It all started with the Mellotron.
The electro-magnetic instrument, invented in Birmingham, England in 1963 — that prog-rock bands like King Crimson and Genesis used in the 1970s — is one of Ian Blurton’s favourite studio toys.
Flash back to the musician’s first visit to the National Music Centre (NMC). Blurton contacted NMC’s electronics technician, the late John Leimseider, asking if they had a Mellotron in the collection; the artist wanted to use it on a Public Animal recording, the punk-rock band he was playing in at the time.
“John told me to come on by,” Blurton recalls. “I met all the staff and fell in love with the place, especially the attitude. Unlike some museums, where they warn you to not touch anything, it was the complete opposite.”
When NMC put its annual call out for its Artist in Residence program a few years ago, Blurton did not think twice about applying. Past participants include: Luke Doucet, Basia Bulat, Jean Michel-Blais, and Jeremy Dutcher. Once Blurton and his mates in his current hard-rock band Future Now (Aaron Goldstein, Glenn Milchem, and Anna Ruddick) were accepted, there was no question that the Mellotron would play a central role.
“I love the Mellotron,” Blurton says. “Once I was accepted, and I knew we were going to record there, I started to write tons of Mellotron parts into the songs.”
There was also little debate about what NMC studio they wanted: the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio (RSM) — equipped with a Helios console — that NMC acquired in 2001 and Leimseider restored in 2015. The RSM was the right piece of technology to channel some of the same vibes as a Budgie record (a Welsh heavy metal band from the late 1960s and early 1970s that the former Artist in Residence adores) but make it sonically unique to Blurton’s Future Now.
Conceived by Rolling Stones tour manager Ian Stewart and built in 1968, the RSM Studio was the first professional mobile recording studio. John called the RSM the “Sistine Chapel of rock ‘n’ roll.” Classic albums recorded using the RSM include: the Stones’ Exile on Main Street and most of Sticky Fingers, Deep Purple’s Machine Head, Iron Maiden’s No Prayer for the Dying and Led Zeppelin III and IV. Blurton knows his music history. He has also been a part of the music industry for 40 years as an integral part — and driver — of Toronto’s indie scene since the early 1980s, so he agrees with the late Leimseider about the studio’s status.
“Looking at my record collection right now I can pull out at least 20 records recorded using that studio,” he says. “It meant a lot to get the opportunity to work on something like that … knowing I was in the same studio where one of my favourite record producers Martin Birch once worked with Deep Purple … that was pretty incredible.”
English rock band Be-Bop Deluxe also used the RSM to record their 1977 album Drastic Plastic; band member Bill Nelson is one of Blurton’s favourite guitarists. “It was such hallowed ground in that space,” he adds. “The gear available at NMC is mind blowing!”
One wonders if the musician felt this gravitas and whether the weight of this rock ‘n’ roll history was palpable? “Definitely,” Blurton says. “We felt it every time we stepped into the truck. The mobile studio even has a certain smell to it of a million cigarettes. I hate using the word vibe, but the legacy in there is so strong.”
Beyond the Mellotron, the Future Now crew took advantage of many other cool instruments and vintage gear in NMC’s collection: from a kick drum microphone that was Neil Young’s vocal mic for 20 years to one of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Famer’s tweed Fender Tremolux amps. Guitarist Aaron Goldstein (who also plays pedal steel in Kathleen Edwards’ band in between producing other people’s records) was most excited about the Helios recording console; he also had fun playing some of the guitars Randy Bachman had just donated to the National Music Centre.
“I was lucky enough to use two of Randy’s old Strats: a blonde ‘54 and a black ’59,” Goldstein recalls. “I really bonded with the ’59, although it wasn’t really the kind of thing we needed for our proto-metal record, so I ended up playing it on just one song.
“What I was most impressed with were the consoles,” he adds. “There are two other control rooms, aside from the RSM truck, and each contain a console of reasonable provenance … I would love to go back to NMC and make a record on the Trident A-Range.”
Blurton acknowledges the broader Calgary music community that pulled through and loaned them key equipment during their stay in the city. “We flew from Toronto and did not bring all of our gear, so we put a call out locally asking to borrow some amps and they came through,” he recalls. “Bands like the Ramblin’ Ambassadors basically showed up at the loading dock with a bunch of amps. And Woodhawk, good friends of ours, gave us their whole backline, making our whole experience at NMC less stressful.”
Before arriving at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, Blurton and his bandmates did pre-production in Toronto. Most of the songs on Second Skin were written before arriving in Calgary. “I write all the time,” Blurton says. “While this is not a concept record, it does have a conceptual theme — some parts come back in different keys throughout the album, so I really tried to get it all together before we arrived at Studio Bell so nothing was left to chance.
“It was still a massive amount of work to do in four days,” he adds. “We recorded a dozen songs, nine of which appear on the Second Skin album, plus a few others we’ve released, or plan to release, as stand-alone singles.”
Recording the songs for Second Skin, Blurton worked with NMC’s in-house engineers: Jason Tawkin and Eric Cinnamon. Like Goldstein, the producer was just as giddy about the Helios console inside the RSM.
“I mean, Zeppelin records were made on it,” Tawkin comments. “You don’t get better drum sounds than Zeppelin records!”
To wrap the band’s four-day residency, Ian Blurton’s Future Now performed a concert at the historic King Eddy in Calgary that was also captured live on the RSM. Indeed, a double feat in music history and perhaps one of the loudest shows in the venue’s storied legacy.
Released last August, listen to Second Skin from Ian Blurton’s Future Now.