The Studio At Puck’s Farm

The Studio At Puck’s Farm
Driving up the lane at Puck’s Farm, it’s somewhat surprising to discover that it is an actual farm, with everything from llamas to geese wandering around. There are plenty of signs welcoming visitors as well that might be interested in pony rides or might just want to stop in at the fully operational general store on the grounds. But for a growing number of musicians, the reason to come here is to work in the studio, a beautifully converted barn perfectly suited to produce classic Canadian roots music.

It’s therefore hard to imagine that the idea for the facility came out of what owner Frazier Mohawk calls a joke. Mohawk was already living on the property located between the towns of Orangeville and Newmarket northwest of Toronto, when, after a checkered career in the music business, he finally became sufficiently frustrated with the state of modern recording studios to undertake the hefty task of building his ideal space about 15 years ago.

"I’d had one of my worst experiences in a studio, to the point where people I was working with weren’t sure they would ever set foot in one again,” Mohawk says. "I wasn’t about to give up though, so first I decided to build a small four-track room in the barn. We quickly realized we couldn’t fit a band in there, so we sold the cows, started knocking out walls, and assembled some equipment. The elm beams and the stone walls really became the sound of the room.”

Befitting Mohawk’s background, the emphasis is on vintage gear, with the studio boasting the capability to record on analog tape if preferred, as well as a stunning array of amps and keyboards, including a pump organ, a Hammond B3, and a Rhodes piano used on dozens of Motown sessions. Engineer Walter Sobczak has worked on most of Puck’s Farm projects, and says that the attitude has always been to use the studio as a space in which to experiment, and consequently remaining flexible about time and money. Sobczak started out in the seminal Toronto post-punk band the Sturm Group before engineering such landmark Canadian releases as Maestro Fresh Wes’ Symphony In Effect, and the Barenaked Ladies’ gold-selling indie cassette. He then went on to form the mid-‘90s rap-rock outfit Raggadeath with Michie Mee, and it was Sobczak’s connections within the Toronto hip-hop scene that brought many of those artists to Puck’s Farm when it initially got up and running. However, he admits that since then a steady stream of singer/songwriters has become the primary focus mainly because of aesthetics.

"We don’t really want the first thing people notice about our projects to be the production,” Sobczak says. "We want people to say ‘That’s great music,’ which is why we encourage artists to take time to get comfortable here and work on their songs if they have to. I like to treat the main room almost like a concert hall, which is why we’ve had a lot of jazz ensembles come here to record recently too. Recording here usually comes down to what Frazier likes to say, catching the wind.”

For young musicians well schooled in rock history, much of the mystique of Puck’s Farm lies in simply meeting Mohawk. Before changing his name, he was Barry Friedman, an influential figure in the mid-‘60s L.A. scene through his work as an A&R rep for Elektra Records, and most famously as a key component in the birth of Buffalo Springfield. It was he, so the legend goes, who was with Stephen Stills when they spotted the hearse driven by Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, newly arrived from Toronto. Once all together and settled at Mohawk’s house, he snatched the nameplate from a Buffalo Springfield steamroller parked on the street, stuck it on a wall, and declared to everyone that that was going to be the name of the band. "It was really just a spontaneous act of vandalism,” Mohawk jokes. He goes on to speak candidly of the many other well-known people with whom he shared friendships, among them Jim Morrison ("He liked to use my swimming pool, and he always observed everyone closely”), Nico ("She had a thing for guns”) and Wolfman Jack ("He’d play any record for fifty dollars”).

However, as a copy of the first demo he made with a 17-year-old Jackson Browne hauntingly fills the control room, it’s clear that Mohawk’s priorities haven’t changed at all over the years. In fact, he still keeps in touch with Elektra founder Jac Holzman as a means of promoting new talent in the U.S. "We want to help develop singer/songwriters here,” Mohawk says. "There’s so many great young artists in Canada, and we try to give them whatever they might need to make the best recording possible. We always want to hear demos.”

But with what from a casual glance seems like an idyllic life on Puck’s Farm, Mohawk has no plans to return south of the border. "There’s an honesty here,” he reflects. "L.A.’s a pretty jive-ass city. People come there with an agenda or a plan, and you end up becoming a part of their plan. The music here I think has a purity to it, generally speaking.” For more information about The Studio At Puck’s Farm, go to www.pucksfarm.com/studio.