Trying to find those good vibrations

In between recording and performing there is the jam space

Jean-Guy Roy (left) and Rob Mitchell (right) of Federal Lights practice in Roy’s basement. Nicholas Friesen

Basements, garages and lofts. These are the places where most people store old magazines, park their cars and hide all variety of contraband. These rooms exist on the periphery of your house and your consciousness, but it is in these places that a good deal of musical creation and production occurs.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the relationship between the visual arts and the spaces where they occur in all their various and splendid forms. But what about music?

Jean-Guy Roy, the main man behind local project Federal Lights, presents an interesting case in point. Federal Lights is based in Roy’s basement in the only available room.

“It’s basically enough room for one person to stand and one person to sit with all the gear in there,” says Roy. “And it’s really cold. It’s not very inviting.”

That’s because it’s a cold storage room, designed to store food, not people. While Roy uses the room mainly because it’s the only room in his house that’s not already being used, it turns out there are certain advantages to the space.

“It’s a horrible, horrible environment,” Roy says. “But it seems to be the perfect environment to keep focused and get things done.

“Basically Rob (Mitchell) and I would just lock ourselves in there with a case of beer or whatever and just give ‘er,” he continues. “There’s nothing else to do in there except get the job done and get out.”

The inhospitality of the space gives a sense of urgency to the musical operations within. In a practical sense at least, the cold storage room becomes a part of every Federal Lights song written, rehearsed or recorded there.

“It’s a lot of ‘That’s good enough’ and ‘That’ll work’ kind of thing,” Roy says. “There’s no perfection happening in that room and that’s kind of the nice thing about it.”

But the impact of this particular space on Roy’s music goes deeper yet. Beyond forcing him to wear slippers and stay focused, the room resonates, literally, on every track that Roy records there - an essence de storage froid, perhaps.

Pictures of Jim Morrison and Daisy Smurf and Louis Riel. Crystals and stuffed owls. Pentagrams on the floor. Sea monkey colonies - that sort of thing. It’s kind of a macrocosmic version of the interior of my brain.

Andrew Courtnage, Smoky Tiger

“There’s something about that room, especially with vocal tracks, with the way it’s set up and the lack of knowledge on our end to really know how to set up a room for recording things.”

Roy knows many friends with similar setups in their houses, but also says that many bands find completely separate spaces to practice away from the distractions and restrictions of their homes.

“Lots of bands I know rent rehearsal spaces in the city, and we used to do that in previous bands,” says Roy, whose former band The Morning After were a fixture on the Winnipeg scene in the mid ‘00s. “I love the separated, personal rehearsal space that you rent and you can go any time and you can setup however you like it and it can be as messy or as clean as you want it to be.”

Roy says looking after his kids makes it difficult to find time to get away to a rented studio, but these kinds of separate and yet personalized spaces are important to those who have them.

“For the most part, I need a space where I can be alone,” says Andrew Courtnage, who writes and performs as Smoky Tiger. “Solitude is my number one requirement.”

Courtnage’s studio at the corner of Langside and Sara is a personalized space that allows him to get in the creative zone without distraction. The Langside Lounge, as he calls it, reflects his personality and artistic process.

“It’s got several layers of weird paint and esoteric graffiti which I wrote to myself in various altered states of consciousness,” says Courtnage. “Pictures of Jim Morrison and Daisy Smurf and Louis Riel. Crystals and stuffed owls. Pentagrams on the floor. Sea monkey colonies - that sort of thing. It’s kind of a macrocosmic version of the interior of my brain.”

But Courtnage also needs outside inspiration after spending a lot of time inside his own head.

“Sometimes I like to take my songs to weird, beautiful and exotic places like the Leo Mol Gardens or those fountains in Portage Place Mall and soak up some of the mojo,” he says.

This brings up an important question: what kind of influence does the larger landscape have on the creative process? In a city like Winnipeg, the landscape is especially connected to the season, and that seems to be one of the most important factors.

“For some reason, fall and early winter are extremely inspiring,” Roy says. “I love that time of year and I think that’s when I usually get a burst of inspiration to write some stuff.”

“February and March are usually when I make the worst, sissy-style music,” Courtnage says. “I don’t have any sun in my body anymore and my only source of mojo is looking at girls in the hot-yoga studio.”

Published in Volume 66, Number 12 of The Uniter (November 17, 2011)

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