The FIRST Most Important Moment (of my career)
Updated: Jan 25
By Justin Gray (Songwriter/Producer/Founder www.wearemdiio.com)
Where was I?
My first band ever…The Senators. We were called the Senators because we all played on the same T-Ball team called The Senators, and had matching jerseys. We would charge neighborhood kids a nickel a piece to come down to my basement as we lip-synched the hits of the day.
(Me on vocals, David Kornberg on Drums and Chad Jerema on Guitar)
As a quick recap, I was in several high school rock bands.
“Groove” was kind of the biggest band in the high school scene in Toronto in the late 80s. If you ever saw a movie called “The Commitments”… that was basically us.
But I was in other bands too.
My first professional gig was as the lead singer of a Led Zeppelin cover band called “Prezence.” With a Z. A terrible band, aptly named after possibly the worst Led Zeppelin album. We opened for “Runs n’ Your Hoses” a (you guessed it…Guns n’ Roses) tribute band at the famed El Mocambo in Toronto. The same stage that had been graced by The Rolling Stones and Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was sort of Toronto’s version of CBGB at the time.
Fast forward to after all of that.
So now I am a college dropout, deep in debt, a former “professional“ athlete, Wedding DJ at Casa Loma in Toronto, and chicken wing slinger.
My prospects felt… How do you say this?
Probably like most 20-year-olds, I thought to myself, “I have no idea how to do what I want to do for the rest of my life.” But I definitely knew what I wanted to do! And it certainly was not any of the aforementioned jobs.
I’ve already had a little bit of experience taking bands into studios during high school, and I knew and loved writing songs, but I didn’t really understand how to put that all together.
Recapping last week…I had come across a studio in downtown Toronto called X-iT. It was my first studio and I frequented it for several years.
One of the best parts about working at X-IT studios in Toronto was serendipitously meeting a sprightly 35-year-old engineer named Elie Rozen from Israel.
(Elie and I at Phase One Records in Toronto. 1994)
Immediately Elie and I connected deeply. And really, he became my first mentor. We worked together on my own album, and then subsequent projects with other bands that I was in.
Lullaby for Fishenstein was a neo-funk alternative band in the vein of artists like Fishbone and Living Color.
Then there was “The Pasty White Boys.”
And Freshwater Drum.
One worse than the previous.
I realize now that I also was not good at naming bands.
Remember, when I said bleak? Well… This was bleaker than bleak.
So I took my first major risk. I called up Phase One Records in Toronto, and started booking studio time for myself. This was a real studio. And the reason I wanted to go to the studio is because one of my favorite local Toronto bands “the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir“ had recorded an incredible album there. It was called “Superior Cackling Hen.“
I called Elie, hired all of the best musicians I knew, and properly recorded a 10-song album that quite literally nobody gave a shit about.
But I did.
Everything got darker for me.
After shopping around to record labels, the common feedback was...“we love these songs, we just don’t think you are the one to sing them."
In my heart, however, I can’t say that I disagreed. But what was I to do? I loved music more than ever, and knew undoubtedly that it was my life's calling.
Two life-changing things came out of making that failed album.
There was a beautiful girl who attended the listening party, who later became my wife. I had met her the week before at a dinner party. And in a slightly drunken stupor invited her to the studio in what was quite possibly the worst November snowstorm in Toronto’s history. She showed up. More to come on that.
In every way, it was the spark that started it all. Had I not done my own record, and believed in myself, NONE OF THIS HAPPENS. Everything to come would never come to be.
Sometimes we think that big decisions lead to life-changing outcomes. Too often I have learned that the small seemingly insignificant choices are where the magic lives. A casual “yes” has altered the trajectory of my life too many times to ignore its significance.
So I called up Elie, and had a great idea. What if we used this record I had just made as a calling card to entice other artists around Toronto to work with us? After all, I loved being in the studio and I hated…take that back…Abhorred being on stage and performing.
I didn’t have stage fright, I just realized the bar owners didn’t give a shit who was on the stage as long as they sold enough beers to invite them back. And also…I knew without any shred of doubt that I didn’t have “it.” I wasn’t a star, but early on I realized that I could help those that could be, become that.
Thank God, Paul Gross at Phase One understood my conundrum and, acknowledging my youthful mistakes, agreed to work out a deal to pay down the debt over time. This allowed me to use the songs I had recorded there with Elie to promote our newfound producer career.
Paul was an important piece of this story.
Once Elie and I shook hands, we decided to start our production team called Groovetunes Production House.
The concept was simple.
We took out an advertisement in the back of NOW magazine, a very well-known and popular alternative street magazine in Toronto.
And it said…“From conception to completion“ Groovetunes Production House will take you there.
That was our marketing slogan.
The idea was that we would meet bands, or artists, do pre-production, take them into studios, and produce and deliver a recording that they can then press and sell at their gigs. Elie was the engineer and I was the producer. Watching him work taught me analog recording techniques, and how to listen inside a song.
Everyday we sat at Elie’s dining room table and fashioned how we would approach this new business of ours. We waited for the phone to ring and the pagers to beep. His wife Orit would make us Turkish coffee…all day long. Highly caffeinated and highly motivated we were.
Well, it wasn’t more than two weeks when we got our first call and project.
It was now 1994.
We got paid a whole $1200 to produce a local Toronto band called Achanti. (not the early 2000’s Ashanti).
We rented a studio right off of Yonge Street in Toronto called Redline Recorders which was owned by a guy named Henry Gooderham. We spent $400 a day, working for three days to produce their four-song EP called “Take Control.“ Achanti were an Acid Jazz-inspired band made up mostly of Humber College jazz heads. They actually got signed to an indie UK-based record label.
Wait…It was my first real validation of what I already felt to be sure. Maybe there was a future here?
One of the musicians in those sessions was a young keyboard player named Brent Setterington, and he was in a bubbling Toronto funk band called Jacksoul. He was so impressed with how things went at Redline, that he asked if we’d be interested in working with his band. They were big time! They were headlining The Bamboo…on a Saturday. It was as big as it got (at least for us at the time). Everyone knew them. They got signed too. But this time to BMG. Wow…it was working. Brent and I still work together to this day. That’s how it works, and will be the common theme over this series of blogs.
Collect relationships, and cherish them above all else. Each relationship is a testament to your loyalty and commitment to others.
Achanti was the first artist I ever produced, and became the starting point for everything to come for the next 25 years.
Who knew that what was just a learning experience at the time, would be THE FIRST MOST IMPORTANT moment of my career?
See you next week, and stay in the creative light.