The Rooster

BY Vish KhannaPublished Mar 25, 2012

"Dove, is this the first time you've ever seen me play the cello?" Don Kerr asks his eldest son, who's sprawled on the floor of his dad's home studio, the Rooster. Engrossed in colouring a cardboard box, the six-year-old nods gently without taking his eyes off his work. In a sense, Dove's the reason the Rooster exists. Kerr once co-managed the fabled Gas Station studio with Dale Morningstar but left its romantic, rustic locale on Toronto Island behind for his mainland home with wife, author Claudia Dey.

"When Claudia and I started a family, I wanted to find a house that I could put a studio in because I didn't want two spaces," Kerr explains. "This basement is the studio but I've got a snake [audio cable] running up to the dining room and I do a lot of recording up there. So, I can use more of the house than just the basement. There's also another few cables running into that washroom. You can put an amp in there or a sax player or vocalist for the sound and isolation."

A gifted multi-instrumentalist, harmony singer, recording engineer, and producer, Kerr is perhaps best recognized as the long-time drummer for Ron Sexsmith, Rheostatics, and currently BidiniBand. A student of renowned Canadian drum guru Jim Blackley, Kerr has also worked with Sarah Harmer, Gord Downie, Peter Elkas, Bob Wiseman and Neko Case among others and is widely regarded as one of Canada's most accomplished percussionists.

After some frustrating guitar lessons that turned him off music, his life changed at 14, when he saw a cover band doing Zeppelin songs at a high school talent show. "The drummer was this super skinny, tiny guy but he had this monstrous huge sound. I just thought, 'Oh my God, I could do that.' At the time I weighed like 90 pounds and I was six feet tall, so to see someone who was as skinny as me making a huge rock'n'roll sound ― it was like the clouds opened up."

Empowered, Kerr began collecting an array of instruments ― bass clarinet, euphonium, viola, trombone, trumpet, tuba, cello ― and recording gear, tinkering with and figuring them out, both at the Gas Station with Morningstar and on his own. He also credits crossing paths with engineers and producers like Steve Albini, John Switzer, and Michael Phillip Wojewoda, who informed techniques he continues to utilize.

In terms of music, these days he mostly sticks to guitar, drums, and cello, which he often incorporates into records he's producing. "It's just a beautiful sound," Kerr says of the cello. "I can play drums on a whole record and sing harmonies, and if you sneak a little cello onto a song or two, it just adds another colour. That doesn't happen on every record but some songwriters just like to have a different tone that's available to them here."

A real musician's producer, Kerr has invested the Rooster (named after the early bird he relates to, as a father of two) with his unique experience since launching it six years ago. As he was leaving the analog-ready Gas Station, Kerr embraced digital recording more; the Rooster employs the program Nuendo. "I've got lots of great plugins that I love but the main thing is the analog outboard gear, which I record through to get into the computer," Kerr explains, "and then I pretty much stay digital when I'm in there, unless I'm running tape-delay or something. But mostly I use digital EQs and compression."

By and large, though, Kerr's a hands-off collaborator. He's proud that the Rooster is a plug-and-play facility where drums and amps are mic'd up so that bands can begin recording within 15 minutes of arriving. From there, he's ideally just a facilitator. "A producer is just someone you trust with your record. The producer doesn't have to touch any of the gear or know what chords are being played. Like Rick Rubin ― he doesn't touch anything. He's a genius. He knows. He has a vision. Daniel Lanois or Danger Mouse too; [it's key to] find someone you can trust, lean on, and say 'Was that vocal any good?' And they just tell you."

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