By Steve Newton
Back in November of 1996 the Tragically Hip was at its peak popularity-wise, and I got the chance to do a cover story on them for the Georgia Straight. I interviewed frontman Gordon Downie and tried my best to pull off a decent piece, but for some reason he hasn’t offered me an interview since.
Way to make me feel bad, dude!
When word went out over the local airwaves one July morning last year that the Tragically Hip were playing a tiny Vancouver club that night to raise funds for the Vancouver Food Bank—and give 200 or so of their die-hard fans the thrill of a lifetime—pandemonium set in. There were reports of southbound cars pulling U-turns on the Cambie Street bridge to get back within sprinting distance of the Railway Club and in line for the $10 tickets. Hours before the scheduled show time, the downtown club was packed with Hip fans sporting three-mile smiles. Then the band members showed up, casually sauntering amongst the crowd as if intimate club gigs were a common occurrence for them.
Such gigs had been for many years, of course, as the Hip—no overnight, MTV-approved sensations—paid their dues in true Canadian fashion, travelling the nation’s endless highways and byways en route to unheralded gigs in out-of-the-way locations. Lead singer Gordon Downie says that in those formative days he had no inkling that the band would one day be playing three consecutive, nearly sold-out shows at the Pacific Coliseum, as it is this Friday to Sunday (November 8 to 10).
“I don’t think anybody really looks that far ahead,” he says, on the line from his Toronto home base. “To be honest, I was at the dentist the other day and the receptionist in there, Bonnie, has a kid who’s getting into a band, so whenever I go in there she talks about the band. She sort of said, ‘How long had you been together before you were successful?’ and I was in a bad mood—’cause it was early in the morning and I was in the dentist’s, for chrissakes—so I was like, ‘One day.’ She kind of looked at me and raised an eyebrow. ‘One day?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, exactly.’
“‘Cause once we went into the basement and learned a song, we felt successful. Then we learned two songs, and then we got a gig, and on and on—and that’s the way musicians think. I don’t know about other people—I mean, I don’t know about all musicians either—but some are more driven than others. We were just happy to be together, and that’s the way we’ve done everything.”
The Tragically Hip—Downie, guitarists Bobby Baker and Paul Langlois, bassist Gord Sinclair, and drummer Johnny Fay—have always made being a band the top priority during their rise to being one of Canada’s greatest rock groups. The quintet has made a point of doing things its way, like organizing its own festival-like outdoor tour (Another Roadside Attraction) and choosing opening bands more on musical merit and promise than name recognition. And, musically, the group has never even come close to following the latest trends.
Early on, it was a riff-driven bar band specializing in groove-oriented tunes such as “Blow at High Dough” and “New Orleans Is Sinking”, but by the time of its third full-length release, Fully Completely, it had branched off into much more adventurous arrangements. It also displayed a very Canadian outlook on songs such as “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)”, “Wheat Kings”, and “Fifty-Mission Cap” (which makes mention of Quebec explorer Jacques Cartier and the mysterious story of ’60s NHL player Bill Barilko).
With every album, the group’s popularity in Canada has grown—to the point where its relatively minor success in the U.S. seems quite bizarre. The band has sold more than three million copies of its six albums in Canada alone—including 800,000 (eight times platinum) of 1989’s Up to Here—and it has reached the stage where it can headline events such as the recent Edenfest at Mosport Park in Ontario, which saw it play before 50,000 people, its biggest Canadian crowd ever.
But Downie claims that performing to that many people doesn’t give him any more of a rush than playing clubs such as Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern or Ottawa’s Barrymore’s—which the band visited last May to raise funds for Camp Trillium, an Ontario recreation and support centre for children with cancer. The big outdoor shows just provide a different concert experience, one that makes the famously quirky vocalist react in those wild ’n’ crazy ways his fans love.
“The interesting thing about playing outside versus inside is that when you’re inside, sometimes you can close your eyes and basically the sound is going out and it’s bouncing off things—the back wall, the side wall, parameters and limits,” Downie asserts. “It’s coming back to you, so you can almost do some imaging; you can almost sense the shape of the room based on what you’re hearing with your eyes closed. Outside, the sound just goes and it never comes back, so you end up coming off the stage a little overhungry for approval.
“So ultimately you’re up there and you’re grappling with the paradoxical dilemma of feeling at once silly and sublime, absurd and grand, and that makes one do interesting things, and lends itself to grandiose gestures and a sort of disbelief that your small, tiny words are really getting out there.”
Anyone who’s seen Downie onstage in full flight knows the gestures he’s referring to. Ever since the band’s first days, he’s been able to fully let himself go in concert, the result being seizurelike gesticulations that make Joe Cocker look coordinated. Downie’s impromptu, stream-of-consciousness vocal rants have also helped him develop a one-of-a-kind onstage persona, but lately he’s been spending more performance time anchored at centre stage by an acoustic guitar. He’s been dabbling in guitar for about 10 years and admits that he’s “not much of a player”, but that didn’t stop him from handling the instrument on half of the dozen tracks on the band’s latest CD, Trouble at the Henhouse.
“I feel like I’m playing the washboard more than the guitar,” he says. “My friend called me ‘the scrubber’ the other day, and I really liked that. But I’m just trying to commune with the music, and the interesting thing is when I’m onstage it helps me to further tap into the idea that, live, you’re almost like a school of fish that moves as a unit. I mean, you’ve seen those sort of fish on Jacques Cousteau—I don’t even know what kind they are, but they stay so tightly packed in a school that they tend to move like an amorphous blob. Apparently, these fish can tell if there’s a predator coming because they can sense changes in water pressure.
“I like that onstage, and at our best, that’s sort of what’s happening—we’re sensing the changes in each other’s mood and character and behaviour. I mean, it sounds a bit flaky, but ultimately these are the kinds of things that we are into—further exploring our band and our situation. That’s sort of our lot.
“With my guitar, sometimes all I’m doing is just inhabiting that small space that makes itself available when the high hat opens up—you know, the two cymbals on the high hat go tsshhtt when they open up, and I’m just trying to fill that little hole. I mean, come up with any analogy you care to: blood goin’ through a vein or a machine operating underwater. There’s a lot of water analogies I’m using here, and I apologize, but I’m just happy to be a part of it and to further be able to grow and learn. It’s just a logical step.”
Another notable way the Tragically Hip have progressed in recent years concerns the way they develop songs before recording them. In the early days, the band wouldn’t attempt to lay down any tunes in the studio that weren’t thoroughly tested out on the road; on its latest CD, the only tracks that are previous concert staples are “Giftshop” and “Springtime in Vienna”. Spawned from onstage improvisations during the trusty warhorse “New Orleans Is Sinking”, those two numbers were previewed by local fans—with encouraging results—when the Another Roadside Attraction tour hit UBC’s Thunderbird Arena last year.
“The weird thing about ‘Springtime in Vienna’ and ‘Giftshop’ is they always remind me of songs from the first couple of records,” says Downie. “On Up to Here, most of those songs we’d been playing live hundreds and thousands of times, so we put them down as is, and you can hear it on the record. I mean, the way I sang ‘New Orleans Is Sinking’ on Up to Here was the way I’d sung it a thousand times before, with every little vocal inflection, every little wah and every little yoo. In those days, we would have said, ‘We don’t record anything without road testing it,’ but then on the next record [Road Apples], it was only like half the songs that we’d been playing live, and even less so on the next record.
“And ‘The Last of the Unplucked Gems’ at the end of Road Apples, to my mind, was a tip. I think Chris Dafoe at the Globe even said that. I don’t know if it was Chris Dafoe; it was someone at the Globe who really didn’t like Road Apples but ultimately thought that ‘Last of the Unplucked Gems’ heralded a new beginning. In other words, the last song on the record showed that we were heading in a direction that was, in his mind, favourable. I agreed with that assessment at the time—I think he probably savaged the next record, but that didn’t really matter. It was an astute observation. So the whole thing has sort of flip-flopped, where we’re now at the point where most of the songs, when we go out on tour, we’re playing live for the first time.”
As well as taking more chances with their live show, the Hip—and lyricist Downie, in particular—strive to make the composing experience and its result more fulfilling for both artist and listener. The strummy recent single “Ahead by a Century”, for instance, sees Downie mining boyhood memories of bee-stung summers with a succinct style that easily conjures recollections of carefree tree-climbing days. The creation of that song also signalled a departure from Downie’s typical songwriting technique.
“Originally, that song was entirely different,” he reveals. “The lyrics were almost totally overhauled, which is not usually my style, but whatever—it seemed like the way to go. Originally, what was it: ‘First thing we’d climb a tree, and maybe then we’d talk; I will touch your cunt, you will touch my cock; then we’ll be married, then we won’t have to hide.’ Those were sort of working lyrics, but they stuck there, they said to me ‘innocence’, and that’s what I wanted, because I thought, ‘It’s two little kids, and they don’t know what a cunt is and they don’t know what a cock is—they just heard them called that.’
“People picked up on that within the band, but then it became apparent that I was going to have to defend one’s right to use words that possibly offend other people, and I didn’t really care to have a Lenny Bruce situation on my hands. But the biggest concern—which was pointed out to me by our guitar tech, Billy—was that no one’s gonna get to hear this song because no one’s gonna play it, and ultimately the real reason no one’s gonna hear it is because they’re only gonna hear those lines and not the rest of the song. People’s ears are gonna race to those words and start having a little debate about what those words mean.
“So that forced me to take out that line, and by taking it out, the whole verse crumbled like a house of cards, and I had to rewrite it. And one thing I do know is that if I’m listening to the music and a line comes to me that I wasn’t thinking about, I usually like to trust in that. If that line comes to me, and it’s in my head, and I manage to pick it up and run it down my arm and out my fingers, through the pen, onto the paper, intact, then I don’t usually like to fuck with that. And the longer that line stays on the paper, the heavier it gets, till all of a sudden, if you’re trying to extract it, it weighs about 700 pounds.
“So it took me about a week to rewrite that song, but the weird thing is I loved every minute of it! It was a sweating workout on that song, and it was frustrating and it was weird, but I loved it because it was a challenge that I had created for myself and that I met. And ultimately the song achieved kinda what I wanted it to. You only have so much room to say what you want to say, so I like economy and conciseness; that’s sort of where I’m at now.”
Trouble at the Henhouse was the first Tragically Hip album the band produced on its own, and it was also the first Hip disc to be issued simultaneously in Canada and the U.S. Hopes were high, upon its release, that distribution in the States on the heavyweight Atlantic label would help break through the barrier of relatively mild American interest, and there was much hoopla in the Canadian press when Henhouse cracked Billboard’s Top 200 chart. But it didn’t stay there long, and neither a stirring performance on Saturday Night Live nor subsequent heavy touring of the States could seriously alter the lukewarm way things have panned out commercially for the band south of the 49th parallel.
At this point, the latest Hip CD has sold about 100,000 copies in the U.S., which, while a respectable number, still pales drastically next to the 500,000 it has moved in Canada during the past five months. When the Straight called the Tragically Hip’s manager, Jake Gold, to inquire about any strategy the band might have with respect to business in the States, he declined comment with “I don’t do interviews.” One well-informed person who doesn’t mind ruminating on the Hip’s curious situation is Vancouver rocker Craig Northey, a good friend of the Hip whose group, the Odds, opened for them last year on the Day for Night tour.
“I think what Gord Downie has said before is that if they had kept making their first record over and over again, until it finally hit home, then it mighta worked for them,” says Northey. “But they kept evolving without thinking about it, and Canadians followed it, and now they’re all along for the ride, and it’s a huge bus they’re on. Americans might even feel somewhat excluded, like they might not understand how it got to that point, and maybe that’s great. Maybe we can all rest comfortably now, knowing that there’s things that are culturally relative, that we don’t have to struggle so hard to have a Canadian identity if that’s going on.”
According to a May ’96 CP wire story that ran in the New York Daily News, the Hip’s management had attempted, with the release of Henhouse, to reposition the band to succeed in the States; increased sales in nonborder cities such as Chicago and Tucson were viewed as reflective of a breakthrough. (The band typically sells quite well in border cities such as Buffalo and Seattle.) But the story went on to address everything from the Hip’s overt Canadianism to U.S. critics’ distaste for the band’s name as possible reasons for American apathy. “The band’s literate, guitar-driven, politically tinged music is not an easy sell on U.S. top-40 radio,” claimed the piece.
When Downie himself is approached on the notorious “American question”, he gets a bit defensive, as if it’s a sore spot for him—or at least one that he’s grown sick of talking about. He equates queries on the topic to picking someone’s scab, then asking whether it hurts. But the unnatural chasm between the band’s Canadian and U.S. popularity is something that demands discussion, if only because it’s so unfathomable to the legions of devoted Hip fans who feel the band deserves acknowledgement everywhere.
Although it’s obvious from his perturbed tone that Downie would rather stick needles in his eyes than ponder his group’s Stateside progress, he at least attempts to give the topic a fair shake. (As it turns out, a large part of his displeasure is due to the cover story in the latest issue of Network, a glossy, industry-driven music magazine distributed free at Sam the Record Man locations. Downie didn’t cotton to the cover illustration, which depicts him crucified on a cross at a U.S.–Canada border crossing.)
“There’s always so much focus placed on it [success in America],” he says, “but if this is the best one can do as far as coming up with the story on the band, I think there’s a lot more there, obviously. I don’t mean to sound all cunty to you, but I mean Network magazine—did you see that in Sam the Record Man? You should check out the cover they did, called ‘The Last Temptation of the Tragically Hip’, with this really bad sort of best-artist-in-Grade-10 rendering of me on a cross. It’s real classy stuff—you can put sarcasm in brackets if you’d like. Really absurd, you know, and if it’s such a story, why don’t people come down and check it out?
“We just finished about 90 dates across America this summer, playing clubs for the most part—which maybe would seem like a tragedy to some, but mostly it seems like a tragedy to no one that ever goes—and I can probably count the number of bad shows on one hand. The rest were incendiary, you know, just coming off the stage and feeling like we’d taken a total flight of fancy, as though the stage and the audience and the entire room had fallen away and that we were ultimately taking detours and being self-indulgent and creating and writing as the show was going on.
“So it’s more than just what you’re reading or what you’re seeing in your stats about the band. I mean, there is a canyon, and it does seem like a rather large discrepancy [between American and Canadian sales], but ultimately the people that ask this question are trying to see whether it’s affected our ego or affected our pride, and the answer is a flat no. We’ve managed to build our own studio, we’ve managed to realize most of our dreams, and we’re enjoying ourselves to the hilt.
“I mean, America is the big leagues for anybody, I guess, and you ultimately want to test your whatever it is you are against that sort of thing. But we have nothing to complain about; we sell a lot of records by anybody’s standards. And the weird thing is, you can talk about Alanis Morissette or Shania Twain or the Tragically Hip, but the one thing that the three of us have in common is that we have nothing in common. We don’t write the same songs, we don’t play the same way, we’re all different.
“All musicians and artists are different, and you can look at any single one—Canadian or American—and look at their goals and aspirations, and they’ll almost all be different. I mean, if you want to take our success in Canada and exponentially translate it to America, you’re talking about us being Guns N’ Roses or Counting Crows or whatever, and ultimately it’s just something that I don’t think could ever happen to this band, and never really thought it could.
“We’ve always done things on our own terms since the get-go,” Downie concludes, “and that’s not really gonna put you in good stead when you’re up against Jewel and all these other things. Sometimes the thing I fear in that context more than American failure is American success, but having said all that, the ways I judge success are not even close to that. So when people ask me this question, usually my first reaction is ‘How much time do you have?’ It’s a long, complex answer, and it’s still being answered, you know.”
Donate to the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research by clicking sunnybrook.ca/gord.