Justin Perkins has very good ears
That’s why you’ll find the Neenah, Wis., native’s name on recent albums such as G. Love’s Philadelphia Mississippi and the Grammy-nominated Set Sail by the North Mississippi All Stars, as well as remasterings of The Replacements and as a performer and engineer with Tommy Stinson’s Bash & Pop.
Justin grew up in Neenah playing in bands – Yesterday’s Kids and The Obsoletes – while also helping to record other young bands in the Fox Valley producing original music.
Today, he lives in Madison and owns Mystery Room Mastering, where he practices the fine art of mastering, or making the final audio adjustments to a recording before it is released.
“That just came about pretty organically,” he said about moving from performer to studio expert. “I was a person in a band first and knowing a studio came out of necessity because there were only a handful of studios in the area. They were fairly expensive and they were actually busy. So they didn't want some middle school kids coming in to record. We tried to get into a place in Neenah. I forget the name of it now. We dropped off the tape and never heard back. So I got into recording by necessity. Over time, more bands would call me to record their stuff.”
And those bands calling him were all top original acts in the area at the time, including Cory Chisel & The Wandering Sons, Andy’s Automatics and The Blueheels, who he also played bass with for several years.
Justin revealed an important detail about how those Fox Valley bands banded. It wasn’t just about the original and different-from-each-other music they were making:
“I think the other thing that brought all those bands together in the early 200s like Cory Chisel, Blue Heels, Andy’s Automatics, Obsoletes, was a mutual appreciation for Tom Petty,” he said. “I think we could all meet at that point.”
The Obsoletes was a great trio with Perkins on bass, Tim Schweiger on guitar and Jon Phillips on drums. The band recorded one CD in 2004 – Is This Progress? – on 145 Records, and then disbanded a year later. However, their popularity was enough that when Is This Progress? was remastered (by Justin) and released on vinyl for the first time, on Jon Phillips’ Good Land Records, in 2020, it sold out.
“We did play a lot, but we didn't move to LA or take it to the next level,” Justin said. “I just got to realize that making a living off touring is probably not a reality. But, luckily, people are calling me to do recording and make records. So it was a very slow shift from playing a lot of shows and recording some of the bands to eventually recording a lot of bands and only playing some shows.”
Eventually he realized playing gigs was taking away from studio time.
“Playing just started to get in the way of recording,” he said. “I remember playing shows on a Friday night to bar close, then having to drive through the night to get back to Madison and record a weekend session. The Blueheels were getting some pretty good-paying gigs and staying busy. I was thinking ahead like, Yeah, I can't do this forever.”
Before opening his own mastering studio, he worked at the now closed but highly influential Smart Studio in Madison. His first studio gig was at Simple Studios in Green Bay, where he says the education of his ears really began.
“It was everything from polka to punk rock, metal to Americana, so you really want to open your ears,” he said.
He also quickly learned that having been in a band made him able to communicate better with the musicians.
“I actually can't read music, but I've been around long enough where I can sort of speak the language and have empathy for what they are doing,” he said. “It helps me understand how to speak to musicians, to say could you just play it this way? Let's try it. Let's try to do it another way. Because I know a few engineers that are not musicians, and they're good engineers, but I would find it hard to communicate certain things, you know, certain ideas. And I got pretty good at just recognizing chord progressions. When you play that F sharp minor chord, it sounds a little odd, and I think you're bending the G string a little out of tune or something.”
Justin’s recent projects are all from word-of-mouth on other projects, which began when a good friend of his became Tommy Stinson’s manager. Knowing of Justin’s love for The Replacements, the friend did his best to connect Justin with Tommy.
“It just happened organically,” Justin said. “We got to back him up for some shows. That was cool. And that led to him needing some studio work. So it's just all these weird things. We can't really plan it. You sort of have to be in the right place at the right time and be ready for it. That's how those things come about.”
So here’s how it came about that Justin was chosen to master the Set Sail album by NMA, nominated for a Grammy for contemporary blues album of the year.
Justin is asked to remaster The Replacements’ 1987 masterpiece Pleased to Meet Me, which was originally produced by the late, legendary Memphis studio master Jim Dickinson.
“Jim apparently never liked the CD master of Pleased to Meet Me,” Justin said. “CDs were pretty new at the time. He never liked how it sounded on CD. So they gave me some pretty specific instructions about what to do. Jim never liked the digital master and it was a chance to make it right.”
Jim Dickinson is the father of Cody and Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi all Stars, who liked Justin’s work so much that they asked him to master Set Sail, which may be the most pristine recording I have heard in a long while. And then Luther produced G. Love’s Philadelphia Mississippi, and he asked Justin to master that.