Blue Rodeo wanted to make “a real pop record” with Casino

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, FEB. 7, 1991

By Steve Newton

For the past two years, the presenter of the Juno award for Canadian Band of the Year has ripped open a sealed envelope and seen the same two words: Blue Rodeo. The powers that be at the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences have twice seen fit to bestow their top prize on five roots-rockers from Toronto, and who knows—if nominated again, they just might make it three-for-three come March 3. But, in the meantime, don’t expect Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy to lose any sleep over the prospect.

“Awards are really weird,” says the 35-year-old tunesmith, who co-writes the band’s prize-winning songs with fellow singer/guitarist Greg Keelor. “You can’t say you don’t like ’em, and you can’t say you like ’em. It’s nice to get a pat on the back, but it’s not the best thing that happens all year. I mean, it was a big surprise last year, ’cause we thought Jeff Healey was gonna win. There’s lots of deserving bands.”

Whether or not Blue Rodeo can make it a hat-trick remains to be seen, but if they do, Cuddy and his mates will be in a real bind to find room on their mantels for new Junos. They’ve cleaned up at a number of awards shows.

“The one year that ‘Try’ was a big hit, we won ’em all,” says Cuddy. “We won Casbys and Toronto Music Awards and country awards. It was kind of our first flush of success, so it got a bit absurd for us.”

Vancouverites will have a pre-Juno opportunity to see just how deserving the 1991 version of Blue Rodeo is when the band hits town for a show at the Orpheum on Saturday (February 16). This time around, on the band’s 50-date Canadian tour, it’s playing soft-seat theatres as opposed to nightclubs, which could tick off a large contingent of its boogie ’n’ brew fans. The last time Blue Rodeo was here—apart from the 1989 New Year’s Eve show at the Trade and Convention Centre—the band ripped up the Commodore for two sold-out nights.

“We would gladly do the Commodore again,” says Cuddy, “because it and the Spectrum are the two best clubs in Canada. But the soft-seaters give us a little more freedom to do some different stuff.”

While local fans will have to bite the bullet and abide by the Orpheum’s no-dancing/no-boozing-in-the-seats policy, they’ll still be able to reap the sonic rewards of Blue Rodeo’s rockin’ sound as exemplified by tunes like “Till I Am Myself Again”, the first video/single from the new Casino album. Cuddy describes Casino as more compact and aggressive than the previous Diamond Mine and Outskirts discs.

“Your first record is not such a conscious effort,” he says. “You just kind of do it and the producer has a lot to do with the sound. Our later records were more like expressions of what we want records to sound like. On Diamond Mine, what we were going for was ‘vibe’: spaciousness and mood, and the playing was all subservient to that. But with Casino, we wanted to make a real pop record—condensed, distilled, and intact. Diamond Mine was kind of dreamy, and this is, you know, very awake.”

Blue Rodeo has utilized different producers on each of its albums: Terry Brown on Outskirts, Malcolm Burn on Diamond Mine, and now Dwight Yoakam knob-twiddler Pete Anderson on Casino. Cuddy says he’s most happy with the diverse results that Burn and Anderson came up with.

“They make very different records, but they’re both fantastic producers. Malcolm’s more like a roll-up-your-sleeves, jump-in-the-muck guy—he’ll try anything. We were recording and mixing all at the same time, and if mixes didn’t go well we’d add bongos or this or that. It was like a huge musical adventure. The Pete Anderson record is really a straight-forward, in-your-face record—that’s just the way Pete is.”

While many bands prefer to pass on a producer and make records on their own, Cuddy confirms that Blue Rodeo isn’t one of them. He feels the producer’s role is essential to getting the most from a group.

“A lot of bands need producers to keep them from exposing their weaknesses, or indulging a lot of things they don’t do well. A lot of things that you do do well you just think are obvious, and you don’t want to pay attention to them.

“And a producer should also make your records sound good. I don’t think that we’re as capable of making it sound good as Pete and the people that Pete works with [engineers/mixers Judy Clapp and Peter Doell].”

For the first time in its career, Blue Rodeo looked outside the bounds of its Toronto home base for a suitable location to record and found it in L.A.’s Capitol Studios, the same place where Frank Sinatra cut “My Way” and the Beach Boys laid down their hits. The studio was also the site for the remastering of all the Beatles records in America.

“The Capitol studios have a definite sound,” says Cuddy. “The room we recorded in was about as high tech as the ’50s spaceship in Lost in Space, but the boards have a very warm sound. In contrast, we mixed in a room with all the toys, so our studio work was a combination of really old stuff—old compressors, old mikes—and new.”

But it wasn’t just the sound and history of the California studios that made the band decide to snub Hogtown in favour of a U.S.-made album.

“Toronto has gotten ridiculously expensive,” points out Cuddy, “and there are a lot of jingles being done here. There are studios that are good enough, but they don’t want to block out all the time. They say, ‘Well, you can stay to 5:00,’ or ‘You can come at 7:00’—you can’t make a record that way.”

Cuddy and Keelor also took a different approach to writing the material for Casino than they have on previous efforts.

“The way we write is that we get as much of the tune done as we can separately, and then come together. And while the last album was kind of like a duo/solo record, on this record we really merged. We just said, ‘Let’s make everything duets, and do a lot of backgrounds, and make the songs sound more alike.’ So this one was more fun; we were much more unified.”

While frontmen Cuddy and Keelor are the focal points of the Blue Rodeo stage show, the rest of the band—keyboardist Bobby Wiseman, bassist Bazil Donovan, and drummer Mark French—are responsible for spicing up the band’s tasty musical broth.

“We are not great guitarists,” Cuddy says of himself and Keelor. “Greg only began playing when he was 20, so in terms of the ‘muso’ guitar world, he started when he was ancient. But Bobby is definitely a musician, and whenever we make a record, the producers say, ‘Bazil’s the best musician in the band.’ And Mark is somebody who has devoted his life to playing the drums, and he knows them inside out.

“There were a lot of times Pete joked that he had to leave the room because he couldn’t stand the way we were playing guitar,” laughs Cuddy. “To him, there’s only one way to play the guitar, but to us, there’s also an expressive way to play, and that’s what we like. Neil Young plays guitar the way we’d like to—it’s not doctored in order to create an impression that’s anything other than ‘This is what it will sound like when these five guys play live.’ We use the honest approach, warts and all.”

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