Willow Smoke rocks out in the woods.
Willow Smoke rocks out in the woods.

With some help from the sun gods, a rock band consisting of five U of G engineering grads managed to record their first album using only solar power.

The band Willow Smoke is made up of a group of friends who met during their first year at Guelph: Cody Thompson, Colin Goodwin, Torben Ruddock, Deko Telka and Josh Maitland.

“It was neat to meet these guys who were all fairly talented musicians and thoroughly enjoyed making music,” says Thompson, who is currently completing a PhD in environmental science at U of G. “We ended up living together and created a studio in our house where we would spend hours writing and playing music together.”

The five friends graduated in 2008 and headed their separate ways in pursuit of different careers, but the band members never forgot about the music they made together.

“We kept in touch and joked about putting our music onto an album,” says Thompson. “Somewhere along the way it went from a joke to a serious objective.”

The idea to produce an album using only solar power stemmed from Thompson and Goodwin’s fourth-year engineering design project. With help from fellow engineering classmates Michael Trudell and Greg Molson, the students created and built a solar-powered production system that would not only enable a cottage to run completely off the grid, but also generate enough energy to power a rock concert.

“Most fourth-year design projects stay as posters on the wall, but not ours,” says Thompson. “We actually went out and built it and used it the way it was intended.”

The solar-panel system was eventually installed onto Goodwin’s parents’ remote wooden cabin just north of North Bay, Ont. The system worked perfectly, powering everything needed to run the cottage, but it had yet to be put to the test to see whether it could handle a rock band.

So in September 2012, the five men made the trek up north to spend nine days writing and playing music together like they used to. Only this time it was in the middle of the wilderness.

“It was one of the most insane and enjoyable experiences of my life,” says Thompson.

The cabin is only accessible by water, so the band had to bring all their instruments, amplifiers, microphones and production equipment over by boat. After taking a day to transform the cottage into a solar recording studio, the group of friends spent the next week recording songs.

“It’s very rare that you can go to a place that is literally in the middle of nowhere and record music. It was pretty special.”

However, relying on solar power meant the band needed to use their limited energy wisely. They came up with a strategy that involved starting the day slowly to allow for the energy from the morning sun to be stored.

“The drummer would record his music first thing, because he didn’t require power for an amplifier, while the rest of us would go fishing or write music,” says Thompson.

Once enough power had accumulated, the band would play and record their music until they literally used it all up.

“Each day we would play until about 10 p.m., and then suddenly the lights would shut down and the whole place would go black. The back-up battery on our recording equipment would start beeping, and we would quickly save what we had done. Then we would stop for the night.”

Although using solar energy did have some restrictions, it also had some benefits, adds Thompson.

“The sound quality from the amplifiers was much cleaner using solar power, and there wasn’t the humming you typically get when you are using power that has to travel long distances through transmission lines,” he says. “That’s because the signal deteriorates as it travels, but we were using energy coming right from the roof, so it was clean and there was little distortion.”

The band released two songs from their solar-powered recording last year and is hoping to release the entire album this spring.

“We wanted to make an album for ourselves if nothing else,” says Thompson. “But we hope other people besides our friends and family will enjoy it, too. We plan to put it out there and just see what happens.”

Since the recording, the group of friends converged together again a few months ago to perform their album at the 2013 Milton Street Festival.

“We are all still writing music on our own, and I would like to go back someday and do more recording,” says Thompson. “It was a surreal experience.”

Maitland, who owns and operates a recording studio in Collingwood, Ont., called Red Room Recordings, has written a blog on Willow Smoke’s cottage recording adventure at http://redroomrecordings.ca/adventures-in-solar-powered-recording-part-1/. To hear songs from Willow Smoke’s upcoming album, visit willowsmoke.bandcamp.com.