Attracted to GR's collaborative music history, Dogtown Studio builds up our artists' community

While a lot of folks have moved to Grand Rapids over the years to start a new job or launch something fresh and then later create a community, one area artist space devoted to music creation enters our collaborative music scene intentionally at the start.

Years later, when COVID-19 arrives on Grand Rapids’ doorstep shuttering our venues that so many musicians depend on for performing and making bank to cover their bills, Dogtown Studio steps up to help alleviate the suffering seen within our creative art community with a live music session that is safe but also provides a much-needed mental health lift for our musicians just looking to perform once again.

Tommy Allen (TA): Before we get too far into our conversation, I understand that Dogtown Studio has two “ships” connected to this work via a partnership built upon a friendship that spans a few decades. 

Robby Fischer (RF): My business partner, Tito Mendoza, is actually my best friend, too. We met in sixth grade in a town called Flushing outside of Flint.

TA: No way, I migrated here from Flint, too, but it was a long, long time ago. Tell me a bit more about you and Tito since I think it's quite rare that two people who went to elementary school together are still good friends and now in business together.

RF: We first met just doing what kids do like playing basketball but around junior high, we both started to get into music. Tito got into saxophone and I took to the bass and then later the guitar. So yeah, our friendship from a very early age became centered around playing music, making recordings of our own music and helping each other with our projects and individual albums.

TA: How did your collaborative years as a youth deepen your background before ending up in Grand Rapids?

RF: Our relationship throughout the years has been based on how we can support artists. Sometimes you spend so much time on your own work and then when it comes time to put it out you're like, “Oh, no one cares about this.” And so you have to have somebody [like Tito] be like, “No, this is really great stuff.” That person shares what you have created has value and to keep going. So Tito and I have been over the years in a supportive role for each other more times than I can count. This early artistic support is really the foundation of how we got to be really close.

TA: And somehow two chums from Flushing ended up in Grand Rapids. Was that intentional?

RF: I had a lot of intentionality around choosing Grand Rapids when I moved here in 2013. Before arriving here, I was kind of bouncing all around looking for a place with a music community that I could plug into as well as secure an affordable space. I had met an artist named Alynn Guerra who had an art space within the Tanglefoot building and because I had seen her Red Hydrant Studio space as well as the artists' spaces at 1111 Godfrey SW, I knew that Grand Rapids had a history of spaces I was seeking. 

And so after these discoveries, I was like “Grand Rapids is where I'm going” and moved here in July 2013 with the intention of finding a studio. And just a month later, I was able to secure a studio space within this building at 240 Front Avenue SW.

TA: So as an outsider, we at Rapid Growth have often heard that our area can be kind of cold or not as friendly as we think we are. What was your experience with our music scene after arriving,  armed with your background of building collaborative artists moments with activities you have shared from your time in the Flint area?  

RF: Since I had done some research in 2013 on Grand Rapids’ music scene, I knew of a lot of bands that I was interested in already. 

TA: ….Such as?

RF: I really liked musician Eric Kehoe and his band, Duffy. I'm not sure if you remember them. Eric also played with Dan Fisher a lot and so he introduced me to Dan, who plays in probably every Grand Rapids band…or at least 50% of Grand Rapids bands right now. In fact, it was through meeting Dan that we met the landlord of our building.

TA: And then you became Dogtown Studio of Grand Rapids. How do you describe what you do here?

RF: Dogtown Studio is meant to be a space where people can connect and make media. And while we put out media, in a broader sense, we want to be serving a function, a kind of hub for the music community, where people can see bands that they haven't seen before and enable the audience to interact with them. 

Fundamentally, it is all about the music, but because we have a background in music videos as well, it is something that Dogtown Studio could take on. But in the end, we just want to provide a space for musicians to have a community and for others to have access as they can see what our music scene looks like as we move more and more into a social media-based world.

TA: So while I know the name “Dogtown” is associated with that funky 1970’s period in Santa Monica and Venice where surfboard culture helped influence and birth the modern skateboard movement, what does “Dogtown” mean to you and how did you come to use the word with your business?

RF: The “Dogtown” name has very little to do with [skateboarding] culture. It was actually a pretty random name selection. It came from a song on one of my albums where I was just kind of like mumbling some lyrics. And one of the lyrics that came out that exercise in songwriting was “Dogtown,” like making my way back to Dogtown. And as soon as I heard it I was like, “Oh, that's a cool sounding lyric. I'll keep it in the song.” So while it didn't really have any purpose, I just liked it and it was one of my favorite lyrics. And over time, this word would come to be the name of my album ..and later the name of our studio.

Photo by Tommy Allen

TA: So were your roots to help others or did that come later as well?

RF: Dogtown has been evolving for the last four years. When I first arrived, I got the studio to make and record my own music and to have a practice space we could share with my friends. And around 2015, I started making more of an official entity out of the studio and started getting into video. So, after creating the name Dogtown Studio and at the very end of 2018, we hosted our very first Dogtown Studio Session. 

The debut of Dogtown Studio Sessions was a celebratory moment for Tito and me because we had been amassing in our twenties the equipment as well as the skills necessary to do something like this. Sure, it always seemed kind of far-fetched or thought of it as something that professionals do. After we finished our first session, we realized how much we really enjoyed making a good sounding as well as a good-looking video — that was a huge moment for our studio. We enjoyed doing it and, in turn, enjoyed building on that [moment and] seeing where it would take us.

TA: And looking over your archive of sessions, you have done a lot of locals seeking exposure. Let’s shift to COVID-19, where many musicians have really struggled since the darkening of our area performance stages and late-night pubs where live music was so common here before this delay coronavirus arrived on our shore. What have you seen shift since COVID arrived in town?

RF: One of the things that I've noticed is bands are so appreciative just to be able to perform in our space. The act of performing and the interactions one typically gets from an audience is something that’s missing but through our live stream, where such a small portion of what it is like for a musician to receive a live concert is still there, is very meaningful to bands. 

A recent example was having the band The Brandino Extravaganza appearing at Dogtown Studio. 
Dino came in to do a live stream for his latest album release and while I'm not sure if it was the first show he’s played in a long time, we do know that since COVID-19 arrived, a lot of artists have been at home.

TA: How did his session go since it obviously moved you in some fashion?

RF: Dino was like, “Wow! This is so interesting to feel these pre-show jitters again.” And yet as soon as I started the camera to broadcast, I could see a lift in his personality. You know, the feeling where you ease into an old pair of broken-in shoes or a favorite old jacket. 

And I’ve noticed that since with a lot of the performers who we have worked with on our live sessions. They become who they are all over again. To see that in somebody's face when they slip back into a role that they're comfortable in is really great and I love to see that.

TA: Looking to the future…any thoughts, insights?

RF: Under the current conditions of COVID, no one knows what the future of the music industry will become at this point. So, presently, we really just want to continue to provide a platform for music to keep happening here in Grand Rapids and to keep folks in our industry engaging with fans of live music. 

We're just so happy to have the resources to provide that for our music scene right now. In the future, we can imagine a lot of different plans for the many ways it could go. We hope that one of the things we can always provide is a dot-com studio which makes ourselves accessible for bands of any status to make a quality product whether it is a good recording or a good video to get their name out there. 

We will keep our eyes on the horizon while pushing the envelope for our area's music scene and keep making new types of videos that people haven't made with music as we look to expand the music production of Grand Rapids.

For more information on Dogtown Studio and their live music series, please visit their website or Facebook page where an archive of former broadcasts are hosted for your replay enjoyment. 
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