In a dark alleyway just off the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, Dallas Kruse—owner and operator of Zion Studios in Costa Mesa—and I huddle against a brick wall for our first official meet and greet. He had loaded up his truck and trailer, with his renowned Hammond organ inside, in order to play the perfect padding for Jameson at the famous Hotel Café just down the way later in the evening. His amiable smile, clever persona, and ability to jump into a situation with no trepidation made me realize why so many Orange County and Los Angeles artists choose to work with the multifaceted musician.
Are you from Orange County originally?
Dallas Kruse: My mom’s side of the family is from Texas, and I was born and raised in Orange County, but most of my family is back in Anberlin, Texas.
How did your parents end up out here?
My mom came out here to marry my dad. Just a classic love story. My dad was a minister for 30-40 years and I grew up in church, and that’s where the music thing started. My grandmother was a choir director, and as a kid, I would listen to all this Black gospel—real soulful music, you know? She had a large choir of 50 to 60 voices and a big band with a Hammond B3. That’s where the music thing was instilled.
Did your grandmother teach you how to conduct?
No, I would just watch. She wasn’t necessarily formally schooled in it, but all of my aunts—my dad’s sisters—sang and they would always be at the house rehearsing and I’d always hear harmony. It was one of those things, it was always engrained, and I loved it. I kind of grew up listening to Motown and Soul and my mom’s really attached to that style of music, so that’s where that style that I love so much came from.
When did you officially get into music?
I was playing sports, and I was going to run track. I ran track for USA Track & Field, and then I had a bad injury. When I was 18 or 19 was when I got heavily into music. I went to junior college at Santa Ana College and studied all my theory, and then started getting into more arranging for orchestras and things like that, and that piece fell in. From there, I just got into full-time music. It started with a bedroom studio, and then it went to the garage, and then it went to my parent’s garage, and then now I have the full studio in Orange County near the Ikea over on Harbor, Zion Studios.
How did you know it was the right time to open the studio?
I kind of had to, because I was doing albums in this detached garage that my parents had. We would do drums early on Saturday morning—the only time that we could do drums.
I’m sure the neighbors loved you.
Yeah, I know… My parents were tearing down that building, and I lived in Ladera Ranch in an apartment, and my lease was coming up. It just so happened that my dad was out looking at some property, and there was an empty warehouse that was available. It was one of those things that the timing was right, and I thought, ‘I’m just gonna go for it.’ It was sort of a big jump, but it’s been good.
Tell me more about the artists that you have worked with pre-studio.
I was the ‘Music Minister’ leader and choir director for my dad for seven years, and then when I left that is when I went more into the production aspect, but I had been doing a lot of arranging. I started getting into strings and started writing for string sections, and then getting more into the production end of it. I’ve been doing that since 2000, and then working with bands literally in my apartment or garage.
Were you recording with tape or digital?
Mainly digital. A: because of the money for upkeep on analog gear is ridiculous, and bands can’t really afford that type of stuff, and the flexibility of being able to do that in a small apartment is tough. There were times where we would be recording guitars and the neighbors would come over and say, ‘Yeah, can you turn it down?’ So I was doing that, and then just working with bands and bands. More singer/songwriters would come to me to add stuff to the record, and then it became people asking, ‘Can you take on the record? Can you do production?’ Which was great, but it’s just one of those things where you don’t realize how big of a chunk that is until you really get into it. But I absolutely love it, and I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else.
You certainly seem to be the jack-of-all-trades when it comes to using instruments. When did you discover your multi-talents?
Honestly, it was one of those things of necessity. And again, it goes back to the church thing, where my dad’s piano player and choir director—they were married—left the church and he didn’t have anybody. At the time, I didn’t know how to play, but it was one of those things where, for some reason, I wanted to learn how to play. I would sit down for hours on end, just to figure out the piano, and just do that. It was like a moth to a flame for me. I couldn’t get enough of it. And then it was a thing like, someone needed a sub on drums or whatever, and I would try. It just kind of happened. I don’t think it was necessarily anything that was planned out, it was just one of those things that kind of fell into place. Don’t get me wrong, everything is a blessing to be attached to really good artists, and to play for different people and arrange for them, or play drums or keys for whomever. I never went out like, ‘Here I am.’ It’s more of a thing where it just fell into place. It’s a weird thing.
The focus is on meeting, connecting, and making music magic.
Yeah it’s like…well it’s not always magic. Sometimes it’s more of a cluster. I think it’s one of those things like, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. If it’s the right thing, then it comes naturally.
I feel like a lot of music is that way. It comes effortlessly sometimes. It may be intricate, it may be simple, but it falls just right.
It’s not a struggle. It shouldn’t be work. Sometimes, obviously, when you’re writing for the orchestra or whatever, yeah that’s work.
But you should be enjoying it—and the emotions associated—honestly. How else could you truly enjoy it?
Exactly. When you play out and other people see you, you start networking and making connections. I enjoy playing out, and for a while it seemed like it was with a different band every night.
You have a big instrument to carry around, right?
Yep, I carry around a trailer for the Hammond. I enjoy the studio work, that is where I feel at home. I love it, we try to make it as homey as possible, so it doesn’t feel like a warehouse, or cold and sterile. People want to feel comfortable when they’re recording. And there are plenty of bottles of whiskey lying around.
What are you working on currently?
Right now, I’m working with an artist from Costa Rica and Portland. I’m doing her second record, and her name is Annie Bethancourt. She’s done some really great things. She’s a phenomenal singer/songwriter. Lyrically and vocally she’s awesome. In between when we started and when she’s coming back—she’s in Portland right now—I’m doing a new project with Barrett Johnson and Doll Knight called The Ultimate Bearhug. I love this project, and it makes you fall in love. I think Doll’s charisma and vocal talent, and Barrett’s writing—they have something special, something golden there. We’re at the back end of their record, we just need to go up to LA and do all the live strings, then I’ll start to mix it. Then when Annie comes back, we’ll start up again. I also just booked with a band called The Devious Means. I had actually never seen them play live, but they came into the studio and we kinda had a vibe meeting to see if we were on the same page. I’m doing a six-song EP with them starting in September. So, Bearhug, Devious Means, Annie, and then tomorrow I start working with a guy named David Ryan Harris, who is the guitarist for John Mayer.
Have you been working with Billy Kernkamp?
He recently put the bug in my ear, and I’m ready for his second record. It’s funny because the first record, he didn’t have a band established yet. I hired in studio musicians—Jameson played some, Mikey Hachey my bassist, and Jorgen Ingmar played on some. Now Billy is carving out his sound a bit better, and I think his second record, when he brings the material, it’s going to be more Billy, you know? Of course I work with Jameson in the studio a lot, so it’s good, there’s so much talent in Orange County—great songwriters.
They are many out there who fail to recognize that.
The scene might not be great, as far as where you can go from Orange County, but the people in Orange County are talented, you know what I’m saying? In order to get out to the world, you have to branch out, you have to come to LA, you have to go do Austin. But as far as the talent level, I feel like the only downside of artists in Orange County is keeping their eyes focused on staying in Orange County, which is great, but as far as the bigger picture goes, you have to get out. With Barrett and Doll and Jameson, there are some wickedly talented people.
I feel fortunate to get to observe that talent.
That’s what I meant when I said it’s such a blessing to be around such talent. I feel like, as a producer, that’s your role to pull the best out of them, and put your ideas in to help water the seed.
Do you see yourself producing full-time for good?
Hopefully. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else other than music. Hopefully everything will continue to progress, and grow and grow, and I’ll really establish the studio as kind of a hub for people of LA to get away, and people of Orange County to grow. There are a few little studios in Orange County, and a few bigger studios, but I feel like with the talent that we have around, and the network and community that we have, I hope I would be a resource, and the studio would be a resource for people to produce their projects.
I enjoyed the live video that was shot at Zion Studios. Is that something you always do?
I think that can be something good for the future. With the proliferation of YouTube and everyone’s websites, video is such a good medium.
The videos from The Ultimate Bearhug seemed very clean and official.
That’s something that we’ve actually talked about doing, is opening up for bands to produce live performances and video live performances.
With the digital advances, many ‘musicians’ can cheat with their recordings. To see live videos played perfectly like those is encouraging.
With real singers, real musicians, you can do that. I’m so glad you said that, and don’t get me wrong ‘cause there is some pop music out there that is guilty pleasure of mine, but like you said, with the technology change, people still want to see real talent. You want to see something that you can’t do. You want to see something that is inspiring. So that’s something that we’re maybe looking to do is purchase some great cameras and lighting to produce some good videos. I think people get hooked on it too, because if it’s just listening, it’s one thing, but if they see Doll singing, they see this really cute girl with a great voice that’s classic and jazzy.
How did you choose the name Zion Studios for your place?
Well the name Zion is a religious term and it represents the highest mountain that there is, and it’s supposed to represent the mountain that God lives on. It just always struck me as a strong word, and it always struck me as something that represented the epitome or echelon. I’ve always loved the animal of the lion, and I feel like, in the metaphorical sense, there is the pride of lions and that’s where the logo came from. It was more of a thing where it represents strength and a pride in family and togetherness. I think that is how music is formed. You have one person’s ideas, and another person’s ideas, and…
It’s a harmony.
Exactly, and that’s where the name came from. There’s scripture in the bible that talks about, ‘Remember me when you sing the songs of Zion.’ It’s sort of a reflection back to when they were back in Egypt, they used to sing the songs of Zion and it would take them out of their rut. They would get together and sing the songs of Zion. When I read that scripture, I was like, ‘Oh that’s it, that’s the name.’ It’s not like any big mystery. I think it means more to me than anyone else.
That’s what makes it your studio.
I don’t think I would have gone with any other name, but yeah, that’s what it is.
So is music the thing that gets you out of a rut?
Always. It’s an escape. And it’s not always playing it, but just listening to it. Like if things are going bad, there are some things that I’ll put on, either old records or old stuff. For me it’s hearing other people that have gone through hell and they’re singing in their pain throughout, and it lifts the spirits. I think music is so supernatural, it’s so otherworldly. It’s a mystery that I think will never be unraveled and will never be solved, but it does almost miraculous things to people’s psyche and their emotions. It even has a physical impression on people. I find it fascinating the psychosomatic, psychological, and physical affects that music has even on brainwaves. The affect that it has on people overall, it’s a mystery that’s constantly evolving. I think we try not to take it too lightly. We take it seriously as far as how much this means to somebody else who might hear it.
The physical state of music is interesting as well.
It’s funny, they have actually done studies that, with the proliferation of the iTunes and MP3s and all the online music sources, there has actually been a degradation in the quality of music—not necessary the songs, per say, but the sound of music going from vinyl and analog recordings, and then moving to tape, and then moving to CD. They always say it’s getting better and better and better, but technically, it’s getting worse and worse and worse. They actually found in the studies the affect psychologically and physically that it has on people. The less quality that they listen to, the less affect it actually has on them. So the most emotional response that people have listening to music is listening to live music. And then when you go down that list, it actually has a lesser affect on their emotions. From listening to a piece of music live, with an immense, tangible affect on somebody—their blood pressure, their heart rate, their emotions. Play that same piece of music through an MP3, and it’s far less. It’s something that you can’t really explain because it could sound like the same thing to them, but it’s not translating the same. That’s why, at least for us, it’s important to keep that live aspect and keep the best sound possible. It’s important, and not everybody has the budget to do vinyl, and has a budget to do analog, but at least we still try and keep that live aspect. I think there’s a big backlash in music right now because everyone got so tired in the mid-2000s of all the heavy-produced thing, and I think the auto-tune is going to have such a backlash. It already has, you know? ‘Cause it’s not real, it’s so mechanical and people aren’t going to be listening to that stuff in five, ten, fifteen years. They want to get back to real singers and real musicians. I’m all for the advancement of technology, but when it makes people rich, and there’s others that are incredibly talented and have a great song to sing and they’re making no money, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Technology has provided shortcuts, which isn’t always for the best.
It’s true. It’s a short cut and it’s easy and someone can press one button and have a song in a box. It’s frustrating, but you’re never going to win that battle.
It’s easy to spot a fake, over enough time, the truth comes out.
I think there’s always going to be the purists out there. There are some producers that I try to follow and love almost everything that they put their hands on.
Any producers in particular?
I love T-Bone Burnett. The sounds that he gets are amazing. I like Jon Brion, he is wickedly talented. Of course guys I follow composers like John Williams. To me, he is absolutely a genius. There’s a guy named Tony Burge produces an artist name Jesca Hoop. She plays at Hotel Café every once in a while. She’s British and her stuff is so good. You know Tom Waits? She was actually his nanny for many years. Her songs are so crazy, but they’re not as out-there as someone like Bjork, because it actually has a familiar rhythms and melodies. It’s singer-songwriter, but some of her stuff is really dark. It’s just so interesting. She’s probably one of my top favorite artists right now. All those guys are kind of part of the purist form of production and music, and I’m sure there’s many more, but all the stuff that they’ve done I just loved. Van Dyke Parks has been a big inspiration for me for arranging strings. Randy Newman—his stuff is just timeless.
Jesca Hoop: The Kingdom Music Video from Filmatics on Vimeo.