Starlab Studios

by Amanda Beland

(Cover photo courtesy of Richard Thomas Hawke)

It’s the middle of winter and friends Matt Price and Marc Valois are building walls in hats, coats and mittens at 453 Somerville Ave. Aside from the tools and wood, the two men can also actively see their breath.

“There was no heat, it was insane,” said Price. “The toilet didn’t work for a long time too because the pipes froze, so that was pretty crazy.”

Price and Valois are two members of a five person executive board for Starlab Studios, a music, video, photo and entertainment-based recording studio in Somerville, Massachusetts. Price and Valois, along with James Lindsay, Lisa Vidal and Richard Hawke, not only manage the multi-faceted space, but have also built it from the ground up since the studio moved into its current location on Somerville Avenue in 2013.

With most of the construction finished on the space, the staff is prepping to officially open its doors for business at the end of this summer to truly show the city and the public its chops.

But don’t let the finish line fool you – it’s been a long race for the Lab.

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(Photo courtesy of the Starlab Instagram account.)

The original Starlab Studios was located at 32 Prospect St. – right outside of Union Square. It was originally rented and used for practice space with the original owner beginning construction on a recording studio in the basement of the single floor space. Valois and Price were in a band together called Movers and Shakers. They practiced at the original Lab. In the middle of construction in 2009, the original owner left the space so Valois, Price and the rest of the band took over and continued with renovations.

When the band began inspecting what had already been completed with the basement recording space, they realized they had a major problem on their hands.

“There were water issues,” said Price. “When we took it over, we started to look at okay how are we going to finish building this. That’s when we realized there was this huge mold problem. We decided we were gonna pull everything out and build it from scratch.”

To raise money for the renovations, the group held a music festival in the parking lot of the studio called Starlab Fest. The event charged an entrance fee and offered entrants access to food, booze and music in the sunshine.

(For more information on Starlab Fest, visit the Facebook page from last year’s event – which was the Fest’s fifth incarnation. More on continuing the tradition later.)

The first annual Fest raised enough capital to fund the reconstruction of the recording space, which Price, Valois and the rest of the band used to record the last Movers and Shakers record. However – the former Lab was more of chill and practice spot rather than a functioning business.

“It was mostly just like our friends that already practiced there or friends who just wanted to record a few songs or whatever, ” said Price. “We weren’t really open to bringing outside bands that were going to pay to record there.”

This was pretty much the status quo for the crew until the city of Somerville bought the property where the Lab was located to make room for a newly scheduled Green Line station in Union Square. With their backs against the wall, the guys started to look for a new place.

Shortly before the purchase, Price and Valois had been in contact with Richard Hawke and James Lindsay, who knew each other from college. Hawke and Lindsay had a studio space near Market Basket where they ran a photography and film business from. Price and Lindsay went to high school together and had been in communication about merging the two ventures together and possibly sharing a space.

Hawke and Lindsay temporarily moved in the old Lab and the newly combined crew began looking for a new, permanent space.

When a municipality forces a business, home owner etc off their property using eminent domain – as was the case with Starlab – they are required to help relocate the business, home etc. into a space that is equivalent to their previous space. If that exact space isn’t available, funds are provided to make the new space like the former space. Given this, the Lab was given funds by the city to help convert another space to be like the former recording space they had on Prospect Street.

Finding a space, however, became the real challenge.

“I can’t remember how long we were looking, but it was a long time – I wanna say six months,” said Price.

“It was getting to be quite a worry,” said Hawke.

The guys cast a wide search net, but focused a lot of their hunting in Somerville, Cambridge, Medford and Boston. They heard of the Somerville Avenue location in the fall of 2013 from a friend – who eventually hooked them up with the landlord – and just before Halloween of that year, they secured the new space.

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(Photo courtesy of Richard Thomas Hawke.)

“A lot of places we were looking at were way more than we could afford,” said Price. “It was tough because it’s such a specific thing that we were trying to do – we had to build the space out. So it had to be a really particular space.”

Price and Hawke said they find it extremely lucky that the new space was not only still in Somerville, but in the same neighborhood as the previous Lab.

“Union Square was such a big part of our identity at the old place – doing a fest here and kind of being right in the middle of it,” said Price. “It would have definitely been a shame if we couldn’t stay. I mean, that was a big selling point for this place for sure.”

When the boys got the building, it was just one big empty space with two empty offices at the front. With money from the city, the group began basic framing with help from an out-of-state carpenter friend. What quickly ensured was months and months of an entirely self-motivated, self-taught construction experience.

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(Photo courtesy of the Starlab Instagram account.)

“We did everything ourselves, but it’s all professionally done,” said Hawke. “It’s DIY, but it’s not like cardboard walls. I know for me, learning about the soundproofing and how to frame was a really informative experience.”

Construction lasted for about eight months from the tail end of 2013 and throughout 2014. This included framing, soundproofing, insulating and wiring the control and live rooms.

“We’re done for now,” said Price. “Aside from aesthetically, the only thing that’s really left to do is treating all of the walls in this room and the other room, the live room, with acoustic paneling, That’s actually one thing that we’re not going to be able to do now just because we’re not in the financial position to do it until either end of the summer or the beginning of the fall after we’ve Starlab Fest. The acoustic paneling will be a few weeks or a month of building and then that’s when we’ll really open our doors to other bands and be a fully functional recording studio.”

Last month, the Lab was awarded a $1000 Sam’s Cub gift card through the organization’s annual American Small Business Competition. The card can be used to buy Sam’s club furniture and office supplies. Along with the card, the Lab also won a free trip to a training event and free promotion and mentoring through Score, the non-profit responsible for the contest. The Lab was one of 102 small businesses in the country to win.

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The concept behind Starlab is fairly unique – it takes all the elements an artist or creative project could want or need and makes it all available together.

“I’m excited what we can sort of offer to people because I don’t see a lot of this out there,” said Hawke. “It’s audio and video production in a creative direction – all in one house together. And the fact that someone could come in and – say it’s like an album recording – they can also get head shots and video done, and have all of that under one roof.”

But while the overarching concept behind the Lab has always been clear those involved, thinking about specific details beyond the actual nuts and bolts of the building (literally) was periodically put to the side until the Lab’s now primary female presence came on the scene.

“What was great about Lisa coming and joining us boys is she kind of made us do this major push to really lock down our mission statement and really set up five and ten year business plans, which we’re working on right now,” said Hawke. “It’s exciting because it makes things more realistic, more of how do we make our goals happen and how to be successful at that and also be able to pay for bills and heat and all of that.”

Vidal met the guys through Lindsay at Improv Boston.

“Being in here for such a long stretch of time just building, with the only real goal in mind that – we just gotta get this done somehow and then we’ll figure it out after – you just get kind of lost in the tunnel vision thing,” said Price. “At first, Lisa was on the outside of that – she lives next door basically and was friends with all of us and would just be here, helping out or doing whatever. When we started talking about her being involved it was almost like she could just see like here are these guys, they’re in this one tunnel vision type of situation– she sort of brought us out of that and helped us start focusing on something that’s not that. It’s been awesome.”

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Currently, the Lab rents out the live room as practice space and does periodic audio recordings in the building. They also host non-music related events including monthly stand-up comedy nights and movie nights called Disasterpiece Theater, sponsored by High Energy Vintage. According to Hawke and Price, these events are great, but the hope is to make the majority of the happenings at Starlab more creative ventures related to the Lab’s mission, which includes continuing to host Starlab Fest despite not having the traditional space the Lab used for the past five years (new location TBD).

“I miss the old place for nostalgic reasons, we had a lot of good times there,” said Price. “But this place is just so much better. I’m really excited to get this finally going as a business and to see what’s next.”

Contact Starlab about rates and availability here.

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(Photo courtesy of Richard Thomas Hawke.)

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