In the past two years, Michael Phillip Wojewoda has been behind the boards for projects by internationally renowned metal legends, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, a multimillion-selling pop band, folkie jazz singers, hip-hop artists, neo-electro club music, roots rock bands, and planetarium pop with guest spots from Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson.
For anyone else, this eclecticism might appear scattershot. But the legions of artists who are drawn to work with Wojewoda do so for the intricacies of his sonic tapestry, his comfort with both the raw and the refined, and his ability to encourage even the most experienced artists to push themselves to new pinnacles.
That’s why a pop band like the Barenaked Ladies—who entrusted Wojewoda to helm their major label debut in 1991—have returned to him again and again, including their American breakthrough Rock Spectacle and their forthcoming 2009 release, one that marks a time of renewal for the band following a major line-up change. It’s also why a veteran metal band like Anvil sought out Wojewoda to record new material to capitalize on the hit documentary that vaulted them back into the public eye in 2008. Meanwhile, Wojewoda continues to shepherd a new generation of Toronto talent by helping them realize recordings that capture them beyond their best.
Wojewoda comes by his eclecticism naturally, starting 25 years ago when he cut his teeth in the fertile Toronto underground scene of the 1980s, where his workaholicism put him behind the boards for a diverse array of landmark albums. These included the raw hip-hop-infused jazz of the Shuffle Demons (Streetniks, 1987), the pioneering riot grrl punk of Fifth Column (To Sir With Hate, 1986), the noise rock of Nomind (Tales of Ordinary Madness, 1988), the punk pop of Montreal’s Doughboys (Happy Accidents, 1990), the jangle pop of the Plastercene Replicas (Glow, 1988), and the arty prog-punk of Queen St. staples Change of Heart.
His work with the latter culminated with the 1992 epic Smile, a sprawling 74-minute opus that was recorded live to DAT with a 17-piece band in only three days. Smile has since entered the canon of Canadian rock, influencing everyone from The Tragically Hip to countless younger bands. Smile was a massive undertaking, and what’s even more impressive is how that same month Wojewoda was juggling two other gigs that would shape much of his career for the 90s.
One was the multimillion-selling debut album by the Barenaked Ladies (Gordon, 1992); Wojewoda would continue to work with the band over the next decade, including production and engineering work on their American breakthrough live album Rock Spectacle(1997). The other key 1992 project was the Rheostatics’ Whale Music, which—12 years later—was chosen by CBC Radio as “the one album that every Canadian should hear.” Wojewoda went on to helm the band’s major label debut, the kaleidoscopic pop masterwork and Flaming Lips forerunner Introducing Happiness (1994), as well as 1999’s The Story of Harmelodia, a concept album revolving around a fantastical children’s story.
Other highlights of that productive time included engineering Jane Siberry’s 1993 career high When I Was a Boy (with production by Brian Eno and Michael Brook), producing the commercial breakthrough for Vancouver folk rock band Spirit of the West (Faithlift, 1993), and helming the final album for beloved Toronto soul collective Bourbon Tabernacle Choir (Shyfolk, 1995).
One of Wojewoda’s most difficult projects also proved to be one of the biggest: 1995’s major label debut album by controversial fiddler Ashley MacIsaac. Here, it was Wojewoda’s job to construct a sonic architecture of hip-hop, rock and pop structures to adorn basic fiddle tracks. Most of the more experimental tracks didn’t make it past the record company, but Hi How Are You Today did become MacIsaac’s one and only multi-platinum smash.
Since then, Wojewoda’s work has oscillated between commercial pop work (Great Big Sea, Kim Stockwood), hip-hop (Pocket Dwellers), raw rock’n’roll (Luke Doucet), and an electro-acoustic song cycle about the first woman in space (Kurt Swinghammer’s Vostok 6).
From 2001 to 2007, Wojewoda stepped from behind the glass to become the drummer for the Rheostatics, one of the most beloved bands in Canada, with a 20-year reputation for forging a unique, progressive and playful potpourri of boundary-breaking art-rock/prog/folk/new wave. This cut down on his studio time considerably, but since resigning from the band Wojewoda has returned to production full-time. Much of his most recent work has been as a mixing engineer, but the old-school producer in him still prefers shepherding a project from day one until completion, building a fraternity with the artist.
“There was a time when shepherding someone through the filter of a studio left musicians with the opportunity to be more creative,” he says. “Ideally, the band will leave the studio better musicians than they were going in, or at least with a greater understanding of what they do.
“Some bands don’t need a producer, they just need a good engineer,” he admits. “I can certainly do that too, but for a band producing their own record, it’s no different than managing yourself: booking gigs, running the numbers, etc. It can be exhausting. What artists get from me is an enthusiast who has a whole other set of skills that will be applied to the same goal: a really great recording.”
In addition to the artists he has worked with, his own personal taste tilts towards world music, electro-acoustic pop such as The Books, composers such as Steve Reich, electronic producers such as Squarepusher, and classic rock such as Sonic Youth, Deep Purple, MC5 and Brian Eno—all of which weigh heavily in his sense of arrangements. His latest musical outlet is the Faceless Forces of Bigness, an improvisational electronic audio-visual ensemble utilizing both laptops and modular analog synthesizers.
Michael Phillip Wojewoda is willing to travel for any project, but is also outfitted with his own studio that includes a two-inch analog tape machine as well as full digital capacity.