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How Kyoto Studios is shaping the festivals of the future

Glen Rowe, former Muse tour director and founder of recording studio and management company Kyoto, tells us about his mission to lay the foundations for the festival headliners of tomorrow


“Who the fuck is going to headline Reading Festival in 2025?” asks Glen Rowe, the man behind the newly launched Kyoto recording studio and artist management company. It’s a pertinent question that sits at the heart of this ambitious new enterprise, and indeed the core of our conversation.

We’re sat with Rowe in the editing room at the sprawling Kyoto studios. The conditions outside are bright and autumnal, ideal for our tour of the facility. And there’s plenty to see. Acres of lush green fields, a lake, tennis courts, a swimming pool, a hot tub and numerous buildings being renovated to serve as residential areas for artists surround the high spec recording space at the heart of this breathtaking location, which, remarkably, is only 30 minutes away from Stratford train station. The studio itself is equally impressive, built around a MCI 500 Rev D previously owned by The Who’s John Entwhistle, while a unique device dubbed the drumbrella has been invented to allow drummers to achieve a vast array of different sounds via the lowering or lifting of a roof-like structure above the kit attached to a winch. It’s a sight to behold, encasing the kit for tightly controlled sound or opening the environment for more of a live sound. A vast array of drums, cymbals, basses and Arigato guitars, which have been specially designed for the studio, are also on hand. The entire site is available to artists at a rate of £500 per day and is free for artists also signed to Kyoto management.

The concept behind Kyoto was born out of Rowe’s desire to provide a “utopian” setting that will encourage and nurture each and every aspect of a young artist’s development. Writing rooms and meeting rooms have been incorporated to keep business discussions out of the creative spaces, while the recording and mixing rooms aim to offer world class spec at an affordable price.

Having served as Muse’s tour director for a hugely successful 18 years, as well as touring with other such acts as Manic Street Preachers, The Streets, The Thrills, Ronnie Wood, Hard-Fi, The Kooks, The Magic Numbers and Amy MacDonald, Rowe’s understanding of the live music business is self-evident. So what prompted a move at this stage of his career into the studio sector?

“My business partner and I were thinking about the magic of making records,” he says. “I have a business and rehearsal studios in Wandsworth – we have writing studios and creative spaces there – but the one thing I’ve learned from my career is that to make great records you need alienation. You need to be taken away from your normal self. We wanted to create somewhere that wasn’t too far away from London and that felt utopian. Soho House was an inspiration for that. I was sat in the Soho Farmhouse and I really liked it – I was sat with my kids by the lake and people were whizzing around on their bikes, and it just felt really utopian. People might think I’m a bit of a **** for saying that, but I really enjoyed it and my wife and kids did too. Yes, it might have a bit of snobbery about it, but making great records now is the forefront and focus of my time. The thought process is, How can we help young bands, young managers and you people get moving quicker? I wanted everything to be right. We own the land here, so we can do what we want with it. We’re 100 per cent independent, and after all the years of doing what I’ve done it feels nice to be able to go, Fuck mainstream and let’s do what we want! It feels quite rebellious.”

Though he has always harboured a passion for helping new artists in their development, the decision to call time on a career that had brought untold success with one of the biggest and best touring bands on the planet was not one to be taken lightly. And, as Rowe explains, it was a move that emerged from tragic personal circumstances.

“I lost my mum when we were doing pre-production for Muse in California,” he says. “We had the LA Coliseum Arena with a crew of 90. And then I received that tragic phone call that we all dread and my wife said you have to come home, your mum’s not well. And I’m staring at 90 people waiting for me to give direction as to what’s going on, but the most important thing was my family and I needed to be with them.”

“My mum was a funny fucker,” he laughs, fondly. “She was so punk rock in her own way and she always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do. She never wanted me to conform. The wonkier the ideas were in my career, the better. So I had to fly home, and it was the longest flight of my life. Next thing, I was sat in the hospital, looking at my mum and going through the grieving process and I suddenly thought, fuck, what’s next? It was such a huge lightening bolt, and as we were back touring around the world I was thinking about that and I just knew I didn’t want to do this anymore. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but it wasn’t this.”

Determined to change course, Rowe reveals that his initial plan wasn’t to open up a studio but, in fact, to open five new venues across the UK that would be suited to bands and artists cutting their teeth on the touring circuit.

“Having talked to lots of young musicians and managers, I knew that there was a massive problem in the recording industry and the venue industry,” he elaborates. “I thought I’d use my influence and build five venues from scratch; we’ll make these amazing places where young people can come and learn their craft. However, I soon realised that to build these venues would take around 10 years, and I had all this spare time. I’d been in and out of recording studios for 25 years and I’ve seen the amount of time that’s wasted. So I decided that I would apply live technology and live thought processes in recording. A great example of that is the drumbrella, which you can lift six inches and entirely change the sound of the kit. That’s the idea behind the studio, to enable everyone to make records quicker. As we know, you don’t make as much money from records, so how can you come in, make a record quicker and go on tour for longer to make your money?”

As with virtually every aspect of Rowe’s career to date, his ideas and ambitions are restricted only by the limits of his imagination. When he tells us he wants Kyoto to help uncover the Reading Festival headliners of the future he means it and believes it intensely. His enthusiasm in that mission is infectious, and with the time and effort that has been ploughed into Kyoto, there’s little reason to question it. He knows that the obstacles that have afflicted so many revered and long-established studios still exist, yet the challenges they pose just add fuel to the fire.

“I love counter culture,” he beams. “If recording studios are closing down at the rate they are, which is quite terrifying, then it’s extremely important that new ones are built. We have this self-belief that we can make this work if it’s great. This was a long and hard process and my heart says we have something very special. As soon as people walk in there is a sense that this is something different and it defies expectations. One of the main reasons other studios are shutting down is that business rates are outrageous. Rent is outrageous. We own the land here, so we can do what we want. We knew we needed to be in full control; to be the guardians of our own future.

“I’ll be delighted if the future festival headliners come here, make their records and get to that point in their career. It’s tough out there, tougher than it ever was before. When managers, producers, record companies and publishers sit down and think about making records, my ambition is for them to think, well, we’ve got a band and they are recording drums, let’s send them to Kyoto. I would love every drummer to want to come here. The drumbrella is fucking phenomenal, so even if bands only want to come here to record drums, they can do that. And if we become the best drum recording studio, that’s alright for me. We just want everyone to enjoy the creative process and for people to come here and soak it up.”

As Rowe prepares to escort us from the tranquil surroundings of Kyoto, we leave with no doubt not only as to the lofty ambitions of this unique studio and management offering, but also the top tier nature of the facilities. The love and commitment that has been poured into the place crackles in the air, and if anywhere is going to put the Reading Festival headliners on the right track, it’s here. Just one question remains. Why is it called Kyoto?

“Good question, stupid answer,” Rowe smiles. “Kyoto was the original capital of Japan. And before I continue, I just want to clarify that I’m not spiritual. I don’t believe in God, but I am quite Buhddist in my approach to life. And the closest I ever got to spirituality was in Kyoto. It is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. When I was thinking about what I wanted to do next with my life I wrote the name down – originally as a band name for someone – and then I thought, no, I’ll keep it for myself. Everyone knows about the cherry blossoms forming in Kyoto and the romanticism, and I’m a massive fan of Japanese art and culture. That sense of spirituality has manifested itself in this place, I hope. There are three rules our management company live by: give artists space to be creative, give them time to develop and give them encouragement. That’s our philosophy with everything here.”