KCRW’s Apogee Sessions series takes music lovers inside the studio for intimate shows with influential performers

By Ian Joulain

Foals frontman Yannis Philippaki leads the British indie band through a rollicking set that KCRW will share with listeners on Friday morning Photo by Dustin Downing courtesy of KCRW

Foals frontman Yannis Philippaki leads the British indie band through a rollicking set that KCRW will share with listeners on Friday morning
Photo by Dustin Downing courtesy of KCRW

On an otherwise nondescript weekday evening in Santa Monica, the dancey, synth-laden notes of “My Number” ricochet off the half-domed walls of Apogee Studio.

Out there, it’s just a Monday. In here, a carefully curated crowd of hardcore music fans, media and assorted musicians look on as the Oxford-based indie rock quintet Foals records a live set for KCRW-FM’s Apogee Sessions.

It’s the intimacy of it all. With the tiny stage, headliner-quality act and a capacity crowd of just 180, this isn’t your everyday concert experience.

For KCRW Creative Director Liz MacDonald, executive producer of the Apogee Sessions, that’s the point.

Great music has surrounded MacDonald for nearly two decades. She’s produced a number of big concerts for larger audiences during her time at the station, but it’s around the office that she finds moments that cannot be reproduced — but should be.

“Being at the station I was always behind-the-scenes at our studios, and that to me is where the real magic was,” MacDonald says. “You’d see these artists really up close and personal.”

Up until May 2010, KCRW had produced a few of these smaller shows with one-offs here and there, but MacDonald wanted to do them on a bigger scale. She wanted to deliver the kind of intimate setting she had so regularly experienced at work to a live audience. After some internal discussions with station GM Jennifer Ferro, they decided to pursue the idea.

As kismet would have it, record producer and music industry guru Tony Berg asked MacDonald if she knew Betty Bennett and Bob Clearmountain over at Apogee. Bennett is the CEO and cofounder of Apogee Electronics. Clearmountain is a legendary producer and mixer — he mixed Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Bennet and Clearmountain met with Farro and MacDonald to discuss the possibility of hosting a series showcasing artists.

Santa Monica’s Apogee Studio is already famous in its own right: The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Springsteen and other musical giants have recorded and performed in the space.

The same day of the meeting, KCRW DJ Chris Douridas called MacDonald with a stellar opportunity. He had just run into Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders on the street in Silver Lake but had nowhere to get a session in with her, as KCRW’s studios were booked and so were its engineers.

MacDonald turned right around and called her new acquaintances, and the Apogee Sessions series was born.

With more than 70 shows on the books and still counting, performances by Queens of the Stone Age and Alabama Shakes are among MacDonald’s favorites, she says, but perhaps the séance held by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros was the most memorable.

Other sessions recorded on video and posted to the station’s website include concerts by Beck, John Legend, TV on the Radio, Belle & Sebastian, Conor Oberst, MGMT, Rosanne Cash, Gary Numan, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Gary Clark Jr., Regina Spektor, Band of Horses, Meshell Ndegeocello, KT Tunstall, Ludovico Einaudi, M. Ward, Janelle Monae and Patti Smith.

The Apogee Sessions series has been curated by KCRW Music Director Jason Bentley since its inception, and every recorded performance is broadcast on his signature program “Morning Becomes Eclectic.”

MacDonald’s enthusiasm is palpable when discussing the project, and she is no doubt proud of what all the parties involved have accomplished.

And she should be. They’ve created the ideal ecosystem for live music consumption, where the musician’s musician would hang out and take in whoever was coming through with quality never being an issue. The purity of the experience is perfectly encapsulated in each recording, only to be reproduced when the next artist is selected.

As Foals smash through the title track of their recently released album “What Went Wrong,” the evening is building to a crescendo.

There is actual dancing happening — not the usual passive head nod or the ole arms-crossed, can’t be bothered look so prevalent across venues on the Eastside.

Maybe that’s because the crowd here knows they better enjoy it. Next time the song may be the same, but the atmosphere most certainly will not.

Tune into “Morning Becomes Eclectic” on KCRW 89.9-FM between 9 a.m. and noon Friday, Dec. 18, to hear the inaugural radio broadcast of Foals’ Apogee Sessions concert. Watch full-length videos of prior Apogee Sessions shows for free at kcrw.com/music/apogeestudio.