Rock and pop royalty could be in North Dorset this weekend. Few people are aware that there’s a recording studio that attracts household names, tucked away in Motcombe.
Owner of Cable Monkey Studio, Tom Jobling, was discreet and declined our request to name drop when ThisIsAlfred visited the cool, quirky, American caravan where his business is based.
Tom loves to be surrounded by products and goods that have history and heritage. He arrived for our interview in his 1966 Humber Sceptre. As Tom unbuckled his airline style seatbelt and got out of the car, he told me how he’d restored the vintage vehicle.
He walked across the gravel and turned the key in the door of his second renovation project – his sleek, shiny, silver Airstream caravan. This iconic piece of Americana is hidden behind a fence on the road that leads to the Coppleridge Inn.
Tom started the business in 2015, after fine-tuning his recording skills at Shaftesbury’s much-missed youth hub, Toby’s. “While I was there, I was always recording the young people and doing projects. By the time Toby’s had ‘fallen down’ I needed a studio space and that’s when Cable Monkey came into my brain,” said Tom. “While I was building it all, I worked in studios in Southampton. I just freelanced and I had experience from working with big producers. Just after Toby’s, a record that I had recorded was released on Mercury Records and EMI.”
That 2011 track, called Carnival and performed by The Family Rain, takes pride of place as a framed disc on Tom’s studio wall. It represented a turning point in his career. “People knew that I wasn’t amateur anymore. I was pro, and that was great for me,” said Tom.
Whether you are interested in recording technology or not, Tom’s curated collection of equipment was fascinating. As soon as you walk inside the caravan you notice an old-fashioned phone switchboard, complete with the holes where a telephonist would shove plugs in order to connect callers. “It is a Second World War telephone exchange that I use as a patch bay to link all my equipment to the computer.”
Tom explained that a patch bay connects his recording studio sound sources together. “It is accessible so that I don’t have to lean around the back of everything. I can plug cables into the front.” He discovered this item, and most of his collection, online. “It was in an army barracks somewhere near Salisbury and I bought it off an army enthusiast. I found it on eBay, went out and talked to him about it,” said Tom.
I can understand how Tom procured that vintage kit but collecting an American caravan cannot have been easy. “My first idea was to get an old bus and convert it, or some other kind of vehicle. Back in the 1970s, there was a band called The Small Faces. The guitarist ran a recording studio space. It was in an Airstream and I was obsessed with the idea,” said Tom. “He recorded Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. He would run massive looms of wire out of the Airstream into mansion houses. I loved the idea that it had some history behind it already, because, as you can see, this whole place is about a nostalgic experience. So a couple of eBay searches and phone calls later it happened and now it just feels really natural.”
Tom explained that his 1972 Airstream offered practical benefits. “It is based on the chassis of older Second World War aeroplanes, as you can see by the shape of the rooms. They are almost circular. I don’t want to get too technical but that creates amazing acoustics in the room,” he said.
He sourced the Airstream from a seller in Reading. “I think that he, with a group of his friends, had to transport it all the way from Canada somehow. He said he drove it a long way, so I imagine they bought it on the closest side of Canada to us and then got it shipped over,” said Tom.
Transforming the Airstream into a working studio took time and effort. “I bought it in 2014 and I spent about six months doing it up. That was a lot of work. The entire interior has been taken out and put back in with soundproofing. It was in a state when I bought it. The inside had a horrible brown and orange pattern everywhere,” Tom laughed.
Surprisingly, there are relatively few limitations when operating a recording studio from inside an Airstream. “We’ve got some quite low doorways and low ceilings. If you’re over seven feet, and believe it or not we’ve had people around the seven feet mark, then they really struggle to sing in here because you’ve got stand to sing. We have had a few issues with that. A lot of people think that it’s the worst place to play drums because it’s such an enclosed space but actually they are wrong,” said Tom.
I don’t want to use the usual cliché about this unexpected space being Tardis-like, so let’s say it was deceptively spacious. “You wouldn’t be able to fit a six piece band in,” Tom confided. “80% of the time, you’ve got two or three people in here, writing a song and creating a good track. And it’s a good space for two or three people because it’s not too sparse, but it’s not too close. There’s very little you can’t do in this space.”
So if I formed a band with my mates, and we wanted to release a record, how would Tom help us? “Usually I would say if you are two or three people, we would be doing a song a day. We would start at ten o’clock and end about seven o’clock. I would dig into my brain, listen to the songs and I’d ask ‘how do I want to approach this? Where is the chemistry? Where’s the real thing everyone’s gripping onto in this song? Is it the vocals? Is it the guitar? Is it rhythm-based? Is it drums and bass?’ I like to focus on the first thing that really grips me and put all the effort into that,’ said Tom.
He offered a Shaftesbury area band as a good of example of how he works. “I recorded a band called Sorry About Shaun. They played the Larmer Tree last year and sold out at The Coppleridge Inn a few times. They have been doing really good stuff around here. The two lead singers have this fantastic harmony and Shaun backs them up. It is beautiful. My concentration was not on recording instruments. It was the harmony,” said Tom.
Tom says he slowly ‘builds the tracks up’. “Three days were needed. We spent a day and a half just on vocals and because of that, when you listen to that EP, you think ‘wow, it’s all about the vocals’. I spend loads of time focusing on what makes the record special. I think every song that the band released got about 20,000 hits. It really skyrocketed because I focused the record on what made it really bite.”
Tom says he tries to contribute as if he was a band member. “I’ve done this for so long now that I know how to make sure I’m not just there, clicking buttons on the computer all day,” he said. “I’m helping people create something that they’ve got in their head. 90% of that happens before you even get to the computer. I think a lot of recording studios don’t really understand that. I suggest a few things. If they like them, we roll with it.”
Tom reckons having an unusual studio based in rural Dorset adds a cachet to what he offers. There is a romantic notion of heading off to a country retreat and creating a massive-selling album. Tom has worked at Monmouthshire’s Rockfield Studios, where Queen recorded ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, as the recent movie confirmed. There are many more countryside retreat studios that have been favoured by bands and artists.
“That’s been a big part of what we’ve been trying to achieve this year, to create accommodation for the studio. The four-bedroom house alongside is on Airbnb. And we’ve got a 1950s caravan for the summertime, whenever someone wants to do the whole caravan thing and come out here and cook,” said Tom.
“You can come down here for two or three days because we’re in the countryside, away from the city. A lot of my clients come from Southampton, Bristol or London. I’ve got a minimum amount of clients that come from here in Motcombe or the Shaftesbury area. It is mainly people coming to escape.”
Tom takes his clients to the Coppleridge Inn if they fancy a break. He told me that some household names have used his studio and I loved the idea that, in the future, Motcombe regulars may well be able to boast about sharing a pint with a Brit or Grammy winner.
“They’re really accommodating up there. We have had names in here, and I’m not going to say, but if you knew who they were, you would probably get excited about it. The fact that they can walk up to the Coppleridge and have a drink and people are not on top of them is nice.”
Before I left Tom I had to ask why the studio is called Cable Monkey. “My best friend, Tom Crockford, used to come down to the record studio at Toby’s and help me. We had this ongoing joke, where I called Tom my ‘cable monkey’ because he used to go around picking up my cables, wrapping them up and chucking them in the box while I was sorting out things. It’s a tribute to Tom and all those years he helped me out for no money at all. I wouldn’t be doing this now if he had not helped me back in the day.”
You can find out more at CableMonkeyStudios.com.