Published Feb 21, 2011As a band that built their reputation on getting the most out of the least amount of recording equipment necessary to make an album, it's no surprise that Cowboy Junkies' Clubhouse studio is modest ― not much different, in fact, from any band's rehearsal space, decorated as it is with touring souvenirs and gig posters. The converted garage situated amidst a row of other anonymous cinder block boxes within Toronto's Little Italy neighbourhood has been the Junkies' home base for the past decade, established at the same time the group's long-held goal of breaking all non-essential record company ties became a reality.
Cowboy Junkies, formed in 1985 by siblings Michael, Margo and Peter Timmins, along with long-time friend Alan Anton, are currently holed up here, completing their ambitious Nomad Series: four thematic albums, the first of which, Renmin Park, has already brought the band the most acclaim they have received in years. The second instalment, Demons, a powerful collection of material written by their close friend, the late Vic Chesnutt, has just been released, and the third, Sing In My Meadow ― described by guitarist/songwriter Michael Timmins as a showcase for their raw, improvisational side ― is tentatively slated to be available for download this spring.
Michael says that the Clubhouse originally served their need for a permanent rehearsal space, but once he became more active in demoing his material, it quickly became their own recording studio. Nearly all of the Junkies' output since 2004's One Soul Now has been laid down here, a dramatic change from their early efforts such as The Trinity Session and The Caution Horses, where the setting they chose played as crucial a role as the music. Still, capturing performances by the four core members together in the same room remains the top priority for each new project. "The way we've made records in the past is not dissimilar from how we work here," Michael says. "The biggest difference now is that with digital technology we can record while we're working on a song, whereas before we would have to be totally prepared before we started making an album. I'm basically the engineer in here, so I like to record everything and then delete stuff later that we don't want."
Michael's digital recording unit of choice comes from Vancouver-based iZ Technology, which he says gives the closest approximation of analog tape that he's heard. He is not a fan of ProTools, and similarly he and the rest of the band have stuck with most of the gear that has always provided the Junkies' trademark sound, including the same Swedish-made Milab microphone that Margo has recorded her vocals with for years. It was one of the many facets introduced to the band by the person Michael refers to as his recording mentor, Toronto producer Peter J. Moore, who was in many respects the sonic mastermind behind The Trinity Session.
Moore's methods of manipulating ambient sounds have been carried over to the Clubhouse, with its relatively straightforward arrangement of the instruments in one room and Margo in another, in her customary seated position, still able to make eye contact through French doors. "That shields her a little bit, and we'll also put guitar amps in separate rooms, but for me bleed isn't really a concern," Michael says. "It's all about performing a recording and not labouring over it. We're always on the road, so there's never really been any difference for us between being on stage and being in the studio."
The struggle to strike the right balance between stage and studio was evident throughout the decade that followed Trinity, although Michael chalks that up in large part to poor mixes. "We've often had trouble in that area precisely because we've always approached the studio as a live experience," he says. "There was really no mixing involved with our first two albums, so for a few years after that, when we began recording in real studios, we would have this sound in our heads and it would get lost in the mix. But more and more I've been getting more confident at mixing, and slowly we've been getting the proper gear to do it. Demons was the first album that we've mixed here."
The Cowboy Junkies' recording technique has indeed come a long way from the single Calrec Ambisonic microphone that produced such remarkable results on Trinity, but Michael says that in truth, it's the band members' shared perspective on songwriting that has altered their overall approach since the late '80s. "The atmosphere for each album now seems to be dictated more by the concept behind it," he explains. "For example, for this third part of the Nomad Series that we're doing now, our intention from the start was not to do any overdubs, so it's going to be a very live, thrashy sounding record. The one thing that stays consistent though, is that we all love the space that exists within our music, and we never want to lose that."