After fire, iconic Boston music studio owner says he’s ‘never lost and won so much’

An eight-alarm fire tore through 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 recording studio Zippah Recording. Owner, producer and musician Brian Charles had collected much of his unique, vintage gear over the 30 years he had been in this 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.

Henry Santoro: Any place where music is made tends to retain its history – you can feel the energy, you can feel it in the equipment, you can feel it in the walls. What was created there and performed there breathed life into the space. Did you feel that about Zippah?

Brian Charles: Absoutely. The place felt alive when you walked in. You know, it was one of those places – I’ve seen it happen so many times – where artists would go there and just be in the best creative place. There was something about the studio footprint that was kind of tight, kind of close together. If I had a band in there and it wasn’t your turn to play on a track or something, you always knew what was going on. It was this busy environment where everyone was actively involved or passively involved all the time. You know, you couldn’t walk down the hall and hang out in another room or another living room or something. We didn’t have that. It was really a powerful space where everyone was involved in this creative energy.

Santoro: Brian, how was it to get that call last Friday morning?

Charles: The call came to me around 5:30 am from another tenant in the building, actually 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 actually awake or if it was real. My wife woke up and said, “What?!” You know, she could hear it through the phone. We loaded out of the house. … I was wearing a denim jacket, she was wearing a vest, and it was like we hadn’t thought it through. We just went 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 away with it, and there was a caretaker who lived there as well and another tenant. I quickly discovered that they were OK.

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 turned out that it was gone. I started seeing the posts, and I started seeing the community reaching out. I realized that I had never lost so much and gained so much at the same time. It’s a weird feeling.

Santoro: Have you been to the building since the morning of the fire?

Charles: The city passed by. I’m trying to get into the building because I’d like to get everything I can back. You know, it’s been deemed unsafe to enter, so there’s a chance no one can get into this building.

Santoro: You had irreplaceable items in that studio. Can you tell us about some of these elements?

Charles: In the early 2000s, when everyone could register on their computer, I knew that if I wanted to continue, I had to find a way to offer something that you couldn’t have at home. And so part of that was collecting 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’s 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 set of custom tapes – which I don’t think any other Mellotron had – with bass, clarinets and cellos . Running this equipment 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 radio and music communities are tightly knit. As you know, many are not about to let you go through this alone. A GoFundMe has been created in Zippah’s name. What makes Boston a great place to own a studio?

Charles: It’s one of the last places I can think of where you can record musicians playing instruments that aren’t part of the country 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 testimony of this city. This city is unlike any other. I mean, it’s like no other place I’ve been.