When we catch Garret Koehler by phone, he's wired — having just wrapped up giving 100 Detroit summer camp kids a tour of Assemble Sound, the church-turned-recording studio and co-working space in Corktown where he serves as general manager.
"I thought they were going to be college kids," he says. "When a bunch of 8-year-olds walked in I was like, 'This is going to be a very different thing than I thought it would be.'" Koehler says he devised a game in which he would play them tracks from Detroit artists to quiz them. "I kept trying to trick them. They knew everything from Motown through Tee Grizzley," Koehler says. "It's literally the best — you have like, 100 kids who all know every word of 'First Day Out.'"
Assemble Sound is all about collaborations. The space hosts monthly Assemble U educational series on various industry topics. It hosts a functional recording studio, to which artists-in-residence have 24/7 access. Studio time is booked on a shared calendar, and residents are encouraged to sit in on each other's sessions. Another aspect of Assemble Sound is placing its roster of artists in TV and film. (It provided nearly all of the original music for Comedy Central's Detroiters.)
Originally from Chicago, Koehler first came on our radar through his work in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to convince ESPN to bring the X Games to Detroit. When we spoke with him in 2014, he was organizing a show featuring a collaboration between rappers Passalacqua and rockers Flint Eastwood.
The show wound up being the catalyst for what would become Koehler's next big project. Following the show, he spoke with Jax and Seth Anderson of Flint Eastwood about what worked and what didn't. "Everything evolved from that show," he says. "It was this feeling like, 'Man, we're really good at coming together like this to put on big shows. Why don't we have the same approach and philosophy when it comes to creating music and navigating the music industry?'"
Koehler, Seth Anderson, and Nicole Churchill began looking for a church to host their vision of a gathering space for musicians. For a variety of reasons — functional, financial — the group looked to churches as options. "We wanted a space that was big enough where we could do things like artist talks and industry panels and stuff, but small enough and acoustically interesting enough to be a studio," Koehler says. On top of that, churches have rectories, so they could have a living space to host touring musicians.
They finally found a church in March 2015. It had been empty for more than six years, and needed a new roof and plumbing. The build-out has been slow but steady. Koehler and his partner bought it with their "life savings," he says, and a few grants.
But Koehler says there were other reasons they chose a church. "Spiritually, it was like the whole idea was predicated on something like a belief that we don't really know if it's true, but we believe in it, and we want to convene other musicians who believe in it," he says. "And that belief is in a more connected music scene in Detroit is a foundation for success, both for the individual musicians and the scenes that those musicians represent."
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