Musicians often have intimate relationships with their gear. When you ask an artist about their favourite instruments, they talk about them as one would describe a lover. In other cases, it's more like a child. Some artists develop lifelong relationships with specific instruments, while others flow through infatuations and relationships with different pieces, while they grow as artists and discover their voices.
Instruments and equipment aren’t merely tools. They're cherished despite (or maybe because of) their shortcomings and frustrations. Music is defined as much by the sound of the notes as the notes themselves.
We asked five of our favourite Canadian musicians what the key to their tone is. Whether playing pop punk, garage rock, electronic R&B, psych opera, or hip-hop, these artists all have secret weapons. And we found out what they are.
April Aliermo (Hooded Fang, Phèdre)
Essential gear: Vintage Gibson Thor bass amplifier nicknamed "Thora"
April Aliermo: I go to Paul's Boutique [in Toronto's Kensington Market] for all my tech and gear needs. I don’t always know what I need, so I consult with Mike le Riche. It's great because he's always so helpful, and isn't a snobby, show-offy gear guy.
The amp says "Thor" on it, but four years ago when Hooded Fang went on a US tour and took Scott Harwood [of Scott Hardware/Ken Park] with us for fun and to play extra guitars, he helped me rename the amp "Thora," so she is now definitely a "she." I always carry a permanent marker with me, ya know?
I try to take it on tour whenever I can, but it’s so old and it doesn’t get very loud, so it’s got to be mic'd all the time. My bandmates think it’s not loud enough sometimes, but it’s my sound, so I fight for it. It sounds so good raw, and I can’t believe how in love I am with the tone. I never thought I’d nerd-out over gear, but Thora was my gateway to appreciating a solid piece of equipment.
Hooded Fang’s Venus On Edge comes out May 13, on Daps Records.
Essential gear: Yamaha DX7 synthesizer
Harrison: I stopped sampling a while ago because I wanted to be known more as a songwriter, not just someone who samples others. The Yamaha DX7 is definitely my favourite piece right now. The E-Piano patch is so specific, but it’s my favourite sound. It’s very '80s, but it can also fit into anything. The synth has also got some wicked bass sounds.
It’s a pain in the ass to program though, and I fucking hate that. I use programs I get off the internet to go in and make small adjustments. It’s so hard to navigate, I don’t know why they made it like that. You have to push like nine buttons just to adjust a filter. I don’t get it. It’s a huge pain in the ass, but it’s still the bomb.
Harrison’s debut album is due this September, on Last Gang Records.
Alaska B (Yamantaka // Sonic Titan)
Photo by: Anne Bocher
Essential gear: Paiste Signature Series cymbal set (19” signature power crash, 17” signature power crash, 14” signature dark energy hi-hats, MarkII signature dark energy ride cymbal)
Alaska B: Currently my big babies are my cymbals. I have a full set of Paiste Signature Series cymbals, which took me years to pay off. They just have this big shimmery, silvery rock sound. I think it’s because of how they mill them — they’re very big on them being the same. They’re very German in their manufacturing approach, rather than being hand-hammered Turkish style, which I definitely appreciate too.
People who split their cymbals in half from playing them — I just can’t do that. I just love them, and have so much respect for the history of cymbal design and creation. It’s the high end of the band. You tend to cut guitar down a lot above 4K, because people don’t want screaming, hissing highs in a recording — they want the smoothness. So then all the high end becomes just the cymbals coming through. Cymbals really define the upper end.
Yamantaka//Sonic Titan recently did the soundtrack to the Severed video game, which will be available separately from the game soon.
Steve Sladkowski (PUP)
Photo by: Amanda Fotes
Essential gear: Modified 2004 American Deluxe Fender Telecaster
Steve Sladkowski: I’ve basically been playing just one guitar since 2004. It’s a Fender Telecaster that I bought when I was in high school, and I got it new, so I’m the only person who’s ever played it. At this point, I’ve done a bunch of different mods: it has a Fender Bigsby vibrato, which was inspired a bit by people like Thurston Moore, Nels Cline, and other people who play Fender Jazzmasters. Because I couldn’t afford to buy a new guitar, I wanted to mod the instrument to give some room for the strings behind the bridge of the guitar, to use to get this weird noise thing that Jazzmasters do really well, which is a big part of No Wave music.
I also swapped out the bridge pickup for a hand-wired pickup from a maker in Germany, which is similar to the ones they used in the '50s. It’s super hot, and super bright, and it goes microphonic, so it’s really noisy. That is a big part of how we get our sound, both on record and live. I can turn my body, and that pickup is so microphonic now that it will feed back and be super noisy. The nuances of how you move your body actually become part of how you play the instrument.
PUP’s new album The Dream Is Over comes out May 27, on Royal Mountain.
Essential gear: Roland SH101 synthesizer
Jessy Lanza: For the album I just finished, the Roland SH101 was indispensable. It’s all over the record. I didn’t use it at all on the first record, because I didn’t get it until halfway through making the second album. We actually went back and added it to the tracks where it wasn’t before.
It’s got a great sequencer and arpeggiator, and you can clock it to different things. Jeremy Greenspan [Junior Boys, and Jessy Lanza collaborator] uses it with his modular, and I usually sync it to my Roland 707 drum machine. You can get these really tight pulsating patterns, and you can get really crazy arpeggiated stuff as well. I would never bring it on the road though. It would get damaged pretty quickly, and it goes a little too far into the unpredictable area for me play with it live.