Published Jun 01, 2000At the beginning of April, when word first spread that Toronto recording studio the Gas Station was given 30 days to vacate its space a victim of the increasing gentrification of Toronto's lakefront warehouse district - it seemed like the end of an era for Canadian music. More than just a recording space, for the past eight years its proprietors Dale Morningstar and Don Kerr have nurtured new musicians and , teaching and learning as engineers, producers and musicians to some of the most influential Canadian recordings. The news struck a particular chord with us, since Don was featured on the very first cover of Exclaim! and Dale wrote a piece in the same issue. In the eight years since, many musicians featured in our pages put sound to tape in that space. In recent years, Don's commitments as one of the city's busiest musicians (Rheostatics, Ron Sexsmith) have taken him away from producing and recording, while Dale has kept his work in the Dinner Is Ruined Band close enough to play den mother to visiting musicians, making lemon ginger tea, leading trips for rotis, and as many musicians have expressed, maintaining "the vibe." By the middle of May, everything had changed. Rather than floating aimlessly, the studio had been contacted by an arts collective on Toronto Island, and the Gas Station had a new home. In its final days, photographer Barb Yamazaki caught Dale, engineer Steven Drake (Odds) and Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie capturing the last sounds put to tape at the first incarnation of the Gas Station.
Gord and Dale
A Temple of Rock'n'Roll
It's a special place, kind of a temple of rock'n'roll. It was great being around when some people cut their first records, their first time in the studio and having the greatest time of their lives making music. It's unfortunate that they have to move from the last bastion of space like that in Toronto, with two of the best rooms to record in. What made it different was Don and Dale considered the studio their personal art installation. You walk in there and it looks kind of boho and messy, but if you move anything, five minutes later Dale will have moved it back, because everything had its place. It became a meeting place for people and a catalyst for a lot of exciting music and events.
Dave Clark, Dinner Is Ruined, Rheostatics
It's like my favourite drop-in centre, kindergarten finger-painting location, mental institution or asylum taken over by the inmates. I got the only musical education that counts there. It's a community centre and rec room and tree fort and mad scientist's laboratory. That was the feel of it; it was open and free.
The best time I've ever had recording was making Clayton Park. My fondest memory was recording a cover of Budgie's "Nude Disintegrating Parachutist Woman" live off the floor, singing and all. It was friggin' heavy and for a while we considered putting on the record. Dale was chewing on a roti and maintaining the ever important "vibe." His recording chops were in top form and his embrace of the accidental combined with the fresh air and the view made for what I feel was the Hermit's best record.
Joel Plaskett, Thrush Hermit
Being in Tristan Psionic sometimes means writing words in the studio. The song "Camp Morningstar," on our new record, had no title and only about half the words it needed to get finished. Dale and Ian [Blurton] were talking about a place where bands would record all day in a big barn and spend the nights in "huts" out in the country. That place was "Camp Morningstar," where you could live free of the "black ledge" ? grime that lands on your window ledge in the summer if you live in the big city. I guess "Isle Morningstar" will suffice.
Mark Milne, Tristan Psionic
I was there, both in purgatory and paradise, when the studio was in the basement, and atop the ivory tower, and I just want to say that both recording experiences were revelatory. Thanks Dale, and fare thee well across the water.
Wayne Omaha became a band at the Gas Station; the place had this galvanising effect on us as a band. It's there in every single song we've ever recorded, and it will be so strange to lay down our next note in a different room. I felt really sad about it at first, at the end of the day, the secret weapons of the Gas Station are Dale and Don. At a session last summer, we were laying down the bed tracks for a song, "Sometimes." Dale disappeared behind the control panel, out of sight. We had no idea, at the time, that he was figuring out a killer slide guitar solo while we were laying down the beds. He laid it down right along with us. We had no idea until the band headed into the control room for a listen. How sweet it was when those notes came in from nowhere! We freaked out! Another time we had a summer barbecue and invited 22 friends to sing in an a cappella choir with us. It was the best day of the summer, bar none.
Yawd Sylvester, Wayne Omaha
When we were recording Winning Hearts, Don and Dale were generous enough to let us stay right in the studio, because we were definitely low-budget. One night I'm sleeping on the floor, and when I woke up and looked down on the floor there were ants, and the ants had walked around the shape of my head and were going up the fridge because we'd left some food out. I felt part of something larger, or smaller if you wish. What did it all mean? Giving the artist plenty of room! Or like things were always happening there, in the middle of the night, and people were on a trail following their instincts and finding their sustenance.
Mike O'Neill, Inbreds
When I was putting out the It's Patrick single, it was a really exciting time for me. It was the first recording that I was sort of creative director, not having to answer to anyone. I was really excited about working at the Gas Station. Dale was so patient and accepting of our ideas. Dale didn't even seem to get as pissed off as I imagine I would have been when I gave him some second-hand tape I'd bought, and it was so old that it completely gunked up his machine. That was embarrassing!
Michelle Breslin, It's Patrick
Recording there was sort of like camping to tape. It wasn't the sort of place where you'd necessarily get a highly polished big budget pro-ass sound, but it looked and felt great and it made you want to relax and create. I was trying to figure out a schedule based on how many hours we could afford. Dale told us not to worry, saying "Let's just say that's how much money you've got and we'll make a record." Dale would pay close attention to lighting for different situations, often dragging in different lamps and moving them around to create the proper mood. I bet a lot of studios have a real "don't touch" attitude. The Gas Station was overflowing with instruments and noisemakers and gadgets so it was hard not to dig in. As long as you showed everything its due respect, you knew you were welcome to them.
Ron Kelly, Smallmouth
In 1996, my math-rock alma mater Secret Agent recorded three songs at the Gas Station. Me and my friends had been listening to a record by this weird old country-punk guy called Jon Wayne (not to be confused with the Hollywood actor) called Texas Funeral, which really has to be heard to be believed - you can hear the band get progressively more wasted as the album goes along. As we were lugging our gear up the freight elevator, we were reciting bits of a Jon Wayne song called "My Horse Shades" in our own silly way. Little did we know Dale Morningstar, our engineer for the day, was picking up on our little in-joke. We set up our instruments and started running through the first number, "No Winners No Losers." We kept fucking up the intro, and grew more and more frustrated. Sensing that such tension was not a good way to start the day, Dale stopped the tape, killed the power and led us out of the studio and down the street to Bacchus, where I ate the best roti of my life. Sated, we returned to the Gas Station to tackle "No Winners" once again. I held my breath. Then Dale's voice crackled through the intercom reassuringly: "All right boys, let's do this one for Jon Wayne's horse shades." We nailed that motherfucker in one take! A crucial part of running a good studio, one which artists want to return to again and again, is knowing how to make the artist feel comfortable, and forget whatever pressure they perceive themselves to be under. The Gas Station was such a studio, as much for Dale and Don's talent at creative persuasion as the space itself.
Johnathan Bunce, Secret Agent, Kid Sniper
Play Without Rules
Not only was the Gas Station an inspiring place physically, but a large part of the early magic was its accessibility - it was dirt cheap. For a young band with no game plan or budget, this meant that one could experiment without obsessing about ticking clocks. One of my seminal musical memories took place there after a long day of mixing, when Dave Clark, Dale, and three members of our band embarked on an hour-long improvisational journey on every available instrument hanging from the wall, opening my eyes to the joy of creating boundary-free music and teaching me how to play without rules.
Michael Barclay, Black Cabbage
On a really snowy winter night a couple of years ago, I went down to jam and goof around with Al Kelso (Blurtonia, Dinner Is Ruined) and Dale M. At one point, they started into a stream-of-consciousness comedy routine, and Dale had a walkie talkie keyed into a signal from a CB radio. He was picking up signals from people who were snowed in out in some remote area, and we started jamming with them as they were trying to get around and dig people out. We started going from room to room picking up different instruments to play, and we created an improv opera with a story and different operatic interludes. It was one of those completely delirious all night sessions completely high on having fun.
I saw Dinner in Ruin at the Drake Hotel and immediately Dale became my sole inspiration for guitar. I think Fancypants (my band at that time) may have been the first or second band to record at the Gas Station. I had a huge crush on Dale and I guess it was obvious, cuz his girlfriend at the time cornered me one evening and warned me to stay the fuck away from Dale. Also, Don fed me miso soup that he cooked up at the studio, and I had this crazy reaction to it where my stomach bloated and it looked like I was six months pregnant.
Merrill Nisker (aka Peaches)
I recorded the song "Bellyfish" at the Gas Station in 1995 with Dale. We set up Andy Stochansky in the big room with his drums, and Dale ran some lines into the concrete bathroom for me to play and sing. Dale also turned the mic on while I was pissing and singing to myself. (You're never alone when there's a mic in the room, as I learned.) We used that sonic gem for the song intro. I was always happy playing music at the Gas Station. And one of the sweetest love affairs of my life was consummated on the roof at dawn one summer, but I'm too much of a lady to mention that when I'm sober.
The best thing about the Gas Station was the freight elevator. There was something medieval about the pully and counterweight system that it used. You never knew whether you were going to make it up to the studio or were going to be stranded, hanging in the belly of this huge abandoned warehouse. In order to get the thing moving, you'd have to stick your arm through a hole in the side of the contraption and yank on a steel cable, all the while making sure that you got your arm out of there fast before it gets lopped off by the moving elevator.
Michael Timmins, Cowboy Junkies
I just found out there's a front entrance at the Gas Station. I always thought the fire escape was the entrance. I didn't like going up that thing in the dead of winter, on the ice black stairs often nervous to interrupt people whilst in recording sweat. The only time I recorded up there was to sing and play drums, believe it or not, on the Rheostatic's Blue Hysteria, but I have eaten quite a few roties up there.
More than once, while recording at the Gas Station, there would be a film crew working around the building. The alleyway and loading dock would be used as a backdrop for some violent gun fight. More often than not, the actors would be using semi-automatic guns that would fire off very loud blanks. Blood and guts and urban fear were being simulated here. The thing that struck me about all this was the building itself. Here was a music space, an amazingly creative and inspiring location. The building was just beautiful, the way the sunlight played off the walls, the view of the city, etc. It was an inspiring conduit towards productive work. Yet to the eye of an American made-for-TV location scout, it looked like the most dangerous and seedy part of town. A perfect backdrop to conjure up fear. Such was the contradiction of the Gas Station.
Michael Philip Wojewoda, producer
Windows that go on forever, squirrel dancing on the piano, Dale's kitchen-in the corner, never-ending ambient white noise, Toronto city skyline, high altitude perspective of hookers turning tricks in the parking lot, metal staircase into the clouds, sounds and space, channa roti, parking, parking, parking, parking where?, midnight sunlight movie machine, "can't you guys keep quiet? we're making a film here," broken instruments. I still have Dale's dried flowers. "I bet we can hit the giant KFC bucket from here." "I am a lineman for the county, where are you going now?" I spent lots of positive creative time at the GS, and recorded several complete and incomplete albums there. It was a funky cranky spot, but a studio is only partly the bricks and mostly the people.
Lewis Melville, musician, producer, co-CEO Drog Records
Corporate Crime Claims Another Casualty
The Gas Station had to close up its doors
Due to the demand of corporate whores
The high hogs trample independent art
Forcing indie musicians to depart
The bad business suits bilk without a care
Once a dream for the scene now a nightmare
Money over art it will always be
Since the ear of ignorance can not see
Brado Creamed Corn
Brado had hoped to one day record his material at the Gas Station.
Last Nights and New Beginnings
One of the final articles to pack into the 17-foot U-Haul on Sunday night, May 14, was the infamous 9' 6" totem pole from the corner of the sunny room. Don, Kyp Harness, Tim Mech and I hoisted it up and threw it out the window. As I watched it drop four floors to the ground, I couldn't help but think of all the times I'd seen walls of water tumble over Niagara Falls, having grown up in the shadow of the Falls. After the fall, the totem itself was fine - it's a heavy, huge thing! - save for its left ear being a little frayed. Surely it was a good sign and a warning: be careful with those decibel levels.
Then with one end of the first tape ever recorded on at the Gas Station (October 92) tied to a pole in the live room, I chucked the tape reel out the window, ran down the fire escape, grabbed the reel, and while spooling off the tape, ran around the building, up four flights of stairs, down the long hallway, back into the live room and placed the remaining tape and reel under a brick on the window sill and watched the tape hanging, shining in the wind. It was time to go, physically to the Island, mentally and spiritually, I hadn't a clue, but I knew the gods and ghosts were smiling on our studio tanned asses once more.
We are out of the old place and on the Island. We're just getting ready to start swinging hammers and soundproofing, but we're finding it hard to work because the beach is right here, the birds are chirping all around and the flowers are blooming. We are now in paradise. We panicked, people came through, and there was so much media exposure that Toronto Artscape phoned us and offered us a space. Here we are at the old Toronto Island school. We've taken over two portables, separate from each other and everyone else. It's stunning. We took whatever we could from the old studio, and now we get to be in the best place in the city. Hope to see you down here. I think we're gonna be happy here for a long time.