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Leaving the drama back in L.A., musician recommits to sound

Profile image for By Rachel Watts / For the Denton Record-Chronicle
By Rachel Watts / For the Denton Record-Chronicle

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final installment of three stories leading up to this year's Discovering Denton County special section, inside today's paper.

Situated on a dirt road midway between Krum and Sanger is a doublewide mobile home in a dried-up field. Close by are other homes just like it. Adjacent to the doublewide is a small brown portable building, with a sign out front that reads: "Reserved parking for musicians only."

Several vehicles are parked in front when 73-year-old Harvey Gerst steps outside. His wife, Karen, follows shortly after.

"Sometimes people get lost because their GPSs don't always want to work out here," Karen Gerst says.

A wooden ramp leads up to the small porch of the building where Harvey swings the door open and begins a tour of his recording studio. Framed pictures and artists' albums fill the walls of the entrance, where a modern sofa, two pinball machines and a large rack of expensive guitars fill the small lounge area. Black-and-white photos of Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Sweetwater and the Byrds line the walls. Harvey Gerst is playing guitar onstage in one of them.

"My son Alex is the real star of the show around here. He does the digital recording and I work the old stuff," Gerst says.

As Gerst navigates his way down the narrow hallway, the music grows louder. He stops to show off the bathroom and draws back the shower curtain to display a floor-to-ceiling shelf of snare drums of every brand and variety. He chuckles and continues into the larger of the two studios the Gersts own, where an 11-foot-long soundboard stretches across the sound room. Behind it sits Alex Gerst, who is busy recording the band on the other side of the large glass window.

Gerst's 40 years in the music industry began in Los Angeles in the 1960s, punctuated by such life-changing experiences as hanging out with Jim Morrison; writing two hit songs for the Byrds, one of which went platinum; designing world-renowned amplifiers and recording equipment; and raising an award-winning sound engineer son.

In 1963, Harvey Gerst, then a young musician, was working at audio electronics company JBL as head of quality control.

During this time, Fender started sending the company a large number of speakers that appeared to have failed, so Gerst went to work, trying to figure out the problem. After proposing his fixes to the president of the company, JBL released a whole new line of speakers called the "F" series.

"After we released them, they really took off," Gerst said. "But as far as my overall career goes, I'd say I've just been in the right place at the right time."

Later that year, Gerst and his folk group, the Villagers, were signed by major record label RCA Victor. Their producer, Al Schmitt, was already a legend in the business and is now a 15-time Grammy winner.

"I started really getting interested in producing," Gerst said. "And Al, for some reason, took a liking to me, so when he was doing other groups like Jefferson Airplane or something, I would wander into the sessions. Even though they were closed sessions, because I had designed some of Jefferson Airplane's amplifiers, and later when I had written songs for the Byrds, I was pretty well known in L.A. as both a musician and singer-songwriter."

In 1964, Byrds frontman Jim McGuinn brought in Gerst as a friend and fellow folk artist to help write a couple of songs.

Together they worked on a song called "It Won't Be Wrong" that was released on the Byrds' platinum-selling album Turn! Turn! Turn! in 1965. The song charted at No. 63 on the Billboard Hot 100.

"People out here in Krum don't believe my dad when he tells these stories," Alex Gerst said. "They seem too far-fetched. But no, they're all true. He has pictures."

In 1968, after leaving JBL and after the Villagers broke up, Harvey Gerst joined a new band called Sweetwater, which became the third band to perform on the first day at Woodstock in 1969.

That same year he took a job as vice president of sales at Acoustic Control, a manufacturer of instrument amplifiers in Los Angeles, whose clientele included the Doors, Chuck Berry, Frank Zappa, Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin. Gerst's job at the company entailed designing amps, writing instruction manuals, overseeing advertisements and doing catalog layouts.

"It was a very small company to start with, and then it just grew and grew. I eventually met all sorts of folks," Gerst said.

In the early '70s, Gerst's friends included the Doors' lead singer Jim Morrison, who would frequently ask Gerst for rides home from L.A. music venues.

"The last time I ever gave Jim a ride was when I saw him on the curb outside of Whisky a Go Go, and on the way home he threw up in my car," Gerst said. "When he was sober, he was well-read and engaging and we had great conversations, but when he was drunk he got pretty obnoxious."

The fate of musicians like Morrison and Jimi Hendrix was part of the reason Gerst moved away from Los Angeles in the late '70s. At the time, he was living in Beverly Hills off royalties from the Byrds and trying to raise his son, Alex.

"All of my friends were dying. It was depressing," he said. "And Los Angeles was no place to raise a child. I was getting really burned out on the music business at that time and just had to get away for a little while."

In 1978, Gerst packed up and moved away from the death and clamor of Los Angeles' music scene to a more normal life in Massachusetts, where he took a job as a representative of Roland, a manufacturer and distributor of electronic musical instruments. It was a short-lived experience for Gerst, who became bored and unhappy. After spotting a newspaper ad one day, he decided to pursue a career at Tandy (which later became Radio Shack), a computer company in Fort Worth, writing manuals for the new TRS-80 computers.

"It turned out that the guy doing the hiring over at Tandy used to play piano and had one of my amps," Gerst said with a chuckle.

It was at Tandy in 1980 that Gerst hired Karen, a young songwriter, and his eventual wife and business partner. The two fell in love and Gerst continued his career there until 1986, when he left to work at another North Texas company for two years. He then quit that job to pursue his initial passion for sound engineering.

"When I met Karen at Tandy, she said her sister was living out here in Shady Shores and they wanted to get some land," Gerst said. "We found this six acres of mud, and here we are."

On that six acres, Gerst and his son run Indian Trail Recording Studio, which they opened in 1988. The studio was among the first to charge per song rather than per hour of recording time, Alex Gerst said. This system has allowed affordability to musicians from all walks of life.

Alex Gerst, a 1991 Krum High School graduate and award-winning sound engineer, has produced albums for bands that have since gone on to gain national attention, including Vehicle Reason, whose music was featured on ABC's Ugly Betty, and the band Feel Never Real, whose songs have been on MTV's The Real World. In April, Real World producers contacted Alex Gerst a second time to use material from the Dallas Cowboys-Miami Dolphins supergroup Free Reign, who recorded at Indian Trail last year. And when the band's drummer, Cory Procter, injured his knee in a game, Alex was contacted to fill in for him on drums so the band could still go on a mini-tour of the U.S.

Wes Todd, of Dallas band Here Holy Spain, remembers being impressed by his experiences in the Indian Trail studio. In 2002, Todd's band at the time, A Foot Ahead, won a Buzz-Oven battle of the bands competition in 2002, and part of the prize was recording two songs with Alex Gerst in his studio.

"Alex was very patient and willing to work with us to help us get better," Todd said. "At the time, we had no idea what we were doing. We didn't know about scratch tracks and recording to a click, but he cared enough about helping us out to not get frustrated. He held our hand the whole way, and I'm grateful."

Todd said he was initially less than thrilled by the studio's seclusion, but he eventually realized that it enabled his band to focus on recording.

Alex Gerst says he doesn't mind that seclusion so much anymore, though moving to Texas from Beverly Hills as a kid was a culture shock.

"As soon as I got a car, I was in Denton every night starting bands with UNT people," he said. "I met up with a lot of people in Denton and hung out on Fry Street and started trying to do the band thing."

After realizing that his talent lay more in engineering than in making it big with a band, he turned to recording and found success in the unlikeliest of places - at home.

"I guess you could say I'm the producer of the producer," Harvey Gerst said with a laugh.

This story was written by a University of North Texas journalism student under the direction of Dawn Cobb, managing editor of the Denton Record-Chronicle, and UNT professor George Getschow.