How Mike Denneen of Q Division connected people — and a music scene

Tributes poured in last week, from Facebook posts to the marquee at The Paradise Rock Club, to note the sudden passing of Mike Denneen at the age of 54.

Co-owner and co-founder of Q Division Studios in Somerville, laid-back producer of some of your favorite Boston-area (and beyond) records, purveyor of a peerless wit, and known to many round these parts as “The Sheriff,” Denneen changed the landscape of Boston rock from the inside out over the course of three decades. He did it subtly, with casual precision, and with a hefty dose of humanity rare in the world of professional music.

Denneen’s story begins in the place where a lot of these stories begin (high school friends bond over music) but winds up in the place where most of these stories don’t (high school friends open and operate a major metropolitan studio for more than 30 years). Denneen first met Jon Lupfer at Milton Academy in Milton, where their shared love of music resulted in the “kinda sorta” formation of the band Busload of Nuns in the early ’80s. (Of the band’s name, Lupfer remarks: “That should tell you how serious we were.”) Denneen recorded the band’s first record in his basement, and during his college years at Yale he would record his friends on 4-track machines.

“In his mind, that’s where the action was,” says Lupfer. “I don’t remember anyone designating him as the producer, but then you’d stop and ask, ‘Wait, why are you the producer?!?’ I didn’t realize it then, but in retrospect, he was doing all the work! You didn’t realize how much work he was doing in that role.”

The band was short-lived, but their partnership was just getting started when the pair opened Q Division Studios in 1986. Named for James Bond’s gadget man, Q Division began humbly on the fourth floor of a building on Albany Street in the South End, which Denneen and Lupfer built from scratch with a motley crew. “There were 16-foot ceilings, and nobody was paying attention to the building,” Denneen told Tape Op magazine in 2010. “Young people could get in there to build a studio and no one really noticed.”

“We were almost a throwback when we started,” Lupfer says. “For example, we wouldn’t sample the drums; we would make the drums sound how we wanted them to sound. Everyone was sampling drums then. In the ’80s, studios wanted to impress you with their high tech-ness. Our aesthetic and vibe was more of a big warehouse with lots of equipment inside. We didn’t want to come off like we were someone’s garage, but it wasn’t a sterile environment like you’d find at other places. It was very intentional.”

Along with Roxbury’s Fort Apache, Q Division was quietly on the frontlines of its own casual movement, offering local musicians a comfortable, recognizable, and sympathetic space in which they could professionally record. Q Division was built by musicians for musicians; while that may seem obvious today, it was far from the norm in the ‘80s era of slick and sterile studios run by equally sterile and slick non-musicians.

In Sound: Five classic Mike Denneen tracks from those who knew him well

“One of the things that made Mike unique was his background as a musician,” says Matt Beaudoin, Q Division’s longtime studio engineer who worked with Denneen for almost two decades. “He had a dual role on both sides of the glass, performing and producing/engineering. Mike’s musical abilities and experiences made him deeply sensitive to the needs of the performer on the other side of the glass. Besides having great musical ideas, he really understood how to put a performer at ease and when and how to push them to get their best performance.”

Former staffer Frank Ciampi — one-time head of Q Division’s Music Services department who recorded his debut album, Big Top Woman, at the studio and now works as a commercial music composer in California — agrees. “At the end of the day, you knew he would get the best out of you,” says Ciampi. “He never gave up and knew just how far to push you in order to get the take. If you ever got the ‘rock and roll beatdown’ (as we called it when you were in the midst of many takes) you knew when you listened back the next day you’d have something special laid down on tape.”

Q Division’s beginnings as an untested newcomer saw some auspicious visits in the early days. First, local band ‘Til Tuesday, a few years removed from their big hit “Voices Carry,” showed up in 1987 to begin work on their swan song, Everything’s Different Now. Denneen would continue to be a sought-after producer and collaborator for the band’s lead singer, Aimee Mann, well into the next century. Later in 1987, the Pixies camped out at Q Division and recorded their soon-to-be seminal album Surfer Rosa. In a 2003 interview with the Boston Metro, Denneen recalled a “panicked call from [the Pixies’] manager” looking for a studio at the last minute. “Because we were a new studio, we had plenty of time,” Denneen said, laughing as he told the manager, “’Yeah, I think we can squeeze you in somewhere.’”

Other landmark records made at Q’s original location under Denneen’s production and/or engineering guidance included Letters to Cleo’s Aurora Gory Alice, Guster’s Parachute, Morphine’s Yes, Jen Trynin’s Cockamamie, the Gigolo Aunts’ Flippin’ Out, and The Gravel Pit’s The Gravel Pit Manifesto.

In 2000, Denneen and Lupfer picked up stakes and moved Q Division to Somerville, a short walk down Highland Avenue from Davis Square. There it has remained ever since, claiming its place as the longest running studio in the Boston area with characteristically minimal fanfare. True to the vision of Denneen and Lupfer, it boasts a cozy, welcoming environment with deep colors, vibrant textures, big open spaces, and oodles of nerdy gear. Though the duo’s vision of the ideal studio may now be more commonplace than ever before, few studios nail that vibe of funky, homey professionalism quite like Q does.

At both locations, Denneen’s resume of production and engineering work quickly became a who’s who of late-20th century power pop in Boston. (Those included the aforementioned Trynin, who would eventually marry Denneen and write about him extensively in her terrific autobiography, Everything I’m Cracked up to Be.) Denneen didn’t obtrusively “stamp” his production style all over a track, but every band that worked with him walked away bathed in a lustrous crunch.

Harkening back to the old-school aesthetic of ‘70s bands like The Cars or Cheap Trick (or, in the case of The Gravel Pit, like the Attractions in a back alley brawl at dusk), music recorded with Denneen at Q represented a paradigm shift away from the rough-edged era of Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., and Throwing Muses. Verses were taut and restrained, giving way to expansive choruses, replete with big, beefy guitars, soaring synth lines, and intricate harmonies. Case(s) in point: Loveless’ “A Gift to the World”; The Gravel Pit’s “Millions of Miles”; Letters to Cleo’s “Here and Now”; The Sheila Divine’s “Hum”; and Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom”.

“Mike often worked with musicians who were self-taught, from the indie rock world, who would say, ‘Don’t overproduce us, man,'” Luper says. “But Mike had a knack to thoroughly produce them without it sounding like too much to the artist. He didn’t want to put stuff on a record that didn’t have a reason to be there. To him, something was either unimportant and therefore clutter, or it was super-important and had to be right.”

Denneen also had a deft ear for clear and innovative sonics and arrangements, which really shone through on the music made with singer-songwriters. He worked with Aimee Mann on records like I’m with Stupid and Bachelor No. 2 Or, the Last Remains of the Dodo, and was a longtime collaborator with Patty Larkin and Howie Day.

Arguably his greatest moment with a singer-songwriter was Merrie Amsterburg’s Little Steps (2000), an under-the-radar gem of a record with characteristic subtlety and taste from Denneen and his team. “People tend to focus on his production, but forget that he was an exceptional engineer, both for tracking and especially mixing,” Beaudoin notes. “He really knew how to get great sounds. Production wise, he knew how to help an artist structure a song and how to utilize production to maximize the song’s potential.”

Ed Valauskas — Q Division’s ubiquitous producer and studio manager, and overall Boston scene Zelig — first got to know Denneen when he produced Valauskas’ band, The Gravel Pit, only to see their relationship amplified through the day-to-day operations of the studio and label. “Mike was an amazing combination of mad scientist, musical genius, and psychologist,” Valauskas says. “He had the ability to recreate the sound that was in his head, come up with the right part for the song, and get the best performance out of you almost simultaneously.”

“He clearly understood musicians and the art of recording music from an elevated perspective, and he enabled talented people to make extraordinary art,” says Scott Janovitz, a jack-of-all-trades musician, songwriter, bandleader, and sideman who currently runs Appletone Studio in Arlington. For several years, Janovitz and his recording partners ran Moontower Recording Studio from one of Q’s recording rooms. “When I would pop my head in on a session he was producing, Mike just seemed to know when to hang back, Zen-like in an easy chair, and let the work evolve until a new idea or course correction was in order. This presence, this chilled-out creative ethos, permeated the building. Mike, Jon, and the whole Q Division family welcomed us in when we needed a place to land, and we developed a wonderful relationship with them.”

For all of its local support, Q Division has seen its fair share of national names walk through its doors over the years, from Destiny’s Child and Ozzy Osbourne to James Taylor and Elliott Smith. In 2005, Denneen was part of the dream team assembled to produce and hype The Click Five, a Berklee-bred rock group signed to Atlantic Records for their swinging-for-the-fences debut LP. The record sold 350,000 copies in the U.S., was an international success, and spawned lunchboxes, trading cards, and more. True to form, The Click Five sessions became a family affair, and involved input and collaboration from a host of the local scene’s usual suspects. Leave it to Denneen and crew to take a potentially game-changing career opportunity and turn it into just another laidback day at the studio with friends. Only a few years earlier, Fountains of Wayne hired Denneen to produce their 2003 album, Welcome Interstate Managers. The album’s lead single, “Stacy’s Mom,” took the Cars-esque concept to the sublime extreme and found its way to #21 on the Billboard charts.

The Denneen-helmed Q sound was now coming from a radio near you.

Perhaps even greater than Denneen’s knowledge of the studio was simply his personality. “I think the main reason people liked working with Mike was just the person he was,” says Beaudoin. “I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who was as generous. He was incredibly intelligent and wickedly funny, with a famously dry wit. His sessions were fun and lighthearted. He could have a discussion on almost any subject, and so he was just really fun to be around.

“Mike always prided himself on how many clients returned to work with him on multiple projects,” Beaudoin adds, “and you can see that people loved working with him based on the long associations he had with many artists.”

No psychological games, no ego, no intimidation — Denneen was the kind of dude you wanted to hang out with, and he could also produce the shit out of your record. He was special — and rare — like that. “I’m starting to realize what a good connector of people he was, both musically and socially,” Lupfer says. “If he didn’t see the scene he wanted, he would work subtly to create it. Anyone around us could come up with an idea, but Mike could actually accomplish it.”

Denneen and Lupfer fostered this sense of community at Q, mostly by being themselves and welcoming bands and musicians of all stripes. At Q, unsuspectingly nestled behind a laundromat a short jaunt up from the heart of Davis Square, bands could mingle with other bands and artists (many of whom would wind up on each others’ records simply by the sheer luck of being in the next room at the right time), grab a can of beer from the vending machine, watch VCR copies of Mr. Show episodes in the break room, discuss the finer points of Elvis Costello’s Brutal Youth in the office area, and generally be music geeks amongst other music geeks. Most of the time a producer or engineer had to actually sit behind the console to identify themselves as an employee.

“Mike was the glue that held us together,” says Ciampi. “Whether it was the younger generation of musicians or the older, he was the common denominator. Since I left Boston eight years ago for the West coast, I have yet to see another scene where so many generations of musicians are connected through one common guru.”

Adds Valauskas: “Working with him was life-changing for me and my peers. Without him, I am quite sure a whole lot of us would not have pursued the musical paths that we did. He and Jon brought a bunch of us like-minded folks together and gave us a special place to be creative at Q Division. I feel like he was the center of all things Boston Rock in the ’90s, and did it all behind the scenes and very humbly.”

In more recent years, Denneen was found doing less production work at Q Division, spending more time teaching recording classes at the Berklee College of Music, and focusing on his family with Trynin and the couple’s daughter, Grace. But the musical community that Denneen helped nurture from the ground up continues to permeate the landscape of a special slice of Boston rock, one full of collaboration, possibility, patience, and care for what the guy next to you was doing.

“Kindness seemed paramont at Q Division, and if you’ve not spent much time in the studio world, you might not know how rare that can be,” Janovitz remarks. “Mike helped to foster an environment that respected people and valued their talent. He was an inspiring and supportive friend. He showed us all how to do it right.”

Two funds have been set up in Denneen’s name and are now accepting contributions. They are: Michael J Denneen ’81 Endowed Scholarship Fund, Milton Academy, 170 Centre St., Milton MA 02186; and The Michael J. Denneen Legacy Fund, Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown MA 02472

Follow Zeth Lundy on Twitter @zethlundy. Featured photo of Q Division’s Studio A Control Room via qdivision.com.