Exclaim! - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - By Ian Gormely

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 one piece of gear 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, the stu­dio 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 Nich- ol­son and O’Brien pro­duced Ja­son Col­lett’s 2010 record Rat a Tat Tat. “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.

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’ll re­mem­ber is be­ing down here laugh­ing.”

“Look­ing back on the years, all I’ll re­mem­ber is be­ing down here laugh­ing.”

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