The Church Studios is located in the Cathedral City Cove. Musicians must be invited to record here.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LANCE GERBER
When Guns N’ Roses was completing its seminal 1987 album, Appetite for Destruction, at L.A.’s Rumbo Recorders studio, guitarist Izzy Stradlin scratched his name into the wooden frame of an analog Trident Series 80C console. That relic is among the rock ’n’ roll arcana scattered about the premises of The Church Studios, a new recording facility and event space within the shell of the erstwhile Community Presbyterian Church in the Cathedral City Cove.
Jay Nailor and MiShell Modern — owners of The Shag Store, the mainstay Palm Springs gallery dedicated to the Tiki-style work of painter and illustrator Josh Agle (better known as Shag) — purchased the 7,075-square-foot church property in February 2021. They are partners in the recording studio with Ron Mesh, a veteran rock tour manager and sound engineer.
Jay and MiShell are enthusiasts of midcentury architecture — he was one of the founders of Modernism Week and is a former board member of the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation. The couple owns “a few” properties in the area and say they are always looking for more. Finding herself bored while Jay played hockey in Cathedral City, MiShell would drive around to look at houses.
Jay Nailor and MiShell Modern on a Diego sectional with an Eastwood Moonsault guitar, a gift from Ed Roland of Collective Soul.
“That’s when I saw this,” she says of the church, which was built in 1960 and designed by the architectural firm Pleger, Blurock, Hougan & Ellerbroek. “It was just like, How did I never see this before? It’s incredible.”
A purchase didn’t immediately cross her mind. But sometime later, while perusing the commercial real estate marketplace LoopNet, she noticed a new listing.
“I’m looking at it in disbelief,” she says of recognizing the church’s eye-catching “spider leg” beams. “I’m freaking out, like, What? There’s no way this is actually on here.”
In the control room, a Rickenbacker 330 Fireglo guitar stands in front of a Rupert Neve 5088 32-channel console.
Those rust-colored beams extend from the roofline at right angles along the front façade. They provide a stark contrast to panels with a natural rock surface that form a visual connection to the mountains behind. The rectilinearity is softened by olive trees that have been shaped into topiary balls. A trio of Mexican fan palms draw the eye skyward, literally and spiritually highlighting the lines of the church’s original dagger-shaped, elongated cross. The same medieval-looking cross appears at the building entrance, incorporated into gates designed by MiShell and fabricated by Palm Springs Welding, surrounded by retro curvy diamond shapes that were inspired by decorative elements of a house she’d noticed in the Twin Palms neighborhood of Palm Springs. The cross motif repeats as negative space punched into steel security doors on either side of the building.
Jay and MiShell spent part of the pandemic in a COVID bubble with Ron and his girlfriend, Rachel Sheedy, a talent agent. The two couples discussed what to do with the church, considering using it for a home theater or some other type of hangout.
But the choice of a recording studio seemed inevitable. Jay, who was a pop singer in his native Canada, has long collected vintage microphones and other audio equipment. Ron, who has worked with Guns N’ Roses, Maroon 5, Tower of Power, and other acts, is a certified gearhead who says he often seeks out music based solely on the studio where it was recorded — such as the legendary Muscle Shoals in Alabama or Rancho de la Luna in Joshua Tree — even if he is not familiar with the artists involved. He likes the idea of “stuff that came out of specific studios, with a specific sound,” he says.
At The Church Studios, musicians play in what had been the expansive worship hall, a 1,600-square-foot space with enough room for a full orchestra — a rarity among recording studios and a key point of distinction.
“That’s what we wanted: different,” Ron says. “There’s amazing studios up in Joshua Tree. We love them, but they’re not this big. We could even work together with those guys if they want to track something bigger in a live room.”
MiShell designed an open space with a cool, industrial vibe that pays homage to the building’s concrete structure — a look the partners describe as a “supervillain lair” — in contrast to the warm tones and wooden surfaces typically associated with recording studios.
“We wanted something completely different,” Jay says. “We didn’t really care if we were going with convention.”
Fender Precision bass and Duesenberg Mike Campbell 30th Anniversary guitar.
The team removed the sanctuary’s pews and carpeting, revealing concrete floors, which they had sealed. On the walls, soft soundproofing insulation material bears a trompe l’oeil print (created by Shag, who also designed the facility’s logo) of a slab of concrete, complete with pock marks and other flaws. The front wall, with its 14-foot-long double-pane window into the studio’s control room, is a monumental installation of cement-colored soundproofing material painstakingly applied piece-by-piece in irregular vertical ridges, creating a sculptural surface reminiscent of the textures of brutalist architecture. In fact, Jay and MiShell live in a Movie Colony home designed by Hugh Kaptur, who is known for brutalist midcentury buildings in Palm Springs, such as the Musicland Hotel.
They made no structural interventions, just replaced the windows and “ripped a lot of stuff out,” MiShell says, such as soffits in the sanctuary that had concealed stunning steel ceiling beams.
Fender Precision bass, Duesenberg Mike Campbell 30th Anniversary guitar, DW drum kit, and Supro amps.
Vintage Ampex AG-440 ¼-inch tape machine, used for the final mix of Metallica’s Kill ’Em All debut album.
“In 1960, they were just structural, and they didn’t even consider showing it,” she notes. “But they’re so beautiful, that shape.”
That spirit of restraint caught the attention of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, which on Oct. 7 is honoring the couple for their adaptive reuse during the 2023 Preservation Awards.
“It’s rare in Palm Springs that somebody takes a building that has a historic background and actually preserves it,” says Nickie McLaughlin, the organization’s executive director. “There’s normally a lot of alterations that affect the look of the building. In their case, they kept it very pure.”
Gibson J-45 acoustic-electric guitar.
Driven by her goal of maintaining the building’s architectural integrity, MiShell crafted a design that, happily, didn’t compromise functionality.
“I know zero about recording, about the studio side of it, all the machinery. I don’t know how the sound is supposed to be,” MiShell says. “That’s what I think makes it special and different. Because as much as they told me, ‘Oh, it has to be like this,’ I’m like, ‘I’m just going to make it the way I want it to look.’ Hopefully, it all worked out.”
The musicians who have recorded or rehearsed at the studio would say that it did. Since the January opening, notables have included Blondie, working with mega-producer Nile Rodgers; Collective Soul; Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top; Paul Rodgers of Bad Company; Shawn Crahan, aka Clown from Slipknot; Brian Ray, guitarist for Paul McCartney; and the L.A.-based singer/songwriter LP.
To hone the facility’s audio quality, the partners “looked at about the top 10 or 20 studios in the world and tried to emulate the best features of all of those,” Jay says. Crucially, too, they solicited input from their numerous contacts in the music industry and “relied heavily on people’s advice.”
A window peers into the control room.
Those who contributed include the studio designers Jay Minkin, Bobby Croft, and David Frangioni; engineer and audio equipment designer Paul Wolff; veteran music industry publicist Bob Merlis; and musicians Gibbons and Ray.
The partners made an effort to distinguish their facility from others they admire in the desert.
“We’d talk to people and say, ‘Hey, what do you like? What would you want in the studio for you to come here?’ ” Ron says. “Years ago, I’d been to the Capitol Records studio, and it’s just a big, open room. That sounds amazing, and there isn’t one here. So we’re like, well, we can have that, and that’s cool not to conflict with something else.”
Adding to the exclusivity is the fact that use of the studio is by invitation only — the facility doesn’t even have a website.
“We try to fill the calendar, and if we like it, we like it,” Ron says.
The sense of privacy and discretion lends itself to a relaxed creative environment, a draw for high-profile clients.
Supported by “spider leg” beams, the front walkway looks out across a palm tree view.
One of five midcentury-modern light fixtures in the live room.
A 1960s Baldwin Acrosonic Spinet piano.
Rickenbacker 480XC 90th Anniversary guitar on a Diego loveseat.
“This studio is secluded, and since nobody knows about us, they feel comfortable once they’re here,” Jay says. “I think the desert has fostered that type of atmosphere. Paparazzi and press know that when people are in the desert, it’s a vacation spot and not to hassle people. People are here to relax, and they’re not on work time. Whereas in L.A., having a bunch of photographers around a celebrity kind of gives license to every other photographer.”
Celebrity friends and colleagues of the partners frequently drop by just to hang out; among them are Guns N’ Roses drummer Frank Ferrer, Queen keyboardist Spike Edney, John Garcia of the band Kyuss, and Benji Schwimmer, a winner of So You Think You Can Dance.
The musicians can try out the studio’s vast collection of gear, such as a ’60s Hammond organ, old drum kits, a theremin, and a two-track tape machine that Metallica used for its first album. (“It’s vintage. It’s awesome. It works as if it was made yesterday,” Ron says.)
“You always want them to have the availability of different instruments that they wouldn’t have access to normally,” Jay points out. “They also like to try equipment that they’ve never purchased before.”
Sound effects sound board.
MiShell is converting an adjacent part of the church complex into hangout spaces and guest rooms. In the meantime, plenty of cool things are strewn about, including a robotic-looking “spaceship” AMI Continental 2 jukebox, circa 1961, and a roulette wheel that Gibbons found at a vintage store. There’s also modernist furniture from MiShell and Jay’s collection that’s highly conducive to lounging, such as a sprawling Togo sofa and a groovy, orange Karim Rashid chaise, a Space Age–style prototype with a built-in monitor.
It’s the kind of ambience that draws folks to the desert in the first place.
Exterior area of the recording studio.
“There’s always a good feeling,” Ron says in the studio’s green room, with its postcard views of rock-strewn peaks and occasional bighorn sheep. At night, when the midcentury house of worship is artfully illuminated, the setting is ethereal — and musicians, no doubt, will be inspired.