An eight-alarm fire destroyed a commercial building in Brighton last week. What started the fire is still unknown, but it devastated the businesses that made up the space: a dance studio, a music school, and the popular Zippah Recording studio. Owner, producer and musician Brian Charles had collected much of his unique and vintage gear during his 30 years in the space.
Charles joined host Henry Santoro on Morning edition to discuss the history of his workshop and the impact of the fire. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Henri Santoro: Any place where music is made tends to keep its story – you can feel the energy, you can feel it in the equipment, you can feel it in the walls. What was created there and executed there breathed life into space. Did you feel this about Zippah?
Brian Charles: Absoutely. The place seemed alive when you walked in. You know, it was one of those places – I’ve seen it happen so many times – where artists would come in and just be in the best creative place. There was something about the studio’s footprint being sort of narrow, a bit close together. If I had a band in there and it wasn’t your turn to play a song or something, you always knew what was going on. It was this busy environment where everyone was either actively involved or passively involved all the time. You know, you couldn’t walk down the hall and go hang out in another room or another living room or something like that. We didn’t have that. It was truly a powerful space where everyone was involved in this creative energy.
Santoro: Brian, what was it like getting that call last Friday morning?
Charles: The call came to me around 5:30 am from another tenant in the building, in fact the wife of another tenant in the building. And then I learned a few seconds later that the building was on fire. I was half asleep and didn’t know if I was really awake or if it was real. My wife woke up and said, “What ?!” You know, she could hear it on the phone. We loaded out of the house. … I was wearing a denim jacket, she was in a waistcoat, and it was like, we didn’t think about it. We just got there.
It was dark. It was filled with smoke. The street was filled with water. And it was a nightmare. It was a complete nightmare. I was just looking for the owner, John Gately. We have become quite close over the years. He’s 83 and he has an apartment in the building, so I wanted to make sure he got out, and there was a caretaker who also lived there and another tenant. I quickly found out that they were doing fine.
And then I just went into shock. I didn’t really understand what was going on. And it was probably only the next day that it fell into place that it disappeared. I started to see the posts, and I started to see the community reaching out. I realized that I had never lost so much and won so much at the same time. It’s a strange feeling.
Santoro: Have you been in the building since the morning of the fire?
Charles: The city has been there. I’m trying to get into the building because I would like to get everything I can. You know, it was deemed dangerous to enter, so there’s a chance no one could get into that building.
Santoro: You had irreplaceable items in this studio. Can you give us some of these elements?
Charles: In the early 2000s, when everyone could check in on their computers, I knew that if I wanted to continue I had to find a way to gift something that you couldn’t have at home. And so part of it was to collect rare and unusual gear. And the other part was the human element: really helping someone achieve their vision, applying a specific aesthetic to what someone is trying to do, and just trying to steer them towards their dream.
Part of that was obviously this crazy collection that I amassed. We had a vintage Mellotron, which is the tape sampler the Beatles used for “Strawberry Fields”, and we had a custom tape in it – which I don’t think any other Mellotron had – with bass, clarinets and cellos. Keeping that stuff going was a full time job. And you know, the list goes on and on. I could never recreate this collection of equipment. It would be impossible.
Santoro: Boston’s music and radio communities are very tight-knit. As you know, many are not about to let you go through this alone. A GoFundMe has been created on behalf of Zippah. What makes Boston a great place to own a studio?
Charles: This is one of the last places I can think of where you can record musicians playing instruments that are not in a country music scene. And so, you know, a lot of the music that’s made today, the singer might be the only human being on the track, and everything else is, you know, programmed or, you know, done in the computer. It’s just a testament to this city. This city is unlike any other. I mean, it’s like no other place I’ve been to.