SEATTLE — Even the street signs seem to be part of the conspiracy.
If you're heading north on Highway 9, a sign says turn right for Maltby Road. But actually, the place on Maltby Road you're looking for — a beautiful old wooden barn snuggled next to a near-century-old house on 10 acres of pasture and woods — is to the left. Once you get there, you'd never guess that behind those barn doors, in this peaceful glen, James Brown and Eric Clapton once recorded. So did Soundgarden, the Foo Fighters and the Lumineers, whose catchy Top 10 single, "Ho Hey," snagged a Grammy nomination this year. Last June, Brandi Carlile even named her album after the place, so taken was she by its idyllic atmosphere.
Despite all that — and despite a 35-year history that rings an astonishing number of bells in Seattle's cultural landscape (those zany old Rainier beer commercials; Kenny G, back when he was Kenny Gorelick; free-form rock station KZAM; neo-folkie local heroes Fleet Foxes) — Bear Creek Studio is one of this region's best-kept secrets.
"We didn't really want a lot of people to know we were here," says mild-mannered Joe Hadlock, half of the husband-and-wife team who founded Bear Creek in 1977.
"We've been booked solid for 35 years," adds Manny, his wife of 42 years.
Through word-of-mouth, on a grapevine that extends across the U.S. and over to the U.K., Bear Creek is known as one of the most desirable recording studios in the world.
"It was such a pleasant place, we didn't want to leave," says Chris Cornell, singer with Soundgarden, which recorded the early grunge classic "Bad Motorfinger" here.
Aside from its rural setting, part of the Bear Creek mystique is that it's family-owned — a family that encompasses two generations, now that the Hadlocks' 39-year-old son, Ryan, has taken over the switches. But there's also something quintessentially Northwest about the way the Hadlocks have balanced their entrepreneurial spirit with a laid-back (call it "hippie," if you like) community ethic. They're tuned in to the Northwest's whimsical quirkiness, too. ("Want to do your background vocals outside in the snow? Fine. We'll run a line out there.")
And then there's the fact that they just do flat-out great work.
"I've never been in a more productive and functional recording environment," attests Carlile.
Most studios are sterile, artificially lit bomb shelters walled with acoustic tile. By contrast, the "big room" at Bear Creek feels like a cathedral, with its struts and open roof beams, wood-framed windows, Oriental rug and 30-foot-high gable window funneling soft streams of light. From the hot tub out back, you can hear the creek rushing below, 10 feet wide in winter. Musicians often stay on site, cooking their own meals.
With her long, hennaed hair, expressive voice and contagious energy, Manny is clearly the forward thrust of the Bear Creek engine. The daughter of the late Cole & Weber ad agency Chairman Hal Dixon, she is never at a loss for a colorful story. Joe, a natural musician (keyboards, guitar) with great ears, is the perfect foil. Soft-spoken and steady, with short, gray hair and a mustache, he occasionally jumps in to correct her exaggerations.
"They are really kind of a power couple," says former deejay Marion Seymour, who met the Hadlocks back when they hosted live broadcasts for KZAM in the 1970s. But whether it was New Orleans hero Dr. John or a struggling local band on stage, Joe and Manny always treated everyone as equals.
Says Manny, "We never do star blush here."
In 1975, the Hadlocks bought the land in Woodinville. Manny, who had practically grown up on horseback as a show jumper, pastured horses and developed a prosperous business raising Dutch Warmbloods.
Joe, as much a craftsman with wood as with sound, converted the barn into a studio. Early clients were a mix of local musicians (folk singer Linda Waterfall was the first) and ad agencies. But by 1985, name acts started to turn up. Ryan, whose parents had given him an electric guitar and Fender Champ amplifier in third grade, remembers lending his amp to "a guy who looked a lot like my dad — he had a beard and brown hair."
It was Eric Clapton, working on Lionel Richie's album "Dancing on the Ceiling."
When producer Terry Date approached Bear Creek about recording the proto-grunge band Soundgarden, Manny was wary. Tales of unruly rockers such as Nirvana trashing hotel rooms were legion.
"Turns out they had the reputation for being far crazier than they were," says Manny. "Chris rode his mountain bike in from West Seattle. We really learned that the rock bands could be super-hardworking people."