By David DacksPsychedelic, theatrically-inclined "Noh-wave" purveyors Yamantaka//Sonic Titan could never be described as anonymous, but their semi-detached Toronto home-slash-headquarters (aka "the Glory Hole") blends into this drab, west end streetscape in Toronto all too easily. But as soon as you get to the door and glance through the bay windows, there's a desk full of skulls looking back at you. This must be the place.
YT//ST drummer and multi-instrumentalist Alaska B counts between three and five people as roommates and collaborators in the four-storey house of creativity. She leads the way to a long, narrow room in the basement, which is clearly the heart and soul of the operation.
Artwork adorns every conceivable surface. Some wallpaper has been partially peeled off to yield blank spots, which are further illustrated. Riotously patterned fabric and multi-coloured paper is casually but stylishly arranged on most surfaces in the room, with the fabric likely dampening the sound a bit further than the DIY styrofoam sound insulation. Each camera flash yields a different-coloured reflection depending on which surface it hits. A series of Cyclops Jesus figures grin maniacally at you from one wall. At the other end of the room sits a jet black drum kit, ready to rock. This is where Yamantaka//Sonic Titan's Polaris Music Prize short-listed debut was recorded.
"We've got a massive house so we do different work in different rooms. All the recording will be in here, and all the mixing is done in another part of the house," says Alaska. "We have a couple stacks of other keyboards in other parts of the house. We have an electric piano that we use a lot live but we store it in another room so people can just go play it whenever. We have an electronic workspace in another room on the second floor so we'll just run up and down between them and work on things at the same time. Three of the people in this house are in the group so it's like a family workspace in a way. So for us to fill this with all kinds of gear is not remotely economical in terms of space. We tend to rent a lot of gear when we record so we don't have a lot of stuff sitting around."
The house also includes considerable space for visual art production, instrument repair, choreography and even woodworking and silk-screening gear in the garage. This hive of activity is merely the master control of YT//ST, since a lot of recording is done in Montreal; Alaska keeps her gear compact and versatile. "I mostly run around with a portable system. I use a laptop, and I have three different audio interfaces. I've learned to keep my entire recording interface down to a single backpack. When we get there, I borrow somebody's boom stand and go from there."
The modular, scalable system they've developed in this house will be fundamental to their development as a band. "When we sat down to write [their debut] we wrote it without having to think about a live performance, cause that record was meant as a soundtrack so we kind of took liberties that we wouldn't have taken in our stage show." In order to translate it live, "It required us to really embrace technology. We'd already started [to do so], but it made us really upgrade the quality. We learned how to do new things and that'll help us on our next record."
Yet it's not perfect. "Our house is narrow and tall and the work that I used to do [was] with 30 foot wide and 20 foot tall and 15 feet deep cardboard pieces. We can only work on one thing at a time. We have to plan them out incredibly well in advance. Also I'd like a space where I could record a grand piano. And [have] a grand piano."
Admittedly, after a few years living in Toronto, Alaska's getting restless about a possible move back to Montreal. However, between the Glory Hole's shared rent, noise-tolerant neighbours, and most importantly, increasing centrality to the band's creative process, she knows she's got a good thing going. She concludes with words an ex-Montrealer has likely never uttered in Toronto: "I was going to move but couldn't afford it."