There is an enduring fantasy shared by all of us here in the North that we might be one deep-woods cabin retreat away from tapping into our truest creative selves. Perhaps if we logged out of our social-media feeds, got up from our desks and drove until the buzz of the city was but a faint hum, we’d awaken the true genius nestled within.
As the modern world roars ever louder, musicians from across the region and beyond are gravitating toward their own version of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Pachyderm Recording Studio, a countryside retreat nestled into the valley of the small southeastern Minnesota town of Cannon Falls (population 4,083).
When you’re standing next to the creek that bubbles through Pachyderm’s wooded backyard, the air hangs so still that a deer might emerge to drink from the waters. But inside the studio, the echoes of screeching guitars and throbbing basslines practically tremble through the plaster on the walls. This is the place where Nirvana recorded its final album, In Utero, and where bands from the Jayhawks and Soul Asylum to modern Minnesota success stories like Haley Bonar and Hippo Campus have holed up to lay down some of the finest tracks of their careers.
But the peace at Pachyderm has been hard-fought. For all the creative accomplishments that have taken place here, the space has endured more than its share of darkness and tragedy.
Nirvana’s 1993 visit may have put Pachyderm on the map, but just a few years later, the building was sold and fell into major disrepair. By the 2000s, it was barely scraping by with occasional sessions from little-known local acts. In 2011, the property was in steep decline, and by the time it was purchased out of foreclosure by Andover native John Kuker (who had a successful studio, Seedy Underbelly, going in Los Angeles), all of the equipment had been sold off. Mice and other vermin had overrun the building. A hole had formed in the roof, allowing tree spores to sprinkle down and sprout seedlings on the floor. In a surreal and sad turn of events, Matt Mueller, who owned the studio from 2007 to 2012, died in a car crash just months after the property changed hands.
Kuker would spend two and a half years gutting the complex, which features a stunning chalet-style, midcentury mansion with floor-to-ceiling windows and an indoor pool, plus a separate studio building with a small loft. “He went right down to the bare bones and rebuilt it from scratch,” explains his brother, Matt. “He’s had other studios, but the magnitude wasn’t even close to this.”
In early 2015, Pachyderm was ready to rock: Plush carpet coated every inch of the floor, hand-picked, midcentury modern furniture filled the bedrooms and public spaces, and the studio was outfitted with John’s personal collection of analog and vintage recording gear. Nationally renowned, Duluth-based band Trampled by Turtles had chosen Pachyderm as the space to record its new album, Wild Animals, effectively legitimizing the studio in the eyes of the musical world once again.
But just as momentum started to build, tragedy struck once again. On February 2, 2015, John Kuker passed away suddenly after suffering a suspected heart attack. He was only 40 years old.
“Right away — literally the day after he passed away — John’s family was already wondering, ‘How do we keep this going?’” explains Nick Tveitbakk, who worked alongside John at both his studios for 15 years and today serves as Pachyderm’s house engineer. “They really wanted to keep his legacy alive and keep everything he’d worked so hard for going.”
“The amount of time and the pride he took in it — it was his last accomplishment before passing away,” says Matt Kuker. “It’d be a shame to have all his work and last few years’ legacy just go.”
The Kuker family sold off the Los Angeles studio and poured all its time and energy into Pachyderm. Not only had it obviously been a labor of love for John, but as anyone who has set foot on the property can attest, the energy coursing through that Cannon Falls countryside is off the charts. As far as creative spaces go, the possibilities here seem limitless.
“It’s not just the awesome Frank Lloyd Wright–style house and the studio building; the land has this really awesome positive energy now,” says Tveitbakk. “I’ve heard that from bands a lot lately. They feel really comfortable and kind of at home here. It leads them to open up and be creative, and it makes it easy to record. I don’t think I’ve had one bad session where we didn’t get done what we set out to do.”
“When you walk in for the first time, it’s almost like you walk into a time machine — it transports you to 40, 50 years ago,” adds Matt. “It’s so quiet. Your brain can think. You’re not so worried about the hustle and bustle of the city.”
Since the studio’s grand reopening last autumn, reservations have been pouring in from across the country. Both Matt and Tveitbakk understand the power of Pachyderm’s history. Each band that comes through likes to recreate the famous photo Nirvana took during its visit, seated in front of the dining-room fireplace. And those familiar with the Twin Cities rock scene are inspired that so many influential bands have chosen Pachyderm as their sacred creative space.
“Even though we don’t have a lot of records on the walls referencing all the past guests, you can just feel the presence here,” says Matt. “You can just feel that it’s a very artistic place.”