RANCHO de la LUNA
By Lisa Lynn Morgan
Photo Credit: Andrew Stewart
If it’s a deep magic you seek, a place to glean from the collective creative energy that has drenched the walls over the decades, where some of rock and roll’s favorite sons and daughters have divined riffs on the very instruments from which you can now craft your own, Rancho De La Luna is your Holy Grail, and Dave Catching is your Merlin.
True to the founding vision from its earliest origins, Catching cultivates a relaxed recording environment, complete with inspirational sunsets, moonrises, and shooting stars. The scent of food on the grill, mingling in the night air with the aroma of fresh dark roasted coffee, becomes more of a home than a workplace, perfect for writing, recording solo or with full band, in tracking rooms overlooking the desert. Those tracking rooms are filled with wall-to-wall vintage instruments, amplifiers, and the legendary Rancho drum sound. The Rancho offers a warm analog sound that is just right for the recording artist with a discerning ear. It is Joshua Tree’s crowning jewel, at least where music is concerned.
Rancho De La Luna is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, so I caught up with Catching (a feat in itself, as he is in high demand these days). The result was a heartwarming stroll down memory lane that not only deepened my awe and respect toward the storied studio and its world-renowned accomplishments, but of its gracious, innately gifted, and dutiful custodian.
“I do feel that Rancho is a magical, extraordinary place,” Catching replied when asked what he thought made the place so special. “The owners have had the property since the early 70s and used to host parties with music and food, sharing joy with their friends in a beautiful alien environment. When Fred Drake moved here in 1992, it was to escape the city and start a new life where he could relax and enjoy a more peaceful existence. His dream of having a studio in Joshua Tree was realized when our friend, Dean Chamberlain, decided to sell his studio gear from the recording studio in Hollywood where Fred engineered, produced, and recorded his own music. It was called Dominion Sound, and it’s where Fred and I met when my band, Ringling Sisters, went there to record demos for a second album.”
“I moved to New Orleans to open a restaurant after making that record. It wasn’t long before I received a call from Fred telling me the news that Dean was selling his gear. Fred asked if I would partner with him in a studio in Joshua Tree. It was a small sum to invest in such a great idea, and I loved Fred so much. I said yes without hesitation. The next thing I knew, I was a partner in Rancho De La Luna with not only one of the greatest songwriters, producers, and engineers I’d worked with, but one of my favorite humans. He was the coolest. Fred taught me so much about being a great host, making people feel comfortable and excited about what they were going to record, and having fun with the approach of recording.”
“Joshua Tree was a very small community then. You could fill your home with thrift store and swap meet treasures for pennies and make an eccentric place to magnify creativity and fun. I try to maintain that vibe and Fred’s distinct gracious attitude.”
Rancho De La Luna experienced quite a few serendipitous events that gave them some early luck and notoriety. “Having Daniel Lanois as a very early client was a landmark,” Catching shared. “At the time, he was one of our favorite producers. Our friend and neighbor, Victoria Williams recorded an album here with Fred’s dear friend, Trina Shoemaker, which afforded us buying better equipment. It also led to Trina recording Queen of the Stone Age’s Rated R album with us.”
“I toured with Kyuss as a guitar tech after a restaurant fire destroyed my business. When Kyuss came up to record some songs, that inspired many other bands influenced by them to come here, and to me becoming a member of QOTSA later.”
Bands and artists have stayed at the house for weeks at a time while they record. If the walls of the Rancho could sing, you’d hear the music of many: Daniel Lanois, Dave Grohl, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss, Eagles of Death Metal, Mark Lanegan, Arctic Monkeys, Iggy Pop, Kurt Vile, Victoria Williams, earthlings?, UNKLE, Twilight Singers, Masters of Reality, Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster, The Duke Spirit, Desert Sessions, including sessions with PJ Harvey, Hulk, Sparta, Nine50nine featuring Dave Krusen and Ty Willman, The Giraffes and Midget Handjob featuring Keith Morris. And this is the short list. “I invite all bands to record here no matter how developed they are,” Catching explains. “Because you never know what will appeal to many. I enjoy helping others achieve what they are trying to accomplish.”
“Jon Russo is now the main engineer. He is a brilliant and talented friend, engineer, and technical genius. I second engineer, as I’m not very quick with Protools, Logic and the like, but I have a good understanding of microphone placement, and what specific guitars and equipment to use on the other side of the computer. Jon and I work together in the way Fred taught me.”
“The main thing is to make clients at ease and enhance their ability to create and to capture the best we can, with sonic precision, what they are trying to achieve, while having fun and enjoying their time here.”
This methodology attracts even the more veteran recording artists. During the pandemic, one of Catching’s musical heroes, Joe Walsh, came to the Rancho, along with Producer Bill Szymczyk, to record Barnstorm. All precautions were taken to keep everyone safe and healthy, and the session was a welcome respite from the quiet schedule Covid created.
An empty calendar is no longer an issue. “Now, I am booked through June with a lot of great bands and I’m really excited and looking forward to creating more fantastic music that people can hear.”
There are a considerable number of recording studios in the Morongo Basin, and much has changed in the industry. Virtually everything Billy Eilish has released was recorded in her brother Finneas’ bedroom studio. When asked if he felt that the future of recording studios was threatened by this kind of accessible technology, he responded, “I’ve never felt threatened by other studios or how people record their own music. The studio was first and foremost for Fred and me, in the early days, to record the music that we wanted to record. Then our friends decided they wanted to record here because they liked what we were doing. It was different from the studios where they had been recording in the bigger cities. I wish everyone all the best in their recording endeavors, no matter where the studio is – their bedroom or out in the field. The main thing is for humans to have fun and to connect with others in any way possible, in a positive loving manner. That’s what music is for – connectivity and making life more enjoyable.”
When asked if he had a favorite project or visiting artist, he replied, “Every session here at Rancho is just as important as the others. Everyone is trying their best to make the music that they’re hearing inside themselves, that they hope will appeal to others. There are so many enjoyable moments that I have had here, they would fill volumes of books. I am approaching the 30th anniversary of Rancho and have hosted some of my favorite musicians, as well as meeting new ones, many of which became great friends after recording them here. All sessions are magic, fun, exciting and worthwhile. If I were to pick the bands most people know, it would be shortchanging the others that have put as much effort and time into their own recorded output. Not everyone has success in the music business, but that doesn’t mean that what they have to say, and the music they create is any less, or more important, than others. Music is a fantastic gift that helps make life better.”
Follow all things Dave Catching and Rancho De La Luna: www.ranchodelaluna.com, Ascendant Aural Architects show on www.gimmeradio.com on Thursdays 10am-noon PST or email him at email@example.com. He will be happy to send you a full equipment list and rate sheets.