interview / Jordan Blakeman
Mack Sennett Studios has made an explosion on the creative scene in Los Angeles since it’s re-opening under the guidance of producer and MSS President Jesse Rogg. A former film studio that hosted the great comedy stars of the silent days like Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett is now the go-to spot for anything from concerts to commercials to even slumber parties. We sat down with Rogg following our Issue #10 Banks cover shoot which took place at the studio to chat about his musical history (he’s a seasoned songwriter and one of the first to work with our Pretty Young Things songstress), the discovery of Mack Sennett while searching to being a creative hub for him and his inspirational contemporaries to come and connect, and what’s in store for the future.
Tell us a little bit about your personal background.
I was born here but I grew up in Germany. I lived in Munich for almost 20 years, went to school there and was able to grow up there which was nice. I’m glad I was able to get that experience. I moved back to LA in 2000 and all the while I was making music and whatnot. When I got here, I started working for labels and recording studios and became an engineer. I started producing and then I found Sam Sparro. We became friends in 2002 and started working [together]. That whole thing started popping off in a pretty major way and then we wrote the song “Black and Gold” which ended up being a crazy turning point. Literally within one week, we had every single head of every major label fly in from the UK to meet with us. Warner Brothers, Sony, Universal. It was crazy. It was the ultimate. We ended up signing with Island Universal which was awesome because it was the heyday of that era with Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, and all of these people in the UK that were doing interesting stuff in this pop world for lack of a better word.
Mark Ronson’s era?
Yeah, Mark Ronson’s disciples. We ended up doing stuff with Mark too, or Sam did, and it was all within that crew. We were touring with Mark. It was an awesome time and it took us around the world which was great. So that kind of solidified the whole me being a producer and from that a bunch of stuff came. I ended up being on tour with Sam because I originally managed him. I was also his co-writer and co-producer and then also his musical director in the band and his roommate in the UK. We were technically signed together as a duo even though I was the silent part of it. It was all-encompassing. It took us around the world and a couple years later I decided to focus on being in Los Angeles more and focus on my own stuff and my own productions and other projects. That was a couple years ago. Soon after I got back to L.A., I came across Banks who got brought to me by her manager and a good friend of mine, Trevor Skeet. [He] was like, “Hey, do you want to check out this cool girl I’m starting to work with? She was working at Barney’s and she’s rad so check her out.” For some reason I went ahead and did it. I guess I trusted Trevor’s instinct on it. He’s got a good track record. We hit it off and started crafting the sound around her voice and making weird, dark, swampy emotional stuff. She had already written such incredible songs and melodies and lyrics and obviously her voice is just ridiculous so after the first ten minutes of hearing her stuff I was like, “Let’s do this!” We still had to make a sound around it because it was still very rough at the time. Trevor was quite instrumental in that as well. That took off in a major way. I had done a lot of productions in the meantime but Banks was the one after Sam as the next big thing that came out of nothing. That was the special part about it. It’s always nice to create something out of nothing. If somebody is already famous and you make tracks that’s great obviously and it’s more of a sure shot but if you take a risk on something like that and it actually pans out, in this day and age especially, it’s extra special. It couldn’t have happened to a better person than Jillian Banks.
I left being on tour with Sam to focus on being in Los Angeles and I intentionally wanted to come back and try to find a space I could make into some sort of creative space or hub and that was definitely the main reason for coming back originally. In my search for places, I came across this enormously beautiful and spectacular place. It just blew my mind. I live around the corner [from Mack Sennett Studios] so I’ve driven by here millions of times but I didn’t know what was in here like most people who’ve driven by here. I was looking at all these real estate listings and one Monday morning I saw this place. I came over five minutes later and literally didn’t leave. I hounded the guy for months. He was sort of a kooky older guy who had been here for 30 years. This was his baby and he wanted to make sure it went to the right person so I shadowed him for a couple months and whatnot and here we are. It’s been a hell of a trip so far!
He finally trusted you.
Yeah, he finally trusted me and then we closed the deal last January of 2013. We got in here, we made a lot of updates and built it out and sort of made it nice and usable and friendly again. It was a little bit not kept up properly because he didn’t have the resources. He was just one guy. The dressing room downstairs and all this kind of stuff we made pleasant again. We’ve been really blessed with all of the stuff that’s come our way and we’ve been working really, really hard. My team is amazing and we’re so excited to have created this creative space for L.A. I think there was a real need for it especially in this part of town on the Eastside. There’s nothing really like it. There’s nothing really like this building at all because most of the time these types of old historic places get remade completely or torn down. Mack Sennett’s original lot is over on Glendale Boulevard where the 2 freeway starts. That’s a public storage space now. Most of those original places are not here anymore so it’s really nice to be able to give it a second life.
It’s crazy how it’s only been a year and it’s already become such a go-to spot. Everybody has been here I feel like.
Yeah, no, for sure. It is crazy. I feel really, really blessed about that and again I don’t want to call it a fluke because we have worked really hard at it but it’s nice to see that sort of reaction from people and be able to share this place. The city has been really supportive because people like the mayor and council members Mitch O’Farrell and Tom LaBonge and those guys know about Hollywood history.
What’s your musical journey? What did middle school Jesse listen to versus high school Jesse and so on?
I grew up in Germany so I had a very different musical upbringing in terms of the style of music. I was super lucky that my step-father was a real music lover. Not really a maker but a lover and he had literally walls, like our house was lined with walls full of vinyl. He collected a bunch of vinyl and a lot of early electronic music and early hip hop. He was a lot younger than my mom so he was kind of like an older brother. He bought me my first turntables for my twelfth birthday. I remember I had the litter mixer with the little sound effects on it. There were six dedicated sound effects. One of them was a bomb dropping like pheeew… BRGH!!
Where can I put the drop?
The original drop! So he had a lot of that stuff. Also he was in the fashion business, both of them were, my mother and step-father, so they always went to London and places like that for trade shows. They always brought back music but it was all electronic music so I grew up on electronic music. In middle school in the early 90s I was listening to jungle. That was my first proper love. Growing up I was always around music as a small child. My dad was always into jazz and blues and stuff. My mom was into all kinds of stuff. She loved to go out and dance. We had all these hookups in Germany with the concert promoters so we got to go. Literally my first show ever was Prince at the Olympic Stadium. We had all the Olympic Stadium shows we could go to so Prince, Madonna, Billy Idol, Bowie, and stuff like that. It was sort of like that big stadium stuff and then super underground, dark jungle-like drum and bass stuff. It was weird.
I love when you have a dichotomy though because when you get to see two different sides of things you really get this full understanding as opposed to being limited to one view.
I totally agree. I think it’s super important for people to have their ears open. As a side note, I think that’s one of the most interesting parts about the music world today. Even though everybody is confused about what’s happening in music, I think the big thing now that’s happening is that people are more diverse in their musical interests than ever before because they have access to so many things. You can have five billion songs on your phone so you’re bound to have different styles of music on there. I think that’s an interesting development but I’ve always been fortunate to have that mix of different styles.
Is there anybody in your life who’s been an influence in shaping who you are today, like a mentor figure?
My real dad. Even though I didn’t grow up with him in the same city because he was always here [in L.A.], he’s always been a real inspiration. He’s a real inspiration behind Mack Sennett Studios too. He’s a business man and he’s been able to mentor me in a great way throughout this journey. Musically, there’s a bunch of people but again my step-father from an early age. Without him even realizing it or knowing it, he actually did have an influence on me in terms of my musical direction. I told him that a couple years ago and he was obviously super stoked about it because he just had records because he wanted them. It wasn’t like, “Here, son, look at this.” He never did that. He had the records there and I listened to them.
On to Mack Sennett. I know you wanted to make a creative hub. Did you have an idea of what you wanted? Did you want a production space or did you know you wanted a space and you had a goal but you didn’t know what it would physically be yet?
Originally I definitely wanted recording studios as part of it too. Obviously it makes sense with my line of work so that’s what I was looking for. The plan was to have a handful or two of recording spaces. I was looking for a space with anywhere from six to ten recording spaces or production spaces and then sort of a flex space as I called it at the time. Some sort of flexible space where we can do events and shoots and whatever. Again, in my search, I kind of looked at all these different types of places and then I came across this and it was just the most glorious place I’d seen. So I was like this has to be the place. It is still part of my plan to put recording studios in the basement and build it that way. That was the first idea. There’s also an educational element that I wanted in there which is actually coming to life now with our music school that we’re starting with Point Blank, the school from the UK, which I’m extremely excited about. I knew the general stuff I wanted to do but I also knew I wanted to keep it as varied as possible. I didn’t really want to go down one route because it’s more fun to do different things.
There’s so much going on in so many different directions. I’m sure plenty of people look at it and wonder, “What is going on here exactly?”
Yeah, and that’s fine! I mean, when people ask me what it is, what Mack Sennett Studios is, it’s a creative space where we can do anything. It’s a blank canvas so to speak.
Now that you’ve been open for a year, what are some of the unexpected challenges and how did you overcome them?
One of the challenges is scheduling [and] trying to fit everything in. Because of the amount of different things we do we have to build these new worlds every day or every other day and change everything around. Today we’re shooting a music video for the band Train and then tonight we have a big event so they’re building this whole thing. They have a car in there, they have all this green screen, they have all this different stuff and then we’re going to have 400 people here tonight. There’s only a two hour window in between. So that kind of stuff but it’s fun. It’s a challenge more than a problem. That’s probably one of the bigger things. Just dealing with the production world, it’s hard. Plans change all the time, you have bookings and then they drop out and then you have an open day and it’s that kind of stuff. It’s all back to scheduling. That’s the biggest challenge.
From what I understand, the space came with a bunch of untouched memorabilia. Was it just sitting around?
Yeah, totally! It was! Again, the previous owner was here for so long and was just a one-man show so he didn’t have the manpower to get rid of a lot of stuff or make sense of a bunch of the things so yeah. There’s a bunch of stuff just sitting around still especially in the sub-basements. The ground floor is the two stages, upstairs here are the offices, and then there’s the basement which is about 12,000 square feet with a bunch of storage and then there’s our Mabel’s speakeasy down there as well and then below the speakeasy is the sub-basement.
There’s another basement?!
Okay. I’ve been down to one, I’ve never been down to the other. That sounds kind of scary.
It is kind of scary. It’s kind of cool though. They actually shot the opening scenes for American Horror Story down there. It’s actually Emmy Award-winning or nominated at least. It’s so ridiculously scary, that opening sequence, but it’s not that scary down there normally obviously. It’s just really cool. There’s vibes in here. It’s a very positive energy otherwise I wouldn’t be here. Good things came together to make this happen and it’s been a real positive place. The sub-basement has all of these original book-keeping records, these ledgers dating back to the 40’s and 50’s and original light lenses and old typewriters and all this crazy old stuff just sitting there.
What’s one of your favorite things that you’ve unearthed?
This is actually one of my favorite things [on the wall]. It’s this tiny little note that’s just hilarious. It says, “YOU’RE FIRED NELSON. August 20th, 1946.” We took the drywall out and that was just crumpled up inside of the drywall and it’s just the funniest thing. Just an old, burnt up piece of paper that says you’re fired Nelson from the 40’s. It doesn’t mean much of anything but it was enough to frame it. In the Mabel’s speakeasy, there’s all those wardrobe shipping crates and they’re from original productions of Gone With the Wind and My Fair Lady and Gigi so that always gives me a kick to show to people and see people’s reactions. It’s just endless amounts of things. I think the general vibe and layout of the place and history of the place is probably the most exciting part about the building. Everybody can sort of feel it the second you walk in. You just get this vibe.
I’m well aware no two days are similar but can you walk me through what a sample day could be like?
I guess you can divide the things we do here pretty cleanly into two sides. There’s the production side and then there’s the event side and then there’s obviously a bunch of other stuff in between. Productions obviously tend to start pretty early and depending on the type of production starts usually around 6 or 7 or 8 at the latest. We have our stage managers here, they help load in the situation and whatever may be. Sometimes it’s lambs like animals or it’s cars and sometimes it’s ridiculous stars and whatever may be. They set up and do their thing on the stage and we help out however we can. In the meantime, we work our butts off upstairs in the offices and create proposals, put together plans, and deal with clients and do more business-y stuff. We also are doing a lot of original productions so there’s a lot of scheming and putting our original ideas to paper to try and make them reality from creating these film clubs or creating specifics looks for events or putting together ideas for tv shows or whatever it may be. So that’s sort of on a production day. On an event day, we tend to be a little bit more hands on because there tend to be elements we tend to be involved with. We had Interpol play here a couple weeks ago. It’s more like a regular venue at that point except at a regular venue you have everything set up already so we have to start from scratch. We have our production assistants show up early to set up the stage, set up the lighting, all that kind of jazz. Have the band come in, do their sound check, and then it’s doors and that’s in a very condensed way. It’s hard to say it goes any which one way because it’s so varied and every day is different which again is the fun part about it.
With all of the different things that go on, what is one of the more unusual occurrences that has happened within these walls?
[Laughs.] I gotta say one of the funny things we did was this fundraiser for the school across the street. Actually, for a handful of schools. It was an adult spelling bee which is kind of ridiculous and I’ve never seen a crowd get so wild before. We’ve done some cool dinners in Mabel’s downstairs. We’ve recently did one for Beasts. It was an art-adjacent thing and there were performances and then that also spilled into the sub-basement. There were scary and interesting darker performance art things happening. One of the more sort of random things somewhat recently was a sleepover.
I was at that!
That was a pretty funny situation in terms of having a sleepover [at Mack Sennett Studios]. Having 200 to 250 girls here sponsored by an air mattress company with all of these inflatable beds and you guys had performances and you ordered these enormously massive pizzas.
They were 5 foot wide pizzas.
Yeah, all this stuff and then you guys slept here. I thought that was pretty funny and interesting as an experiment and I guess it worked out, right?
Yeah, it was crazy.
I would say that is probably one of the funnier things we’ve done or more random things because I wouldn’t have even come up with that. My Creative Director, Brandon Fuller, is awesome. He is very creative and comes up with all these crazy ideas.
Mack Sennett has been involved with the school across the street and you’ve also hosted city council meetings. Can you tell me a little bit about the studio’s community involvement?
I’d love to because we do work hard at that. We feel that we’re an essential part of the city especially of the Eastside so we feel a strong need to give back and get involved in our side and have the city be involved in our side. The first thing along those lines was we did an event with Chris Holmes back before we properly opened. We hosted a thing for then-council member Eric Garcetti in order to get him into office as a sort of ‘get out the vote’ campaign. He’s now the mayor. He ended up getting elected which we’re obviously very excited about. We’ve done a bunch of fundraisers for the Jewish Community Center right here, Flea’s music conservatory over there. We’ve done a bunch of their galas and music performances and whatnot. We’ve done a handful of fundraisers for the school here across the street, King Middle School, and then also some of the other local schools, Ivanhoe and whatnot. We’ve been able to raise over $100,000 every time so it’s been really exciting. It’s a great relationship with those people and they’re all so sweet and supportive and it goes both ways. Once you start with that it really feels nice and it goes both ways. We’ve also done a bunch of charity work for local hospitals and Huntington’s Disease with the HDSA Charity. It’s a pretty long list of fundraising activities and giving back to the community.
You’ve recently started hosting your own events at the space too. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve decided to pursue?
There’s a general move in that direction ever since we’ve started in our second year to curate and create more original content. It spans on everything from creating original tv shows and music videos and all of that kind of stuff to doing our own events. We started our monthly film club which has been going really great. We had a brilliant first one with In The Shadow of the Moon which is about NASA and the filming technology around NASA. Well, about the Apollo missions really. The most recent one was a documentary on the band of Montreal which was super interesting and trippy because they’re pretty heady. And then we’ve also been doing Full Moon Yoga events which have been really nice. I’m personally not much of a yogi myself but I’ve been getting into it. It’s been really nice.
I remember you being really excited about it before it happened. It was going to be tomorrow or the next day and you were so pumped.
I am pumped! I happen to be pumped up by a lot of things. I just get excited about things but I guess I’m excited about that kind of stuff because it’s another sort of feather in our cap in terms of doing diverse things. To be doing yoga, to be lying on our stage floor and be looking at the ceiling and being in a totally different state than what it normally is is just really awesome to me.
Let’s say you have an unlimited budget and can muster up any guestlist you can imagine – the Queen, the Dalai Lama, Suri Cruise. What are you going to go?
I can invite anybody or I can do anything?
You can invite anybody and you can do anything. The roof is the limit because that’s before the sky.
I wish the roof wasn’t the limit. I would love to do stuff on the roof actually. I would definitely build a recording studio in here, no question. I would also, hey, why not? I have an unlimited budget. I would make the roof retractable so it opens up and it becomes an open air space. That would be awesome. It would be rad for all kinds of different things obviously. We could have people skydive in, we could shoot rockets out. It can go both ways. We could do yoga under the stars. We could do outside garden parties. We could do whatever. It would definitely transform the whole place again. That would be pretty awesome, a retractable roof.
Stadiums do that.
Yeah, exactly. Maybe put a pool in the basement. An indoor pool could be kind of cool. In terms of people here we’ve already had literally my favorite people in the world. We’ve had Daft Punk here so I’m pretty much good on that. Paul McCartney was here which was very crazy too for Spike Jonze’s Oscar afterparty back in February. That was amazing and I got to meet him and he danced for hours. It was pretty surreal. I had Pharrell here, that was pretty awesome, for the “Blurred Lines” shoot. I think he’s actually been back since. Michael Jackson is here in spirit even with the “Remember the Time” backdrop in Stage 1. He’d probably be the one main guy that I would want here but obviously he’s not around anymore.
Now that you’ve established yourself, what can we look forward to seeing in the future?
Like I said, more original stuff from us. Our bread and butter is to rent out the space and we love that and we love to have the diversity with that but we’re also, my whole team, on the younger side either in their late 20s or early to mid-30s and we’re all creative. We all come from the creative industry so we have a lot of ideas. We’re looking forward to putting those on paper and making them real as well. We have an entrepreneurial conference coming up, like a tech and education and entrepreneurial conference called Tech Out. We’re doing an Eastside food fest. There’s obviously going to be a whole lot of holiday parties and a bunch more original productions and endeavors.