Chester’s musical mecca, Dirt Floor Recording Studio
Photos and profile by Caryn B. Davis
Eric Lichter is at it again. And his goal is to get people to put down their mobile devices, have a conversation, and create great music together at his state-of-the-art facility, Dirt Floor Recording Studio, based in Chester, Connecticut.
It’s been a long haul for this singer/songwriter/musician/record producer. Seven years and three recording studios to be exact, but with his new digs and two new partners, Eric is on an upward spiral.
“All my studios had their unique charms, but it was time to step it up,” says Eric.
Scott Lyons was a client before becoming a Dirt Floor investor and Studio Manager. He too is a singer / songwriter and had initially approached Eric about making a record.
“Music as we know it is a legacy, and it was important to Scott to leave something tangible behind,” Eric says. “In the process, as with anything we do creatively, you connect with the person you are working with if you are doing it right. He saw a value to my work that needed help in getting to the next level. Something moved him enough to do that, and we made a beautiful record together.”
Steve Wytas also joined Dirt Floor as Chief Engineer. He has spent the past 30 years working in “all things sound.” He owned his own studio for over a decade recording bands and musicians, but also doing sound for many corporate, commercial, and broadcast productions. In 2003 he closed his doors to concentrate on freelance work.
“Eric asked me if I could master some of his records. I knew he was moving to a new facility and offered him guidance in setting it up since I had experience building recording studios,” says Steve.
Prior to Steve, Eric did all the engineering and producing at Dirt Floor, but as business improved, it became increasingly difficult to juggle both. With Steve now in the control room, Eric can devote his full attention to producing.
“Eric gives every project 100 percent of his focus. He is always very positive about the outcome; and that positive energy when working with the artists is addictive,” Steve says. “You are only as good as your last record, and every record he makes gets better and better. He is continuously improving.”
Thus far, Eric has produced over 60 albums and has artists from all across the country seeking his skills.
“I had someone contact me from Italy and say it’s a dream of theirs to work with me,” he laughs.
Eric follows the old Tom Petty adage, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus,” when it comes to producing. He works with each artist by stripping their songs down and then building them back up. He’ll offer ideas, harmony vocals, and instrumentation as he has the ability to play guitar, banjo, piano, organ, drums, bass, mandolin, and peddle steel; basically, whatever is needed to make a great record. And, if there is an instrument he doesn’t play, he has a large pool of session musicians to draw from.
“Artists will come and start playing me some of their songs. I’ll make suggestions such as a chord change in the bridge, or say this intro doesn’t need to be four measures long,” he says. “It’s as with anything creative whether it’s music, painting, writing, or photography. How do I say the most, but say the least at the same time? Trim the fat but leave the goodness? If we listen to any of these songs we love like “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young… lyrically on a page, it’s not saying very much. But musically, it’s timeless and very simple.”
And that’s what Eric brings to the table…a raw and real talent for knowing what works well and what doesn’t. Nothing is gratuitous. He has an innate ability to take a mediocre song and transform it into something great.
“I have a sound which is kind of neat. But I did not reinvent the wheel. It’s the sound, I suppose, of the early 1970s Laurel Canyon, Southern California, The Band, Grateful Dead, Harvest. It’s a sound that is loose limbed. It’s also uniquely my own because it’s not over thought,” explains Eric. “There are people who say they can get that sound. But they are missing key elements because they are thinking too much about it. It’s so ingrained in who I am, it comes out naturally. It’s what I grew up with.”
Eric was introduced to music by his parents who had a large record collection. The album art first captured his attention, but after hearing Elton John, he began noticing the rhythms instead. He was given his first guitar at age 6, which he didn’t pick up until age 12 and hasn’t put it down since. In high school he formed a rock band with his younger brother, Jeremy. (The duo still performs together as the Lichter Brothers and recently opened for Poor Old Shine whose first album was recorded at Dirt Floor.)
But the all out jam band was not Eric’s true passion. “I was into four minute songs with a whole lot going on or nothing at all, but I wanted to control it,” recalls Eric. It was this same desire for control that would eventually led Eric to engineering and producing.
In 1996 he moved to New York to pursue a music career. He worked at Polygram Records and Island Def Jam Records, but his “day job” became all consuming. A fateful meeting with Elvis Costello changed all that. “I saw Elvis in the elevator and asked him his advice. He said I should quit. It’s a conflict of interest. Sooner or later one has to shake free from the other.”
Eric did leave, and while performing at a club in New York, was approached by ICM and Rocket Records who were in the audience courting another artist. “I went into the studio and recorded six songs. It was horrible. I knew what I wanted in my head, and this wasn’t it. I had no creative control in the studio to make it mine,” recalls Eric.
Fed up with the city, Eric went to Los Angles to meet up with Jeremy who had a band called Barn Storm. Although they were successful, Eric once again was pursuing a style he thought would sell rather than being true to his own vision. As tough as it was, those experiences were not in vain and became the material for his first album Corduroy which was released in 2004.
Eventually, he relocated back to the east coast and recorded Corduroy in his apartment when his neighbors were at work, so he would not be disruptive. This atypical environment forced him to be even more creative than he might have been in a traditional studio where resources are plentiful and volume is of no consequence. “If I was playing drums I couldn’t just bash away, but I had to make it sound like I was even though I was playing lightly. In that process, I developed a style that was my own. When you have to work within a parameter, it forces you to think it out like a math problem.”
When Corduroy was complete, Eric sent a copy to Joe Gastwirt who had worked with the Grateful Dead. When Gastwirt phoned to say he had not heard anything as honest in a long time, Eric realized he had finally created an album that reflected his true self.
Eric brings these experiences with him to Dirt Floor; and even though he has added digital recording devices and the latest technologies to his arsenal of reel-to-reel tape machines which he still incorporates, he firmly believes limitation breeds creativity by forcing you to think out of the box.
“If you don’t have limitations you can bogged down. You can never make a decision,” he says.
In addition to producing records, Dirt Floor hosts a concert series in conjunction with Hawk Hill Media. It includes artists’ interviews and performances and has featured Brown Bird, Jeff Pevear, Kate Taylor, The Williamsboy and Colleen Seymour, Jonah Tolchin, Joshua Black Wilkins, James Maple, Poor Old Shine, Joe Fletcher, and others. The show is broadcast on the internet at LiveFromDirtFloor.com and is scheduled to air on WTNH Channel 8 as soon as sponsorship is solidified.
Eric is the first to admit that he can be outspoken and opinionated when making records, but that is in part what makes him so good.
“It doesn’t matter where you record. It matters who you work with. Dirt Floor is more of a lifestyle than just a recording studio down the street. And I want to work with people who are not afraid to make real art and be who they really are, because that’s not easy. Our technology and ability to digitally manipulate has enabled us to be something we are not and something we can never recreate live if it’s been doctored too much. It’s like seeing an air brushed model and then a picture of how they really look. I am a fan of how they really look. There is more beauty there.”
For more information about Dirt Floor Recording Studio, to attend an event or performance, or for show dates featuring the Lichter Brothers, log onto Dirt Floor’s Facebook page, www.livefromdirtfloor.com or www.dirtfloor.com.