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Jean Martin’s Farm

David Dacks, Exclaim!, November 1, 2008

Former industrial lands are notorious for being colonized by artists. This is particularly true of Montréal, but Toronto has seen its fair share of artsy activity in abandoned downtown buildings. Toronto’s artists’ districts of this type are in decline, reclaimed by condos or awaiting further development, yet a few holdouts remain.

The southern stretch of Sterling Road is one example. There’s a pleasing ratio of fully to partly demolished factories alongside reclaimed artist spaces and there are plenty of moody concrete piazzas for inspiration. The southern edge of one of these blank concrete fields is where you’ll find Jean Martin’s Farm.

Martin is a drummer and engineer whose studio (and label, Barnyard Records) has become a focal point of the bustling Toronto improvisers scene over the past several years. He explains: “‘The Farm’ comes from when Christine [Duncan, singer] and I lived in an abandoned farm, in Burlington, ON. We were there for about a year, and the name stuck even when we moved in town. Now the property has been bought by rich people to house fancy cars and spoiled kids, probably.” That may well happen on Sterling Road, but condos aren’t baying at his door just yet.

Martin’s live/work space is a haven from the bleakness outside. It’s a typical single room loft space whose walls are crammed with CDs, books and records. Being part of the top floor, the room benefits from the pleasant glow of a skylight. A grey cat and several dozen dolls of various cultural origins — yes, it’s funny/creepy — preside over the space. Beautiful hardwood floors dominate, and the stuff of everyday life is the only sound insulation. There’s no control room, isolation booth or acoustic tile anywhere. You’d hardly know this was a studio were it not for the discreet rack of gear and telltale dual computer monitors that scream “professional artist” — although his Nuendo recording platform runs on a PC, not a Mac. He’s never had any problems working on PC, and it’s much less expensive. The Farm is as much about composition as recording. Martin often has a collaborative role, either as a player or an engineer, in Farm projects. Most Barnyard releases contain a fair bit of studio craft verging on out and out dub mixing, in stark contrast to the verité approach to recording of most free improv releases. Martin believes that if you want to hear what a band sounds like, go see them live, but a recording session should be about using the studio creatively. “I always believe that a record should be a piece of art,” he asserts.

[The label Barnyard Records] has become a focal point of the bustling Toronto improvisers scene over the past several years.