By Ian Gormely"We knocked down everything," says Alex Bonenfant, recalling that first cold February day that he and business partners Adrien Gough and Henry Walter spent in the rundown, un-insulated space that now houses their recording studio. "Then we all got in our sleeping bags and slept beside the fireplace. We all smoked cigarettes and thought about our grandiose dreams."
Today, a platinum record for Britney Spears' Circus hanging over the bathtub in the downtown Toronto space known as the Dreamhouse is evidence of just how far those dreams have come. Walter, a pop songwriter who goes by the name Cirkut, now lives in L.A. and works with Dr. Luke's team. Gough, who along with Walter wrote "High for This" for the Weeknd, now runs Dream Machine Publishing, with song placements for artists like Akon and Cody Simpson. And Bonenfant is a successful producer — having worked on records for Crystal Castles and Metz among many, many others — as well as owner of fledgling local label, White Girl Records.
The studio space itself includes a large live room with accompanying control room, and four production bays separated by a lounge area; it still houses that same fireplace. But the Dreamhouse is more than a studio; in the three years since it opened, it's become a microcosm of Toronto's impressively diverse scene. "A lot of people have come in here nameless and left with a name," says studio manager Crispin Day.
Bonenfant met Gough and Walter while working as a studio assistant at Orange Lounge on Queen West in Toronto where the Halifax transplants were finishing an album for Last Gang Records under the name Let's Go to War. "The record came out and it failed miserably," Bonenfant quips.
Some months later, Bonenfant got a call; Gough and Walter were being evicted from their apartment and wanted to know if the producer was interested in going in on a new shared studio and living space. After searching "spiral staircase" on Craigslist, they found space on Bulwer Street, the narrow corridor best known as the alley behind the Rivoli and the Horseshoe Tavern in downtown Toronto. "It was a shithole," says Gough. Still, they could see the potential. "They dropped every dime they had into it and I dropped every dime I had into it," says Bonenfant. "It was blind faith that it was going to work out."
It quickly did. High profile clients, like Crystal Castles, whose second album Bonenfant produced, were in the space before renos were even completed. "I had [Alice Glass] out there singing and there was no window," says Bonenfant, referring to the piece of glass that separates the live room from the control room. "All the gear was under tarps. I'd pull out a piece of gear as we needed it."
The production bays were originally envisioned as the owners' living quarters. "We all knew that within the first month that it was not going to work as a living space," says Gough. "We all moved out and rented the suites to other producers."
Producers like Arthur McArthur (Rick Ross, Airplane Boys) and Carlo "Illangelo" Montagnese (the Weeknd), have already moved on, leaving three of the four rooms currently occupied; Jon Drew (Fucked Up, Tokyo Police Club) works out of one of the windowless rooms on the east side, as do pop producers Young Wolf Hatchlings. Thomas D'Arcy, who plays in k-os's band and has his own solo career since dissolving Small Sins, works out of the only room with natural light on the west side. The fourth, currently un-occupied room is the temporary home of Bonenefant's White Girl Records, home of Decades and July Talk.
Located in the heart of Toronto's live music scene, with community arts organization Manifesto next door and Six Shooter Records down the street, the Dreamhouse is part of a hidden cultural hub in the city, where a line between the Weeknd's dark R&B, Crystal Castles' brooding electronics and Metz's primal fury can be easily drawn.
"On a given day I'm up here doing a punk rock record, you've got John Drew doing a singer-songwriter or indie record, or Tom is writing for another artist or editing, the guys in the back have a pop songwriter there and you might have 25 people come through the door," says Bonenfant. "The amount of people I've met in the last year is mind blowing."
Beyond the aural allure of the vintage electro-acoustic piano, the West German microphones and the booming drum sound produced by the live room, it is the communal spirit that's made the Dreamhouse such a resounding success. "That's why a lot of the stuff that's come out of here has been really cool shit," enthuses Gough, be it top 40 pop hits or sparse indie records. "It breeds so much life into creativity."