Work Redux #026: Tony Price

March 18, 2024

Tony Price, hailing from Greektown, Toronto, is a multi-talented figure in the music and creative industry. A Polaris Prize and Juno Award-nominated record producer, recording artist, songwriter, DJ, and graphic designer. Tony has released six full-length LPs and is the visionary behind Maximum Exposure Inc, founded in 2017. Tony's body of work represents a fusion of daring production techniques, genre-bending experimentation, and witty sonic commentary—a testament to his 15 years of record production expertise. His influence extends beyond his solo projects, having contributed to breakthrough records for artists such as U.S. Girls, Young Guv, and Michael Rault, across esteemed labels including 4AD, DFA, and Capitol Records.

Off air we talked a bit about some of the other musical projects you’re involved in and you mentioned you play guitar and toured through Europe with a variety of bands. After listening to your mixes I wouldn’t have assumed you were a guitar player, so what is your guitar playing like and which came first?

⎯⎯⎯ I’ve been playing guitar longer than I’ve been DJing. I’ve been DJing since I was seventeen years old, but I’ve been playing guitar since I was thirteen or fourteen. The guitar is my main instrument, and what I mean by that is that it’s the instrument I know the geography of the most, so I can sit down and work out harmonies and chord voicings on a guitar with way more certainty than I can on a piano. There’s always a guitar around. Even if I’m making a song inspired by a dance floor in New York City or Chicago, I’m always going to have a guitar there to figure out what key I’m in, or create a nice chord voicing. I grew up more around dance music, house, funk, boogie, and disco than rock and roll. I found guitar music on my own when I was young, and I was really drawn to the music of the 60s, specifically this compilation called Nuggets compiled by Lenny Kaye. It was a very raw, elemental form of rock and roll that aesthetically spoke to me. It was played kind of poorly, and a lot of the guitars were out of tune, but there’s just an energy that’s so abrasive and electrifying on it – and all the 60s garage rock records – that just completely took over when I was a teenager. I think that other music that I make, guitar oriented or not, comes from that template. I’m a big fan of fuzz tone guitar and razor-slicing guitar leads.

So you’d play that in garage rock bands, or did you bring your thing to a variety of bands?

⎯⎯⎯ All types of bands. I’ve been making a living as a music producer, luckily, for almost ten years now and I’ve been recording bands since I’ve been in highschool. So, before I’m a guitar player, I’m a producer in that I’ve been helping different types of artists make records, write songs, mix records, or just find a sound in record form. When I play guitar on tour it would very often be for artists that I worked with in the studio who liked my style of guitar playing. Some of that stuff would be more classic power-pop rock and roll type of thing, like the Replacements, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, or early Prince type of stuff. Some of the other stuff would be more out there, in the Nuggets kind of vein, with crazy wah-wah fuzz guitar solos. I would just stand on stage every night and rip solos, which was fun. When I was playing guitar in bands, it was more in the rock and roll vein.

So, when you started quite young playing guitar, were you looking at your peers and getting excited about music as a collaborative thing, or did you learn the chops, the scales, and theory first?

⎯⎯⎯ I bought a guitar because I was drawn to it ever since I was very young. I’d watch that classic scene in Wayne’s World with the white strat and wanted that. I’ve only owned white strats. I just have this affinity for this object, so I finally decided to buy one and learn my way around it. I hate practicing, I hate learning scales, I hate lessons, so I quickly started to realize that it wasn’t so much playing guitar that I was attracted to, but that I was interested in the guitar as a tool that allowed me to make sounds, and so I started recording these sounds in my bedroom. I got a microphone, Garageband, and a pedal and I started to realize how much I was into capturing sound. Then I realized it was a tool to help me write songs, which I was way more into than learning scales, or shredding guitar solos in my bedroom. And that just kept going. The next stage was realizing I only wanted to write songs because I wanted to produce songs, and I only wanted to produce songs so I could make records with album covers in the real world. I don’t know where I’m at now, but it all leads to something.

Was your family musically inclined, or are you an outlier?

⎯⎯⎯ I’m the only musician in my immediate family. My cousins on my mom’s side, some of them mess around with beats, but none of them are really musicians. On my father’s side: he’s Polynesian, he’s Tongan, and they’re very musical people. A lot of people from that lineage of uncles and cousins are very famous musicians actually. There’s a band from the 80s called the Jets, “I’ve Got a Crush on You”, who are second or third cousins of my fathers. Dinah Jane, who’s a member of Fifth Harmony, she’s one of my first or second cousins I believe. Tongan people are islanders, and they’re very melodic people. You’ll be at a birthday or a funeral and all of a sudden thirty people will be harmonizing and it’s just angelic, it’s beautiful. There’s definitely music in my DNA, and it’s probably from there.

It sounds like you’re very invested in the history of music, both your own and the history of music more generally.

⎯⎯⎯ I’m definitely a major music nerd. I’ve always been obsessed with things like credits, liner notes, graphic design on record covers. I’m reading a book right now that’s chronicling Prince’s recording sessions over two years and it’s just blowing my mind. If you go deep into the history of how things came to be within music, your appreciation of a wide breadth of music becomes so vivid. When I read about how Prince programmed a Linn drum in 1984 and then I go and read an interview with Metro Boomin from 2016, you just start to connect the dots. No matter how far apart things are in terms of sound, or time, or genre, or beat, it all comes from a very human impulse. That extends into how records look and feel. What I mean by that is that there’s something outside of what our senses are perceiving when we listen to music. Whether you are catching onto it or not, you’re seeing things and feeling things that are not necessarily there.

It’s not a far jump then to DJing. Was DJing something you did to exercise that musicality, or did the opportunity come up and you went for it? Was it incidental or was it a primary source of your musical experience?

⎯⎯⎯ That’s a good question. It’s probably a bit or both. I’ve been buying vinyl records since I was in grade ten or something. When I first became involved in the downtown Toronto music scene, when I was seventeen years old or something, it was a very interesting time in Toronto’s musical history. There was a lot going on in terms of music happening at small venues like Rancho Relaxo, Sneaky Dees, or the Silver Dollar Room. There was also this other thing happening underneath bridges, or shows in abandoned slaughterhouses, or the abandoned Kodak factory at Weston Road and Black Creek, or wherever it is. There was a lot of interesting stuff happening in terms of collisions of sounds. There was a lot of what seemed like a revival of New York downtown late 70s early 80s no wave scene in that there’d be shows underneath bridges with free jazz saxophone players, and then a guy would pull out turntables, and then a band that sounded like the Birthday Party would play, and it all just made sense together. It was amazing to become immersed in this scene because it tied together all my musical and aesthetic interests, and I just couldn’t find a better way to express this stuff and my love for it than to DJ. I played in bands and stuff and that was fun, but being able to pull up to one of these parties and with a crate of records and play a Phillip Glass record and then play the Congos and then a James Chance record, it was such an exciting thing for me to do. So, I don’t really know how to answer that question. It was a blend of both. It wanted to do it, and it was something that found me at the same time.

What were some of the early DJ venues or events that you participated in?

⎯⎯⎯ There were these events called Extermination Nights in Toronto that people used to put on where they’d find some empty space or vacant building somewhere, and they’d put together these lineups, and you’d get an alert through email telling you an address an hour before midnight, and it’s what I was describing earlier. I don’t remember if I DJ’d any of those parties, but it was within that world that I played. I played at Double Double Land when it first opened, which was a DIY space in Kensington Market. I used to play at the Shop, I think it was called, that was below a venue called Parts and Labour, which was very much a nexus point for a garage rock scene between Toronto, Atlanta, and Brooklyn. Even there, it was very open minded. You could go and play a bunch of Paradise Garage, boogie, and spaced out funk, but then you could also put on post-punk stuff. I wasn’t playing at the more indie-sleaze type of shit that was happening at the Social. I wasn’t into that stuff. I never got into electro-clash. I still really can’t stand that stuff. This was just when EDM was bubbling up. Around this time, late 2000s, early 2010s, I was in these bands and playing these shows, but I was also working with my dad in my downtime. He is a contractor and was building a lot of the nightclubs in downtown toronto. That was a whole other world that I found repulsive. It was a much more arrogant, macho energy. It was different from Toronto’s club district from the 90s and early 2000s and was much more about prestige, how you look, how you show up in a room, bottle service, and stuff. And musically, I just found it so repulsive. All these different things were happening in my life, in the city, and in culture, and it all collided and created something within me. There was a lot of strange stuff happening in Toronto.

I feel like DJing, whether it’s for the people that are listening to it or for the DJs themselves, is an avenue of discovery. For some people the King Street night clubs were probably their arena of discovery.

⎯⎯⎯ I don’t want to knock on people who grew up with an affinity for EDM, post-dub step, or whatever it’s called, everyone has their way in. I think I personally find the earliest forms of a musical genre the most exciting. I don’t want to say I’m a purist or anything. Even going back to what I was saying about Nuggets, and garage rock, and rock and roll in its raw form, I feel that way about everything. My favourite rap music is early electro, that stuff to me is insanely provocative in how it sounds sonically. It was so raw and so immediate. I feel that way about dance music too. The early Chicago stuff, to me, nothing is better than that. EDM is the complete opposite to me. Even if it was made in someone’s bedroom, it was so much a reflection of that club culture I was just describing. It was all about how big can we make ourselves look, how obnoxiously oversized can we make this sound, and I just hate it. I can still sense that and feel that energy in stuff now, like how many genres can someone smash into one song; let’s put a jungle style Amen drum break with these fruit-flavoured melodies twinkling above, and then we’ll cut to a UK garage type section. It’s too confusing. I don’t want any mixer, I want it straight, with maybe one ice cube.

You can hear in those earliest records from all those different genres, that authentic element of creativity that makes it feel new. I think what you’re describing is people’s attempt to manufacture newness.

⎯⎯⎯ You made a comment about discovery both for DJs and the person on the dance floor and the more I do this and listen to old mixes by Tony Humphries or Ron Hardy, or even different stuff like Red Alert doing a hip-hop show, I hear exactly what you’re saying. I hear these DJs exploring new sounds and new technologies. My dad just stopped by my house and I was showing him this Ron Hardy edit of a Chaka Khan song and I was explaining that he was splicing these tapes up because he felt the dance floor would react to it in a certain way. Then I’m hearing mixes where he’s pulling in songs from the mid 70s on Philly International Records, a Teddy Pendergrass song, and then immediately cutting to something that was probably handed to him that night, a Derrick May Detroit techno song. He’s very much discovering the future, and showing us the future, in that moment.

I’m curious about your production. What do you bring to production that you’re looking for, or that you would identify as your process or approach when you produce with other people?

⎯⎯⎯ I realized that was a role that needed to be filled not only in the music I was making, but also in the music my peers and friends were making. Coming of age in the 2000s is a very interesting thing if you’re a music fan or music maker, because this is just after the music industry and its full-blown extravagance and big-budget blockbuster era implodes. I came of age just after that, which is also the advent of when home recording technology became a thing. Being able to have a miniature recording studio in your bedroom when you’re a teenager was not something most people had access to before the 2000s. So all of that was happening, but we also had the blogspot era, which was a proliferation of curated music blogs that would host links to full downloads of ultra-obscure records. The curation is the key here. You would follow a blog that would specifically post early industrial music – stuff that you can’t even find on Soulseek today – and you’d be able to download ten gigs of this stuff in one shot, put that in your iTunes, and then go to a psych-folk blog and download British psych-folk from 1968 – ten gigs of that – and then listen to it on the way to go to school the next day. So, all of these things created, within me atleast, a specific type of music fan, or music maker. The way I thought about music became very referential. How do I describe the guitar tone I want? I’ll describe it by referring to this record, or this record. I started to realize I wasn’t the only one that was thinking this way. The more musicians I met, the more we started to talk to each other in this way. It was less about playing an inverted major seventh chord or something, and more about playing a chord that sounded like blank. Or, we’d just pull up a record and say, listen to this. We’d be speaking to each other in this language of references, and I started to notice in my own work and the work of my friends and peers there was a struggle to do this on your own. So, some people started to invite me into the room, into their process, whether it was someone who was making music in their bedroom or being given the opportunity to work on a huge SSL console – I didn’t touch anything, but I was pulling up references. I started to realize this role, I don’t know what it is, this post-modern record producer, reference producer, was a thing, and people started to see value in that and ask me to come out for all these things. I do mix records. I’ve made most of the living doing the technical stuff, but I don’t like doing it as much as this, and then I started to find myself lying on a couch like a Rick Rubin without a beard pointing my finger and saying try this out, try that out. My process is very much about references. I don’t like to impose myself. If an artist isn’t capable of expressing themselves confidently, there’s very little that anyone can do. You can get in there and try and pump them up, but I don’t like the idea of having to do that. I think a producer should be there to help refine ideas, but I’m not really into the idea of going into a room with someone and telling them what to do.

I have a funny question, and I think you might be the person to ask: I wonder what you think of remixes, both as a DJ, but also as a form of recontextualizing music? Can the remix ever be better than the original?

⎯⎯⎯ That’s a very good question. I think that the concept of a remix is something that I’m very attracted to, again, in its primitive form. I was writing something for someone about the birth of the twelve-inch record, and a guy named Tom Moulton, who was a very early – if not the first – person to create a twelve-inch mix of a record. He would take a disco record and think about the dancefloor, think about the DJ, think about how you need lead-in time to blend the records, how you can stretch out the groove, and create a story, a dynamic, by rearranging it, and to me that’s magical. Some of those early disco mixes, where things are being expanded, are absolutely mesmerizing. There’s nothing better than finding a groove and knowing that the person who made this music, or edited it, also felt that way and extended it. I think that so much of hip-hop, and what we might as well call house music at this point, comes directly out of extended remixes, because if you look at someone like Grandmaster Flash or any of these early DJs who were cutting between breaks for people to rap over or dance to, you’re isolating something that feels special and extending it. Once samplers came into production, so much of that golden era of hip-hop and house music is the exact same thing, you’re taking loops and repeating them over and over and emphasizing little bits of songs. I think there’s something special there, a relationship between the remixer and the producer when it comes to recontextualizing the song as opposed to putting your own spin on it, or identity on it. The last thing we need is more of people’s identity in your music.

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