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Demystified: The Polkaholics’ “Wally” (2009)

October 5th, 2017

Above: Li’l Wally Jagiello with The Polkaholics. Photo credits: Dick Blau.

Demystified is a new series where Mystery Street Recording Company has an in-depth discussion with some of the artists who have recorded at our facility over the years. If you’ve spent any amount of time playing or seeing shows in the Chicago area, if you haven’t already seen The Polkaholics, chances are you’ve at least seen a Polkaholics sticker stuck to the wall. The group was founded in 1997 by Don Hedeker, formerly of seminal Chicago new wave band Algebra Suicide, and since then, they have been making audiences dance, smile and drink (not necessarily in that order) with a joyous blend of punk rock and polka. In 2009, the band embarked on its most ambitious project, Wally, a polka rock opera based on the life of Chicago polka pioneer Li’l Wally Jagiello, recorded right here at Mystery Street. Demystified talked with Don about Wally and the band’s history in its 20th year; below is an edited transcript.

Q: How did you start playing polka music?

A: I didn’t grow up into polka, like some of the traditional people in the city had, but I got into it about 20 years ago. I was playing in Algebra Suicide in the 80′s. We used to play at Phyllis’ Musical Inn all the time, and I knew nothing about the history of that street. Apparently, Division Street between Ashland and Western was called Polish Broadway in the 50′s, and it was lined with bars that had polka bands. And that’s where Little Wally made his mark, on that street. So when I was writing him these letters, I told him we were playing on Polish Broadway, and he wrote back saying “you should arrange a show, and I’ll make an appearance!”

At thrift stores, I just saw these records and I was kind of curious about it. It was like, “wow, these people look so happy!” And at that time, there was sort of like a shoegazing movement in rock. The kind of rock music I’ve always enjoyed is the stuff that’s really out there, like glam rock and punk rock. Just stuff where the people are trying to entertain the audience, basically. So I started buying these polka records, and it connected to me with the kind of rock music I liked, because it was DIY. None of these records were on major labels or anything, the artists put them out themselves. And I soon came to realize that Little Wally was like the Muddy Waters of polka music. He’s hugely influential in polka, and his records were just amazing. So I started writing him fan letters, and we played a few shows with him before he passed away.

Q: And he was semi-retired in Florida at this point?

A: Yeah, he retired to Florida pretty early, in the late 60′s. He would come to Chicago about once a year, play at some banquet hall like the White Eagle out in Niles. So in 1999, we set up this show at Zakoipane Lounge, which is on Division there, and the idea was the Polkaholics were going to be his backing band. I thought, “wow, his vocal with our way of playing polka would be super cool. It would give us so much legitimacy right there!” That’s what I thought anyway.

So I picked him up at the airport. We were going to have a practice that day, and then we were going to have the show the next night. At practice, as soon as we start the first song, he yells “no, no, no, no, no!” He was kind of a control freak; he basically neutered us. He said “what’s wrong with your guitar?” I said “it’s distortion.” “I don’t want that!”Li'l Wally and Don Hekeder

Q: He kind of sounds like Chuck Berry – an old school dude who’s got his own way of doing things. He just rolls into town for a show, and you have to follow his lead.

A: It was very much like that movie, “Hail Hail Rock & Roll” – except I’m not Keith Richards! We spent that whole summer trying to learn as many of his songs as we possibly could, and then at that practice he changed the key on everything. It was just a waste of time! So we do the show the next night, and I can’t even tell you how pumped up I was for that show – opening for little Wally was like a dream come true. As we were playing our set, he was at the bar and all these people were buying him shots. So by the time he comes on, he was just tanked! So it was quite an an event, but musically, it wasn’t all that great, really.

So after that happened, I had this crazy idea of “let’s do a polka rock opera about Wally!” It’s sort of chronological in the songs. “Son Of A Gun” is when he’s first born, then “Caldwell Woods” is sort of how he made his mark in the beginning. Caldwell Woods is at Devon and Milwaukee, and on Sundays they would have polka bands playing out there in the afternoon. He was just 10 years old, and there was a polka band out there, and he was singing on the side of the stage and they invited him up – like the Michael Jackson of polka or something – and that’s how it started for him. He would go to these Sunday picnics, and then he started playing in bars at the age of 14. He wasn’t legal, let’s put it that way!

So this guy’s story is unbelievable. He was this child star, and a super hustler. He was first signed to Columbia. He put out two 78′s, but he didn’t like the way they sounded because they brought in their own musicians and just had him singing. He didn’t like that at all, so he said “fuck you, I’m gonna start my own thing!” So he started his own label, Jay Jay Records, started recording with his own band and became a great success. That’s the part of him that really intrigued me. He’s just so punk rock!

Q: I like the fact that there’s so many local references on the songs – it gives Wally a very authentically Chicago flavor.

A: When I was growing up listening to the British Invasion bands, they would sing about England and it seemed so cool, so exotic. Chicago doesn’t seem that exotic, but you should sing about what you know, and so that’s what we did. I grew up around Caldwell Woods, so I went there many many times before knowing it was important in polka history. In fact, after we picked Wally up from the airport that time, we drove over to Caldwell Woods and took some photos there. It was him back at his old stomping grounds.

Q: Rock operas, as well as concept albums and even musicals like Hamilton, all seem to function on several levels simultaneously. They have to have compelling stories as well as being enjoyable to listen to. And you had to make both a great polka album and a great rock album. How did you go about crafting the songs so that they reflected this balance between genres, along with telling a story and flowing well as an album?

A: It sort of gave a direction for the songs. I was thinking about different aspects of his life and and how they might translate to a story, to a song. The music for “I Miss Chicago Again,” is basically Li’l Wally’s biggest hit, “I Wish I Was Single Again.” We sort of used his music and then created a different narrative over it. Same with “Zakopane Waltz.” That’s a song about when we played with him, but it’s also the music for another big song of his, “The Lucky Stomp Waltz.” And the very end is when he died, and “King of Happiness” was trying to summarize things. Having this idea of doing this polka rock opera kind of dictated, you know, “I need a song for this period of his life.”

It was a lot of fun, and working with Joe and Mickey at Mystery Street, they just facilitated it big time and made it a lot better than it would have been anywhere else. They knew what we were going for real quick. What was great about Mystery Street was if we had some crazy idea – and we had a lot of crazy ideas – they were facilitators of those crazy ideas, as opposed to saying “you can’t do that!” They went with us, big time, and I think that makes it that much more interesting.

Li'l Wally singing

Q: How did you first find out about Mystery Street?

A: We were practicing there when it was Blue Room, before Joe took it over. We just liked the space and the attitude and everything about it, and so we just recorded a few things there as well. In fact, we’ve recorded everything since the third CD over there – I think we recorded Polka Uber Alles there, but we had an external engineer, Scott Ramsayer, do that one.

Q: I assume that Wally was a Pro Tools recording?

A: Yeah. I don’t think The Polkaholics have ever recorded to tape actually. The first one was on ADAT. The great thing about recording with Pro Tools it gives you a lot of flexibility, no doubt about it. The bad thing is that you can wind up with 20 tracks that you now have to mix and edit. In the old days, when we would record to tape, you did a lot of editing before recording, whereas with recording onto the computer, a lot of times bands go in and put down everything and you spend so much time editing. We’re a little bit more on the side of doing things ahead of time and not having to spend a billion hours editing. Especially with what we’re doing, it’s not about perfection, it’s about the whole feeling of the thing, and that’s way more important than hitting the note perfectly.

Q: Were there any rock operas that were particularly influential when writing or recording Wally?

A: We tried to merge some aspects of Wally’s music with The Who. On some of those songs like “Division Street,” “Teacher” –

Q: “Sea And Sand” even shares the name with a track on Quadrophenia.

A: Precisely! We all had this notion of “What would it sound like if The Who played polka music?”

Q: What was your approach for recording guitar on Wally?

A: What I would do often is play my live sound, and then go back and do the same thing using a beefier kind of sound to bring those together. And again, I was trying to get a Pete Townshend kind of sound. There are some songs, like the solo on “Son Of A Gun,” where I worked it out ahead of time, but some of the stuff is on-the-spot. Over the years, I’ve had this experience where the first time you play something, you can’t recreate that. It’s got that kind of energy, the spark, all that. So I think some of the stuff we went in with that idea, to not have everything nailed down ahead of time to give us some flexibility there.

Q: How much say did you have during mixing and mastering?

A: I think the way we did it was we said, “you go ahead and do a first pass, and then we’ll add input as we go.” It’s good to give people flexibility, it brings out the best in them, I think. If you’re just dictating everything, that limits creativity. So we gave Joe and Mickey a bit of a free rein on things, because they know what they’re doing and they have cool ideas. They have ideas I would never come up with, so why would I want to limit that?

The Polkaholics will be celebrating their 20th anniversary with a show at Phyllis’ Musical Inn on November 25th at 9pm. For more information about the band, visit their website at http://polkaholics.wixsite.com/polkaholics.

Mystery Street on S.E.E. Chicago TV

August 30th, 2017

This past weekend, Mystery Street Recording Company was featured on an all-music episode of S.E.E. Chicago TV, a show where Dawn Jackson Blatner explores some of the coolest businesses the city has to offer. Special thanks to Beta Dogs for being a part of the filming and writing a theme song for the show that’s sure to be in your head for days. If you missed Sunday’s broadcast on WGN, check it out at S.E.E. Chicago’s official website or below:

A Bear Hug For Carlos

July 21st, 2017

One of the most fun and unique services that we provide here at Mystery Street are the karaoke parties for kids. For 3 hours, we open up the studio for an unforgettable birthday party where kids can sing their favorite songs into professional microphones and get a copy of their performances afterwards on a customized CD. It’s always rewarding to help kids celebrate their birthdays while also allowing them to glimpse a real recording studio, but last month we hosted a particularly special party for a very brave young man named Carlos.

We were first contacted by Bear Necessities, a Chicago-based non-profit pediatric cancer foundation. Founded in 1992, the twin programs of the organization are Bear Discoveries, a grant program that seeks to research tools to fight pediatric cancer, and Bear Hugs, a program that seeks to create unique experiences for kids ages 0-19 who are going through cancer treatments. According to Hannah Witte, Bear Necessities’ co-director of Programs and Services, “we’re really trying to make each Bear Hug a huge sunshine moment in the middle of a very hard thing that these kids are going through.” Bear Necessities was referred to Carlos Meija, who was recently diagnosed with leukemia. It was natural that Carlos’ love of music would be the focus of his Bear Hug. “His social workers already knew he loves to sing. When he’s in the hospital, he sings to the nurses,” said Witte. “So we did some research on who offered karaoke options for a kids’ age group in his neighborhood and found Mystery Street.”

Carlos with Dan and Austin

On the day of the party, our staff engineer Dan Norman and intern Austin Walsh set up Studio A with a table for pizza and refreshments, Studio B with microphones and headphones and got the control room ready to capture all the performances before the party arrived. According to Austin, “Carlos was so outgoing and had a lot of great friends that were there to support him. Some of them were wearing shirts that said Team Carlos. So just to see him at his age, a freshman in high school, with the amount of friends he has that care for him was really heartwarming.”

As each song played, Carlos was never far from the microphone, singing on nearly every song. “Toward the end of the party, his parents were sitting back here in the control room and it was really interesting to hear the story that went along with each specific song,” Austin continued. “His mom was explaining that “Brave” by Sara Bareilles was a huge song for him because he had been in the hospital for like a month, and he like got to that point in the chemo where he just couldn’t eat. Somewhere along the line, he ran into that song and started singing it, and his mom noticed that he started to eat again, from the introduction of that song. So that was a cool little story to hear.”

To book or learn more about our karaoke parties, go to http://www.mysterystreetrecording.com/rates/karaoke-parties/

To learn more about Bear Necessities or donate, visit their web page at http://www.bearnecessities.org/

15 IPS: Live From the Lab, Episode 2, ft. The Polkaholics

May 7th, 2017

Episode 2 of “15 IPS: Live From the Lab”, featuring Chicago favorite polka rockers, The Polkaholics, is now streaming!

This first ever acoustic performance by the band was recorded live at Mystery Street’s Audio Preservation Lab, in Chicago, IL, on April 23, 2017.

Audio was recorded in mono using a Neumann u87ai, Universal Audio 610 tube preamp, and a Studer A812 1/4″ tape machine at 15 IPS.

Listen to more of The Polkaholics’ music at www.thepolkaholics.com.

Job Opening: Audio Archivist

April 8th, 2017

Part Time Audio Archivist


All applicants must have experience with Pro Tools recording/editing, analog recording techniques, and have superior customer service skills. You must be focused, a critical thinker, self motivator, and maintain a clean and organized workspace. Must also be willing and capable to work on a vast variety of audio projects (not strictly music production).

If you have skills in any of the following, while not a requirement, we’d like to know:

Multiple Language Speaker
Library Sciences
Soldering/Equipment Repair
Marketing/ Social Media
Graphic Design
QuickBooks

Requirements: 4 year degree in Audio Production and a passionate understanding of analog and digital recording.

To apply, please email the following to record@mysterystreetrecording.com. We will not accept applications any other way.

  • Cover letter and Resume in PDF format
  • Links to at least 5 projects in which you have recording, mixing, and/or mastering credits or equivalent audio archiving/preservation experience
  • Minimum of 3 industry references

Applications will be accepted until April 30, 2017.

PLEASE DO NOT CALL, EMAIL, OR DROP BY TO FOLLOW UP. WE WILL CONTACT YOU WITH OUR DECISION EITHER WAY.

15 IPS: Live From the Lab, Episode 1, Ft. Glass Mountain

March 13th, 2017

We are excited and proud to present the debut episode of “15 IPS: Live From the Lab”, featuring Glass Mountain.

The performance was recorded live at Mystery Street’s Audio Preservation Lab, in Chicago, IL, on February 18, 2017.

Audio was recorded in mono using a Neumann u87ai, Universal Audio 610 tube preamp, and a Studer A812 1/4″ tape machine at 15 IPS.

Listen to more of Glass Mountain’s music at www.glassmountainmusic.com.

Staff Audio Engineer Position Available

December 11th, 2016

Be a part of our fast growing company!

Staff Audio Engineer

We are hiring full or part time Staff Audio Engineers. All applicants must have experience with Pro Tools recording/editing, analog recording techniques, live sound, and have superior customer service skills. Must be a critical thinker, self motivator, and maintain a clean and organized workspace. Must also be willing and capable to work on a vast variety of audio projects (not strictly music production). Bilingual speakers are a plus, as well as the ability to solder and repair audio equipment. Engineers who can prove a steady client base will be given high priority.

Requirements: 4 year degree in Audio Production, credited recording experience, and basic understanding of live sound reinforcement

Much potential for growth, especially for motivated individuals.

To apply, please email the following to record@mysterystreetrecording.com. We will not accept applications any other way.

  • Cover letter and Resume in PDF format
  • Links to at least 5 projects in which you have recording, mixing, and/or mastering credits
  • 3 industry references
  • Please specify if you are interested in part or full time employment

Applications will be accepted until December 31, 2016.

PLEASE DO NOT CALL, EMAIL, OR DROP BY TO FOLLOW UP. WE WILL CONTACT YOU WITH OUR DECISION EITHER WAY.

Recent Americana Recordings….

November 15th, 2016

This summer, our lead engineer, Joe Tessone recorded a few really great albums by americana/folk bands- Glass Mountain and Trick Shooter Social Club. Different styles of music and both super fun. Give them a listen below and purchase their albums to support the bands!

We’re Celebrating Our 9 Year Anniversary!

June 27th, 2016

9 Year Anniversary Specials

Book an 8 hour session any weekend now through August and get a 9th hour free! Or Use Coupon Code NINEYEARS to get 9% off any rehearsal you schedule online through July 4th!

Today marks our ninth year serving the Chicago Music Scene with top notch recordings, stellar masters, affordable and comfortable rehearsal spaces, and hundreds of thousands of feet of transferred analog tapes!

Through the years we have been through quite a few changes.

Mixing consoles are the heart and soul of the classic recording studio. When we first opened our doors we had a homely Mackie 24 8 Buss mixing console. This was the console du jour for many recording studios around the world in the 1990′s into the early 2000′s. In search of higher fidelity, we purchased a vintage Tascam M-Series mixer (see photo) from another studio on Chicago’s South Side a few months after opening our doors. It was a smooth sounding console, but it had some quirks. Namely, it was very used and sometimes needed a little extra love (from a some toothpicks) to keep many of the buttons engaged. It wasn’t long after we settled in with the board that we had the infamous Mystery Street Fire, and it was left charred and damaged by excessive smoke. However, out of the ashes, we were able to once again bring a sonic overhaul for our clients, new and old. When it came time to rebuild, the first thing we did was upgrade our entire signal path in the control room.

Inevitably we added the Rupert Neve and Graham Langley designed Amek Big 44 console with Super True Automation. We upgraded our analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters so that we could record well beyond CD quality to ensure that your digital recordings could stand the test of time. We also made a major upgrade to a new Pro Tools HD system so we could offer faster and more powerful processing, editing, and recording.

Since then we have added just about every lusted after high end mic preamp to our collection. Neve? Check. API? Check. Manley? Check. Empirical Labs? Check. Universal Audio? Che… Well… you get the point!

People often ask if the gear makes a record great. The answer is no. Your performance and our ears really make a recording a record.

So why the upgrades you ask? While it is entirely possible for our well trained engineers to create a fantastic record with a few cheap mics and an off-the-shelf recording device from the local big box store, it just makes things more difficult. When you have the right person using the right tools it expedites the process needed to get a great sounding track. Think of it this way: Sure you could use the serrated blade on a Swiss Army Knife to cut through a 2×4, but why not use a circular saw?

Furthermore, using high end recording equipment is simply inspiring for an audio engineer. It is like that moment you first played your dream guitar with your favorite amp and effects pedals. Having practically unlimited combinations of gear to choose from helps our engineers to develop a sound that is specific for you. Every musician is unique and we strive to capture the personality of your band through your recording.

Everything we do here at Mystery Street is done so we continue to support Chicago’s music scene by offering world class recording and rehearsal spaces for the professional musician and even the most novice. Recording at Mystery Street means you’ll have the opportunity to hear yourself through some of the greatest gear on the planet and have creative and efficient engineers to produce your sound.

It has been nine incredible years and we look forward to what the future as in store!

Do you have any memorable stories from Mystery Street that you’d like to share with us? If so, we’d love to hear them!

Mystery Street Co-Founder Rejoins Company as Staff Engineer and Systems Manager

April 1st, 2016

Brings new fuel to rapidly growing company after 4 year creative endeavor.

(Chicago, IL – April 1, 2016) After a four year absence from Mystery Street Recording Company, co-founding Audio Engineer, Brendan Cushing, better known in the music industry as Mickey T. Craft, joins the company again as Staff Engineer and Systems Manager.

Mystery Street Recording is a multi-functional recording facility, with all-inclusive hourly music rehearsal spaces, and a state-of-the-art Audio Preservation Lab in its storefront. Mystery Street also offers services such as live sound engineering, audio equipment rentals, and karaoke recording parties for kids or adults.

Craft comes to Mystery Street with an intimate understanding of the company’s core values, including a dedication to service and world-class audio production, of which, Mystery Street has built its reputation.

“I am thrilled that our paths have crossed again,” explains Mystery Street President, Joe Tessone, “Amongst a number of highly qualified applicants, Mickey’s exceptional understanding of audio production, combined with familiarity with our way of business, make him the perfect person for this position. The choice was clear.”

Tessone and Craft have a long history together, meeting as lab partners at Columbia College’s Audio Department then co-founding Mystery Street soon after graduation in 2007. They also played in a band together for a number of years. Craft left the company in 2011 to more closely focus on music production and performance, while doing business as Multi Track Chicago. Multi Track Chicago had shared space with Wall-to-Wall Recording at 676 N. LaSalle, until the recent sale of the building and closing of the studio spaces.

What could be called a merger, the new relationship brings significant audio equipment additions to Mystery Street’s control room, including high-end preamps by Neve, Empirical Labs, Universal Audio, and Focusrite. “It feels great to call Mystery Street home once again. Plus, the combination its gear arsenal and mine, means amazing production capabilities,” Mickey explains, “It is a win-win-win for the studio, our engineers, and our clients.

Mystery Street Recording is located at 2827 N Lincoln Ave, in Chicago, IL. More about Mickey T. Craft can be found here.