A Conversation With.. George Semkiw
After finding local rock 'n roll fame in the '60s with Richie Knight and the Mid-Knights, the Toronto music lifer ventured into record production and mastering with great success. He and Bill King share some great stories here.
By Bill King
Last year I began a series of conversations with recording engineers and some fascinating responses followed. Most, I’ve had some contact or experience with over the years.
Catching up with George Semkiw was a real pleasure. George and I did the Jack Richardson dance at RCA studios together in 1970 with the band Homestead. Jack thought a group of Canadians with this exiled American could penetrate a US market, still in the throes of an unpopular war. In fact, the first album cover design had the band situated dead middle of a burning American flag. We quickly nixed that!
Before Semkiw I did a few sessions with producer Harry Hinds a month or so after arriving in Canada at Sound Canada. I still haven’t got over the experience. George was my saviour. What went down on the floor in the main studio was pretty much what was captured on tape. Back then, it seemed that was as good as it got.
I was adding up all of George’s album engineering and producing credits, and it think it rings in at around 178. Jingles? Who the hell knows? I don’t think even George kept tabs. George grabbed a Juno in 1981 for producer of the year with Fist, Hot Spikes, What Am I to Do? Along the way, there are many citations and friendships.
We recently had that long-awaited conversation. Enjoy!
You’ve moved to Niagara region.
You know I love this area. I love this area. It’s a great place to be and none of that bullshit city traffic.
How long ago did you make the move there?
About two years and a bit. I have to go into Toronto once every three months for a couple of days of tests. I’ll tell you it’s a nightmare driving downtown. Finding parking and getting to the hospital is an ordeal.
What are you being tested for?
The reason I dropped out of the Old Mill gig was I got cancer. So that just took me right out of the game. I’ve had two operations and I’m still alive, yet they are killing me a bit at a time. That just entirely put a stop to everything in my life.
How are you at this point?
Let's say I'm about 85 percent of my former self. I only went through chemo for four months which just nearly killed me. But the chemo didn't work, and that's why they had to remove my bladder.
You’ve taken a big hit.
I used to think I was bulletproof, believe me. When I was working the Old Mill, doing the studio thing and freelancing around, I had energy, the passion and everything. This thing hit me, and I could care less about anything.
And that's where the mind goes. Nothing else matters?
You can imagine what it would be like all you want, but until you go through this, you have no idea.
Early times, you and Richie Knight and the Mid-Knights played the Yonge Street strip and had a number one hit song on CHUM radio.
I don’t know how they slice it, but it was the first Toronto band to hit # 1 on CHUM.
‘Oh, Charlena’, 1963?
That was a real coup because CHUM up until that time would not play Canadian records.
It seemed Canadians were up against themselves.
The Americans got everything first and with handfuls of money took it over. It was like the Hells Angels taking over a small town.
Things have changed, we’ve been winning the fight throughs sports and artists like Drake, The Weeknd, Justin Beiber, and look back through the years, Diana Krall, Celine Dion, Blue Rodeo, Shania Twain and so many others. It's the battle that has been won.
How did the move from Richie Knight and the Mid-Knights into mastering occur? What was it about mastering recordings that attracted you to the process?
Well, that was easy. The first time we went in to record, and I listened to the playback, I said, we don't sound anything like that. This is horrible. And then, on top of it, the guy that was the recording engineer told me I was out of tune and said check my guitar. I picked up the guitar and played a chord, and it was so far out of tune my ears almost bled. So, I knew it was game over there. Then we went in another time. And the same thing. I come in the control room; it sounds like shit. We even got Pete Traynor to record us. He was a good friend of mine. I knew he was into electronics, and he tried his best, but he couldn't get it to sound like Motown, a good sounding record.
So I said, I’ve got to learn how to do this. And that's when I started. I got a job at RCA, and they started me duplicating tapes for radio shows. Running off hundreds of tapes to mail out to radio stations. And then moved me into the lacquer room to learn how to cut lacquers. Really interesting.
Because I realized I had something to base my suspicions on. Like why did American records sound louder than Canadian records? I now had a chance to actually figure that out, and I did figure it out. That was a good experience and then of course what I wanted to do was work in the studio and the rest I guess is history.
I remember when I arrived in ’69 the first session I did was at Sound Canada?
I remember the first session I did with you.
I remember working around in a couple of studios and, as you said, there was this problem of recreating what was coming from the performer in the studio on to tape. Then we get to you at RCA, and you're there with Jack Richardson and you guys had it down. And then you got a Neve console.
Oh, Christ what a difference that made.
What were you working on before the Neve recording console?
It was a home-built console our local maintenance department put together. It was a riot.
How much work did Jack and you do together?
Tons. I met Jack first when he was doing jingles, and I was working with Ben McPeek. Ben was doing a lot of jingle work for Jack and, of course, Jack wanted to get into broader strokes because he got a taste of doing that thing with the Guess Who for Coca-Cola. Then he started a record label, Nimbus 9.
He started producing records. I worked on a ton of them but then Jack got kind of bigger than me and got on to bigger and better things and then we drifted apart.
He did a lot of work in Chicago at RCA Studios. I can’t remember the engineer's name right now; a real good engineer. He did a lot of the Guess Who stuff. Jack moved out of my league. I thought I was doing the best I could. You know, I was always pushing myself to figure out better ways of doing shit you know. Hey, that's life, right.
When you were there, you did a recording with Duke Ellington.
The Duke Ellington thing was like a crime mystery.
I get a call during the day. It was on a Saturday or Sunday and I get a call saying, listen we need to do a session at 7 o'clock this evening. Can you be there? He said, ‘set up’ for about 25 pieces. I said give me a rough idea. He says, four trumpets – I say just give me a rough sketch, so I did a rough set up for them. Around a quarter to seven, musicians crept in. I didn’t recognize any of them. I usually know every musician in town. Then Duke Ellington walks in. They are doing this secret session. I remember Ron Rully was there. He was part of that whole thing; the jazz drummer. There were some heavyweight people there and my jaw dropped. I actually went out and talked to the Duke as he was having some problems with his music stand. I helped adjust it for him. He thanked me, broke another pencil and never used the same pencil twice. It was like surreal.
What was the session all about?
I never heard anything more about it.
Did it sound good?
I thought it did. I think the music was something Ron Rully wrote, or a local guy wrote.
Bachman Turner Overdrive. What was that about?
I worked with Randy but never worked with BTO. Sorry, I did. I did one album called Highways or Road Rage or something like that (Freeways 1977). That was at Phase One. I was a small partner; I was like a fifteen percent owner. That got me out of RCA to have a chance to do a little studio designing on my own which was a great experience and faced the challenge of losing all of my jingle customers to do nothing but records because no jingle people would go up there.
Nobody wanted to leave the downtown core.
That's right, too far to go. I’m not ashamed of that studio at all.
What projects did you work on there you were proud of?
Pagliaro, Bill Amesbury's album Can You Feel It with the song "A Thrill's A Thrill." I don’t know why that doesn’t get any play. I even had Lou Reed come in and do a voiceover tag as a favour. I was working with Lou at the time.
I figured the record nuts out there would clue into something like that and play it. Maybe nobody knew about it. I don't have any idea.
I did Funkadelic at RCA, and they were so loud they blew out the studio speakers. They were the loudest band I’d ever heard in that studio. I couldn’t get the monitors loud enough because I was listening to them just as loud acoustically through the glass. I finally cranked up the monitors; Altec 604Es, they are excellent speakers, but can’t handle loud volume. We only had two of them. Studios like A&M in LA had four of them. I blew out a set of speakers, stopped the session while maintenance came in and replaced both speakers and continued.
He worked at Amber.
Amber was the studio that you built yourself exclusively?
Yes, after I left Phase One.
Down on Queen Street?
I could record the drums off the floor with the piano live and not have a ton of drums leaking into the keyboard. The piano was encased. I could do a live band. I wanted that design for Phase 1, but I guess I wasn't quick enough because I had three other people putting their foot in the mix. I didn't get exactly what I wanted up there.
My next move, Amber, was when I wanted to do a live band off the floor and be able to record them live and to fix any problems without it affecting the rest of the sound. You know what it's like. You do a live band, and there's a lot of room leakage. If you punch in something and take out that room leakage it sounds crazy. You have to have extreme isolation.
One of my most fun stories is when I recorded there with you and the late Kenny MacLean. I don't know if you remember this track called, ‘Stranger’ we did?
So, it's Kenny MacLean, Brad Campbell who was with me in Janis Joplin's band on bass - Everton Paul, who's in the Reggae Hall of Fame on drums, Kenny on guitar and I'm on synth and stuff I think. Kenny and I sang it along with Paul Henderson.
I’d just rented the Roland 808 drum machine; the one every rapper cherishes now. None of us knew how to turn it on. Or start or get it to function in any way. So, I have my son Jesse with me; he must be seven or eight years old, and he's there bugging us to get his paws on this. We play along but kind of ignore him. Jesse keeps saying, ‘dad, dad, dad, let me’. Meanwhile, we still can’t get this to function when this small hand mysteriously slips underneath and taps one button and ‘bang’ – it starts playing. It was so damn funny!
One day we had this session at Amber, and one of the musicians brought his kid in who was about nine or ten years old and started playing Space Invaders. He's like killing this thing. I ask him, ‘how are you doing that?’ he says, ‘after you hit the first twenty you let the next one go then you hit the next ones. Anyway, he explained what he did and man, it worked perfectly. I was killing it after that.
What instrument did you play when you began exploring music?
When you put your first band together, was it based on a sound or someone you heard?
The first band I put together was with a friend of mine, Leo Donohue We went to school together. Leo played sax in the school band, I guess. I had just started to play guitar. I mean, I could barely play a B7 chord on guitar. We both talked about trying to start a band. We talked about it through our first year of high school. We decided to find some other guys. Leo found a guy who played drums. I found a guy that played guitar. We had two guitars, drums and saxophone when we first started. It was like rank amateur night. It wasn't till another year pass that we sort of got more proficient ourselves as players and the band got a little better. We had made some changes. I think we had a different bass player at one point. We got a keyboard player and played a few local Catholic church dances and didn't have much of a repertoire. I think we could only fill about half hour set without repeating everything. But that’s how it started.
Our influences at that time were mainly Ray Charles. Believe it or not. And Ike and Tina Turner. Stuff that we’d pick up on the Buffalo stations. We're trying to play funk music, but we also understood we had to play some ‘white ass’ music you know? The kids danced to it, and that was it.
What area of the city did you grow up?
All over the place. By the time I was old enough to start playing I was living in the west end of the city around Weston Road and Lampton Avenue
York Memorial. I spent the first two years going to De La Salle. That’s where I met Leo. They didn't accept me at De La Salle in grade ten because I refused to wear a tie. I said thank you and moved on to York, and that’s where I met Doug. That's when things started changing. Doug got in the band; we got a new drummer – that’s Doug Chappell I was referring to. We got a new drummer Barry Stein. We got a new keyboard player, Barry Lloyd and then we started playing for real.
We started to sound pretty tight. You know, we did some bar gigs to tighten up. We’d take a gig at the Edison Hotel for a week to tighten up the band then the Arc Records people found us and said, ‘hey we want you to record, and we're going to release it.’ We said sure.
We only played close by. We were home boys. We turned down a chance to go to England before the Beatles broke in Canada. We turned down a chance because we were chickenshit. We didn't trust it. I guess everybody wasn’t really a down to the staunch core musician. We all had day jobs. We loved what we did but we ain’t going to toss the dice and move over to England. The deal was, they would guarantee six weeks of work. We had to pay our way over. They would ensure six weeks of work and the possibility of six more. It's like a stupid deal.
Plenty of those deals are.
Yeah, but I'm also thinking. I wonder what would happen if we would have done that.