Chris Andrews profiles the men behind MusicBox – a Cardiff rehearsal studio that’s been a cornerstone of the region’s rock scene for 25 years – and hears from some of the bands to darken its doors too.
For the last 25 years, Welsh bands have consistently found themselves near the forefront of popular music. Back then it was the Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia and Super Furry Animals. A few years later, the likes of Funeral For A Friend, The Blackout and Bullet For My Valentine emerged; more recently Holding Absence and Those Damn Crows have found mainstream success. In amongst those behemoths, reside the hundreds of local bands that have proved to be the glue that holds the local music scene together.
Regardless of size and status, the one thing they have in common is that they’ve all, at one time or another, needed rehearsal space. Supplying that vital space, and celebrating their 25th year of doing so, is MusicBox Studios. Now based off Penarth Road in Cardiff, they’ve had various bases over the years from their original city centre home, via Canton, to their current location.
But what MusicBox have built is more than mere bricks and mortar, to go and make some noise: they’ve created a community. When visiting the studio, there’s a great sense of camaraderie as you immerse yourself in a plethora of music from bands at opposing stylistic spectrums. “I think MusicBox is the hub for the south Wales scene,” says Those Damn Crows vocalist Shane Greenhall. “With so many bands coming in and out, it plays a massive part.”
A sentiment that Holding Absence lead singer Lucas Woodland shares when asked about the studio. “It’s kind of the musical hub for Cardiff – the one thing that you and most other Cardiff bands have in common.”
Comments like that must be very satisfying to hear for MusicBox director Mark Foley and manager Andrew Plain. “It’s lovely and humbling to know that they feel like that,” comments Andrew – ‘Bernie’, as he’s more widely known. “It certainly wasn’t a conscious thing on our part. We have just always tried to be as accommodating and easy-going about things as possible. If nobody used us then we wouldn’t be a hub, I guess, so it’s really down to the clients and bands that make it feel like that.
“It’s always nice to see when people from different bands bump into each other at MusicBox and catch up, or even swap details to do gigs – or simply hearing two complete strangers ask each other about their music and show an interest.”
So what was the reason they started up a rehearsal space in the first place, back in 1996? “The old premises in Cardiff, by Jacob’s Market, was a rehearsal and recording studios called Sound Space,” Bernie recalls. “Mark was working there, and the guys were looking to give part of it up. He took over the rehearsal part and called it MusicBox; Greg Haver and Ceri Collier took over the recording studio and called it Big Noise Recorders. I was rehearsing there at the time and got involved in the business a few years later.
“We were forced to relocate in 1998 when the land was purchased as part of the Cardiff Bay redevelopment following devolution. We frantically relocated to a warehouse near Victoria Park, threw up some rooms and continued trading. After a while it became clear we needed more space, so expanded and moved to where we are now. Being in bands at that time, it just seemed like the logical thing to do and have a rehearsal studio.”
It was indeed a great time to start a business in the music industry, with the focus very much on Welsh music and the so-called Cool Cymru: what was it like to be in the thick of that action?
“It was really buzzing, although there always seems to be a good vibe about a band from the area pretty much all the time. It was the days of sizeable record deals still being what seemed to be a tangible thing; there were certainly a lot more visits by A&R people from labels, and a lot of showcases going on, some of which took place in MusicBox. Cool Cymru was really just a media phrase – it has always seemed cool from where we’ve been stood.”
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With so many bands passing through over the years, there must be a few funny stories to tell.
“Many years after we left the building by Jacob’s Market, we once had a phone call from a young punk band that were stood by the pile of rubble that was the old studios asking where we were. We also had a young lad turn up to collect a Fender Twin amp – he had walked two and a half miles down Penarth Road from Cardiff Central station and was going to walk back with the amp in his arms. They have to be the heaviest combo amps ever made. I practically begged him to let me give him a lift but he declined and claimed that he could do it because “my dad was a roadie”. He made it 100 yards to the end of our little street before he phoned the office to take me up on my offer of a lift to the station. There are too many silly stories to tell them all but that’s a couple that still make us chuckle.”
As a customer myself, I’ve been privy to the odd minor celebrity around the place and there are a number of bands you would automatically associate with MusicBox, but has there ever been any bands in whose presence might surprise people more?
“We once had McFly come in here when the drummer was doing something in Cardiff because he won Strictly Come Dancing. They were pretty grumpy!” Bernie remembers.
“We are very good friends with The Webb Brothers – who are one of the greatest bands ever – and have been lucky enough to play and record with them since we met them. They are the sons of Jimmy Webb, and back in 2009 he came over with the boys and rehearsed with us. I remember walking into the room with some equipment and heard a familiar opening chord – Jimmy started warming up with Wichita Lineman while the rest of the guys were setting up. It stopped me in my tracks. Our good friend Cal Campbell was on drums – son of the late, great Glen Campbell. Pretty surreal. Jimmy gave us a cool gift after the tour we did with him: the lyrics to Wichita Lineman, beautifully handwritten by him and framed. He also took us out for curry in Canton.
Living Colour once parked a tour bus at our place and were chilling out in the carpark. There are plenty of others I could mention… a member of the Screaming Trees, various TV and film people. Famous customers still come in from time to time and we tend to be discreet about it as that’s what they enjoy about coming here – so they will remain unnamed.”
MusicBox is also home to several bands from the cover circuit; are there any particular songs that drive Mark and Bernie barmy when they hear it played? “The Commitments has a lot to answer for – Mustang Sally still gets played regularly,” laughs Bernie with a somewhat pained expression. Sex On Fire is a regular: the day after it went to number one, we had three bands playing it in the building at the same time. Not in time with each other, sadly, so it was a bit messy. Dakota, Rockin’ In The Free World, Mr. Brightside and Times Like These are probably the most played of the last several years.
We actually had a MusicBox first recently: a band that played the full version of an amazing and very difficult song to play, Music by John Miles. It was impeccable – a song I never thought I’d hear anyone have a go at. I was rocking out in the corridor listening to it. I love surprises like that! But we love all the bands that come down.”
Most recently, the pandemic era has seen businesses the world over suffer as a result, with the music biz hit especially hard. Has this been the most challenging episode of MusicBox’s quarter-century?
Bernie: “Moving at such short notice before the wrecking ball came in 1998 was a challenge. We were relocating to where we are now in late 2007 – a big expansion that was out of our comfort zone and therefore challenging in itself – and then in early 2008 the global crash happened. It seemed a worry, but what was amazing was that regardless of any of the impact it may have had on people’s lives, they still wanted to play music with their friends and never seemed to set that aside.
“Obviously, the pandemic is probably the biggest worry, especially in the first couple of months of uncertainty. So far, it seems like we’re back on the up, and everyone as keen as ever to get back to it. We’d survived two major moves, a global financial crash, there was no way we were going to let a pandemic beat us.”
And what are the plans for the next 25 years?
“The backline hire side of the business has been the fastest growing bit over the last few years, so we will probably continue to push that as live events start returning from the pandemic,” says Bernie. “We have talked about expanding again into the building next door, but it’s early days – if we did, it would likely be more in an education capacity, as well as maybe having a full production room with a stage and full PA set up.
“Saying that, neither of us are up for the idea of repeatedly accidentally hitting fingers with hammers after the effort of the previous move back in 2007. We’re still physically recovering from it…” he laughs. “It might just stay as it is – pandemic recovery is the priority. We’re both still fairly active making music in our respective bands and it’s important to make time for that. We’re not past it just yet.”
As Lucas Woodland puts it, “It’s easy to go to a practice space with just a PA and mess about in a room, but the professionalism shown by MusicBox makes you want to step up and perform professionally. Rehearsing there also gives you a sense of pride, so for that I’d like to say a big thanks to the guys.”
Those Damn Crows pair Lloyd Wood and Shane Greenhall also sum it perfectly. “Thanks for being a massive part of the Welsh music scene, guys, and long may it continue.” So from punk bands who’ve been plugging away all this time, to future rock titans, I think we can all unanimously thank MusicBox for the last 25 years – here’s to the next 25.
words and photos CHRIS ANDREWS
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