A & E MUSIC | Studio Tan
Think of the Canadian music industry and your thoughts probably turn to Toronto, home to most of the country’s record labels and media outlets like MuchMusic and MTV Canada. Or Montreal, much hyped a few years back and still full of promise. But smaller cities are players too. Hamilton’s reputation as a musical hot bed is well-established. But some might say that in Hamilton there’s more of a scene than an industry; a small clutch of artists and players whose career is about playing to one another as much as it is playing to fans. Yet there’s an industry here all the same. Indie rockers, promoters and even entertainment writers are a part of it. The foundation was laid by the engineers, producers and players less likely to become famous. Daniel Lanois is a rare exception – a producer who became internationally lauded and who made it, to some extent, as a performer as well. Most others are known in music circles, but not in the general public.
Backing up the artistry, there are often session players – basically the guns hired to play shows and studio sessions. There are also producers; the people who guide the artist through the recording process and help them realize their musical vision. Both groups may be songwriters and performers in their own right, but their bread and butter comes from the heart and soul they put into the music of others. They’re the ones who often enable others to be in the spotlight, and their skills are crucial. They’re the ones humble enough to let others shine. While there are too man of them to profile here, consider this a small window into the world behind the music.
Jesse O’Brien played his first gig, with his father, at the tender age of 12. A few years later, Dad introduced Jesse to Ronnie Hawkins, and the teenager launched into a much-lauded career as a keyboardist. He was inspired by the late, great Buffalo-area keyman Stan Szelest (one-time member of The Band), whose ability to play any style of music was something O’Brien took to be a prerequisite for a music career. “You have to play everything to get by,” he says. “Half the time when you show up at a studio, you don’t even know if you’re walking into a country session, a jazz session, or a pop session.”
O’Brien has indeed played everything – with the likes of The Band, King Biscuit Boy, Juno-winning bluesicians Fathead and young singer-songwriter Matthew Barber. Recently he has toured with Colin James, with whom he will play the London Blues Festival. It was at this festival, five years who, that O’Brien’s most memorable moment occurred when he was invited on stage to play a set with Levon Helm, legendary drummer for The Band.
Yet even such brushes with greatness are not O’Brien’s motivation to continue honing his craft and staying in the music business. “Whether it’s an award-winning band or someone in their home studio, it’s their dream, their project,” he says. “In some small way, you’re helping them reach the end – and that’s why I do it.”
Few session players in Hamilton have reached the international heights of Bill Dillon. Yet Dillon began his career as many of his contemporaries did, playing bars and clubs across southern Ontario. “A friend told me they were working in a band,” Dillon says, “playing locally six nights a week, plus matinees. After two months of grade nine, I got the gig as bass player in a country band. I was making more money than my father was making.”
Back then, between live shows and studio sessions, Dillon had little trouble finding work. He reached another level in his career in 1987, however, when friend Dan Lanois approached him to play on a Robbie Robertson album. After that, Dillon began to grow into the prominent musician he has become, largely due to his unique style and the innovative ways he could complete the atmosphere of a song. International superstars such as Sarah McLachlan, Counting Crows, Joni Mitchell and Peter Gabriel all wanted Dillon’s sound behind them.
Despite the A-list of collaborators, Dillon remains humble. When asked to name some highlights, he does not brag. “It doesn’t really matter what names I’ve worked with,” he says. “The highlight is they asked me to be there at all.”
Over the years, Dillon has branched out into so many areas of music that his career has changed course. Dillon has focused on his own studio and his own music. Still, he plays with those that approach him, always taking into consideration what matters most – the song. “That’s always what pulled on my heartstrings,” he says. “That is what keeps me in it.”
Most people would be hard-pressed to name a famous recording studio, but Hamiltonians might recognize the name Grant Avenue. While the studio (sited on its namesake street) is connected to producers like Lanois and bands like U2 (who recorded much of The Unforgettable Fire album there), the one constant at Grant has always been musician and producer Bob Doidge.
Doidge began his career in the ’70s with Ian Thomas’s band Tranquility Base. It was while with that band, in a giant, warehouse-like studio in Toronto, that he got his first taste of life behind the mixing board. Today, small basement studios are plentiful, but back then there was nothing of the sort. Doidge and chum Dan Lanois were among the first when they opened a studio in the Lanois family basement, mostly with gear they had to build on their own. Before long, they bought the nondescript Edwardian house that would see a non-stop parade of formidable talents, from Gordon Lightfoot to Johnny Cash (“He walked in the door – and the legend had arrived,” he recalls of Cash’s entrance). Yet Doidge’s deep connection to the studio, and what keeps him at the controls, has nothing to do with waiting for the next high-profile client.
“It comes down to musical moments,” he says. “I can be just mixing some song I’ve already recorded and suddenly I get that shiver and think ‘Oh, man. There. I’ve got it.’”
Brian Griffith is easily one of the city’s most ubiquitous and recognizable performers. Those familiar with his work are as likely to know his style of guitar playing as they are his trademark dreadlocks.
Music runs deep in the Griffith bloodstream – his “Uncle Jack” is none other than local legend Jackie Washington . And all those basement jams were destined to give way to a full-fledged career. “I started playing with my friends down in the north end,” Griffith recalls. “I can remember going to a jam and all my friends had these really nice guitars and I had this piece of shit. But you still just go and do it.”
From that early guitar in 1970, Griffith coaxed some incredible sounds. While there were lean days (Griffith recalls sneaking down John St. in the ‘90s, hoping to avoid his landlord), his abilities with jazz, rock, blues and other styles have kept him in high demand. He also plays a mean country guitar, which led him to one of his more memorable gigs, playing and touring with country great Willie Nelson. Despite this, he remained a part of the Hamilton musical community.
“I’d play in the Village,” says Griffith, “then fly off and do Letterman. It’s hard enough to make a living doing what I do, so you’ve got to be grateful. And I really am.”
Saskatchewan-born Dan Achen didn’t grow up with dreams of rock stardom. Even though he already played guitar when he arrived in Hamilton, it was only after he made friends with other music enthusiasts that he began to pick up the instrument more frequently. One of those friends was Kathleen Edwards’s guitarist Colin Cripps, and another was Hamilton songwriter and Florida Razors frontman Tom Wilson. Along with Wilson, Achen formed Junkhouse, and the rest was Canadian music history. Junkhouse climbed to the top of the Canadian charts with hits like “Out Of My Head” and “Shine.”
From the first Junkhouse release, Achen’s interest in guitar sounds grew deeper. As he had never planned to be a professional musician, he had also never planned to become a producer, but the profession has proven a natural fit. Achen runs Catharine North Studios – located not on Catharine Street North as you might think but in an old church on Park Street. Along with the studio’s open concept and unique look, Achen’s talent has attracted the likes of The Trews and City and Colour. City and Colour’s recent Bring Me Your Love, produced by Achen, debuted at #3 on the SoundScan charts in March.
Sales and hipster cachet, however, are only icing on the cake. “It isn’t how many records the artist sells after they walk out the door,” says Achen. “It’s how they feel when they walk out the door. In this business you can’t really control anything more than that.”
Despite the presence of some seriously talented women (Lori Yates and Kathleen Edwards, among others), the Hamilton music scene can seem like a bit of a boy’s club. Vocalist Lisa Winn is a notable exception.
Winn discovered her voice in high school, and went on to become a songwriter and performer after graduation. In her early days, she’d lend a hand to local players like Les Cooper and songwriter Rob Lamothe (with whom she worked extensively). Her session work really began after she received an invitation from Bob Doidge to perform on an album by the legendary Gordon Lightfoot. “He called and asked if I wanted to come and sing,” she remembers. “I thought he had the wrong number.”
Since then, she’s recorded with local artists like Jacob Moon, Shannon Lyon and Melissa McClelland. She even travelled to Japan with Canadian industro-pop outfit Jakalope. Winn is sought after not only for the quality of her voice, but for her ability to properly sing “back-up,” a different skill than singing lead vocal. Winn comes by this talent naturally; growing up on harmony-laced folk music, she’s skillful at learning harmonies quickly and blending her voice with others.
“You have to listen to the little things [the singer does] with their voice, and the notes they choose,” she says. “You have to remember that it’s not your song. You’re adding your touch to it.”
If your first job was playing bass in a show band in the Caribbean, you’d be likely to pursue a career in the field too. That’s how composer/musician Paul Intson began, forsaking regular school for a much more hands-on education. It was at these gigs that he began to learn about engineering and mixing; while the rest of the band partied after the show, Intson sat at the back of the room, mixing recordings of the evening’s performance on his four-track.
Intson was introduced to composition by the likes of Toronto’s Larry Lake and other composers writing 20th century art music and electronic music. Learning even more through books at the library, Intson eventually became a full-fledged composer himself. Today, he continues to play live (currently backing bluesman Steve Strongman), but he also produces in his home studio. His favourite medium is film, where he works as a player, composer, and music editor. Intson’s credits include several Canadian productions as well as films such as Saw IV, Ararat and the upcoming Nicolas Cage flick Bangkok Dangerous.
Working for Hollywood hasn’t changed the fact that Intson is a Canadian through and through – a fact made obvious by the one consideration he and his fellow musicians had while planning Strongman’s latest tour. “We play hockey together,” Intson says. “The tour couldn’t interfere with hockey.”
Danny Lockwood has long been one of the city’s best-known session drummers. Like Intson, Lockwood started back in the day when musicians found work plentiful, whether recording in studio or playing live. Despite the abundance of jobs, Lockwood never took his work for granted. During the early days of his career, he even made sure he had a backup plan. “I always kept my taxi licence in those early days,” he recalls wistfully. “And eventually, I didn’t have to drive cab anymore.”
Decades later, Lockwood would never find the time for a second job. Besides regular sessions on the skins at Grant Avenue, Lockwood is a regular on southern Ontario stages, and squeezes the odd job between his regular gigs (one of which includes jamming out with Toronto R&B/soul glitterati on his regular Sunday night gig at the Blue Goose).
Picking a career highlight is not easy for a man who kept time everywhere from Hong Kong to Bosnia, with everyone from Stompin’ Tom Connors to Jimmy Rankin (in no less Canadian a place than aboard the Blue Nose). Thirty years into his career, though, every show still matters.
“When I go to work I’m pretty excited when I get in the car,” says Lockwood. “Even if I’m not feeling too good, by the time the first tune is counted in, I’m feeling a lot better.”
During the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Glen Marshall was a songwriter and frontman for local independent pop heroes Altogether Morris. The band’s recordings (Take Me Home and the cassette-only Big Boots) were notable both for their songs and their sound – a warm, inviting vibe that caused other local musicians to take notice. Soon they began to invite him to help record their own material.
In part, Marshall credits his ability as a producer to time spent at Grant Avenue with successful engineers and producers such as Grammy winner Dave Bottrill (Peter Gabriel, Tool) and Mark Howard (Neville Brothers, R.E.M.). “You can’t help but absorb when you’re around the Wayne Gretzkys of your field,” says Marshall.
Marshall and his business partner, engineer and producer Michael Keire, recently reopened their Vibewrangler Studios in a new location in Paper Box Studios on Cumberand Avenue. Over the years, Marshall’s clients have ranged from rock groups to more eclectic artists such as local cellist Rufus Cappadocia and famous Indian vocalist Vishal Vaid. What brings them all through the door is Marshall’s ability to facilitate a collaborative atmosphere, to create a space where producer, engineer, and artist come together to ensure the recording captures the essence of the music.
“There are plenty of things that are important, technically speaking, I’m not very interested in that,” Marshall says, matter-of-factly. “We spend fortunes on our tools – but anyone can go buy a tool.”