The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie finds humour in “The Inevitability of Death”

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, FEB. 16, 1995

By Steve Newton

The Tragically Hip don’t always do things the way other rock groups do, and maybe that’s why folks love ’em so much. For starters, the band got its road manager, of all people, to write its official MCA Records bio. Instead of the usual hyperbole and exclamatory baloney, there is an informative four-page survey of the events leading up to the band’s latest release, Day for Night.

And when it came time to film its first feature-length video, Heksenketel, the group didn’t look to any hoity-toity L.A. camera jockey to give the vid a slick, MTV-approved polish. It got singer Gord Downie’s bro Mike to do it instead, giving the document of the group’s 1993 Another Roadside Attraction tour a homemade, family-style feel.

Viewing Heksenketel—the original title for the Roadside tour, a Dutch word meaning “witch’s cauldron”—you discover quite a lot about what life on the road is like for the Tragically Hip. You see that the band likes to watch horror flicks like The Hidden, that its favourite beer—or at least the one most readily accessible—is Labatt Genuine Draft, and that members pee a lot before gigs.

You learn that the members of the Hip value the casual camaraderie of their grizzled bus driver as well as the people skills of experienced security crews. And you see them get ticked off, as when drummer Johnny Fay is told that backstage access is prohibited while tour mates Midnight Oil perform. He responds, rather petulantly, “Whose fucking show is it!?”

From this outburst, viewers might assume that relations were shaky between the Hip and their Aussie counterpart, but as lead singer Gordon Downie explains during a call from Kingston, Ontario, that wasn’t the case. “That was a hard tour, in a sense,” explains the 30-year-old rocker. “There were a lot of challenges the band faced. You know, going on after Midnight Oil’s not the easiest thing to do—in fact it’s probably one of the harder things we ever did. But ultimately we came out of it and got to know them as people.

“It was actually the picture of a utopian society,” he says of the tour. “I was very impressed. I mean, it’s too easy to sort of drift into encampments, where bands’ attitudes towards each other are based on the naïveté that rock ’n’ roll is based on—which is that we’re ultimately bent on competing with each other. This tour had none of that. I mean, I’m a music fan—I love meeting other musicians, I love talking to other musicians—and what greater opportunity to take advantage of whatever standing we might have to try and attract people? To say ‘We don’t know you, but we love you, and will you come play with us?’ Sometimes they actually do.”

The national Roadside tour—which also saw appearances by Hothouse Flowers, World Party, Pere Ubu, and Crash Vegas—was one of the top Canadian draws that summer, and according to Downey, it spawned some of the band’s finest gigs ever. But the sheer size of the undertaking didn’t have much to do with its onstage success.

“Some of the best shows we’ve ever done have been to 15 people,” he says, “and we’ll apply the same thought process to this upcoming tour. We’re placed on a stage, and the dimensions of most stages are relatively the same: you’re on some kind of box, you’re surrounded by equipment, and out the front door is people. And from the moment we get up there, we’re all sort of fumbling around and ultimately trying to find some sense of release. So in that regard, every stage is kind of rendered the same.”

Downie’s uncalculated, free-form approach to performing is well-suited to the freewheeling groove that blows off the stage when guitarists Bobby Baker and Paul Langlois, bassist Gord Sinclair, and drummer Johnny Fay get it right. His improvisatory bent has also helped the band forge riffs for such new tunes as “Fire in the Hole” and “Nautical Disaster”, which had their genesis in both onstage and backstage jams during the Roadside tour.

“On bigger shows, we are afforded the luxury of bringing along just a crappy drum set and teeny amps,” says Downie, “and we throw them in the corner of the dressing room and go in there before the show, or any chance we get. Actually, on the Roadside Attraction tour I fancied myself a bit of a drummer—I was playing drums every day—so for that reason it was good. I think for anyone in a band that is touring, any chance you get to create a little bit of solitude for yourself—and who knows, maybe even conjure up an idea—those are moments you cherish.”

If yours truly had to pick a favourite tune from Day for Night, “Nautical Disaster” would most likely get the nod. The track—reminiscent of Neil Young and Crazy Horse at their raggedy best—bangs around in the finest garage-rock tradition while Downie’s lyrics outline a nightmarish tale of mass death at sea.

“I remember at the time I saw a TV program on the sinking of the Bismarck or something,” recalls Downie. “All these German navy men went into the water when the boat was sank, and there was hundreds of them in there. The ship that had torpedoed them was picking them up, and then it got called on the shortwave or something that there were U-boats in the area, and they had to pull out. The idea of the boat pulling away as men were clawing away at the hull was a good starting point. But I like to think of that song in different ways every time I listen to it.”

With songs such as “Nautical Disaster”, “The Inevitability of Death”, and the sombre first single, “Grace, Too”, Day for Night might easily be construed as the darkest Hip album ever. Additional song titles like “Thugs” and “Scared”—and the disc’s gloomy black-and-white art—seem to second that emotion, but Downie isn’t so sure.

“That was an adjective that was thrown around when it first came out,” he says, “that it was pretty dark, but I don’t really see it. Some of the songs I would call downright uplifting. Even ‘The Inevitability of Death’ is kind of a funny song more than anything. I mean, I thought it would be funny imagining radio deejays cueing it up and announcing it as people are driving off to work.”

As far as radio play goes, the Tragically Hip are best-known for churning up the airwaves with boogie tunes like “Little Bones”, “Blow at High Dough”, and “Locked in the Trunk of a Car”, so it turned a lot of heads when the subdued “Grace, Too” was chosen as Day for Night’s leadoff single.

“Oftentimes, the selection of songs for release on the radio is a tough call for anyone in the band to make,” says Downie. “We obviously had our suggestions, and no one had a problem with that one. I mean, I think ‘Grace, Too’ is a great song to introduce people to the record, and also as a show opener—it’s just got a simmering quality to it. It’s a song that I love, but whatever song a radio deejay wants to play is fine with me. We’re just happy that they play any of ’em.”

Judging by the speedy sellout of the Tragically Hip’s upcoming Vancouver gig, next Saturday (February 25) at the Coliseum, its local following is stronger than ever. Downie is particularly pleased with the latest touring situation, because he gets to bring along a couple of his favourite Canadian bands, Change of Heart and the Odds. He sees it as payback time, in a way.

“We had invited Change of Heart on a tour in America,” he says, “kind of a raggedy-ass tour where the routing was really insane, and they followed along—I won’t say gleefully, but without complaint—in their van behind us. Ian Blurton and all the guys in the band are just really great guys, and we’re just glad to have them on this tour, at least where we don’t have to feel guilty about dragging them along.

“And the Odds we met for the first time on that same tour. We invited them down to join the bill with us and Change of Heart in Seattle, more so because we had been listening to their records and we just wanted to meet them. One of the perks of being in the situation that we are in in Canada is that now we can do this and get together with other musicians. For brief moments your paths cross, you get to spend some time together, and—who knows?—maybe even start a friendship. It’s real hard to do the way schedules are, but it’s something we enjoy.”

Downie Tapes #1 (1989)

Downie Tapes #2 (1989)

Downie Tapes #3 (1989)

Downie Tapes #4 (1992)

Downie Tapes #5 (1992)

Downie Tapes #6 (1992)

Downie Tapes #7 (1992)

Downie Tapes #8 (Jan. 1995)

Downie Tapes #9 (Jan. 1995)

Downie Tapes #10 (Jan. 1995)

Downie Tapes #11 (Jan. 1995)

Downie Tapes #12 (July 1995)

Downie Tapes #13 (July 1995)

Donate to the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research by clicking sunnybrook.ca/gord.

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