Churches are symbols of fellowship and mankind’s desire to connect to a higher power and in that regard, so is music. Just as Jimi Hendrix once declared, “Music is my religion.”
So, it only makes sense that Assemble Sound – an independent hub for artist development – would set up its recording studio complex in a historic Corktown church. It is here that rappers, classical pianists, rock bands and hip-hop and electronic producers alike combine forces and congregate.
“We believe that a more intentionally and broadly connected community of musicians sharing creative, technical, and industry knowledge is the best foundation for making great art and doing it sustainably,” said Garret Koehler, one of the founders behind Assemble Sound. “Honestly, we don’t even know if that belief is true – which is low key probably why we work out of a church – but it’s been the driving force behind Assemble Sound since day one.”
The roofless church that Koehler and his co-founder purchased in March 2015 opened in 1871 as St. Paul’s German Evangelical Church. Through the years, the nearly 150-year-old church changed ownership, denomination, and even interior décor but never ceased to exist. Its final tenant prior to Assemble Sound was Grace-to-Grace, a Lutheran congregation that sold the building in 2010.
“We wrote letters to thirty-five vacant church owners in the city explaining exactly what we wanted to do,” Koehler said. “Unsurprisingly, we only heard back from one. But that one happened to be our dream spot: the Gothic-looking church sitting in the shadows of Michigan Central Station, one of the most iconic abandoned structures in North America.”
Koehler and company also wanted the church for its natural acoustics, feel, and attached rectory. Once they secured it, the group refurbished it (including the church bells) and laid the groundwork for the collective’s driving philosophy. It’s a mindset that started when Koehler, a 30-year-old Chicago native, moved to Detroit four years ago to help bring the 2014 X Games to the city. Detroit, one of more than a dozen cities bidding for ESPN’s extreme sports event, ultimately lost out to Austin, Texas, but Koehler used the momentum he generated to create “Assemble,” a brand-turned-festival.
As fate would have it, neither the brand nor the festival panned out. That didn’t stop Koehler, who used the name for a series of events and it is through those events that he saw a need for a unified and localized group that came to be Assemble Sound.
He co-founded Assemble Sound with Seth Anderson, a Harper Woods native. Anderson is also a silent partner in the Detroit band Flint Eastwood, the creative project of his sister, Jax Anderson. Tifani Sadek, meanwhile, is another co-founder and lawyer who hails from Houston but is married to a Detroit native.
“Detroit is home,” Koehler said. “While I think that conceptually Assemble Sound is nationally applicable, the genesis of what we do and how and why we do it is inextricably tied to Detroit. From a creative standpoint, there is perhaps no other city on the planet that has the musical legacy that Detroit has.
“Besides having artists that have reached global levels in every genre, from hip-hop to rock, the city has created entirely new genres that have changed the world, from Motown to techno,” he added. “The depth and breadth of Detroit’s music legacy is almost unrivaled, and that legacy isn’t just historical. It’s still here.”
Today, Assemble Sound is an application-based artist residency where some 25 different Detroit acts – including Flint Eastwood and Tunde Olaniran – have around-the-clock access to the space to write and record for free, with the stipulation that all studio time is booked on a shared calendar and remains open to collaborators. The studios are open to non-resident musicians as well for affordable rates. Conveniently, the attached rectory gives touring artists and industry types a place to stay overnight while they’re in town.
There are also song critique workshops, artist talks, production tutorials, a music industry education series and back-end services such as marketing and management.
“Essentially, anything that convenes artists and equips them with [what] they need to be better creators and better business-owners,” Koehler said.
Amid all of this, Assemble Sound runs a music licensing company that works with independent Detroit musicians to place their music in TV shows, films, and commercials. Clients include ABC, ESPN, Comedy Central, Netflix, Ford and Red Bull. Ferndale resident Nicole Churchill, 32, oversees such deals as Assemble Sound’s licensing director, music supervisor and as the fourth co-founder.
“We take a cut of anything we bring in for the artists we work for,” Koehler said. “And that’s how we’ve kept the lights on to-date and put almost a quarter million dollars into the pockets of Detroit musicians.”
Churchill also spearheads the monthly educational sessions, which are called Assemble University or Assemble U. Occasionally, Assemble Sound acts as a label and releases singles for the songs that clients don’t buy, but are too good to go to waste, Koehler said. Known as “Sunday Songs,” the music is also a way for artists to give back to the space.
“When I look at Detroit today, I don’t just see great talent, I see the future of the industry,” Koehler said. “And that future looks significantly less shitty than the past when it comes to artist autonomy and empowerment. I’m not sure we could have done Assemble Sound in any other city, creatively or financially, but I am sure we wouldn’t have wanted to do it in any other city.”
As far as Detroit’s musical ecosystem goes, Assemble Sound hopes to keep evolving just like the community it seeks to serve.
“My vision is only that we constantly work to build and nurture that ecosystem so that it becomes an environment where more and more artists have the opportunity to create great music, build an audience, and do so sustainably if they choose,” Koehler said. “Assemble Sound’s role is being one of many forces of interconnectedness in the scene, and hopefully one that injects some of the resources and knowledge needed to make that interconnectedness more productive.”