Tony Dekker is the man behind the Toronto-based folk/ambient/atmospheric rock of Great Lake Swimmers, which Mojo Magazine has aptly dubbed "ambient zen Americana." His 2003 debut album, Great Lake Swimmers, was recorded in an abandoned grain silo not far from where he grew up in Southern Ontario. In addition to the amazing natural reverb of the tall, metallic silo, the recording sessions took place at night and contained a bed of droning crickets and other field insects which Tony had no choice but to leave in the recordings. The combination of this production with Dekker's intensely haunting and emotional songwriting made for an album that completely blew me away — one that I listened to obsessively, that not only appealed to the part of me that loves pure, honest and melodic music, but the minimalist and experimental side as well, the part of me that loves exploring and embracing accidents. His 2005 album Bodies and Minds was recorded in a church, and 2007's Ongiara was mostly tracked at Ontario's Aeolian Hall. Different spaces seem to be important to Tony.
It seems like you use the organic room reverb of actual spaces. Did you do any reverb processing afterwards?
We tried to stick to the room sounds — that was the whole point. Not on the silo recording, but in the church recording there were a few instances where we had to enhance something like a minor detail here and there for continuity. But the whole point was to use the space and the sound of the space. With the church it was the same thing [as the silo] — we used a lot of different types of microphones at varying distances. We spent more time mixing than recording, that's for sure — at least double. I'm becoming more and more concerned with technical performance, but that was almost secondary to playing and capturing.
With the silo recording, what were your ideas about the insects in the background?
It was more of an accident than anything. I didn't go out there with the intention of making a recording with background noise and stuff. When we listened back after the first day we realized [the insects] were on every single track that we recorded. I thought about just scrapping it and trying to find somewhere else where there wasn't any sort of noise. But we decided to keep the tracks we recorded instead of trying to EQ out the noise or get cleaner takes. All that stuff was getting into the recordings — the guitar tracks, the vocal tracks — all of that stuff.
Did it grow on you?
It started to raise more questions to me about recording — how and where, and environmental sounds. It's become kind of an obsession now. At the time it was an accident, but now whenever I think about recording I think about it in those terms, about how place and space are the most important starting points.
Did you record just the guitar and vocals there? Or did you bring some of the other guys out?
We basically recorded all of the guitar and vocal tracks. All the acoustic guitar and vocal tracks, including the vocal overdubs, were done in the silo. And then we worked on the record for about two years after that actually. I was working at a full time job so we could only work on the weekends. I have little to no knowledge of how to engineer sound so I had to work around Victor Szabó's schedule.
He engineered the album?
He's a Toronto native — basically, at least at that time, more of a drum n' bass kind of DJ. I knew he'd be a good person to work with. But it took a long time. Not only were we limited by our schedules, but we had so much material to go through. On every take we used about eight microphones. "Oh, this guitar take didn't sound quite right. I could do a better take. Can we save that one?" So we'd have eight guitar tracks and then trying it again we'd have another eight tracks and maybe an overdub would be another eight. So, you can see how it starts to pile up. Same thing with the vocal takes — we had the whole thing rigged up. So there was a lot of decision making in the mixing.
Then did you go into a studio at that point, for other instrumentation? Drums?
We continued to use this portable setup that we had in the silo to basically go where we needed. I had a friend who worked at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and got us into some of their rooms to record where they had nice pianos. I was able to get a few friends together to add some stuff to it there.
You recorded to a Roland [VS-1880] hard disk recorder?
So you'd just bring that around to your friends?
I also read that you guys sort of had a bit of trouble with the owner of the silo.
It wasn't exactly an ideal working environment as far as making music goes. I just thought it was an abandoned farm — I didn't think anyone cared about it. Someone out there probably saw that there were lights on in a place that doesn't have electricity and figured something bad was going on. They contacted the person who owned that plot of land. Thankfully it was someone I knew from my home town. Everybody knows everybody — it's a pretty small town.
Did you give him a CD?
Yeah, I did actually. [laughs]. After it was done I came down and dropped one in his mailbox. Since we had all this electrical equipment set up outside you couldn't really work if it was raining a little bit. In September it already started to get cold and in the beginning of October at night it became hard to do because it started to get really cold. We were recording inside the silo, but all the equipment was set up outside.
Did you have a generator?
Yeah, we brought in our own power source. The only thing we could find was this big, old gas-powered generator. I know they make battery-powered generators, but this one was designed to work for 8 to 12 hours on one tank of gas.
It must have been loud.
It was loud, but we shielded it in this old shed that had rotted out. But the roof was still intact — sort of. We ran about 60 feet of extension cable from it. The entrance to the silo was on the opposite wall of the shed. So it wasn't even an issue in the recording, in fact. Given enough time I think it would be great to do something like the silo sessions again. But it takes a lot of effort to record in a real volatile space because you have to really be patient and you just have to make do with what you have.
With Bodies and Minds you recorded in a church?
St. Theresa's Church, in Long Beach, Ontario. The church scenario was much more controlled than the silo. For one thing, we didn't have to deal with weather conditions. Moving the recording equipment indoors was a significant difference. There was electricity in the church, so that wasn't an issue.
Can you explain a bit about how you set up?
The setup was semi-permanent while we were there. We had to stop and clear the microphones and drum set for certain hours on the weekends so that they could hold mass. Once the congregation had left we could set up again. We had a lot of the microphone positions marked off with masking tape so that we could maintain some semblance of sonic consistency. I should describe the layout of the church a little — there were two main rooms that were joined by a huge door on rollers that could be opened or closed (we left it open). One room was almost all concrete and was considered the "hall" portion of the church. It is a quite large, reverberant space. We did most of the recording for Bodies and Minds in this large concrete portion of the church. The other "chapel" part of the church, by way of the enormous door, was almost entirely made of wood with big beams in the ceiling and hardwood floors. We did certain takes and parts in the more wooden space when we decided it was appropriate. Engineer Andy [Magoffin] had set up in a small adjoining room to the big concrete space as a control room. I think it was the room where the priest gets ready to say mass. It proved to work really effectively against sound leakage. Cables were run out into the different sections of the church to capture a whole array of different vantage points. Andy brought part of the sound rig from his studio in and basically created a portable working studio environment in the church.
The same Roland VS recorder setup?
Both Bodies and Minds and Ongiara were recorded with Digidesign Pro Tools by Andy. I'm not sure which kind of microphones or preamps he was using, but we used several mics. Again, the idea was to capture as much sound as possible on each take and on each instrument and then sort through everything in the mixing process. It definitely took a lot longer to mix the record than to record it...
What space was Ongiara recorded in?
That one was recorded in the Aeolian Hall, a concert hall-type of space in London, Ontario. Both these records were mixed at Andy's studio [The House of Miracles]. Dale Morningstar also did some initial recording for Ongiara at his Gas Station Recording Studio on Toronto Island. All three of these records were self-produced by me.
Will you be looking for new spaces for the next album?
I'm not too concerned with looking for spaces right now. I'm more concerned with writing and stuff now. We had a really busy year touring and I'm sort of having a little bit of downtime right now. There's a few little shows coming up. But I kind of feel like I want to have most of a body of work together before I look for another space.
Do you think the songs will dictate the kind of space you record in?
I don't think necessarily. With the other spaces there just ended up being a sort of synchronicity between the spaces we recorded in and the songs themselves. It wasn't overtly planned. But it asks a bigger question about the relationship between songs and space and place. I'm still in the process of figuring that out. In the past the work hasn't necessarily dictated the space.
Where does your desire for this sense of space come from?
At first it wasn't really a conscious thing, just recording a good group of songs that I felt strongly about in an interesting space and accepting everything that came with that. I should stress that I wasn't trying to make a lo-fi recording or an inferior recording on purpose. I rented a lot of expensive microphones. It was important to me to get really true sense of what it sounded like to play the instruments in the room. That's where that sort of ambience comes in. It gives you an impression of the space as well as the songs. The space becomes an instrument in a way. You can see it as providing texture, but I think it does more than that — it helps tell the story. The effect of singing or playing in a room changes the way you perceive the sound. I think the thing about doing it in a real space as opposed to using an [artificial] effect is that there are obviously imperfections you have to accept in terms of background noises and sounds.
Great Lake Swimmers' recent album, Lost Channels, came out in March 2009 and was recorded on the Thousand Islands (Lake Ontario) in some of the area's most historic landmarks including St. Brendan's Church and Dark Island's Singer Castle. It looks like Tony's ideas of place and space has been kept very much alive in their recordings.