Tony Dekker making sweet music in a cave
Put an artist in a well-equipped studio, and the possibilities are limitless. Provided they enter well practiced, an incredibly amount of resources are at one’s disposal to ensure a smooth, rewarding recording process. Take an artist out of a studio, and the possibilities are just as infinite. No one seems to understand this side of the coin better than Great Lake Swimmers frontman Tony Dekker, who in the past felt his creativity was constrained through working in typical recording rooms. Dekker’s desire to escape from the studio has led him and his bandmates to record in intriguing locations such as an abandoned grain silo, a lakeside church, and even a castle. The 2012 release of New Wild Everywhere, marked the band’s first album completed in a traditional recording environment, though it wouldn’t be long before dreams of exploration got the better of them once again.
Last summer, Dekker’s ambitious search for new recording spaces took him below the earth’s surface to the province’s largest cave system in Tyendinaga, Ontario. It was there where he and his group members recorded music for their sixth studio album, A Forest of Arms, due out this April. Shortly after the record’s announcement, we went in-depth with Dekker about his subterranean recording experience.
Noisey: To you, what does the experience of recording in a studio lack compared to working in an unconventional space?
Tony Dekker: I feel like the music of this project has been a way to search for spaces that come alive when sound is introduced into them. There is an element of tuning in to the history of a place, which I also love. It contextualizes the recording, in a way. There is something to be said about being in a well-designed studio, for sure, but that can also be stifling in some ways. I’m really turned on by the sense of adventure that comes with elaborate location recording. We’ve come to see the environment as another element or sound layer to the recordings, almost like another member of the band.
How did you come across the caverns in Tyendinaga?
I’ve had a chance to visit some of the more sprawling cave systems in the U.S., but they’re actually a lot more rare in Ontario. The way the glaciers worked in Canada combined with the softer, northern stone didn’t leave very many underground spaces, and most of the potential caves were crushed under the weight of the ice. I’d been doing a bit of research and looking for something that might be suitable to record music in. Tyendinaga Cavern and Caves is open to the public during the summer, and they do really great tours that include the history of the area, which I highly recommend, even if it’s just a passing interest. I did the tour when I was on my way home from a solo show near Kingston, Ontario, and it was a really idyllic spot in the countryside that I had been meaning to check out for some time.
How much of the new record was recorded up there?
We recorded as much as we could, and ended up getting parts that were ultimately used for four or five songs. We also got ‘cave versions’ of a bunch of the songs that for whatever reason didn’t make the final cut. They work well as alternate versions of the songs, some of which will hopefully be released at some point. The guitars and vocals were the only things that were done live at Tyendinaga, but we also re-amplified certain pre-recorded tracks such as the banjo and drums back into the cave with speakers. From there, we re-recorded them with the ambient sound of the cave.
In what ways did working in a space like that affect your creative process?
I think it’s more about drawing a certain kind of performance out of the voice or an instrument. The recording process becomes an event. There’s an element of excitement in knowing that something like this has not been attempted before in this certain specific place. For me it comes down to a couple of things, and first and foremost is the beautiful natural reverb that you just cannot get out of a computer. There’s no way to fake it. It’s the sound of music happening in a room, with all of its sonic challenges and imperfections. I love tapping into that. On a more technical side, the creative process of engineering an album is definitely affected. There are a lot of unusual opportunities for capturing sounds in a cave, for example.
What would you say your biggest engineering challenge was while recording there?
Carrying all of our equipment in, and trouble-shooting the setup. Getting all of the lines sorted out and making sure everything was working properly. That took a lot of time. It was the middle of summer, but at that depth it felt like being inside a refrigerator. It was quite cold! We also had quite a few visits from bats. That didn't bother me much, but it gave our engineer the willies.
Did your instruments bother them at all? I’d imagine it would be tough to get good takes with them interrupting you.
It was actually really tough to get complete takes. Ten, twenty takes, maybe more, maybe less. Our time there was unfortunately somewhat limited. I wish we had budgeted a few more days.
Was the reverb in the cave tough to work with without the control over parameters that recording software gives you?
We were able to control the amount of reverb by using or not using the different microphones that were set up all throughout the cave. Some were very close to the source, like the singing or guitar playing, some were set back in the cave in a sort of mid-range, and some were way in the back. Depending on which mics were used during the playback and mixing, we were able to get different levels and perspectives of ambience.
Compared to your previous work outside of a studio, is Tyendinaga the most unorthodox place you've recorded with Great Lake Swimmers?
I think it comes pretty close. The first Great Lake Swimmers album was recorded entirely off the grid in an abandoned grain silo, and the second in an old church that I went to as a child. Ongiara was partially recorded on Toronto Island, and then moved to the historic Aeolian Hall in London, Ontario. Lost Channels was recorded in the Thousand Islands region of Ontario and the state of New York, where one of our locations was the mysterious and beautiful Singer Castle. As far as location recording in nature, it doesn't get much more unorthodox than being in a rock formation below the earth’s surface.
Do you have your eyes on any other specific places you would like to try and record in someday?
I’d actually love to go back to Tyendinaga, it’d be great to do even more. We also had an amazing experience in the Thousand Islands, and that area very much feels like a spiritual home for the band and the music. We were just scratching the surface during our time there. As long as this project continues I’m sure we’ll be searching for new exciting spaces to record in.
Calum Slingerland has gone swimming in two of the five Great Lakes. Find him on Twitter - @C_Slingerland