ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JAN. 20, 2000
Fans of the Northern Pikes must have been pleasantly surprised when they picked this paper up a couple of issues back and saw that the long-gone band was booked to play the Commodore Ballroom next Friday (January 28). The Saskatoon pop-rock quartet hasn’t performed live in more than six-and-a-half years, but there it was, announced in the House of Blues Concerts ad as playing on a double bill with hometown veteran Barney Bentall. Since then Bentall’s appearance has been cancelled, but Pikes fanatics needn’t fret about that, because now their faves are the headliners.
“We’re gettin’ together to do a tour, let’s put it that way,” explains Northern Pikes singer-bassist and main songwriter Jay Semko, on the line from Toronto. “We’re gonna have some fun. We’ve got our, whatever you call it, ‘greatest hits’ or ‘best of’ album out, and we thought it was a good time to go out, when everybody seems to have their schedules somewhat clear.”
If Semko sounds noncommittal about the prospect of a full-fledged Northern Pikes return, he has his reasons. The afternoon he calls, his band still hasn’t had its first rehearsal since the reunion tour was agreed upon. “Bryan [lead guitarist Bryan Potvin] just flew out today,” says Semko, “and tomorrow will be the first day that we’re all together making music, so it’s gonna be kind of interesting.”
The Northern Pikes came into being in 1984, spawned from the ashes of Saskatoon bands the Idols, Doris Daye, and 17 Envelope. In June of ’86 the lineup of Semko, Potvin, rhythm guitarist Merl Bryck, and drummer Don “Nigs” Schmid was solidified, and by December of that year the group had been signed by Virgin Records Canada. In the next few years, singles like “Things I Do for Money”, “Wait for Me”, “She Ain’t Pretty”, and “Dream Away” would help the group become one of Canada’s top purveyors of crisp, melodic pop-rock.
During its nine-year career the quartet earned seven Juno nominations—including five for 1990’s Snow in June—yet was strangely shut out from actually winning any of the awards. But even if the brainiacs at the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences didn’t feel the Pikes deserved any hardware, the devoted fans who packed their gigs on extensive North American road trips thought otherwise. The group achieved respectable success in Canada, garnering three gold albums, and also did its best to win over the ever-elusive (just ask the Tragically Hip) American market.
“We toured a lot down there,” recalls Semko. “We did tours opening for Robert Palmer and Peter Frampton—I can’t even remember them now, but we did a lotta miles. We covered most nooks and crannies of the U.S., and we developed good little pockets of popularity, but we could never kind of sew the whole thing together. We had good radio airplay, I guess, off of ‘She Ain’t Pretty’ and ‘Things I Do for Money’—those two made a bit of a dent.
“We never really cracked the big U.S. market, but I don’t really regret that,” he emphasizes. “I feel like we did well in Canada, and made some inroads beyond. We were lucky, because most of our albums got released all over the world, through Virgin. That’s why my one regret is that we didn’t actually go over to Europe, ’cause at one point there was sort of a—not a demand, but there was definitely interest in us going over to play. I kinda wish we would have now, but at that time we thought it was better to just concentrate on the U.S.”
After recording its last studio album, Neptune, the band played its “final” gig on June 2, 1993, in Fort Frances, Ontario. Semko spent “a good chunk of the ’90s” as a behind-the-scenes composer, creating music for the TV series Due South. He also kept busy working on documentaries and doing voice-overs and commercials. “If you live in the Prairies and you’re trying to be a musician as your main occupation, you have to be versatile,” he points out.
While he was doing his thing—which included releasing the solo album Mouse in ’95—the other three Pikes did theirs. Potvin became the head of A&R (artist and repertoire) at Mercury Records Canada, a position he held until about a year ago, when that label was absorbed by the Universal Music juggernaut. Bryck lived in Montreal and travelled to England and Australia, spending lots of time Down Under before moving back to Saskatoon a couple of years ago. And Schmid—whom Semko credits with being the most vocal advocate of the reunion—has been running his own recording studio in Saskatoon, Fresh Vibe North.
“Everyone was just living their own life,” says Semko, “but we had sort of a pact that we wouldn’t do anything as the Northern Pikes unless it was the original guys in the group, and we stuck to that. We’ve sort of talked about [reuniting] off and on over the last couple of years, but not everybody could commit, and various things were goin’ on. But then the album came out, and we thought, ‘Geez, there’s a real reason to go out and play, to promote this, and to just have some fun and play the songs.’ ”
Although he’s pushing 40, Semko claims that he hasn’t lost his zeal for the kind of vibrant guitar-pop the Pikes made their name with. “I still like good pop music,” he says, “and I think we had some good songs along the way. And one thing that I have missed is just singing with everybody, you know, having the three voices and being able to trade off songs and stuff. So we’ll see what happens. We’re just takin’ it one step at a time, taking baby steps to see what happens.”
Semko isn’t making any predictions about how the newly reunited Pikes will hit it off, either musically or personally, on the imminent Canadian tour. But he doesn’t expect anyone to run screaming from the tour bus once it passes out of Saskatoon’s city limits.
“That’s why they make Walkmans,” he candidly quips, and something in his voice makes you certain that Semko’s already invested in a sizable cache of double-A batteries.