While The Tragically Hip are regrouping for their next album, lead singer Gordon Downie has taken advantage of the opportunity to release a collection of songs from his personal stash. What truly separates Coke Machine Glow from past Hip efforts is that we see a personal and intimate side of Gord with a touch of his personality and humor. With the help of some old Toronto friends, this album was recorded in a punk-rock fashion over the course of ten days in May. Recorded with little or no overdubs, the sixteen tracks have a live, off-the-floor feel that perfectly complements the folk-lounge sound of the album.
Calling from his Toronto home, soft-spoken Gord discusses his process, thoughts on being an author and a songwriter, and how he’s dealing with the summer’s heat. Step inside as we get into this man’s gourd.
How have you been?
Good. How about you?
Sorry I’m late calling you. It’s a real scorcher here.
Where are you calling from?
I’m at home in Toronto. I’m scrambling around trying to get my stuff together because tomorrow I’m going to Yellowknife (a few hundred miles north of Edmonton).
Where is that?
Exactly. (laughing) Yellowknife is in the Canadian arctic, my friend. There is a big folk festival going on up there, and I’m doing a few solid weeks of Canadian folk festivals in Edmonton, they’re well known festivals, well, of course they are, and then down in the States. I am really not ready and as I said, this scorching heat.
Hopefully this interview will get you prepared for the road. This venture out on the road will be a bit different since you’ll be out solo. What are your thoughts?
I sort of just return to the original premise, which is to have a few laughs for the next couple of weeks. This is just a three-week jobbie but it’s going to be tough.
How come no Buffalo or Rochester dates? What’s up? We miss you.
Well, I am doing five shows and that will be about it. I was just thinking about going to Yellowknife because I have never been up there, actually none of us have been there, and we are excited about traveling up there. The rest of the dates just seemed to flood in after the Yellowknife booking. It was kind of, ‘While you’re out there, why don’t you do this and this.’ You have to go to Guelph (Ontario). It’s not too far from Buffalo.
I know where that is. Where are you playing Guelph?
We are playing a weekend festival called the Hillside Festival. It’s a really good festival too. Are you into electronic music?
Yeah, but I my taste is wide ranging.
This is everything pretty much. I wanted to go for years but never have been able to and I asked if I wanted to be a part of the festival. They let me in at the last minute and that was the case with many of the festivals. They all squeezed me in at the last minute.
First of all, I think it’s really cool that you released the book and the CD. I have not been able to check out the entire book but I really enjoy the CD because it has that a summer vibe written all over it. At what point in time did you decide to release both the book and the CD?
I knew that the CD would be coming out in March. So I had a vision, knowing that it would be a big long wait for its release and yet I still had a longing interest in writing and continuing the process of working on writing every day or at least working on it every day, creating a working atmosphere at home. I started writing these poems and writing a book at eleven or midnight every night until two or three in the morning and ultimately as we got closer to March it looked like the book could very easily be ready by then. Not easily, but we really pushed for the idea. I was working from the road at that point and I was sending material back and forth to my editor and I was enjoying the process. Every once in a while I would rent a hotel room on the road to sit down during the day to get off the bus a bit and it was really a beneficial thing to get something done during the off hours.
Was it difficult to go through your notebook of writings and decide what to keep for the CD and what to keep for the book?
No, because they were pretty much all songs.
So you pretty much had them divided and figured out.
The four poems or spoken word, words that are set to music on Coke Machine Glow, were all previously songs. I mean, were they all previous songs? Potentially.
Is there room for poetry in rock-n-roll or do you go hand and hand?
I suppose it’s who is doing the writing. If the sincerity is there, then they go hand in hand quite nicely. If they’re exhibiting a sort of love of writing it and sharing the kick you get out of a nice moment of where a couple different kinds of expressions are coming together, then that’s a good thing.
Was there any difficulty in getting the book published?
Is Weiner Art your own label run by you? Is the book and CD released through your label?
More or less. The book is released through Random House or Vintage Canada, which is a publishing company. The CD was put out by me and distributed by Universal Records.
I was reading a few articles and some of the comments I read seemed to negatively say the release of the book and CD was just a slick marketing idea. I really do not see it that way. They’re both their own separate pieces of work. Could you comment on the ‘slick marketing’?
I kind of stuck with the idea and there was plenty of opportunity to parachute out the idea, but to me it seemed like a novel thing to do. Not many people have done it so I thought that just naturally, well, the lyrics are in the book so I thought we could just marry with two.
How far back do the poems and songs go? Were you a lyricist first or a poet?
Some of them go way back. I just started writing stuff in my book, I wanted to keep a diary but I lack the organizational skills. At one point I started disregarding the dates and filling in the pages.
How did you decide to organize the book then?
Louise Dennis and Susan Rothberg at Vintage helped out while I was out on the road they would be laying it out on the floor piecing it together based on a strand or a thread that they thought was fitable. I really like it.
I’m from Rochester, New York and I saw a couple of poems with the title of Rochester in them and I was curious to what inspired those poems? The first one is called “Storm Over Rochester” and the other one is titled “Rochester Hotel Bar”.
Those poems are based upon random sites. I love Rochester, I love going there. It reminds me of Washington, DC because for some odd reason they inspire me. I do not know what is. I just wanted to observe and I really like that Genesee River you got there. Probably because up in Canada I always see these ads for Genesee beer and they made it seem like it was a place cleaner than anything we had. (laughs)
I do not know about how clean it is. (both laughing)
‘Genesee River, where crisp and cold was born.’ (laughs) I do not know the jiggle. Genesee Cream Ale, right?
I would not suggest drinking that, Gord! (both laugh)
As kids, you grow up really coveting that American beer.
It’s the reverse here. We crave the Labatt’s and that fine Molson Canadian.
I know. So do we exactly. (laughing)
Whatever happened to “If You’re Freaked I’m Fucked”?
That was an old Hip tune and that was a song that was developing into one. There is a bunch of songs in the book that I just thought these lyrics have been kicking around for a long time and they may never see the light of day. I took them away from the music a little bit and put them on a page. In this case I altered them a little bit so they read better. In some cases the songs just lie around and do not go away.
How is the live act going to work? Will you be reading some of poems and performing the new songs throughout the evening?
I think we are just going to do songs and play.
I was looking at the liner note and was wondering what is the Sound Recording Development Project?
They loan me money and I pay them back.
Were any of the funds used to keep the Gas Station (Recording studio run by Dale Morningstar) open in order to complete and record the album? Why did the Gas Station close down?
It would not have been money that would have stopped the doors from closing. That’s just sort of the project that’s underway in Toronto. Dale and all his neighbors were being ousted with every little notice so we were the last session in the recording studio before the wrecking ball hit.
The album was recorded in a matter days with nearly no overdubs, every song was done pretty much live off the floor, and the results seemed to cross the folk-lounge territory. Was that the feel you were aiming for or did the recording just happen that way?
I had the songs and the time you start writing them, [the band] were suggesting to me that they would like to stay intact and not be, it continued well into the first day of recording, and they are saying to me that we would like to stay intact. In this case it was limiting ourselves to eight tracks because day one had gone so well that we were happy with the sounds we were getting and the sound of the room was very warn and intimate. And based on that decision and a lot of preparation in your mind you are able to say ‘Let’s do that.’ That’s not novel either. I believe recording should be an intimate process. I may be right and may be wrong about that.
Seemed to work out well. I remember seeing The Hip in the early days where you were never spotted sporting a guitar. When did you starting playing guitar?
I was at the university. I was twenty-one years old.
The group of musicians pulled together seemed to form a solid chemistry in the studio. Let’s talk about a few tracks and the guests that appeared on them. “Trick Rider” with Julie Doran is an absolutely beautiful song. The harmony in that song could bring a tear to any eye.
In almost every case there’s someone that makes the song and something has to happen in order to make it good. No pun intended here, but Travis Good (mandolin, guitar) was amazing because if I need a mandolin on one tune and fiddle on another tune, I find myself waiting for when he comes in, it’s just so nice and beautiful. Kevin Hearn on piano makes “Chancellor” the song it is. Don Kerr (drums) on “San Francisco Song”, Julie on “Trick Rider”, Dale’s (Mornigstar, guitar) all over the record, Josh’s (Finlayson, guitar) guitar solo in “Yer Possessed”. I just wait for it but that’s just me. Then Atom Egoyan came in and those two songs we did (“Nothing But Heartache In Your Social Life”, “Mystery”), we just sat and down and started playing and that’s what came out.
Is “Trick Rider” a personal song?
That’s about a parent talking to a kid, kind of playing the parent stop role. ‘Do it again and I’ll tell you stop,’ or drawing these lines out for the kid saying, ‘I’ll this and that for you, but if you’re trick riding, hanging on the horse in a sparsely attended amphitheatre in the snow and rain, doing something with as much danger and folly, I will not watch and I’m telling you that now.’ In other words, do not break your father’s heart.
I like the title of this song, “Boy Bruised By Butterfly Chase”. Who wrote that?
The drummer and lyricist for Los Lobos, Louie Perez, one of the most underrated songwriters in America, and I usually do not say stuff like that. But I’ll have to say he’s awesome.
How did this song come about?
I sent him a couple of photos from the paper and one was of this kid who had fallen seventy feet chasing a butterfly away from a family picnic. He was just bruised and escaped unscathed. He sent back to me a short story and a song a based on that with a couple of chords and it sang nice. The words made me sing that song that way. I’m glad you like that song.
Where does the theme of “Never-Ending Present” come from?
The idea of waiting for the bus where you are in this world of neither here nor there. While you’re waiting for a bus you are set to the task of doing your everyday life and that’s what we all do. I like the idea of the never-ending present as a way of describing the here and now.
Any future projects coming out on Weiner Art that we should be aware of?
Yeah, probably. No dates or anything like that, but if the stuff is accessible at all it’s because I’m doing more of it because of a means to a means to doing it.
Have you ever thought about writing a novel?
I would not rule anything out. There’s a lot more to read before I do something like that.
It was pleasure speaking with you. Have a good time at Yellowknife!
Thank you Larry. Sorry I called you late. I got behind the eight ball and got a thousand things to do before I head out to Yellowknife. They have bugs as big as birds. And as I said, this summer’s heat. (both laugh)