After COVID-19 crippled his musical community, a Brooklyn-based drummer finds a safe haven at Connecticut’s Carriage House Studios.
The last show I played was in New York City on March 14, 2020. I remember a lot of shows getting canceled or being pushed back a couple of weeks. I had no idea what we were actually in for. After the second week of quarantining with my brother in our Bushwick apartment, it really hit home that this was just the beginning of something bigger. It was around that time that I listed a drum for sale on Facebook (to make room for more drums of course). Within an hour of posting, I got a phone call from my friend Johnny Montagnese, the owner of Carriage House Studios in Stamford, Conn. As it turned out, he was looking for that exact drum to complete his late father’s set.
If you’ve been lucky enough to get to know Johnny, then you would know that he has a heart of gold. He’s truly a man of the people, so much so that he even threatened to run for mayor, but that’s another story— and he has many. Carriage House Studios opened in 1984, in a building that was actually a carriage house in the early 1900s. The space had previously been occupied by a mechanic before Johnny bought the property and started building out what would later become one of the premier recording studios in Connecticut. With a little bit of thriftiness, a lot of hard work and the help of a few friends, Johnny built the studio from the ground up—literally. He has stories of sleeping in the mic closet and pouring cement with his bare hands and—if you come to Carriage House on a warm enough night and wind up at Johnny’s fire pit—then you might just hear all about it for yourself.
After assuring Johnny that I would hold the drum for him, we got to chatting and he informed me that all of the studio sessions that he had booked for the next few months had been canceled.
One of Carriage House’s many fantastic features is the four-bedroom apartment that sits above the studio. Over the years, it has provided countless bands with a place to crash while working in the studio. Johnny asked how things were going with me and Kyle, and I told him that we were having a hard time. We both have asthma and were really concerned to hear that COVID could be even more deadly for us. Plus, being working musicians, most days we need to practice our instruments. We were both used to making all the noise that we wanted to while our neighbors were out during the day. But, suddenly, all our neighbors were all locked in at home, working remotely and stuck with their kids who were attending “digital school.” Upon hearing this, Johnny didn’t hesitate to extend an invitation for us to leave the city and come stay at the studio. And so, in the natural order born from chaos, we packed up our stuff, grabbed a guitarist, Guy Fiumarelli—who I had just started jamming with—and hit the road.
The next few months were wild. We played music every day and tried to help Johnny out in any way that we could. We learned to expect the unexpected from Johnny. We smashed pianos that were slated for eviction and renovated the second studio on the property into a fully furnished home. In early May, Fiona Silver came to join us. Fiona and Guy had been bandmates for years and Fiona was looking for an artistic haven. We all began creating together, learning our way around the studio. We were fortunate to have Kyle, who works as a freelance engineer and producer, show us the ropes. It was a very creative and inspiring experience to experiment with various mics and to play the roles of engineers, musicians and producers.
Things started to pick up a little bit over the summer as some of the Carriage House “family” began to trickle back in with various projects. Brendan Muldowney was one of the first to return with his personal project, Greater Bridgeport Transit District. It was wild to watch Brendan engineer the session from his iPad while playing piano in the main room. (The band covered Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline in its entirely during that session.)
Warren Haynes also began popping in around this time to record some music as well as to film a number of livestreams and other video sessions. The studio was even used to record the score for the latest Ric Burns documentary, Driving While Black, which hit PBS in the fall.
The fall ushered in the start of some serious video productions. Johnny brought in a long-time Carriage House associate, original Alice Cooper group member Dennis Dunaway, to record a fun cover of “Love Potion No. 9” with Fiona Silver. Well, I guess you could say that they took the idea and ran with it. Suddenly we were in the film business, making an intricate Halloween music video.
We also filmed a music video for Fiona’s song “2020” and, after that, our house engineer McLee Mathias started putting together a photo studio. We converted a room that had been covered, floor to ceiling, in fine china plates and teacups—a collection belonging to Heather, Johnny’s wife—into a video editing suite. Now the Carriage House operates as a one-stop shop for recording, filming, editing and photoshoots.
It has been an amazing journey, and I am so grateful to have found such an incredible place, full of the most generous and caring people I’ve ever met. I wish that other musicians and artists out there could have had similar experiences during the past year. The world needs more people like Johnny and places like the Carriage House, where artists can grow and realize their dreams.
Brian Duke’s credits include Cale and the Gravity Well, Roger Filgate, Jessica Lynn, Kyle Duke and the Brown Bag Boys while Carriage House Studios has hosted sessions by moe., Gov’t Mule, John Scofield, Diana Ross, John Scofield, Pixes, Michael Franti, Pantera, Michael Brecker and countless others over the years.