Late last year Mattias Stålnacke, a Swedish music teacher and producer, launched Spare Dog Records, a 'fairtrade' record label created to share contemporary Malawian music with the world and create an additional income for musicians in the south-east African country once known as Nyasaland.
Bristol-based Spare Dog has released two albums – Nowhere Else to Go by Michael Mountain and The Young Shall Grow by Danny Kalima – and one single – Gasper Nali's A Bale Ndikuwuzeni – with a third long-player, Born in the Ghetto by Street Rat, out this month. All were recorded and mixed at the label's in-house studio, Moto Wambili ('More Fire') in Nkhata Bay, on the shore of Lake Malawi, with Stålnacke at the helm.
Why a studio in Malawi?
In a nutshell, there aren't any other studios like this in northern Malawi. There are guys with a laptop with Auto-Tune and a consumer mic who can whip up pretty convincing dance hits, but no one can really
record a band. Further down in the south of the country there are some studios, but they mostly cater to already popular artists, and most of the guys I deal with could never ever afford to go there.
My studio might not be all that [compared to studios] in Europe, but I'm pretty sure that in Malawian – Malawi being one of the poorest countries on Earth – it's one hell of a studio... probably the best.
Being at the forefront [of the music scene in Malawi] gives you an opportunity to work with really talented people, which is the main driving force for doing all this. Being part of creating great music: That's the real pay-off.
Are you based in Malawi full time?
I've been going back and forth between Malawi and Europe. When in Malawi I do run the studio, and in November I started a record label in the UK, Spare Dog Records, to promote the music. We're planning
to continue spending about half a year in Nkhata Bay, Malawi, and half a year in Bristol, UK [where Spare Dog Records is based].
How is the project funded?
Originally, the project was funded out of my own pocket. Now, with the introduction of the record label, my hope is that I can cover my cost of living and maintenance of the studio from record sales.
The artists – rich on talent, often poor in money – don't pay up front for the studio time, but if they choose to release the music through Spare Dog Records we divide the potential profits in a fair way. The cost of living in Malawi is on the whole quite a lot lower than in the UK.
What's your background?
I'm basically a musician/guitarist who has accumulated gear and built my little studio over the years. I've been playing professionally for 20 years and been contracted with companies such as Universal Music,
Universal Publishing, Live Nation and others.
The studio in Sweden was part of our band's HQ, in a house we rented at the time. It mainly catered to our own pre-production needs and to our friends': it was never run as a commercial studio. There were always people with more experience and cooler gear – and more time on their hands – in other studios.
I don't have any formal engineering education, although spending a lot of time over the years in pretty cool studios with different bands and as a session guitarist has probably taught me a trick or two. I'm also sure I've managed to irritate quite a few engineers at said studios by hanging over their shoulder as they work, asking a bunch of stupid questions.
What kit are you using?
As all my gear was shipped in the back of a smaller pick-up truck from Antwerp to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and then driven down to Malawi, so I couldn't take anything too clunky. As even mid-range equipment is very hard, if not impossible, to get hold of in Malawi or neighbouring countries, I had to bring a drum kit (Pearl Export); electric, acoustic and bass guitars (including my old Gibson 335 from '69); amps (including a '70s Orange Overdrive, a Peavey Classic 30 and a bunch of more or less vintage analogue stomp boxes); and all the cables and stands I needed – on top of my personal stuff for the house…
That means I'm not recording through a mixing desk, and it also means I'm mixing on near-field monitors only. (Pictured right is the Moto Wambili control room.)
My main chain (two channels) is through an AMEK 9098 stereo preamp, then an Apogee Rosetta A/D – also used as the main clock @48k – to the soundcard, a RME Fireface 800.
The other channels are using different preamps: a Summit Audio 2BA-221 valve pre, TL Audio valve pre and compressor, Joe Meek preamp and a few preamps on the Fireface. I can, if need be, also use the preamps of my old – and noisy – RAM live mixing desk.
My main vocal mic is a '70s Neumann U 87 [which Stålnacke's girlfriend and partner in Spare Dog Records, Kate Swatridge, believes to be the only U 87 in the country] and I've got a pair of AKG C451B small diaphragm condensers and an AKG D112 for the kick drum, a couple of SM57s and 58s, an old-school beyerdynamic and some more random mics.
My monitors are Yamaha NS50s – nothing fancy, but they have been with me for years and it feels like I 'know' them.
Did you document the journey from Sweden to Malawi?
Much of the early photos from Nkhata Bay and the journey there got lost when a hard drive crashed.
I have created few videos from the studio, including a two-minute short film [designed] as an introduction to what the record label is all about [embedded below].
Read Stålnacke's full story at www.sparedogrecords.com/the-story.