FOCUS: Longtime rocker’s music hub makes noise in Newton (photos)

Bob Douglas has created a go-to studio for local musicians to practice and play

Bob Douglas in his office at Music Makers rehearsal studios with the 1968 Telecaster bass he bought new and played while with the bands Five Man Cargo

Bob Douglas in his office at Music Makers rehearsal studios with the 1968 Telecaster bass he bought new and played while with the bands Five Man Cargo

SURREY — Late one night, Bob Douglas saw something he didn’t like. On camera, a pair of musicians were smoking something, and Douglas, who owns and operates Music Makers rehearsal studios, spotted them on a video monitor connected to his phone. Because he runs a clean ship, Douglas drove from White Rock to Newton to investigate, and when he arrived at the studio, it reeked of pot.

“These guys were really surprised to see me at 11:30 at night,” Douglas recalled with a laugh. “I said to them, ‘‘C’mon, you know better than this, right?’ And the one guy is so stoned he can’t even shake my hand, and the other guy is walking around spraying a can of Febreze while he’s trying to convince me that he hasn’t been smoking dope, with the package of papers still sitting on the table.”

Douglas chuckled a little more and remembered something else he told those musicians that night.

“I said to them, ‘Guys, you’re looking at someone who, in March of 1968, sat cross-legged on the floor of the Fillmore auditorium in San Francisco, in my love beads, watching Eric Clapton and Cream record their ‘Wheels of Fire’ album for two nights. I’ve been around this for a really long time, so just stop. You think I’m a newbie here?’”

No, Douglas is certainly no newbie in the world of music, having played his first paid gig 50 years ago at a pizza place on Commercial Drive in Vancouver. But he’s relatively new to the world of running a rehearsal studio, having opened Music Makers in a Newton warehouse district five years ago. Ever since, local bands have slowly made it a go-to place to play and practice their music.

On a recent Saturday, a band known as Our Project rehearsed “Bringing Down the Wall,” a Pink Floyd tribute they’re bringing to Surrey Arts Centre on Feb. 18 as a fundraiser for the Sarah McLachlan School of Music. All 13 members of the charity-only band, which includes project “instigator” Kevin Western on drums and Surrey councillor Bruce Hayne on keyboards, donate their time and talents.

“Bob is one of our sponsors and he gives us this rehearsal space for free,” Western explained during a break. “That’s amazing, and this place is great – it’s night and day in here compared to some of the crappy places we’ve rehearsed,” he continued.

“The gear here is appreciated, the amps and all that, and the washrooms actually work and the coffee tastes good, you know. It’s a wonderful space, and there aren’t too many rehearsal studios like this, that’s for sure.”

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PICTURED: The charity-minded tribute band Our Project, which includes Surrey Councillor Bruce Hayne on keyboards (right), rehearses in the “penthouse” room at Music Makers studio in Newton on a recent Saturday morning. (Photo: TOM ZILLICH)

Born and raised in East Van, Douglas played bass on the local scene in the ’60s and ’70s. He played in The Reign and, later, Five Man Cargo, which was managed by Bruce Allen for a time and, according to a post at the website, once “spent a year in the basement on the turkey farm we rented on 152nd and Fraser Highway, Surrey, and recorded enough material for an album which was never released.”

For a long time, Douglas dropped out of playing music altogether, but he got the itch again in the late-2000s when the idea for a Motown-ish band – initially dubbed S.O.S. and, later, Soul Dogs – was coming together. They needed a place to rehearse, of course, which wasn’t easy to find for a 10-member horn band.

Also around that time, Douglas was looking for an investment to park some of the money he’d made in the RV industry, and he bought unit #26 at 8333 130th St., Surrey.

“The format here is a reflection of all the things I didn’t like about other places I’ve rehearsed in,” Douglas said.

“Like, the ladies in that band would go into the washroom (at another studio in Surrey) and go, ‘Ewww!,’ you know? I remember one singer we had went in there who said, ‘There’s a cloth towel in there. When do you think the last time (the studio operator) washed it?’ The places are usually pretty dirty and disgusting, right, and the sound isolation is bad, there’s no good gear, you know, and the big thing, too, is having no ventilation in a room. We used to burn out our drummer in 45 minutes. We had to go to the parking lot for a 20-minute break every 45 minutes because he just couldn’t stay – none of us could. In the summertime, you’d just die with the lack of ventilation and black carpet in there.”

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PICTURED: Bob Douglas with his car outside Music Makers studio. (Photo: TOM ZILLICH)

In 2010, Douglas spent a year designing and building what would become Music Makers, which almost didn’t open in 2011.

“I had an awful of time getting the City of Surrey to give me a business license for this when I first bought the place,” Douglas recalled. “They told me it wasn’t going to be an issue and then I went down there after I bought the place and they wouldn’t give me a license.… I got a letter saying my application had been declined because they didn’t consider playing music to be a recreational activity. I phoned up and said, ‘If it ain’t recreational, then what is it? So I wrote a nice letter to (then Surrey mayor) Dianne Watts and dropped it off to her office at 4:15 in the afternoon and by 10 o’clock the next morning, I had my business license. She’s a no-B.S. kind of lady and I could just see her looking at this letter and calling in some people saying, ‘This guy wants to put an arts facility in Newton and you won’t let him? Are you nuts?’ If it wasn’t for Dianne Watts, I wouldn’t be in business here.”

The first couple of years were a bit of a struggle for Douglas, with the studio running at around just 20 per cent capacity, but word soon spread in the local music community about the three clean, comfortable rehearsal studios at Music Makers — two 400-square-foot spaces on the first floor and a second-floor penthouse studio nearly 1,000 square feet in size.

“That’s pretty much the size of most theatre stages, which is great for us,” said Western, of Our Project. “We’re able to spread out and get comfortable with positioning. In October and November, we’ll start bringing some of the props in here, some of the set pieces and visuals, as part of the show we’re doing.”

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PICTURED: Sign on the studio’s front door. (Photo: TOM ZILLICH)

In recent years, musicians including Darby Mills (of Headpins fame), Jerry Doucette and metal band Obsidian have booked time at Music Makers. Also, rock quartet Theory of a Deadman “locked out” the upstairs room for eight days a couple of years ago, Douglas said. “They came in to write some of the tunes for a CD they were about to record, so that was pretty cool. They’re nice guys, and it was a pleasure having them in.”

Probably 75 per cent of the bands that book time there are regulars, Douglas said.

“We still have what I call ‘buddy bands,’ which is a bunch of guys who get together once a week just for fun, right, but most of the bands here are working bands that do the casinos, corporate stuff.”

In his time away from Music Makers, Douglas is part of the “Blue Crew” that stages concerts at White Rock’s Blue Frog Studios. Douglas’ role there is “front-end management – I’m a greeter, pretty much, and I look after the customers,” he said.

Some of the many bands that play Blue Frog also find themselves rehearsing at Music Makers.

“A downside of this business is not knowing exactly when musicians will come,” Douglas noted. “Sometimes I look at the bookings and think, ‘Oh, nobody is ever going to come here again,’ but then the next day my phone is ringing nonstop and we’ll be booked solid for four days straight. The sun comes out, guys cancel because they’re taking their kids somewhere. That’s the way it goes here.”

Ultimately, the health of the local live-music scene – that is, the number of paying gigs available to bands – can be measured by the level of activity at places like Music Makers.

“Absolutely,” Douglas agreed. “In the spring we’re booked solid, pretty much, because everybody is getting ready for outdoor festivals, and then in the fall we get busy again, for the casino gigs and all that, and we’ll get some of the higher-end bands in. Around October, it’ll be a ghost town again for a while, I figure. It’s very cyclical, and after five or six years of this I’m starting to get a grip on those cycles. It still surprises me all the time, though.”

PICTURED: Original concert tickets, posters and programs owned by Bob Douglas feature The Beatles, The Who, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and other music icons. He saw concerts by those performers, among many others, in Vancouver and other cities beginning in the mid-1960s. (Photo: TOM ZILLICH)