Remembering John Leimseider on the eve of TONTO week

In September, one of the National Music Centre’s biggest heroes—and one of the wider world’s most renowned electronic instrument and equipment technicians—passed away. John Leimseider, known affectionately as JL, had worked at NMC since 2002, making the move with his wife, “and two kids and two dogs and a cat and a bird,” from sunny Los Angeles to Calgary to serve as our Electronics Technician. Born in Brooklyn, NY, and raised in Connecticut, JL graduated college in upstate New York in 1974 and headed to the west coast. He played in bands from the tender age of 13 on, including almost five years as a keyboardist with the psychedelic group Iron Butterfly, of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” fame, and Spencer Davis. In LA, he frequently repaired equipment for the glamorous rock stars of the day, but after making the move up north, Calgary—though not quite as warm—became home. “It’s beautiful,” JL told me over the phone a few years ago. “The Rockies are spectacular. It’s really nice. The air is clean, the water is clean, people are friendly. It’s a good city. And there’s a surprisingly decent music scene going here.”

I spoke with JL in the summer of 2015, right when he was in the midst of restoring the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording studio. Due to a lack of time and the regular, sometimes overwhelming, business of life, the interview never saw the light of day. But I didn’t forget the laidback chat we had, and specifically JL’s insights into the importance of maintaining living artifacts like the mobile studio and TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra), one of  NMC’s most extraordinary treasures, and one of his last major restoration projects. These machines are rich with history, just waiting for someone to come along and draw it out of them. JL was just the same, as you’ll see from the transcript of our conversation from about a year before the grand opening of Studio Bell. What’s particularly striking about it now is his perspective on the value of things like TONTO and the mobile studio. JL seemed to have a clear grasp on their timelessness—that they existed before he was around to care for them, contributed deeply to the history of music, and, with his help, would continue to do so long after he was finished with them.

“As we prepare to kick-off TONTO Week in celebration of one of the world’s most legendary synthesizers, JL’s memory will be close to our hearts,” said Jesse Moffatt, NMC’s Director of Collections and Exhibitions. “TONTO would not be in use today without JL’s tireless restoration work. He was a surgeon to synthesizers and electronics and many of the artifacts in our ‘living’ collection owe their second life to him. His passion and commitment to fixing the unfixable was truly inspiring, and his memory will live on forever through the instruments that he was able to mend for a new generation of artists. We miss you, JL! We dedicate this week to you.”

The below interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What’s it been like working for people like Stevie Wonder and Peter Frampton?

I didn’t do any work for Peter Frampton directly. He came into the shop where I was working and he brought his own gear in a whole bunch of times. But mostly amplifier stuff. I did do a bunch of keyboards for Stevie Wonder. Mostly, I was dealing with his road crew or management people, not the artists directly in many cases. But there were a lot of exceptions. People would show up at the shop who really surprised me. We had Christine McVie from Fleetwood Mac show up with her own gear. You’d think she could afford roadies—of course she could. But she just did it anyway.

Lots of people would just show up, certain legends would show up, like Nicky Hopkins. I don’t know if you know him, but he played lots of the Stones keyboards, and he played sessions with everybody just about. He showed up with a keyboard to fix and the people who were working at the front of the shop were writing it up like, ‘Nicholas Hopkins’ and I said, ‘oh my god, that’s Nicky Hopkins there!’ He was a legend! That happened a lot because I was working at two different shops in LA, and they were both very, very busy.

Long hair, don’t care: JL jamming in 1974. Photo courtesy of JL.

Is there a big pressure to get that stuff done for people who have to go on the kind of tours that last half a year?

I started off doing a lot of amps at my first job in LA at Valley Sound. One of the first bands I worked for was America. They brought in probably close to 30 amps in road cases. They were going on tour, and they were like, ‘get them ready for the tour.’ The idea was that nothing should break. They had plenty of backups, but if I did my job right, they wouldn’t need the backups. Cleaning tube sockets, cleaning pots and jacks and switches and typing everything and placing out the tubes and revising the amps and making sure they were perfect and really reliable. If there was a question about whether something was gonna break? Change it now, and don’t let it break there. Let it break at the shop, but don’t let it break on the road. That was my first real understanding of what professional was in this field. It’s one thing to break, and the guy is a few blocks away. It’s another thing when he’s 2000 miles away in the middle of nowhere and something is broken. When people know what maintenance is about, like—if you’re taking your car on a trip, and you’re driving across the country, what do you do before you leave? Well, it doesn’t need an oil change, but you do it anyway. You check the tires, anyway. You do all the stuff you need to be safe on the trip, and that’s the same thing with the gear for professional stuff.

Billy Corgan visiting NMC during a Smashing Pumpkins tour stop in Calgary in 2012. Photo credit: Tyler Stewart.

What was your favourite project that you worked on in LA?

I got to work on gear for a lot of different kinds of bands. I was doing work on everything from the most mellow bands like Neil Diamond’s and Barry Manilow’s band, but I also did stuff for Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson and a lot of work for Tool. Everything from the really mellow to the really super harsh. Which is neat, because, you know, there are a lot of good people in a lot of different genres of music, and lots of different instruments, lots of different uses. But it’s really interesting, as a musician, I have a lot of respect for people who do it for a living still. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s challenging living your life going on the road, living in studios for 20 hours a day kinda thing. And I’ve met a lot of really nice people. Most of my clients were really, really nice.

NMC’s Manager of Building Audio and JL in the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio. Photo credit: Maddie Alvarez.

Why do you think it’s important to restore the Rolling Stones mobile studio?

First of all, look at the list of records that were done there—Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, Zeppelin albums, a whole bunch of Fleetwood Mac albums, “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley. Hundreds of really important albums that affected everyone alive at the time and even people who listen to old stuff now. Sticky Fingers and Exile being re-released now, a whole new generation hears these things. This was an iconic studio. It changed the way music was done. It gave freedom. Mobile studios, they’re the predecessors of home studios, the way I see it. Most records aren’t done in commercial studios now. Most of them are done at home and may be mixed or cleaned up or whatever at professional studios, but most aren’t done that way. The Stones didn’t wanna have to go into a studio from 9-5 and have guys wearing suit jackets and ties taking tea breaks. They wanted to record the way they wanted to record, which is standard now. If you want to work from midnight to six in the morning, that’s okay. Musicians aren’t typically 9-5 people. So the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio not only recorded amazing albums but really changed the way music is done forever. I think it’s really significant because it changed the idea of how workflow should be for musicians. Rock ‘n’ roll is different than a symphony orchestra. It’s just a different way of life and creating. That’s really important. It gave us a lot of stuff we wouldn’t have otherwise. You can go in there into the truck where Deep Purple recorded “Smoke On The Water.” How cool is that, right?

The fact it’s going to be hooked up to the King Eddy stage, so a band can be playing live and actually track to the same console that did all these amazing pieces of music? You can’t help but be impressed by the mojo and the feeling you get when you’re playing and you know that’s happening. I don’t see how anyone can not get a great performance doing that.

Have there been challenges with restoring it?

One thing that’s been worked on by a lot of different people over the years—and those consoles, and a few other instruments, but consoles, in particular, were not artifacts. They were tools. If 16 tracks weren’t enough, you modified it so now suddenly there are 24 tracks, and add more input and more effects and keep modifying. The documentation on things like that tends to not be the best documentation. It was worked on significantly once it moved to the US. They added another patch bay. There were a lot of wiring mistakes. It’s one thing to fix a component that fails, it’s another thing to figure out where someone messed up installing wires. You swap two wires around, and you can spend hours finding a 10-second mistake, just trying to figure out where it belongs. We found a bunch of that.

Also, we don’t want to make it a modern console. We want to keep it as original as we possibly can, and still have it be usable. So there’s a balance between conservation and restoration, like all the work I do here because it’s a museum environment.

When are you hoping to have it done?

It will be usable by the time we open next June, for sure, and I suspect before that. It’ll probably be ready to actually record with in January, February, March kinda thing. But we won’t necessarily have the outboard gear. We have a lot of outboard gear that’s not installed there. We’re not going to install everything that’s supposed to be there because the thing is, the outboard gear in particular changed. When new pieces came out, they took out something old to put something new in. It got to the point where you couldn’t really add much more rack space. It’s pretty crowded in there. So when a new compressor came out, they put them in and took out the old stuff sometimes. But on the other hand, we had the prototype Bell flanger, which is this incredible sounding flanger. You can hear it on some of the Led Zeppelin stuff. It sounds incredible, and it was still in there, and it was broken, and it’s fixed and ready to go. And we don’t have the original mic collection. We’re not gonna be able to find that set of mics. We can find others of the same models, of course. We have a wonderful mic collection already. But we don’t have that mic collection. And that’s just the way it goes.

Australian hitmaker Gotye and producer Nick Launey with JL during an artist residency with NMC in 2013. Photo credit: Jason Tawkin.

Is the plan to open the mobile studio for musicians to come record on it?

Yeah. It’s been tied into our two recording studios that are upstairs from it. We also have the last custom console that was made by the house engineers from Olympic Studios. That’s gonna be one control room. We have a Trident A Range console that came to us from the Bomb Factory in Los Angeles in the second control room. Plus, we have three live rooms. That’s three control rooms and three live rooms that are all interconnected and contain our large collection of musical instruments. We have a lot of synthesizers, a lot of different kinds of harpsichords, clavichords, pianos, that kinda thing. Tons of synthesizers. They’re gonna be available, too, the same way they are here. So people will be able to track through any of the three consoles. It’s gonna be amazing. There isn’t a real business plan that’s been decided on yet as far as access to them. One thing that I really enjoy about this place is the artist-in-residence program. That’s been really, really fun, and there’s been some really interesting things done here with a lot of different genres and that’s going to be continued much more intensely at the new building because we’ll have dedicated spaces for it, which we don’t really have here.

Can you tell me about TONTO?

TONTO is most-known probably for the work Stevie Wonder did with it. He did Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale on it with Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff. It’s an amazing synth. It was built as an organ. TONTO stands for The Original New Timbral Orchestra, and it’s made out of a whole bunch of different instruments that were put together and made to talk to each other properly. That’s very standard now, but it was totally revolutionary when it was done. There’s a standard now named MIDI—Musical Instrument Digital Interface—and you can plug one brand into another brand. You couldn’t do that easily back in the day. And it’s an interactive synth in that you can have five people play it at once. So if Stevie Wonder was playing basslines from “Maybe Your Baby,” Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff were busy turning knobs and changing filter or envelope settings, interacting with it and making it breathe and live. When you listen to those albums, the synth work is fantastic on them, even by today’s standards.

Stevie Wonder and those two guys did amazing, amazing synth work. It was a big restoration project. That’s one of my big plans for 2016 once we’re open. The piano shop and the electronics shop are gonna be public access, there will be a full glass wall. TONTO’s restoration is gonna start as soon as we’ve moved it in there, and it’s what I’m really looking forward to. There are a lot of custom modules that were just made for that. I’m really familiar with the ARC synths and the old synths in there. But the custom stuff is one-of-a-kind, so it’s really interesting to troubleshoot. Some of the functions were really, really cool.

And people will be able to use TONTO to record as well?

Yes, absolutely. Malcolm Cecil, who we got it from, who’s one of the two original designers of it, had gotten other offers for it. But he wanted it to go to a place where it would be used and maintained and used for teaching, and also he’s 100% welcome to come use it here anytime, once it’s restored. We would love to have him come up here and do a master class on either production or synthesis or mixing or anything. The guy is brilliant, and it would be so great to have him up here. Stevie Wonder was just in town on Sunday, and some of his crew members were here, and went back and told him and raved about our collection and the fact that TONTO was here, and I met him very briefly—’Hey, I think it’d be great if you came by and did some more recording with TONTO when the new building’s ready to go!’ And he said, ‘yeah, that’d be fun!’ Whether that happens, who knows? But it would be great to see some of the people who used it use it again.

Billy Preston did the only live performance with TONTO on TV that I know of. He’s gone, so that’s not gonna happen. Gil Scott-Heron used it a lot and he’s gone, so that’s not gonna happen. But other bands also used it. The Doobie Brothers used it, The Isley Brothers. A lot of artists did work with it. And it’s an unbelievable instrument as far as what can be done with it. It’s essentially infinite, as far as what can be done with it.

Synth pioneer Malcolm Cecil and JL at Malcolm’s home in Saugerties, New York in 2013. Photo credit: Chad Schroter-Gillespie. 

I’ve seen it now, and from what I’ve heard about it and what I’ve seen, it looks like there are just totally never-ending combinations of sounds you could make with it.

That’s true of even some small synths. But this is just over-the-top as far as the capabilities. And the way Malcolm and Robert designed things in it, it’s a unique workflow that’s really brilliant. It’s not the easiest thing to learn, but you could own this instrument and be learning new things on it in 20 years. It’s that deep. So it’s really exciting. When I heard about it, I just flipped. I wanted to go buy it that day. I heard about it on a Thursday and next Tuesday I was in New York checking it out. I said yes and one of our patrons decided to buy it and donate it to us, and I can’t wait to get it all running.

I’m hoping I can make it out to Calgary sometime soon to see the Music Centre (Author’s note: I did, eventually! And it was magical).

It’s gonna be amazing. There are great things here already, even in the old building. All the artists who have done the Artist in Residence program here have wanted to come back and do more. There are always time limits because you have to, but you know, if you’re here for two days, you need three. If you’re here eight days, you need nine. That kinda thing. Because people get lost in the capabilities that are here to use. Think about painting and how many colours you want. Do you really want to just be restricted to yellow? What if you could use all the colours? That’s the idea here. We’ve got this amazing pile of musical stuff that’s unique. There are individual artists who own tremendous collections. But the public can’t get access to that. Here, they can, through the Artist in Residence program. So it’s pretty incredible.

JL with Brian Eno during a visit to Calgary in 2011. Photo credit: Tyler Stewart. 

Why do you think the National Music Centre is important?

First off, from the point of view of Canada, there’s no musical museum or public office music centre for Canada. I would argue there isn’t an accessible one for the United States, either. But it’s so unusual there could be such a thing. There’s always the question—why is it here? Why not Vancouver? Why not Ottawa? Why not Toronto? It could be anywhere in the country and it would be great to have this resource. It happens to be in Calgary. But the fact it exists at all is kind of a miracle. And it’s such a gift to the country. Even on an international level, to me, it’s so cool that it even exists, and people come by here and—first of all, non-musicians—just to take in some of the history and feel the vibe of how things happened. When you hear a mellotron play the intro to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” you say, ‘Wow! I always wondered what that instrument was.’ That’s the kind of instrument that did it! Or if you hear the solo on “Lucky Man,” and then you see a modular. Or if you hear a harpsichord for the first time, or a clavichord for the first time. There’s so much here, and that is a gift for the country, and a gift for the world, and it’s unique. It’s really, I think, exciting. The artists that get to play here are like, ‘wow, I’ve always dreamed of playing such and such. I finally get to see one in person, and now I get to play and record on it.’ It provides something that can’t be done anywhere else.

The fact that they come here and use some instruments that affected their lives? I mean, everyone’s heard certain songs their whole life. Everyone heard “Smoke On The Water.” So you go to a music store and you’ve got 18 little kids playing “Smoke On The Water” trying out their first guitar. We’ve got the console it was recorded on! How cool is that?

So it’s pretty amazing, I think. I’m really happy to be working here. It’s a really unusual job where you get to do something and you feel like you’re accomplishing something that will outlast any of the people who are starting out working on it right now.