In good Cheer
Music producer Lloyd Peterson waiting to get back to his happy place and welcome local artists — including his daughter — back into his home studio
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/05/2021 (745 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Lloyd Peterson breaks into a smile, recalling how, as a youngster, he habitually flipped through his older brother’s LPs, hunting for album covers that showed bands hard at work in the recording studio.
He would study photos of groups surrounded by all manner of wires and microphones for hours, believing what he was staring at to be the most magical setting in the world. For as long as he can remember, all he wanted to do was figure out a way to get inside “one of those places,” too.
Some 50 years later, Peterson, 61, owner of Paintbox Recording, a full-service studio at 600 Shaftesbury Blvd. that has welcomed the likes of Fred Penner, Begonia and Sierra Noble, finds himself on the outside looking in, once more. Owing to COVID-19, the former leader of the Cheer, an upbeat foursome that enjoyed a fair degree of success in the 1980s, has been forced to put a sizable number of projects on the proverbial back-burner.
While there were certainly periods in the past 14 months when, based on provincial regulations, it was permissible to have a prescribed number of musicians spaced out in the studio, that setup didn’t mesh with what he refers to as “necessary spontaneity.”
“A big part of the recording process is working on songs or ideas as a cohesive unit,” Peterson says, running a hand through his longish hair, tousled courtesy of a bike-helmet styling from his ride to an outdoor interview near his home.
“Somebody will grab a guitar or mandolin and sit down next to you, while somebody else will reach for the keyboard… Pretty soon, everybody’s touching everything and because I wasn’t comfortable pushing our luck, I shut ’er down completely. We’re all going through the same pandemic and when the time is right, we’ll get back at it.”
“OK, it worked, now I feel old,” Peterson says with a chuckle, upon being reminded 2021 marks the 35-year anniversary of Shot With Our Guns, a critically-acclaimed, anti-Apartheid anthem he wrote with the Cheer, which disbanded in 1989. Sure he wishes that band could have been (here he pauses to choose his words) “more sustainable, a bit more of a career,” but quickly qualifies that by stressing he’s never been one to dwell too much on what might have been.
Besides, if there’s ever been a shining example of the idiom, “As one door closes, another one opens,” Peterson would be it.
Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ont., the divorced father of 29-year-old twins guesses he was 12 when his mother, “sort of knowing something was up,” presented him with his first guitar on Christmas morning. He took a few formal lessons but having already played piano for a few years — his Winnipeg-born parents always had one in the house — he didn’t find picking up his new instrument overly difficult.
“Oh, you’re right, this really is going to be a deep dive,” he says with a wink, replying Izak, pronounced like Isaac, when asked the name of his first band, formed when he was in junior high.
He studied at the University of Guelph for a year — he briefly considered a career in architecture — but when buddies he was playing with in a group called Go Jetter packed up and moved to London, Ont. in the summer of 1978, he quit school and went with them.
“That was a very formative period because we spent almost all our time writing and recording songs in a makeshift studio we built in our living room,” Peterson says. “To me it was another form of schooling, making a lot of mistakes but also doing a lot of things that were really creative.”
In time, he and Chris Maxfield, a drummer-friend he’d known since Grade 10, left London for Toronto to back up Robin Wells, a well-regarded singer who performed with Margo Davidson before the latter joined the Parachute Club. Peterson’s parents had returned to Winnipeg by then so after spending close to 18 months playing clubs throughout Ontario and Quebec with Wells, he and Maxfield followed them here.
“We didn’t know too much about the local music scene before we arrived but everything you hear about Winnipeg is absolutely true, which is the main reason what was supposed be a six- or 12-month layover turned into a near-40-year stay,” he says. “The sheer number of incredibly talented people and staggering breadth of genres in all age groups that you find here… it never ceases to amaze me.”
The Cheer, originally comprised of Peterson, Maxfield, Randy Hadubiak and Stan Lee Sandblaste, formed in the fall of 1982. Peterson, who lived in a tiny house in the North End at the time, says the pop-oriented group’s name was Maxfield’s idea, in answer to British groups that, in their estimation, were “selling darkness” (here’s looking at you, Bauhaus).
The fresh-sounding unit, which routinely packed ‘em in at venues such as Broadways, the Royal Albert Arms and Corner Boys, recorded its first album, Swimming to Work, in 1985. The independent release was well-received by university radio stations from coast to coast, which gave them the confidence to approach Winnipeg-born studio whiz Bob Rock to ask if he’d be interested in assisting them with a followup.
“We didn’t think there was a chance in hell he’d say yes — we kind of thought it would be cool to have it on our resumé that we’d been turned down by somebody who produced ‘up-and-comers’ like Aerosmith and Bryan Adams — but when he got back to us saying he was in, we were floored, pretty much,” Peterson says.
It was during the month they spent in B.C. working alongside Rock that Peterson truly fell in love with the recording process. For years, he thought that when he threw on a record what he was listening to was precisely what the act intended: that the songs were in the correct order, and all the lyrics and melodies were intact. The moment Rock began pulling Shot With Our Own Guns apart, piece by piece, line by line, he thought, “Hmm, guess I was wrong.”
“I remember him telling me I was making my point too much with the lyrics, that I was being a little verbose,” he explains. “I wasn’t precious about my capital-A ‘art,’ not at all, and because I wanted the full experience of working with him, I was like, ‘Sure, whatever you say.” (Reviews for the finished product were positive: the Free Press touted Shot With Our Own Guns as “a song with social conscience and hit potential,” while the Brandon Sun labelled it “sweaty, lyrically-based power pop with lots of up-front guitar.”)
Prior to the Cheer’s breakup in 1989, Peterson had already been approached by a number of Winnipeg musicians requesting his assistance producing an album or single in his home studio. One thing led to another and in the early 1990s, he landed a producer’s job at CBC Radio, a five-year gig that saw him travel from coast to coast, recording music festivals and concerts for rebroadcast on the station. That is, when he wasn’t performing as a solo artist; Peterson appeared at the Winnipeg Folk Festival four times sans band, in 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1992.
After departing the CBC, Peterson helped found Private Ear Recordings, a Dagmar Street studio that had the vibe of a comfy, old warehouse, with all the modern trappings. One of his favourite memories from the early days was working with the Weakerthans on their first album, 1997’s Fallow, the majority of which was recorded in the wee hours of the morning.
“We would go down to the King’s Head for a pint around 10 p.m. then head back to work and basically let the tape roll,” he says. “It was almost like they were figuring out their sound in the studio — you don’t get that very often — and I remember how satisfying it was to hear the playback, thinking, ‘These guys are really onto something.’”
Peterson, who left Private Ear to start Paintbox Recording in the mid-2000s, laughs, saying, “Ha, not a chance,” when asked if there’s a “Lloyd Peterson sound,” a la Grammy Award-winning producer Rick Rubin’s stripped-down approach, or the late Phil Spector’s celebrated “wall of sound.”
Jokingly referring to himself as the “most easily vetoed producer you’ll ever work with,” he says creating an album is largely a collaborative art, and one of the necessities to making a successful record is being receptive to others’ ideas. Match the right producer with the right artist and more often than not that combination can create something better than either one of them is capable of on their own, he feels.
Cara Luft of the Small Glories is one of those “right artists” Peterson refers to.
“I first met Lloyd shortly after I moved to Winnipeg (from Calgary) in 1999. It was all part of that ‘new musician in town has got to meet all the good people, and Lloyd had a studio, one of the coolest in the city,” Luft says when reached at home. “I recorded my first full-length album (at Private Ear), with Rick Unruh producing and Lloyd engineering. We became friends for life and every album I’ve recorded since then, whether it was with the Wailin’ Jennys, as a solo artist or as the Small Glories, has involved Lloyd in some capacity, either as engineer, musician or co-conspirator.”
Luft, who cites the phrase, “Gear doesn’t make albums, people make albums” as one of her favourite Lloyd-isms, credits Peterson as the reason she has begun dipping her toe in the production pool, of late. Calling him one of her biggest champions, she describes him as encouraging to a fault.
“He’s always about lifting others up, helping us tap into our own gifts and talents, and about building a better and healthier community, one that supports each other. It’s a rare and beautiful gift,” she says. “Some other folks in his position might feel threatened by others wanting to produce, too, but Lloyd? He truly wants the best for all of us. Having his spirit, energy, belief, trust and joy around you while making a record or playing music is a wonderful thing.”
Another person who shares that sentiment is Peterson’s daughter Madeleine Roger. She and Peterson have worked together on two albums thus far, 2016’s Fairweather, which also featured Madeleine’s twin brother Lucas, when they recorded and toured as Roger Roger, and 2019’s Cottonwood, her solo debut.
“One of my favourite things about my dad is that it’s absolutely impossible for him to work with musicians, either playing or recording, and not have a gigantic smile on his face, I just love that,” she says, noting her father has been a valued member of her band on occasion, the last time being in October 2019 when they performed at a show in Whitehorse, ahead of the Western Canadian Music Artistic Awards, for which Cottonwood had been nominated.
Born two years after the Cheer broke up, Roger grew familiar with that band’s output around the campfire as a kid, when her father would offer up stripped-down versions of favourites such as Don’t Even Know What I Want and If You Want Something Done Get a Busy Man to Do It. Better, she learned to sing harmony at the age of 10 when, while going for walks together, he would teach her Gordon Lightfoot songs, the Pony Man being one that immediately comes to mind.
“I made a list the other day of about 40 songs — about three albums’ worth — I’d like to start working on with Dad, a third of which were written during the pandemic and a bunch of others I could never find time to finish properly but finally did, because of COVID,” she says. “Like everybody else, we’re just waiting for the green light.”
For his part, Peterson says Madeleine and Lucas have both written songs that “absolutely floored” him. He remembers attending a sound check of theirs at the West End Cultural Centre a few years ago and tearing up backstage. “They sang this song that was so achingly beautiful, it probably wouldn’t have mattered who was up there. But the fact it was my children… such a great moment,” he says, looking away.
Anybody anxiously awaiting the next Lloyd Peterson album will have to remain patient, sounds like.
“Hopefully one day soon,” he says, adding he can’t think of another musician who has announced the release of more failed solo projects than he has.
“I still write, even though it’s not necessarily the world I’m focused on. And sure, every once in a while, I still get the feeling that those last two songs I wrote are gold; that they’re going to be the ones.” (He laughs when informed a mint-condition copy of Swimming to Work is currently commanding $50 plus shipping on vinyl record sale site Discogs. “Fantastic, I have a few boxes in the basement. I’m rich!”)
As for his producer’s chair, well, it’s a pretty safe bet that isn’t getting parked, any time soon.
“I love it, I live for it. It’s so energizing,” he says, listing off Apollo Suns, the Dirty Catfish Brass Band and Sam Baardman as talents he has already agreed to work with post-COVID.
“You asked earlier if my plan is to do this as long as possible. Does saying I hope I die at work answer your question?”
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Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.