This year has been awful in too many ways to count, from tiny inconveniences to total devastation. Like its cousin the hospitality industry, the live music business has been flattened by the pandemic. If 50 people is too many to inhabit a bar or restaurant, then clearly 300 in a club or 50,000 in a stadium isn’t going to work. And unlike professional football or baseball, rock and roll really doesn’t make sense without a live audience. Livestreams can be fun, but sweaty lovefests they ain’t. Which means that not only are bands left adrift, but so are the places where bands ply their trades: bars and venues.
Like a lot of us, Rocio Verta-Ray had big plans heading into 2020 — one of them being a series of vinyl singles featuring a variety of bands she admires, all recorded at the vintage-leaning studio she co-owns with her husband Matt. (You might recognize his name: Matt Verta-Ray has done time in ‘90s pop outfit Madder Rose as well as Heavy Trash with Jon Spencer.)
But not long after a recording session with the Spanish band Go Cactus at NYHed Studios, that Big 2020 Event That Shall Not Be Named happened. Instead of continuing on from New York City to Austin for South By Southwest, Go Cactus had to flee, not even sure they could easily get back into their home country. Singer-guitarist Pau Gual, after charmingly apologizing for his perfectly good English: “We weren’t sure if Spain had closed the border. We had to go so fast. We were so happy to have recorded some songs, though.”
With her vinyl series already in the works, Verta-Ray added an element of giving, dubbing the endeavor Vinyls For Good. It’s right there in the name: The records wouldn’t just benefit bands or the studio, but something larger. With bars and restaurants particularly battered by world events — government help is still minimal at best — she envisioned donating proceeds to the businesses that needed them badly, which also happened to be businesses that traditionally support live rock ‘n’ roll.
The format was never in question: Nothing digital would do. “We use a more naturalistic approach to miking at NYHed,” she says. “We like to record the sound of the room. It’s a more old-fashioned type of recording, which I guess is fashionable again. It’s the same thing with vinyl; everybody’s loving vinyl again. People thought for a while that it was dead, but obviously it’s not.”
With bars and music taken care of, the missing ingredient was beer — and the financial support that beer companies often bring to the music world. (Where would every music festival, big and small, be without them?) Verta-Ray happened to know somebody in the biz, or rather a whole bunch of somebodies.
“All the men in my family work at this beer factory in Spain called Mahou,” she laughs. “All the women work in film and music. My father worked in this factory, my two brothers, my nephews — we have a long history with this beer company.”
So it was easy enough to get Mahou, which has been brewing beer since 1890 but only recently started making inroads in the States, involved in the project. And Verta-Ray knew that the first band would be — like her and the beer — Spanish in origin. She immediately thought of Go Cactus, a young, garage-rocking trio that fit perfectly with NYHed’s ethos: recording live, in a room, on tape rather than computer. They’re messy and brimming with life, a ray of rock sunshine in a dark time.
And the only way to get a copy of this special Go Cactus single — ”Would You Hold My Hand” b/w “Hippie Jump” — is to make your way, safely of course, to a bar that sells Mahou. The record is cheekily priced the same as a can of the beer. “Our studio is mainly analog with vintage gear,” says Verta-Ray, “and Mahou wanted to be associated with that sort of artisanal way of making things. Anybody can buy the record for the cost of the beer, and the proceeds of the record go to the bar itself.”
She hopes that the Go Cactus single is just the first of many, and Vinyls For Good will continue to raise money for bars and venues as long as there’s a need. Verta-Ray hopes it will be safe enough soon to get bands back into NYHed’s Lower East Side studio for sessions and singles, and she thinks it’ll be an American band next.
The last live show that Gual and Verta-Ray attended, he was on stage and she was in the audience: Go Cactus played at Pianos just before things fell apart. They can’t wait to get together again. “I’m looking forward to personal interactions, and to having bands back in the studio. After the 70s, everything about recording was so separate and compartmentalized. When we record bands, they like to all be in the same room playing, and that’s something we’ve been deprived of by this horrible situation,” she says. “We’re ready to be together.”
For more information on Vinyls For Good, check out their website.