We all know the sounds of Mike Turner’s experimental rhythms and reverberations. He came up with innovative riffs for Our Lady Peace and helped define their distinctive vibe. Turner’s creative dexterity set the tone for the emerging Alternative Rock genre with grunge interludes and ominous ambiance. After leaving OLP, Mike has been busy with his music venture Crash Karma and behind the scenes work as a producer. Mike took some time away from his projects to talk to OCR about his craft!
OCR: Over the years, you have harnessed a very recognizable and dynamic guitar sound. You’ve mastered an eerie and ominous rock rhythm. What kind of experimentation process do you go through to find signature sounds?
MT: Thanks of the compliment! I’ve always been drawn to unique guitar players and how it is that they differentiate themselves in such a densely populated arena. My tastes have also always been more on the atmospheric and cinematic side in terms of both music and players. The Edge from U2 and Robin Guthrie from The Cocteau Twins from the more atmospheric side and Brian May of Queen and Alex Lifeson of Rush from the rock side would be the strongest touch points for what caught my ears early on.
To be honest, the biggest factor in how I’ve become the guitarist I am is actually my lack of desire to pursue purely technical ability!! As a player I didn’t begin by becoming ‘technically’ grounded but rather relied on my ears to learn songs on the instrument. That’s not to say that I’ve ignored technique but more that I generally had a task in mind that was directly related to a goal: how to play a part in a song or how to write one rather than practicing the diminished minor scale in all positions on the neck.
If I found myself challenged, I would work until I could do what I needed to, I think I might have gotten to those places faster if I’d taken the ‘technical’ route mentioned earlier! For me it seems the danger of learning guitar by patterns (The scale for this key and mode is X played in position Y) is that when you begin to work on an original part, your hands know those patterns by muscle memory and they begin to take the lead with your ears being second. That’s where most of the clichés of guitar come from.
Everyone that plays recognizes certain pentatonic licks from the Blues, and as such, when you hear them in yet another setting that doesn’t re-contextualize them in a new and more interesting way, you stop listening. The trick to originality is to pull away from the safe and the same when you hear it in your own playing. It’s comforting to have, in the back of your mind at least, the idea that ‘this part is just like one of the greats (Zeppelin, U2, AC/DC) so it must be good and nobody can say otherwise’. Let’s face it, most of the time people are insecure about putting themselves out there to be judged and that’s exactly what you do as a guitar player playing original, guitar driven music. The security blanket of imitation is pretty warm and cozy against the frigid blast of criticism!
Early in OLP, our producer Arnold Lanni was very focused on us maintaining and emphasizing our individual ‘voices’ on out instruments. What he heard in each of us, he encouraged and forced us to do more of. He loved anything that felt different, like Jeremy’s left hand ghost notes on the snare and extra work on the hats, Raine’s unique vocalizations, how I voiced chords and lines, and how the band combined was more than the sum of the individuals. He would often point out some little thing, Raine yelping ‘YeahEahEahEahHeee!!’ or something someone else did, and tell us ‘that’s it! Do that more…when you think you’ve done it too much you’ve done half as much as you should, that’s what will make you unique!’
Sometimes that was a long painful process but, from this perspective at least, worth the effort. As time has gone on, I’ve maintained part of that process in that I try to find a part that doesn’t remind me too much of anything specific. Sometimes it’s easy and I can hear what I want to do and just have to figure out how to do it! Other times, I’ll approach it from a sonic perspective, maybe a baritone guitar or maybe toss in a different effects pedal? Just try something (or anything) and then decide if it’s going somewhere good. Sometimes it’s from a more musical and harmonic perspective. Change the tuning to get a different voicing? Re-harmonize the chords into inversions that frame the melody differently? Maybe a line rather than just chordal support? But the most important thing is to then LISTEN and decide if you’re doing the best for the part or song.
The most difficult thing is when you come up with what you think is a really cool guitar part that unfortunately just doesn’t do the best for the song….unfortunately the song has to win but the good news is that the approach of the part goes into your little bag of tricks that you can use the next time. During the recording of Gravity Bob Rock helped me with that issue on one occasion but saying, “Dude, that’s a really cool part, just not for this song. There’s always another song you can use it in, let it go for now and wait for the next time!” Because of that, I’ve been able to stockpile a set of approaches that have served me well. Ultimately the longer you do this the deeper the bag of tricks you have based on experience. As I’ve spent more time in the studio as a producer I’ve learned one thing that I stand by to the fullest degree. You have to be vulnerable to create. When you hear a good piece of music it sounds like a spontaneous utterance, like it just happened right then, as it was recorded. They aren’t. Everyone labours over things to find what it is that sounds ‘right’ to their ears. It’s important to realize that you most likely won’t get it the first try. Sometimes not the second or third either! My point is, allow yourself the freedom to explore without putting too much pressure on the immediate result. Be vulnerable, allow yourself to suck for a while as you try to get things the way you want them. If you stop trying after the first few ugly attempts then you’ll never get there, that much is certain!
OCR: You studied literature at the University of Western Ontario. What are some of your favourite literary masterpieces? How does your interest in literature shape your writing process?
MT: There’s one book that changed my path in life and that’s The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The book is a masterpiece. The crux of its effect on me is that there are two characters, one that follows his passion (Howard Roark) and another that does as he’s expected to do by others (Peter Keating). Ultimately, Keating ends up regretting how he spent his life despite great success, once he realized that he could no longer follow his passion later in life as he had thought he might. “One day I’ll get around to it.” Truth is, we don’t have an infinite number of days. Roark, though a bit of a curmudgeon, never regretted any choice he made because he made them, without hesitation, for his own reasons even when those choices left him in dire circumstances. At least those circumstances were of his own creation.
I related to that in first year university where I was well on my way to becoming a geneticist. I didn’t want to wake up in mid life and wonder “What if I had tried music?” It worked out for me but I’d be lying if I said I don’t occasionally wonder “What If I had tried Genetics?”
OCR: You have ventured into the production side of music with your recording company The Pocket Studios. The environment claims to encourage artistic collaboration and is unlike any other studio out there. How is the atmosphere different from typical studios?
MT: Well, your description makes me sound like I think I’m reinventing the wheel! I just wanted the studio to be a place where there is a positive energy and nobody has to panic about the time things take. The look of the studio is bright and light filled (why are most studios always dark and brown??) and there’s a good community there, everything from R&B Pop to EDM to commercial jingles to guitar rock to country to ANYTHING! Just being immersed in music keeps the inspiration up for everyone.
OCR: The Pocket Studios is located in the heart of Toronto. Do you feel like being in such a vibrant cityscape inspires a certain amount of creativity?
MT: I’m a city boy at heart, I love the energy of cities, always have. I’m okay with the country vibe, I’m glad it’s there to visit and then come home!
OCR: In a producer role, do you feel like you have a lot more to offer the musicians that walk through your doors due to your own rich musical background and stage experience?
MT: I’d like to hope that I didn’t do all of that for nothing!! Of course it helps to have done what those that you’re working with want to do, like I said about guitar, it’s really about having a bigger set of tricks and methods based on experience. The more experience you have and the more difficulties you’ve encountered the better equipped you are to help others as they encounter those little roadblocks. I’ve also been lucky enough to work with a couple of great producers and learn at every step from both success and failures.
OCR: When you first left Our Lady Peace, were you flooded with fears of regret? After leaving to pursue your own creative goals, did you have an “A-HA” moment when you knew you found what you were passionate about?
MT: Not really regret, actually more relief. We weren’t really that happy around each other so it made sense even if it didn’t feel like it at the time. In any case, during the separations and legal stuff I was required to sign a mutually binding non-disclosure and non-disparagement document that I choose to honour so that’s all I’ll say about that.
As for the passion for music, that’s never really changed, it’s just a matter of finding a good outlet for it. More collaborations are in the cards so there’s always more to come!
OCR: For an extensive period of your career, you have hit the road for numerous tours. Can you recount one of your most memorable “On the Road” experiences?
MT: Well, not really! Truth be told, during my time with OLP things were pretty tame, we just wanted to do the best shows we could and focused on that. Of course there was that riot in Springfield…
OCR: Since the creation of your own production studio, you have worked with great Canadian musicians like Feist, Sloan, and Hawksley Workman. Do you feel a higher sense of accomplishment when you help define a foundational Canadian music scene?
MT: These were all clients of the studio and I didn’t work with them directly while they were here but to answer your question, I’m happy to be a part of and help where possible, artists I enjoy.
OCR: Are there any upcoming projects can we expect in the near future?
MT: The new Crash Karma record comes out shortly so keep an eye out for that! Also more productions from the likes of Alert the Medic, Rebel Hero, Sarah Belle and others!!