Laying Down Tracks in Mono
Darryl Neudorf, who produces some of Canada’s finest recording artists, has put down roots in Mono and embraced the local music scene.
The mist has just about burned off the orange-tinted trees as Darryl Neudorf greets me in the doorway of his rural recording studio, just steps away from his Mono farmhouse.
It’s the kind of sunny fall morning that can make anyone feel smug about moving to the country, admits the acclaimed musician and record producer. “We had no idea. It was providence,” Darryl says of the choice he and his partner Tracy Pillsworth made to move here.
Darryl is not talking only about the physical beauty of the place the couple, with their four-year-old daughter Vivyan, call home. Though the vista is postcard worthy, Darryl is also referring to the fertile ground he has managed to cultivate for his production work.
At the time of their move in 2007, he and Tracy weren’t greatly concerned about exactly where to hammer in stakes. He says the location just needed to be within an hour’s drive of Toronto so it would be convenient for his clients to visit.
Neko Case, for example, arrived here to work on her 2009 album Middle Cyclone, which was nominated for two Grammy Awards. For his work on another Neko Case album and one by Blue Rodeo, Darryl himself earned a 2010 Juno Award nomination for engineer of the year. Other Canadian music darlings who have beaten a path to his door include Ottawa singer-songwriter Jim Bryson, whose 2010 album Jim Bryson and the Weakerthans: The Falcon Lake Incident was mixed here with Darryl and co-producer Dave Draves.
Most recently the Grapes of Wrath, a 1980s British Columbia folk-rock band, tapped Darryl, a childhood friend, to help them pull together a reunion album after more than 20 years of downtime. High Road was released this year to much acclaim.
When Darryl moved to this area, he hadn’t anticipated finding himself in the middle of a vibrant local music community. Now, he counts a growing number of area bands and musicians as clients and friends.
“We collided straight into it,” he says. “It almost feels like Orangeville and Mono found us. Now it feels so much like home.”
Like those who come from afar, local musicians are drawn to Darryl’s long and respected history in the music business. He cut his hit-making teeth in the 1980s as a drummer with the Canadian rock back 54-40, co-writing the group’s song “I Go Blind,” which went on to even greater fame when a cover version was recorded by the U.S. rock group Hootie & the Blowfish.
After Darryl left the band in 1986, he dove into his love of mixing and engineering and forged a career as a highly regarded producer. This work has taken the Kelowna native from a space in Vancouver’s gritty downtown Eastside to a resort-style studio in Richmond Hill, where the business was named Operation Northwoods.
When the Richmond Hill lease expired, Darryl and Tracy began the hunt that eventually led them to Mono. Here, he says, he was soon drawn into the orbit of the Harmony Rainbow Group, Orangeville’s multi-band music collective, some of whose members have gone on to record with him. He also produced Rural Change, an album by local bluegrass band Traditionally Wound. The disc won many awards, including recording of the year at the Central Canadian Bluegrass Awards in 2011.
On the day of my visit, local musician Cory Bruyea of the Brementown Players is on hand to work on the indie band’s forthcoming CD. Music engineer Arthur Sadowski has already recorded the initial tracks at The Tractor Shoppe, another Mono-based studio. Darryl and Cory are getting ready to layer on a tambourine performance. But first, Cory, who clearly knows the place well, pops up to the apartment’s kitchen to put on a pot of coffee for all.
“Word quickly spread that there was a prominent producer in the area,” Cory says. “I’m really excited to work with him.”
Local violin legend Anne Lindsay has worked with Darryl on many occasions and marvels at his ability to, for example, layer 12 or 15 string instruments and four horns onto a Blue Rodeo track, as they did in the band’s Toronto studio the first time they met. The Things We Left Behind was released in 2009.
“I was really impressed then,” she says in a phone interview. “He just did an excellent job getting a good sound out of everything.” Anne firmly believes “the best engineers are very great musicians themselves,” and she includes Darryl in this group.
Others point out that in his studio, once a carpenter’s workshop, Darryl has created an environment that inspires both raucous fun and roll-up-your-sleeves hard work.
A tour of the high-ceilinged space reveals a bohemian mashup of twinkle lights, colourful rugs, dramatic red curtains and thrift-store finds. Each piece is a conversation starter. The massive, garish floral chesterfield came from a Serbian student Darryl met during his recent teaching days at the Audio Recording Academy of Toronto. The curved bar in one corner was a roadside orphan labelled “free.”
The deep chocolate walls came courtesy of Winnipeg band Absent Sound, whose members bartered a painting job for time with Darryl. (An aside: This band holds the record for most bodies to sleep in the upstairs apartment. Darryl recalls it was eight or nine.)
The one-bedroom apartment is modest but fully loaded, with two beds and a couch to crash on. “I think part of the reason I started this career was that I wasn’t into couch surfing on tour,” Darryl says of his 54-40 days. “It can be a very dislocating experience.”
But for those who come and stay here, he believes, the opposite is true. “It makes for better music, being away from distractions,” he says. “Musicians tend to take it more seriously, get in the zone.”
An adjacent three-door garage was transformed into a venue for a video shoot and is now a private performance space, all very rock ’n’ roll, save for a table of items stored in Pampers boxes. They give away Vivyan’s history here.
Darryl says his daughter has learned not to barge in during recording sessions, which can’t be easy at her curious age. And sure enough, while Cory and Darryl are setting up, the studio door opens a crack and her little face peers in, her blonde hair sparkling in the sunlight.
When we settle in to talk music, Darryl seats himself in a weathered black leather captain’s chair. Clad in a black shirt that blends right in, he relaxes as the conversation turns from life in the country to work in the country.
The chair is in the centre of the room, nestled into a semicircle of monitors, speakers and computers, an arrangement that is a departure from the standard behind-the-glass setup. Connected all the while by earphones, Darryl positions musicians all over the room and runs wires and cables back to the mother ship.
He swings his chair to be part of a seating arrangement around a vibrant orange coffee table The wide-ranging reading material fanned out on it? Vanity Fair, Scientific American and Electronic Musician.
After almost forgetting to show off the framed Grammy and Juno nominations and platinum albums hung haphazardly on the walls of the stairway to the apartment, Darryl is keen to speak of a different kind of professional benchmark: knowing what he does well.
Spurred by talk with Cory of an interview in which well-known producer Steve Albini, of Nirvana fame, said that a good producer is one who captures a performance and doesn’t influence it, Darryl says he begs to differ. He prides himself on sifting through multiple tracks to find the “pearls” that will stay in a song. The rest can be edited out.
As a result, artists like Neko Case are happy to send him a variety of recordings by numerous musicians, asking him to identify where a guitar should stay or where a piano riff should be trimmed for maximum impact.
“I think the story of the song reveals itself,” he says. “So many times I’ve been sitting here alone at 11 at night, and I can feel a song is starting to take shape. I feel like I’m in an airplane flying really fast.”
This approach doesn’t always make for an easy conversation with musicians and singers. But those who work with Darryl say he finds a way to be brutally honest.
Chris Mateer, the Alliston-based drummer of the Toronto band Darlings of Chelsea, spent three weekends recording here and says Darryl delivers criticism with humour and finesse. “Once, I thought I’d nailed it. He said to me, ‘You nailed it. But it’s a bit slow. I want you to bring out your inner Thor,’” Chris says, laughing at the memory.
On this day, Darryl isn’t asking for Thor-ishness as he sets up Cory’s microphone about 10 feet from the soundboards. It’s a tambourine track, after all.
After a discussion about which setting will produce a rich but not metallic sound, the room falls silent and the two men, each wearing headphones and listening to a raw version of the song, turn away from each other and set to work. Their heads bob in unison for about five minutes as Cory listens for cues and starts and stops playing.
With a final flourish of the tambourine, Cory finishes and their work is done. They play back the song, agreeing there is now altogether too much tambourine. The track will be pruned accordingly.
For a moment this studio could have been anywhere. Then Vivyan appears. It seems that while the guys were busy making music, she was outside making her own art, pasting green leaves onto a piece of construction paper to offer Cory.
Here at Operation Northwoods, inspiration clearly strikes often.
Learn more at: darrylneudorf.com