Iowa recording studio inducted into the Hall of Fame


West Union’s Bird-On-Fire recording studio was inducted Saturday October 2 into the Midwest All Music Association (MAMA) Hall of Fame in Arnolds Park. The ceremony was held at the Ponderosa Ballroom in Walford, Iowa, where eight inductees received their places in the Hall of Fame. Among the inductees is the Bird-On-Fire Recording Studio created by traveling musician and student Doug Koempel. With his passion for both music production and history, Koempel brings an enthusiasm that any music fan can appreciate.
Koempel operates the studio in the basement of his home in West Union. As a project studio, this allowed it to learn to adapt to the digital landscape of music today. To record a song, Koempel records the sounds individually or in small groups, putting them together into a final sequence for a song. He describes the process as tiring, but worth it in the end.
University of Iowa graduate Koempel built the studio in the early 1980s after years of performing in local bands and venues, including Matter’s Ballroom in Decorah which once housed the legendary Buddy Holly. The studio takes its name from Koempel’s grandmother who joked about the way he and his friends sounded like “a bird on fire” when they sang. Despite the criticism, Koempel said his grandmother was still very supportive. The studio has hosted many alumni over the years, including Capitol Records recording artist Emily West, Nikki Hassman (of the band Avalon), sister band Anne and Naomi Ludvicek and Nora Gedgaudas, who hails from the Twin City. .

Induction
“I am honored that my studio has recently been inducted into the Midwest All-Music Association Hall of Fame,” said Koempel. “The audience sees the artist and hears the music, but is rarely aware of what goes on behind the scenes where the music is created – in the recording studio. So, it’s nice to be recognized.
When asked what kind of music he played as a teenager, his diversity is inevitable. “From Chopin to the Beatles. I was a classically trained pianist who graduated in composition and theory from the University of Iowa in the early 1970s, while playing weekend concerts with the Rubber Band. Back when I was a preteen we used to hang out at the local hardware store where you could audition 45 records in a listening booth on a small turntable. I bought a 45 there for ninety-nine cents a piece. When I grew up a bit – in my teens – albums were available at Karban’s Five & Dime, the local dime store. There I bought dozens of Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Beach Boys vinyl records for $ 3.98 each.
Koempel sees its current creative process as part of a more modern digital atmosphere. “I use several DAWS (digital audio workstations), Sonar and Samplitude, as well as many other music production software including: Sound Forge, Ozone, Audio Cleaning Lab and dozens of plug-ins.
If given the opportunity to work with any musician, past or present, Koempel replied, “George Martin – by merging conventional methods of traditional recording with the innovative visions of the Beatles. Martin is often considered the “Fifth Beatle” thanks to his involvement in the vast creative process of each of the original Beatles albums.
Koempel said he has worked in all genres of music. “Over the years in the studio, I have worked with artists representing virtually all genres; For example rock, country, jazz, polka / old time, punk rock, classical, alternative, American, singer / songwriter, pop – you name it. I think I covered all the basics except hip-hop and rap.
Koempel continued, “Music is a transformative phenomenon – tapping into each person’s unique subjective experience. Creating and playing music connects with others, unlike any other mode of communication.

The way of memory
Koempel started playing music as a teenager. His mother started him with piano lessons when he was a child and he displayed exquisite skill from an early age. Soon he impressed his classmates with his ability to play swing and boogie-woogie, and his teachers with his ability to play Handel’s “Messiah” by ear. At the age of nine, he was a finalist in a county-wide talent competition, playing a classic ragtime piano piece by Johnny Maddox called “Waggashoe”.
It was in the late summer of 1960. All the windows were open at the pavilion at the Fayette County Fairgrounds in West Union. There was a wedding there and in the heat and humidity, and the hall was packed with people. One band played old classics from the rock and roll era, like Fats Domino, Ricky Nelson and even Elvis Presley. It was the day Koempel met his future bandmate Larry Crandall, whose band was entertaining that night.
That summer, Koempel was paying a lot of attention to this band, becoming aware of every song. Although Koempel and Crandall won’t cross paths for another five years. Koempel, then a sophomore, heard through Vine that Crandall’s band were looking for a keyboardist for their band, now named “The Runaways”.
Lead guitarist Tom Stahr heard Koempel play boogie-woogie in grade school. Koempel approached Crandall and auditioned to join The Runaways as a keyboardist. Koempel auditioned on an old electric organ he received for Christmas as a child. Attaching a microphone to “the equipment” and playing a few songs, Koempel was accepted into the group.
What came next for The Runaways was the recording process. In 1968, Leonard Matter, owner of Matter’s Ballroom in Decorah, hosted a recording session for the boys at Coulee Studios in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. The band recorded the old standard “Five-foot Two” and accompanied it with an original “My Baby Laisse moi.”
The band at that time needed a name change to avoid legal issues. They would later change their name to “Rubber Band”.
The band then became the home band of The Matter’s Ballroom, performing in front of thousands of people every weekend from 1967 to 1970.
In 1970, Doug and Crandall left the Rubber Band to form the group Memory Brothers and hit the road. In 1977, Crandall retired to be with his family, and Koempel continued to tour with a roster of musicians, including new musical partner Kevin Conner of West Union. Conner, a graduate of Luther College, had already established himself as a well-known musician on campus. The duo worked together for 13 years, touring and playing original material. Koempel meanwhile was signed to Chart Records in Nashville and released two singles.
Fast forward to a longtime Memory Brothers Tuesday night concert at the Nob Hill Ballroom. Former Rubber Band guitarist Tommy Stahr was in the audience and was invited to attend a subsequent performance, later considered a Rubber Band reunion show. The show garnered a lot of attention and media coverage, and the band was subsequently inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010. Two years later, a legacy of Iowa rock and roll, Stahr passed away. after a battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. .
Koempel praised Stahr for his contribution to music and their five-decade friendship. In honor of Stahr, Koempel led a campaign to erect a memorial statue of Tommy Stahr at the West Union Recreation Center. The monument was installed in December 2015.
Now in its 47th year of making music, Koempel has brought together a different version of the Memory Brothers, dubbed Memory Brothers “Large Band”. This release features nine members and an extremely passionate local audience. The Memory Brothers were inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. The group is still performing, although all performances for 2021-2022 have been postponed due to COVID-19.


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