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Courting the muse among mountains

In an era when people of his generation are succumbing to digital dominance, John Kilmer, 56, has taken a stand.

In an era when people of his generation are succumbing to digital dominance, John Kilmer, 56, has taken a stand.

In an old Masonic hall filled with tube amplifiers, half-full ashtrays and a wall of records, Kilmer has created an analog bunker.

His studio, located above this small mountain town’s post office, is a mecca for those looking for something beyond ephemeral gadgets.

Sure, he has a mountain of computers in his log home by a creek, but he uses the monitors for tube amp parts.

“Some people say that’s a copout, I know I need it (new technology). But when I hear one more story about someone who is ready to throw their computer out the door…”

Folks like his philosophy.

A half-dozen albums have been recorded at the hall, each done exclusively in analog and always live.

Kilmer avoids monotonous multi-tracking and rigid retakes that make the technology, not the music, the dominant art form.

“You’re so busy inside the lens that you take the picture and look at the scene instead of being in the moment. You miss the experience.”

There is nothing framed about Kilmer’s sound set up. Instead of close miking instruments and voices to manipulate later in the mix, he uses one ribbon mike to capture the ambiance of the room, as the musicians hear it.

“No one has their ear in someone’s mouth.”

Kilmer, a soft-spoken man with curly grey locks and a penchant for sweaters, specializes in timeless technology. Besides running the studio, he also owns Tibetan singing bowls, a collection a Baroque flutes, and a host of other antique instruments.

While the instruments are a stable investment, they provide him with something more valuable than equity.

His  collection of 25 violins, including one more than 300 years old, is especially close to his heart.

“The violins were a way for me to perceive history. In school, I had to memorize dates, I couldn’t feel history.

“Once it started to sink in how many years this little piece of wood had existed, and how many lives it had charmed, I was able to travel back.”

While it would be easy to stereotype Kilmer as a man trapped in another era, his interest in music extends beyond resurrecting the sounds of his youth or

fragments of bygone centuries.

He is first and foremost a technician with a passion for figuring out how things work.

It should come as no surprise then, that the man who built his own “Kilmercaster” guitar, rewired his first piece of sound equipment, a tube amp, while still in public school.

“I was an electric freak always. I was always trying to take things apart.”

While he explored sound as a teenager in Etobicoke, Ontario, his musical career didn’t blossom until his late 20s.

Kilmer, the middle child of a feed and fertilizer specialist, spent the first part of his working life doing construction and surveying jobs in the Yukon.

The early 1970s took Kilmer to Denmark to restore a ship and Guyana to bring a 1929 Baltic Trader to port.

In 1975, he was hired as a television technician for CBC in Toronto and ran the teleprompter for a pre-CTV Lloyd Robertson.

After two years, he got tired of chain smoking cigarettes during the endless breaks between filming, and rediscovered his musical muse.

It started with the help of Ontario guitar maker Oscar Graff, who took Kilmer on as an apprentice. It proved to be a fruitful time in Kilmer’s life.

Besides learning to be a luthier, he also picked up the mandolin and began providing sound for local festivals.

It was an ideal combination.

“If you’re mixing, making and learning to play, you pay attention to how music works. You’re confirming that you’re musical.”

Kilmer brought his sound skills back to the Yukon in 1981. Technicians were in short supply then, and Kilmer soon found a niche for himself as sound man for local bands such as Goin’ South.

By 1986, Kilmer and his new wife, Rosemary, had finished an extended trip to Asia and were looking for a new home.

Friends lent them their house in Atlin for a weekend, and the two were immediately hooked.

“We didn’t even stay overnight, we knew this was it. There is a quietness here that is quite perceivable. The beauty is obvious, but there is this feeling….”

That feeling has kept Kilmer in the community for two decades. There is no place he’d rather be, even if the gardening is “frickin’ hard.”

It has not been an easy life, however. His rootedness to the area was one of the reasons Rosemary and their teenage son moved to Salt Spring Island five years ago.

Rosemary wanted to travel, recalls Kilmer.

His home has become even more crammed with instruments since they left.

“I’ve overfilled the poor house … I’m digging up projects I haven’t done in years. It’s just me there anyway.”

When he’s not playing his slide guitar in the studio or building banjos, Kilmer is the director, sound person and sign putter-upper for the Atlin Music Festival, which takes place July 7, 8 and 9.