It’s arguable that only in Jacksonville would any of the artists and musicians associated with the underground be underground. But while Jacksonville has yet to become the poster child for hospitality among musicians trying to make a living, Brok Mende and DeAnna Doersch are certainly beacons of light illuminating a path.
As the power couple behind Friends of Friends recording studio in Springfield, the duo has been proverbially and literally building their dream from the kind of can-do attitude that is prevailing in Jacksonville’s underground music scene.
I had the opportunity to ask Doersch and Mende some questions about their shift from relatively cushy jobs within their creative industries in Chicago to the uncertainty inherent in moving to Jacksonville––a historically precarious location for relocation, given the dearth of economic opportunity within the arts ecosystem. The conversation got me excited about the bigger picture of our burgeoning scene. Below are highlights from our skull session.
So you guys moved here recently(ish) from Chicago. What was the major catalyst?
Mende: Pretty recently. I’m originally from Jacksonville (well, Neptune Beach, and graduated from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts), but moved to Chicago after graduating from high school in 2011. Dee and I moved back down here April 1, 2019. Up until that point, I was an audio engineer at [music discovery platform] Audiotree in Chicago, and I was freelancing out of a few different studios around the country making records with my clients.
The big catalyst was this, though: in January of 2019, my younger brother Braden died super suddenly. As you can imagine, DeAnna and I spent a lot of time reorganizing, reprioritizing and just letting go of any expectations for our lives and the future after that. I personally don’t remember a ton from that time, except for Dee suggesting that it might be important for us to be closer to my family while we figured out what our life was going to look like from here on out. So, that’s what we ended up doing. It was the beginning of a lot of letting go of our ideas of the future, and just sort of starting over completely.
Deorsch: We both fully thought “Hey, we might never work again doing something creative, but that’s okay.” Though I’m glad that hasn’t ultimately been the case, we made peace with that. Everything beyond that point really seems like a gift. And living in a place with cheaper rent (and a beach) while we figure things out? That never hurts.
The build-out of your live room was your quarantine project, right? Can you elaborate on the vision behind the studio and the process of turning it into what it is now?
Mende: When we first moved here I spent the first year freelancing from a bunch of different studios outside of Jacksonville––places like Electrical Audio, Shirk Studios, and Jamdek were my home for seven to ten, 10 days each month. I remember sitting in the control room of Jamdek Studios in Chicago, when the artist I was working with at the time got a Twitter alert letting him know the NBA had canceled the rest of the 2019-20 season. I remember thinking, “Oh this is really real and I have to get home right now.” Everything looked different from that point on. I was supposed to be doing FOH (Front of House) for KAINA’s Pitchfork debut later that summer, Dee and I were going to be flying to LA for two weeks of sessions that summer and stage managing for an artist at RUIDO fest in Chicago. It was definitely a bummer for us, but we were used to rerouting at that point, so we took it in stride.
Doersch: Yeah, and I was supposed to go to SXSW to see some friends play (one being our local fave, Geexella) and have a little reunion with some music friends from Chicago. We all know how that turned out. From then on we were stuck in Jax, trying to figure out what the year was going to look like for us. Despite most folks’ warnings to “not make any big decisions,” we almost immediately decided to leave the Southside for Springfield.
Mende: Because of the pandemic, and the need to keep working, we ended up moving into a bigger space in Springfield and used what we had to create a place where we could continue working safely. I was heavily involved in the build-out of Audiotree’s studio in Chicago, and having a studio had always been a dream of ours. We were inspired by all of the things I enjoyed about other studios, and we created our dream space here. We had friends help build it out with us when they could, but otherwise, we chipped away at it ourselves. We wanted to offer something professional and comfortable to the Jacksonville music ecosystem, and I think we were able to create that. We are so grateful for the support we’ve received so far.
Doesrch: In Chicago I was working in experiential design (designing and working at e-commerce pop-ups, music festival photo spots, etc.), so the look and feel was really important for me to get right. For the live room, I was really shooting for a retro Southwestern look, tying together a lot of our thrifted finds and a warm color palette for a home-y feeling. I obviously wanted it to sound good as the primary goal, but I think the look and feel is so important, too. Recording can be so intimate and vulnerable, it’s really nice to walk into a spot that looks like it was intentionally made for you. I designed, and Brok executed. I’m really proud of how it turned out.
Springfield seems to be a hotspot for arts and music. How’s it treating you?
Mende: We love being in Springfield. There are tons of artists and families here and it reminds us a little of the neighborhood we left in Chicago: Humboldt Park. We moved right as the pandemic started so it’s been fun to kind of see the neighborhood differently as it comes to life month to month.
We’ve waxed philosophical about the ecosystem of the Jacksonville music scene. After living and working here for a while now, what’s your take on the well of music in Jacksonville?
Doersch: Part of the reason I felt okay moving here in 2019 was because I saw extremely talented folks already thriving. Jordan White, one of our very best friends, introduced us to the rest of the crew touring with Yuno while we were still in Chicago in 2018, and we met Rania of LANNDS shortly after. I was really impressed by Geexella and thier BIPOC queer dance party Duval Folx, who I found when I was poking around Instagram. After making the move here, I listened to Bobby Kid as I learned how to drive around Jax (yes, learned, these highways are confusing). There were so many people here who were on-par with folks we saw in Chicago, and they were even younger, and had even less structural resources. It’s amazing what being scrappy can do for you here. It feels really like you can build anything if you try hard enough.
There’s a lot of time and space to perfect your craft here. There just aren’t a ton of structural opportunities to take that sustainable success outside of Jacksonville. We see a lot of people move away to New York and LA for that reason, and I honestly encourage it right now. Until we have more resources for funding tours, getting artists supported or signed, and general education on how to be a working artist, that’s going to keep happening. Additionally, our population density (or lack thereof) makes it hard to naturally collaborate, and it can be hard for new transplants to find a home within the music landscape. Once we really tackle those bigger things, I think we’ll have more to offer folks. In the meantime, we’ll keep working with what we have––a strong, scrappy, and endlessly talented community that’s making things work.
What do you find is a major difference between the Chicago music ecosystem and the Jacksonville music ecosystem?
Mende: As an engineer and producer, it’s definitely different working in Jacksonville; not worse, but different. Jacksonville is still finding itself in so many ways, and with that comes a less defined path to accomplish something. Practically, that means when I’m working in Jacksonville, I tend to be asking and receiving a lot more questions, because there aren’t as many set standards or infrastructure as there would be in a city with an abundance of professional musicians, talent buyers, producers, engineers, etc. Sometimes I’m answering things like: How do you make a record? How do you release music? How do you tour? How do you become Olivia Rodrigo?
There’s like 100 different ways to answer all of those questions, and because there aren’t a ton of well defined examples for people to follow here, there’s a scrappiness and creativity to Jacksonville that I love. It’s actually somewhat similar to Chicago in that way.
Doersch: There generally seems to be more of a “career path” for artists in Chicago. Between small venues giving folks their first shows, to being asked to play for a huge street festival, music of all kinds is built into the life of the city, creating a sustainable way to make money as an artist. They can tour, have day jobs, get signed, tour more, quit their day jobs, and keep going; gradually getting more support. It’s a little less predictable in Jacksonville, with smaller artists suddenly being signed to huge labels, while others tour and have trouble building momentum. It’s really inconsistent, and it bums me out. We really hope to be a part of the scene that makes this more do-able full time. That means more good music for everyone.
This article originally appeared as the Rad Pad feature in Void Magazine’s July 2021 issue.