Toronto loves to boast these days about how it’s overtaken Chicago as the fourth-largest city in North America, but the truth is Toronto and Canada as a whole remain pretty small-town at heart. The old rule thus still applies – not just in the music industry, but in any other profession – as it always has here: good work is its own reward.
Toronto producer, engineer and sometime (ace) drummer Jon Drew is where he is simply because he does good work. He could probably already have done a lot more good work than he has – producing Fucked Up’s globally acclaimed, Polaris Music Prize-winning 2008 prog-hardcore masterpiece The Chemistry of Common Life, for instance, or sitting behind the boards for such other indispensable post-millennial CanCon indie releases as Tokyo Police Club’s A Lesson in Crime, Arkells’ Jackson Square and Alexisonfire’s Dog’s Blood – but he’s too modest and self-effacing in an altogether clichéd, textbook-Canadian manner to get with the hustle too hard. But that’s the way it works in this country. Word travels. Do a good job for the money and more work will come your way, far more if everyone agrees you’re a decent human being; do a better job than everyone else in the world for any amount of money and act like a dick about it, on the other hand, and you’ll find yourself swiftly moving to another country to do business. Be patient, it’ll come.
So, yeah, Jon Drew -- also an occasional drummer for unsung Toronto post-punk heroes Uncut and the man behind the kit on Dee Dee Ramone’s last recording ever – simply does good work. Does good work reliably, consistently, efficiently and without being a dick about it. If you’re an artist who wants to sound like the best, brawniest and most confident version of who you are without getting hectored and harangued into tears like the lead in a Stanley Kubrick or Lars Von Trier film in the process, you dial up some time with Drew at Taurus Studios – the friendly east-end Toronto studio space he splits with former Carnations/Small Sins mastermind Thomas D’Arcy – and you come out sounding like the best, brawniest and most confident version of who you are you’ve ever been, whether you’re a proudly classicist roots-‘n’-roll throwback like Matt Mays, a neo-soul diva like Simone Denny, modern-rock Next Big Things-in-waiting like July Talk or a pure-pop confection like LoLAA. All are welcome. Most emerge agreeing that Drew’s simple personal doctrine of “getting the best out of a person or unit” has been satisfied.
How does he entice them into coming back for more?
“Just by being rad,” chuckles Drew. “I don’t know. I’ve been told it’s nice to be around me here. A lot of people are, like, ‘So-and-so was such a dick to work with’ or ‘So-and-so didn’t really care – they were just pressing buttons.’ But my rule most of the time when I walk in on a band and we’re unaware of each other, provided we have the time and the money, is we’ll try everything. Like, everything. I don’t know everything, so I compromise a lot. If someone’s like, ‘I think it should be like that,’ then we’ll do it like that and we’ll see. We’ll at least try everything.
“A lot of it has to do with the studio, too. This studio is kind of a fun place to be. It’s very comfortable. But I think that’s the thing. People feel comfortable and confident. I guess everyone has a different way of getting the best out of people and so, I guess, for me it’s just trying to play psychologist.”
Clearly, Drew’s low-key approach in the studio works for him. A native of Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, he was already bullying his way into here-and-there studio gigs by the age of 15, when he realized that playing and touring in punk bands was probably not a perfectly sustainable career model for the future. He was working as an engineer by 1996 and producing by 2000 – using tape machines when he was in charge until 2008 – while technical credits have piled up along the way on stylistically varied records by All Systems Go!, Grade, Danko Jones, Cursed, Teenage Head, C’mon, Moon King and Austra. He will crack the whip or he won’t depending upon the project he’s producing.
“It depends,” he says vaguely – meaning if you have your shit together when you show up he’ll make your shit sound as amazing as it already is, and if you don’t have your shit together when you show up he’ll work you until you do it right. Even if you don’t realize you’re being worked.
“People have told me – a lot of people, actually – that one of my strengths is that I’m actually able to weed out what a band should sound like,” says Drew. “None of my recordings sound the same. All of my recordings sound different. Fucked Up sound like Fucked Up. If you go and see them play, they kind of sound like they do on recordings – loud and brash and weird. And that’s kind of what I like to do a lot. My favourite stuff is just to really fuck shit up.
“The thing that I like best is when people talk positively about their experiences. The feedback I got from Chemistry of Common Life, that to me is better than money. It doesn’t really matter what style of music it is or who’s fighting with whom in the studio, that becomes the pinnacle of why we’re here.”
Listen to Jon Drew's top tracks here: