A Conversation With ... Tim Thorney

Tim Thorney is one of the great guys in music. A genuine person with big personality and more enthusiasm than a bus load of preschoolers on a trip to the first showing of Frozen. Thorney is always in music talk mode and fired up for the next project.

We met in the early '80s when Tim would hang near our band downstairs at the El Mocambo. Tim had ideas and big admiration for the dueling guitar exploits of Bernie LaBarge and Danny McBride who had a handle on that Dickie Betts/Duane Allman thing.

I had a sense nothing would stand in Tim’s way. The years that followed found Thorney at the top of his game as a songwriter, jingle and record producer and eventually studio manager. I shared a joint of some severe weed back in the day that Thorney claims brought him closer to our Lord – not in a religious way, but near medical. It was one of those comic Red Foxx – Sanford and Sons moments, “Elizabeth, I’m coming to meet you”.

I recently cornered Tim for the good chat and he also threw in a bio for good measure. Let’s start there!

Tim Thorney first came to prominence as a recording engineer and songwriter. In 1981, he co-wrote most of Lisa Dal Bello's Drastic Measures album. In 1983 and 1984, he was a singer, songwriter and keyboard player with The Front, a Canadian studio band that released two albums of pop rock.

In 1995, Tim and his younger brother Tom Thorney were taken on as partners in Great Big Music, which later became Tattoo Music. Through their studio work, the Thorney brothers won advertising awards for commercial campaigns in Canada and the U.S., including a Gemini and three Daytime Emmys.  T&T have also produced jingles for high-end clients such as FedEx, Sympatico, 7up and the Ford Motor Company.

In addition film and television, Tim has worked with many Canadian music artists. Among these projects, producing Jimmy Rankin's 2001 album Song Dog, co-producing  Rankin's 2003 album Handmade and co-producing Alanis Morissette's 2004 album, So-Called Chaos.

In 2008, Thorney produced country artist Alex J. Robinson's debut album Never Say Never, featuring the hit single "Breakin' on the Love Thing".

In 2010, Thorney continued his association with Robinson, on her album, The Getaway. Also in 2010, Thorney was involved in producing singer-songwriter Andrea Ramolo. Albums for both Robinson and Ramolo were released on Thorniac Records, co-owned by Thorney.

Recently, you battled near catastrophic health issues and were very open about it on social media. For all the crusading and broken friendships that come with being outspoken, your openness seemed to strengthen your resolve. Am I close?

 I’ve always been an activist so to speak. This is the stance I take on social media; politics and music. Social weirdness is my thing, but to make a long story short. We were doing some reimagined Sarah Smith tracks for Kevin Doyle. I had dental surgery and thought they did something to me while I was out that bruised my ribs. I caught a cold that wouldn’t get better. Things happened that made me think I had early onset Alzheimer’s, but that was the infection hitting my brain. I made an appointment with a Toronto doctor and someone drove me to (they say it was my sister, I have no memory of it). I got to Toronto and suddenly stopped breathing in early November. Woke up at Christmas time and found myself connected to several life-support machines. The coma was deep and full of hallucinations. I’m still trying to figure out what was and wasn’t real. I got out in February but I couldn’t walk. It wasn’t until the end of February I could walk and because of open wounds due to machines, I was hooked too, I couldn’t take a shower until June. I will say, it was an excellent shower.

I get in trouble on social media defending our medical system. I can’t get over how much bread they spent on keeping me alive. I felt guilty, so I to work with Argentinian artist Jhanniel. 

Did this necessitate the move away from Toronto to the quieter environs of Collingwood?

We moved to Collingwood the year before, mostly because the rooms we had in Toronto were too shitty. I’d be recording Hugh Marsh and it would start raining and be too loud to deal with. We put $200k into sound-proofing in Tattoo Sound. I was not about to do that again in the new recording world. It warranted a move where there was no noise and there was access to steady power, so it was Collingwood.

You first came to prominence through your work with singer/songwriter Lisa Dal Bello in 1981 and her album, Drastic Measures. How did the two of you, hook-up?

I met Lisa when we were both signed to London Records. She played in Winnipeg. I met her there and we started to plan a way of working together. I moved to Toronto and everything started to fall into place.

Were you already working your way into the jingle scene?

I had done a fair amount in Winnipeg and followed Gary Farina into Sound Path, an Oakville retail jingle company that did malls, Big Steel; stuff like that. The first big time jingle I sang was Coca-Cola with Eric Robertson. Lisa made him hire me. Lisa, Cal Dodd, Wayne St. John, Shawne Jackson, Sharon Lee Williams, Bill Ledster were around a microphone. I’m singing with the Dr. Music guys. That was a big deal. I struggled, but somehow arranger David Fleury liked what I did and I got the Molson Export thing from him, which started a pretty good commercial run for me. The real thanks go to Lisa and recording engineer Hayward Parrott.

We met not long after your arrival from Winnipeg when Kearney, King and McBride were holding down a house band gig on the bottom floor of the El Mocambo.

What a live music scene that was. In Winnipeg, we had great musicians and very creative bands, but nothing like you, Bernie LaBarge, Danny McBride, Gene Falbo, and Chris Kearney. I’d never heard anything like it. You guys were the top of the mountain, plus I came there to somehow work with Doug Riley and I went to your house and watched your left hand. There was nobody who played like that and I’m thinking I’m screwed if everybody plays piano way better than me and your song, “Love and Affection” was the best thing on the radio at the time. You guys had Jim Vallance on drums, whom I was taking over the production of Dalbello. A mind-boggling time for live music

I’m guessing your heart has always been in country music, yet the years have been spent recording mostly pop. What brought you and Alanis Morissette together and what came of that partnership?

I was never an Elvis fan or Chuck Berry for that matter, but Hank Williams killed me. I loved the way his voice could tear the paint off the walls, and then I heard the Beatles. I never got to country till I was in Toronto for eight years. Me. Hayward, television’s Erica Ehm, singer/song writer Joel Feeney and guitarist Mike Francis did a thing called the Western Front. It was a play on our band name The Front that started it all. But I was always a pop music guy. Alanis was hugely kind to me and we’ve had a great relationship musically and personally.

Burton Cummings?

I love Burton. I owe him. Had Burton not covered some tunes of mine, nothing would’ve happened for me. My thing with Burton got me an intro with Dom Troiano, who became a mentor and opened my eyes musically. When I was growing up we had the Beatles, but in Winnipeg, our Beatles were the Guess Who. Plus, I believe they were the greatest psychedelic band of all times. Nobody is singing better than Burton now; it's inhuman how great he is.

Who was young Tim and what was he up to?

I was playing in the greatest live scene ever. I played live in community clubs since I was eleven. I did sessions when I was sixteen. Made records from eighteen till twenty-three - then moved to Toronto.

You worked many years in the jingle scene when it was most profitable. Some saw you as a fearless warrior – is this how the game had to be played? It was simple to me. I loved record guys but I did not like being a red. Bobby Colomby was my first A&R guy ……it was not good. So ….I would take the big budget commercials and try shit; strange instrument combinations, odd horn voicings - anything you could think of. I’d have twenty grand to do a 30-second track as opposed to fifty for 12 tunes on the album. So, when producing an album, you couldn’t screw up or you blew a hole in the budget you couldn’t fill, but the experience gained by session work would give me the confidence I could pull it off……most of the time!

Clients can be a pain in the ass. How did you handle the uncertainty?

The best thing I ever saw was a Doug Riley session. He called me in after I did a vocal. We were sitting at the board in Manta Sound, Studio 2 when a meek client came up to Doug and whispered in his ear some question Doug didn’t like. Doug swung around in his chair, looked at the guy and said, “that is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard”. Very effective! I never saw the client again. Doug had that style …I took lorazepam and would wait them out.

Have you watched Mad Men?

Love that. Some of the real AD guys were from those days; Don Gill and John Burghart. But research changed everything.

You’ve spent long hours sitting behind a recording console? What keeps you seated?

I’m still trying to do something that I love. Trying to get an elusive sound - a harmony, a chord that’s great or vibe that might be original. Recording can be difficult.

Much of what comes to any producer is a rehash of something played a billion times before. What do you say to an artist who has the voice and great potential and run-of-the-mill songs?

A lot of what I do is fixing songs. I’m disappointed how unoriginal the changes are, so I’ll try to fix that and give some depth.

Words on paper are much like a puzzle. Do you have a set way of assembling to clearly state a narrative?

I’ve been working with Hill Kourkoutis as a co-producer, singer and musician. She’s like us, only different and she stuffs lyrics in a hat, sometimes she does that to mostly illustrate different styles of lyric writing. I’m a first verse and chorus lyricist and usually collaborate on the second verse and bridge with the artist, or whomever.

The artists I work with should be able to write their own lyrics so I know who they are. If I don’t know who they are I won’t do the project. I’ve only veered from that once to disastrous results.

How do you structure a day?

I get up at 4 a.m., read the news, get a start on the day’s tasks and get to Villa Sound by 7:45. We will go until what needs to be done is done and that's usually around one next morning. Rinse and repeat.

You have a way of making a guitar sound like the most significant instrument ever invented. Do you ever lose faith or passion in the instrument?

From the first time, I got a killer guitar sound on the floor and put a mic in front of it and listened in the control room, where it sounded nothing like the original sound, I’ve been determined to know why. So, there are a million different things that can help. The room, pulling the mic back. I have a levelling amplifier that allows the same stepped voltage to be rated through six signals. I use two AC 30s, a 1963 Fender Bass man with the original tubes, an Orange 50 and a handmade Deluxe type amp. I always take a direct line and I don’t use amp modelling things, as I find it difficult to mix in the track unless put through speakers. As well, my partner Adam Fair has the same commitment to that shit as I do. We aren’t going anywhere till its good.

What have been the most memorable play-backs in your recording?

There have been a couple of things: when we did “21 Things I Want In A Lover” with Alanis as well as “Everything” and “So Unsexy” and “Hands Clean” stick out. When we finished the first Front album with with Hayward at Manta...

The world of giving and receiving music has changed. Did working in film and recording jingles prepare you for the coming revolution?

I had a label with Labatt and Sony in the late 80’s; part of the business plan. It included digital distribution, so I’ve been aware of this forever, but I didn’t think it would be as shitty as is has become. I thought people would still collect music.

Today I can’t name a jingle or a commercial other than I want to hire someone to off that Trivago guy, that has staying power. What happened?

They took the pros out of advertising. I stopped doing advertising twelve years ago. I found it to be embarrassing. There used to be real concepts executed by great talents. Now, there’s no brand identity and everything is a version of a mnemonic.

What are some of the most successful and long-run jingles you wrote/produced or co-wrote?

Miller beer, Molson Canadian, Ontario Tourism, Canada Tourism. The Yes campaign was the most ridiculously funny thing we did, though Coors Light, Pizza Hut were close.

You are always working on a Thorney project. What’s cooking?

I’m trying to figure that out now. What would the last thing be?

Who are artists making the trek to Blue Mountain for Thorney care?

I’m halfway through Kate Todd. I love this. It’s like a sixties folk-pop record. There’s Shawnee. We just finished a single that’s about to be release called “Stand”. Lili and Chris Hugget’s project with German Lili, and Mike Tilka. I’m in re-mixing Max Webster stuff. Adam has some commercial clients in NYC.

Sarah Smith is just finished with Kevin Doyle. We’re fine up here. We’ve got a grand piano Bill, “c'mon, c'mon c'mon”, oh yes, and Don Wilson’s thing called; the name eludes me - is about to finally come. A project we’ve been on for 5 years.

What’s putting a smile in your heart today?

For the last two years, I’ve been involving Hill Kourkoutis with everything I do, whether as a musician or writer arranging or singing. She’s the future. Excellent work ethic, great ideas, extremely talented. In a time where you are making records with fewer people, you need someone to help simulate a band. When I get her ideas back, it always makes me smile …..that and the Elvis festival!

Links:

Website - villasound.ca

Facebook -facebook.com/villasoundproductions

Villa Freud album - itunes.apple.com/ca/album/villa-freud/id714219127

 

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