Like so many things in rock, it started with the Beatles.
Dave Azzolini wanted to play some of their songs with his friends — 30 of them, to be exact. The former singer and guitarist for pop-rock faves the Golden Dogs, Azzolini mapped out his vision — every song, player and part — on a spreadsheet. "There were probably about 30 people in here," says Jessica Grassia, Azzolini's wife and musical partner.
"It wasn't even for a show," adds Carlin Nicholson, who plays bass with retro rockers Zeus. "It was just for us to do it, and do it really well. We even had rehearsals."
The rather ambitious concert for no one took place at Ill Eagle Studio, a recording space on Toronto's east side that doubles as a clubhouse for a coterie of local musicians. Made up of two adjoining single-car garages behind a nondescript low-rise apartment building, it's hidden behind a sliding door. To the left is the control room; to the right, the live room. The unlikely and cavernous location belies its importance as a creative hub for some of the city's most prolific musicians, many of whom took part in what is now regarded as the first of the semi-monthly "Illeagle Presents" concert series, a showcase and fundraiser for the studio.
Nicholson "founded" Ill Eagle back in 2001 as a jam spot for his band the 6ixty 8ights, whose membership included future Zeus singer-guitarist Mike O'Brien and Bahamas' Afie Jurvanen. "It was super dank, super leaky, super dangerous," he recalls. Getting electrical shocks during rehearsals was not uncommon.
Working with friend Leon Patterson, whose pair of busted eagle statues gave the studio its name, Nicholson built it up, adding pieces of gear one at a time. Much of the wood they used came from the Backhouse, a recording studio he and O'Brien built in an old barn on Nicholson's parent's property in Innisfil, ON as teenagers. The control room monitors, which have never broken down, also originated there.
"None of us have ever pumped a ton of money into here," Nicholson says. A bank of ten Telefunken 672 preamps came from a friend who was shuttering his own studio setup, while Nicholson recently acquired a 32-track Soundcraft Series 1600 mixing desk, doubling the number of channels available. "It's always been bit-by-bit. Friends helping friends, people wanting to contribute to something."
The studio's rent is incorporated into the apartment above, which has been passed down over the years amongst a loose circle of musical friends. Azzolini and Grassia took over the place in 2011. "It's crucial that whoever's in that apartment is one of us," says Nicholson. "If it's a stranger, they'd never tolerate the power consumption." Also key is the apartment's washroom — the studio itself has no toilet or running water.
Primarily a place for rehearsals and making demos, things took a turn in 2009 when Nicholson and O'Brien formed Zeus and recorded their debut album, Say Us, in the space. The Golden Dogs laid down their album, Coat of Arms, at Ill Eagle around the same time.
Despite its emergence as a functioning recording studio, it was primarily reserved for people within its founders' orbit: Jurvanen recorded parts of his Bahamas debut there, and it's where Nicholson and O'Brien produced Jason Collett's 2010 record Rat a Tat Tat.
More recently, various members of the Illeagle fold have contributed music (and voices) to the online kids show Beans in the Wall. "There are so many people involved," Nicholson explains, he circulates a weekly schedule amongst studio regulars. "It's always been like one project after another for Mike and I to record or mix, just with the people that are inside the circle already."
Still, at least one person outside that circle was listening on Beatles cover night: Rachel Conduit, co-owner of the Handlebar in Kensington Market, who lives in the apartment building in front of the studio. She left a note saying that if the Ill Eagle crew were ever looking for a place to play, she had them covered.
Illeagle Presents has become a semi-regular concert series, organized by Azzolini and Grassia, featuring short sets from friends and allies. "We all had new projects coming up," says Grassia who recently formed FORCES with Azzolini. "Nobody knows who we are and we couldn't fill a room, so this was a way to present our new music."
That's followed by an extensive set of well-rehearsed covers (there's usually a rehearsal night) built around a theme like a meticulous recreation of Radiohead's In Rainbows, or TV show theme songs.
Nicholson admits that for years he didn't want the studio "to be a public thing," and all involved credit the Illeagle nights with opening up the space to the rest of the city. "Everyone's got these little pockets going," says Azzolini. "The dream is to bust that a little bit."
"We're getting better at that stuff, but I don't think we'll ever be 'open for business,' with a big flag," says Nicholson. "It's a special place. Looking back on the years all I remember is being down here laughing."