for another 20 years.

“It’s not going great,” he said. “People aren’t spending money on what we do here. They’re either going elsewhere or doing it themselves. You do go through lean periods but the current one is as bad as it’s been, and it’s not just me – other people I know in recording say the same.

“It only takes a couple of album projects to change it, though.”

The White Stripes album Elephant is the best known album recorded at Toe Rag. Picture: Sam GelderThe White Stripes album Elephant is the best known album recorded at Toe Rag. Picture: Sam Gelder

Toe Rag almost never happened at all. Liam had spent a year looking for a new studio after his previous set up in French Place, Shoreditch High Street, had closed in 1997 after six years.

When driving with his (now) wife to one he’d seen advertised in Loot, he saw the street, feared it would be in “someone’s basement or a converted shop” and almost turned around.

He didn’t, and as a result finally found a space that was both affordable and had a high ceiling. Glyn Road was much as it is today, but the nearby Chatsworth Road was unrecognisable.

Toe Rag uses analogue equipment. Picture: Sam GelderToe Rag uses analogue equipment. Picture: Sam Gelder

“It still had the dying embers of the street market – there were a couple of barrows,” said Liam. “Percy Ingle was there and Jim’s Cafe, which has kept the sign but isn’t the same anymore.”

It had a slow start, but Liam’s fondness for analogue helped attract musicians. He says the method is down to the music he’s interested in, a “reaction to the ’80s”. But he says too much is made of it, and bands who come for the novelty don’t tend to stick around.

“When it opened, the standard set-up was a 24-track type machine, a big mixing desk and a couple of two-track machines for mixing,” he said. “I wasn’t really interested in that way of working, I’m more interested in how a record was made in 1965 in London. Rubber Soul was recorded on a four-track and to me it sounded better than the latest record by Terence Trent D’Arby or whoever. In the ’80s, unless you knew what you were doing, you would go into a studio and the house engineer would have your drums sounding like Purple Rain within two minutes.”

The only signage is above the door bell. Picture: Sam GelderThe only signage is above the door bell. Picture: Sam Gelder

He says people were literally giving away old analogue gear in the early ’90s. But now the kit attracts acts whose music is rooted in the past. When Liam’s band supported The White Stripes on their first UK tour, an excited Jack White approached him.

“I met them at the 100 Club and he’d heard about the studio. They came and had a look and then spent an evening recording there, and then we made the album.”

The band stayed in Angel for the fortnight, and Liam knew the record was going to be big because the band had a lot of backing. “There were billboards everywhere,” he said. “You don’t know how big it’s going to be but you knew it was going to do well.”

Liam says he wanted to make records the way they did in the 50s and 60s. Picture: Sam GelderLiam says he wanted to make records the way they did in the 50s and 60s. Picture: Sam Gelder

Jack would write and change lyrics in the studio and Liam got on well with him throughout.

Talks to record a follow-up fell through, but on the back of Elephant, Liam worked with a host of acts such as The Datsuns, The Kills and Razorlight.

“It was a good period. It’s a big reason why I am still here after 20 years,” added Liam.

Liam moved to Toe Rag because it was the first place he could find that was affordable and had a high ceiling. Picture: Sam GelderLiam moved to Toe Rag because it was the first place he could find that was affordable and had a high ceiling. Picture: Sam Gelder

These days a lack of backing means most guitar bands can’t afford to rent places like Toe Rag. The last few records made there were by Madness and Metronomy.

Liam also acknowledges most pop music can now be made on a laptop with a singer, something he has no problem with.

“There’s room for everyone,” he said. “But mainstream pop for me sounds like a video game, and it’s all a bit safe. A bit bland. I think music had more of a value pre-internet as a recorded piece of art. Now the value has gone down.

The studios are hidden down an alleyway and share the site with a furniture maker. Picture: Sam GelderThe studios are hidden down an alleyway and share the site with a furniture maker. Picture: Sam Gelder

“We have bands coming in and although I’ve told them I don’t use computers, there’s an awkward moment when they don’t quite understand it. They look at me like I’m a bit of a d***head.”

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