Published Jun 26, 2019"Not even joking," Thomas D'Arcy says, looking at all the knobs and dials on his mixing board, "I would say five percent of why I became a music producer is to feel like I'm in a spaceship."
D'Arcy is joking, but there's some truth here too — "record producer" was never a career goal. "I didn't want to work with shitty bands to start off, and then work my way up," he says. "I wanted to work for a successful bands right away, and I didn't see how that was going to be possible."
But D'Arcy made it happen. We're sitting in the comfort of his control room at Taurus Recording, the Toronto studio he owns, located just south of the city's Little Jamaica neighbourhood. That he's forged a successful career behind the boards without enduring the shitty gigs that are a usual barrier to entry isn't as surprising as he makes it seem. D'Arcy spent close to two decades as an artist, from the Carnations to Small Sins to a solo career, as well as writing music for commercials on the side. He recorded many of his albums himself, falling prey to the same mistakes that producers and engineers make. "There is plenty of music that you can make with one microphone in your bedroom," he recalls. "But a lot of the work I was doing on my own was not good enough."
Taurus's exterior is as non-descript as they come. The rough, pastel-pink, single-storey exterior belies a fully functional studio that includes three control rooms, a live room and a spacious kitchen and lounge area, complete with shuffleboard table. The only sign of what lies beyond is a black silhouette of a bull in the boarded-up window on the front door. "It used to be a church. The pastor and his wife got a divorce and they had to split up their stuff. We don't record on Sundays."
Joining us are fellow producer Jon Drew, and mixing and mastering engineer Dan Weston, who rent Taurus's other two rooms. Their resumes reveal little common musical ground: Drew is best known for his work with aggressive artists like Fucked Up (he produced their Polaris Music Prize-winning album The Chemistry of Common Life); Weston is more likely to be mixing hip-hop tracks for MCs like Shad and Kevin Gates. Yet, there's a shared philosophy across their work-styles, one that respects the artist's creativity and time. "As a guy who wasn't recording other people and relying on people like Jon for so many years, it was very important to make the studio experience what I always wanted it to be," says D'Arcy.
Drew's career is a contrast to D'Arcy's. He has honed his craft over more than two decades, recording with everyone from METZ to Tokyo Police Club and the Arkells. They met nearly 20 years ago, when D'Arcy was recording with the Carnations at Signal to Noise studio, where Drew was an assistant. Small Sins later toured with Uncut, Drew's old band, and Drew brought D'Arcy into Dream House studios. That's where they met Weston.
D'Arcy and Drew eventually founded the original Taurus near Cabbagetown. "We had this big huge control room, but I was still just using it for a writer space," recalls D'Arcy. He quickly began working with friends like July Talk and Sheepdogs side project BROS. "I had no plan to produce bands still, and I didn't really want to be an engineer. But they just kind of started showing up."
The studio relocated last year, and Weston was brought into the fold. The live room sits between Darcy and Drew's control rooms, giving each quick access to the floor when needed. As he primarily does mixing and mastering work these days, Weston's room sits off the lounge and kitchen areas.
Drums, guitars, synths, and a Hammond organ that belongs to the Sheepdogs ("They're never gonna move it," says D'Arcy. "It's super heavy") are stashed throughout the space. There's even a vintage slapback echo chamber that used to be at Chemical Sound, now on long-term loan from a friend. When starting out, D'Arcy's primary sources of income still came from advertising work or film and TV placements. Consequently, he was able to funnel funds back into gear he knew would attract — and retain — certain clients.
Those lessons D'Arcy experienced early in his recording career were well learned; he was nominated for a Juno this year for his work on the Sheepdogs' Changing Colours and Yukon Blonde's Critical Hit. Drew's own Juno nomination certificate hangs in the bathroom, while Weston has a platinum record for Gates' Islah record hanging on his wall. Despite their skills and experience, they are all too aware that home recording has significantly reduced the need for their services, at least on the technical side.
But they still bring a lot to the table. "There are very few people who can take it from idea to complete finished product by themselves without going crazy," says Weston. Sometimes that even evolves into being a band psychologist, something Drew particularly relishes. "The reason why I produce records is to help someone else make the best music that they can." Playing the psychologist role is just part of the process. "It's very rewarding."
It's all part of an artist-first mentality that unites the trio. "The process of how intrusive to be or how non-intrusive to be with an artist, like how much production do they actually need?" says D'Arcy. "It's just being the chameleon — whatever role I need to play."