Assemble Sound gives musicians sanctuary to collaborate

The abandoned church-turned-recording studio aims to put Detroit back on the music map

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

It was 10 p.m. on a Thursday evening. Eight choir singers filed into the forest green church kitty-corner to the vacant train station. The Grace to Grace sign outside says “Restoring Lives. One Soul At a Time.” But the church is no longer a place of worship, and the singers weren’t there for a late-night practice.

Built in 1872, the church sat abandoned from 2010 to 2015. Over the last year, it’s been resurrected into recording studios for Assemble Sound — a residency program for Detroit musicians to produce hip-hop, R&B, rock, techno and songs of any genre. Their creations have appeared in TV shows and Netflix hits.

This night, a lanky blonde 26-year-old in a baseball hat is sitting in front of a computer, flanked by stereos on pedestals. His black leather chair bobs to the piano keys, as candles flicker in synch with the green sound board lights.

The “Selected of God” gospel choir, famous for their appearance in the Chrysler 200 commercial with Eminem, had never met the DJ/producer/saxophonist GRiZ, from Southfield, or practiced the refrain for his new track.

Crowding into studio A — a former pastor’s office now draped in the city of Detroit flag and guitars — they listened.

“One section is swung. And the other section has a straight-16ths vibe,” says GRiZ, standing in the middle in his red kicks. “I can sing it for you in my horrible voice.”

He hit play and belted, “You know I gotta push on, yeah.”

The choir followed in unison.

“Lord you know I gotta push on.”

No. 10 of the Assemble Sound Studio Commandments — “make something beautiful or banging or both” — was honored.

Missing piece for a music city

Visit the church, and you’ll likely find Garret Koehler, a 29-year-old from the Chicago suburbs who often wears black hoodies and skinny jeans. Koehler is known for raising $30 million in 2013 to bring the X Games to Detroit. The bid failed, and the event went to Austin, Texas.

But perhaps everything happens for a reason.

Koehler co-bought the church in March 2015, after siblings Jax and Seth Anderson approached him with an idea.

The born-and-raised Detroiters had lived in Los Angeles, where they frequently attended songwriting workshops. When they moved back home, they tried organizing similar sessions.

“There’s so much talent in the city,” says Seth, who goes by SYBLYNG when co-writing. “But no one understood the concept of collaboration across genres.”

Then they met Koehler.

Koehler organized a show for their EP “Baptism.” He promised to pack a warehouse with 600 people.

Seth was pessimistic. “I’m like, this guy’s delusional,” he says. “I’ve been to shows in Detroit. Good luck man, there’s no way. Then I got there, and he killed it. I felt like I was in Los Angeles again.”

That conversation led to Assemble Sound — a place where Detroit artists could record, collaborate and create.

A reason to stay

“I’ve always been really energized around getting teams together around an idea,’ ” says Koehler, sitting in his office behind the altar.

The former Groupon project manager has never worked in the music industry, but he understands music can be a vehicle to experience a community.

“I never really understood violence on the Southside of Chicago until I started going to hip-hop shows on the Southside of Chicago and hearing 16-year-olds who live there talk about their friends being shot,” he says.

Koehler floated around the spoken-word poetry and hip-hop scene, discovering poets and rappers who were mere high-schoolers.

“They created this cross-city network of artists and fans that became a force to be reckoned with in Chicago,” he says. “I was like, ‘Where are all the people from New York and LA trying to sign these kids?’ That’s when I started reading into the music industry and how it doesn’t work.”

When he came to Detroit in 2013 to help a buddy attract the X Games, he scoped out the local rappers. A year later, he met Jax and Seth.

For the most part, the music industry left with Motown in 1972. Hence why emerging Detroit artists feel they have a better shot in New York, LA or Nashville.

With Assemble Sound, Koehler saw a way around that.

“We can help hundreds and hundreds of musicians build careers in Detroit,” he says.

‘The Dream’ studio

As bells rung through the muggy June evening, Seth, 28, says Assemble Sound “was meant to be” in a church.

“Churches are built for acoustics,” he says. “We knew we’d have a unique sound coming out of the studio right from the get-go.”

But securing this church required a miracle.

Seth and Koehler sought a vacant Detroit building for an Assemble Sound home base. They drove around with a spreadsheet of vacancies labeled “Decent,” “Good,” “Great,” “Excellent” and “The Dream.”

“This was the only property that went into ‘The Dream’ category,” Seth says, looking at the gates kept closed with a rusty lock. Seth wrote handwritten notes to 20 property owners. Pastor Calvin Freeman of Grace to Grace was the only one who responded.

According to Seth, the pastor received cash offers worth double what they could afford, and he turned them all down.

“He really believed in the vision of what we were doing,” Seth says. “At the closing he said, ‘I’m a prophet. I’m not here for-profit. I know you’re not going to put another loft or bar or distillery in. You’re actually going to invest in the community, and you’re going to grow something.’ ”

Pulpit to big screen

The last straw for Nicole Churchill came while driving to her birthday dinner with her girlfriends. Churchill was on the way when her phone rang.

“There’s a new Marvel film, and they need music tonight. You need to come back.”

As a music supervisor for an LA entertainment marketing agency, she had to turn around.

“It was awful. I had no work-life balance,” says Churchill, now 31. “I kept hearing about this new energy here in the city, and I had been flirting with the idea (to come home) for awhile. My lease was ending, my boyfriend and I broke up, I wanted to leave my job. I was like, if I’m ever going to do it, it has to be right now.”

The West Bloomfield native arrived in Detroit with no job. She eventually found Assemble Sound.

With Churchill’s expertise in music licensing, Koehler and Seth saw a revenue stream. They couldn’t pay her, so she became the third partner instead.

Sitting in a studio that used to be the breastfeeding room, she says she feels “super blessed.”

“I was able to apply this really specific skill set that I had here in a market where there’s no music industry.”

From the 15 Assemble Sound residents, Churchill created a catalog of 2,500 songs she pitches for TV shows, movies and commercials. She placed Flint Eastwood’s “Shotgun” for the Netflix original film “The Ridiculous 6.” Freeform, formerly ABC Family, used a track in “Shadowhunters,” and she’s in talks with a new Comedy Central show. Then there’s the Jeep, Toyota and Nissan commercials.

From any licensing deal, Assemble Sound takes a brokerage fee, and artists retain 100 percent ownership of their work. Residents also get free 24/7 access to the building. Outside artists, like GRiZ, are charged for studio time. The price is based on what they can afford.

“We need that money to keep our lights on, and a lot of people are totally willing to pay it,” Koehler says. “And some people just don’t have it.”

Thanks to Churchill, the licensing generates revenue. But there’s still the loan from replacing the roof and other construction needs.

Tired of fundraising, Koehler poured in his own money. He doesn’t hesitate to answer how much.

“All of it. Seth and I took out pretty much our life savings to get this started. Yeah,” he pauses, as that sinks in. “Yeah.”

‘The hope of a window’

Without Assemble Sound, “we’d probably be giving up at this point,” says Nigel Van Hemmye, a 24-year-old music producer with jet-black hair.

Van Hemmye and vocalist Andrew Ficker, of Nigel & The Dropout, practiced in a recycling center before becoming Assemble Sound residents.

“This made me realize that the musical world is bigger than a small windowless room in a recycle center. I mean, I still don’t have a window in my studio,” he says, pointing to a tiny room with keyboards, “but it’s the hope of a window.”

For Gosh Pith vocalist Josh Smith, 25, it took time to trust Koehler. Listening to Drake in a studio with the producer Skywlkr one afternoon, Smith says Koehler is now his role model. He adds that “people cross paths that would have never ever seen each other.”

Magic happens when they get in the same studio. “Like, I can’t produce anywhere near where (Skywalkr) can,” he says.

Skywalkr, 27, adds, “I can’t sing like you.”

Convening around a belief

The industry says not to release music on Sundays. Assemble Sound ignored that. Last month, Assemble started releasing resident-produced songs on Sundays.

Assemble University — free monthly music industry discussions— also launched in June. The first one on licensing and publishing attracted more than 100 local musicians. Jon Moshier, executive music producer for Donor Advertising and WDET 101.9 FM music host, says the events might help artists land recording opportunities.

“People don’t understand that whole world of music licensing. I think it’s great they’re trying to demystify how that stuff works,” says Moshier.

Down the road, they hope to turn the rectory and parsonage next door into a lodge for touring musicians. But for now, they’re renovating the steeple into a fourth studio (producer/handyman Andrew Ahrendt says he’s removed 500 pounds of bird poop in the process).

Assemble Sound is also one step toward getting back what Detroit artists believe is rightfully theirs: their music reputation.

“There’s so much history here. We had Motown,” Jax says. “(It’s) not cool that all the Detroit (musicians) are going to LA and New York. All of us want to create this space where people have a reason to stay and people have a reason to come here and see that we have something to offer.”

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

Assemble University events

July 21: Contracts and Copyright

Aug. 18: Branding and Merch

Sept. 15: Booking and Touring

Time: 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Cost: Free

Location: Assemble Sound, 2300 17th St., Detroit