Ode to a Basement

Miles Francis on rebuilding the home studio they grew up in after Hurricane Ida.

My recording studio is located in my parents’ basement. There, I said it. It’s not sexy or chic, it’s not rock & roll, and it’s definitely not punk. 

To clarify, I don’t live in the building anymore, but I commute there most days to work in the studio, which is a room in the underground level of the building where I grew up. My parents moved there in 1989, and my dad — a lifelong musician — fashioned the basement unit as a homegrown studio in 1996. 

When I was six, my parents got me my first drumset for my birthday, which was swiftly relocated from the upstairs apartment down to the basement after a couple hours of me bashing the kit. Soon after, my dad set me up with my first drum lessons with some drummer friends of his. The connection between playing music and having fun was established pretty quickly: My favorite part of lessons with one early teacher was the end-of-lesson game, where we’d each grab a drumstick, he’d throw a roll of duct tape up in the air, and we’d duke it out to catch the roll of tape on our drumstick. A popular weekend activity would be Studio Day: my dad and I would go down to the basement and spend the day making a song together on his tape machine. We’d both hop around different instruments, layering percussion and vocal parts to my heart’s content, and at the end of the day we would go upstairs and play the result for my mom.

My parents had set up a room for me to just play, in the purest sense of the word, and for that I’ll always be thankful. Over the years, though, the basement became more than a place to play — it became an integral part of my identity. That room is where I recorded my first GarageBand demo, sitting alone experiencing the magical feeling of layering myself on multiple instruments. It’s where I wrote my first through-composed drum solo when I was 12 (see below). It’s where I recorded YouTube videos playing drums along to my favorite artists, like Antibalas — which eventually served as my audition videos when I later joined that band. It’s where I rehearsed, recorded or hung out with almost every musician I’ve ever played with. It’s where I began peeling away my identity as a capital D Drummer and finding myself as an artist with my own music to make. It’s where I felt most comfortable exploring how to use my body in movement and dance. It’s where my dad and I worked together in 2019 to give the studio its first total renovation, including some fresh new wood floors and insulated walls. It’s where my friends and I had Afrobeat parties every month: these magical exaltations, letting go of the world whizzing by just outside of the door. In that room I felt sheer joy, passion, sadness, rage, love, and frustration, through elementary school, high school, college, and the rest of my 20s. The emotion and energy from decades of experiences seeped into the floors and stuck to its walls.

Then, in September 2021, the studio flooded. When Hurricane Ida was starting to hit NYC, my dad and I didn’t think much of it. Hurricanes had hit so many times before (including the much anticipated Henri just a couple weeks prior) and we didn’t get much flooding at all. Ida was different, though, and the studio got hit hard. 

My dad got there first, to find six-eight inches of water sitting inside the studio. I was in disbelief when he texted me a video of him sloshing around the room — at one point I spotted my studio slippers floating across the screen. By the time I got there, he had already gotten most of the water out, and we were left with a wet mess.

We got to work immediately removing everything into the hallways. My mind, though, was in a state of fantasy: It’s not that bad, we’ll finish this cleanup in a couple days, since I have rehearsal scheduled in there on Friday, it’s not that bad, I am prepping my new album so I need the studio to film promo content, and I have to finish a couple productions in progress, it’s not that bad, this will just be a slight hiccup so let’s just deal with it tonight and tomorrow, and then we’ll get back to normal

What I didn’t know yet was that the water — the very dirty water — had seeped through the wood floors and gotten all the way down to the concrete below. The water also ruined the bottoms of the walls we had installed. Thankfully, most of the gear and instruments were elevated and went unscathed, but the structural damage was deep. The room has no windows and relies on an A/C unit for ventilation, so it’s important to be inhaling clean air. A total reset and rebuild was in order, to avoid cutting corners with potential future mold or mildew issues. Within 24 hours of the flood, we removed every single item from the room and stripped the flooring down to the concrete. The studio was completely empty, completely silent, for the first time since my parents moved there in 1989.

In retrospect, the confluence of events over the past two years, culminating in the studio flood, feels like the cosmic version of when my dog excitedly pulls on the leash leading me down a winding park path. We renovated the studio in 2019, when I decided that going into 2020 I’d spend less time on the road more time focusing on my first full length album as a solo artist. Then, pandemic — everything froze, no more performing, nobody could come over to the studio. The Black Lives Matter protests surged — everything lit up, and I was outside a lot supplying drummers for weekly actions. 

Over time, I finished my album. In the process I embraced my non-binary identity — I realized that when I play music, inside that room especially, I feel the most connected to my truest self, free of all trappings and identifiers, and non-binaryness lets me get closer to what that’s really all about. Then the city started to open up again as vaccines rolled in. I turned 30. I started envisioning my album actually coming out, I finally booked my first COVID-era live show for September 15, 2021. Then, on September 1, the night before one of our first rehearsals, Hurricane Ida hit NYC and reduced the studio to an empty room.

It all kind of makes sense as a period of shedding, of growth and of leaving things behind, of moving into a new phase of life — but I really could’ve done without the flood. I also don’t know if I would have the same perspective moving forward, though. Standing in the empty studio, it’s easy to feel like all of the growth, experiences, lessons, and memories got washed away with the flood, and it’s just time to start over. Feeling the raw concrete floors and looking around at the messy walls, it’s been a real test of resolve. Some days I just feel like letting it go, like not rebuilding it into a studio at all and just moving away. Being in there makes me sad. It’d be much easier to give up on it — it has served me so well over the years, and this could be a natural closing, out of our control. 

But every time I have those thoughts in there, I feel guilty, like the room is listening. It wouldn’t be the first time the room was hearing me. I grew up in that room. The studio was my version of a teddy bear as a kid. It was my place to express myself, to experiment with what my “self” was. It was suddenly taken from me, just reduced to a plain room of nothing, by a hurricane of all things. No, I can’t go to the basement, it’s not an option right now. I finally realized the depth of my connection to and reliance on this physical space, and how fragile that really is.

My family and I decided to rebuild the studio, because we know it just needs to happen — and we are currently embarking on the renovation project — but I do feel a little differently about that space now. I don’t want to rely so heavily on a room as part of my identity anymore, and I don’t think I need to either. It’s especially vulnerable given the reality that the physical world will continue to change drastically over the next few decades, but that’s not really at the heart of how I’m feeling. Everything I found in that room — my musical identity, my gender identity, my voice, my confidence in my voice, and so much more — can exist inside of me. On the other side of these last couple years, I am at a place where I can hold all of that within me and take it into whatever room I’m in. I’m not leaving the basement studio anytime soon; there’s music left to make, and it’s just the beginning of a new era in its life. But it’s different now, and that’s OK. My recording studio is located in my parents’ basement, but I carry the room with me wherever I go.

(Photo Credit: Attis Clopton)

Miles Francis is an artist from NYC. Their first full-length album, Good Man, releases March 4, 2022. They have collaborated extensively with Will Butler (2015-present), Antibalas (drummer and conductor, 2010-2016), and EMEFE (bandleader, 2009-2016), plus Angelique KidjoAmber MarkTEEN, and more. They have a dog named Tony. Follow them on Instagram.

(Photo Credit: Charles Billot)