The Tragically Hip – Interview [1999]

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The Tragically Hip

If you’re not familiar with The Tragically Hip, you soon will be. The five-piece band formed back in 1985 in small, but beautiful, Kingston, Ontario. Known as ‘The Hip’ to their loyal and dedicated fans north of the border, they are not extremely well known elsewhere, but have opened for the likes of Page and Plant and Blues Traveler. The Hip released their seventh studio album, Phantom Power, in late spring of 1998 and have been on a touring rampage ever since. The band ripped through the United States during the summer and fall of that year and are now in the midst of their biggest Canadian tour ever. I recently talked with lead guitarist Rob Baker and bass player Gord Sinclair about the tour and what success means for the band.

Phantom Power shows the continued growth of the band. The songs are structured differently. Did the band approach this album in a new way with writing and producing?

Gord: “I don’t know. I don’t think those are conscious decisions that we make. When we are writing the music and Gord (Downie) is putting the lyrics together, we really are just approaching it song by song. We weren’t really conscious of it. The way it worked with this particular collection of songs, the nature or the way we were writing songs, we were leaning toward the shorter, quicker tempo, more up-beat songs. I think that when you’re putting together a record, you’re kind of looking for a collection of songs that compliment one another, a cohesive kind of thing. It just happened that way.”

Is the band amazed at the finished product after someone brings in an idea and everyone works together as a team to make it a reality?

Rob: “Yes. It’s never what you expect. If you have a finished idea of what the song is supposed to sound like, then you’ll be disappointed because it never comes out the same way that the idea went in. If you can accept that, then that’s the best thing about it. If you can accept it, if you throw that small piece of raw material in a blender and everyone accepts that, then it’s always a surprise.”

What was it like working with the talents of Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) and Bob Egan (Wilco) on Phantom Power?

Gord: “Those guys contributed a huge amount to the record. We had been working on the album at various times for about three to four months before we started working with Steve. I think that we specifically got him involved because we had gotten to the point with ourselves, [with] the raw material, that it would have been difficult for the five of us to objectively sort through the songs we’re working on. We originally had this idea that we were going to work for a couple of weeks, take a couple of weeks off, then come back and refine the ideas a little bit more. Instead, we were adding new songs to the mix and we didn’t get any of the polishing done. When Steve came on we kind of leaned on his objective opinion quite a bit, sort of without really letting him influence it in any way. We let him say, “Hey, let’s work on that one or this one.” He came armed with a bunch of ideas. I think he’s a musician first and a producer second. He’s a really, really talented musician. He’s sort of one of these guys who can sit down and play anything at any time. That characterized the rest of the session. That’s how we brought Bob (Egan) in. Bob was hanging about. We more or less invited him down [to the studio] to hang and drink some beers and stuff. He is one of these guys that can hear a song and sit down and get inspired by it or bring something to it on a first or two or three listens. Most of Bob’s contributions were the mandolin bit and some of his pedal steel stuff were first takers. He just sat down and got moved by the tune, played and that was it. It’s fun when you work with a musician of that caliber, for sure.”

Rob: “They’re (Steve and Bob) like the bride and the groom on top of the wedding cake, you know. The cake was completely done, but it’s not done until you stick the bride and groom on top.”

What new songs have really taken shape over the tour?

Rob: “I think ‘Vapour Trails’ is kind of a surprise. It has transformed nicely live. I think it’s better live than on the record. It changes from night to night. Sometimes ‘Poets’ is like the standout in the set. It changes in a weird way in that on the surface it’s a simple song, and so being, it’s really hard. So, if you’re not right on top of it, it doesn’t work well, and if you are, then it’s the best. It’s night to night though; the song that it was last night, it probably wouldn’t be tonight.”

What kind of response did you get from the States tour? Also, what was it like playing with Blues Traveler and Bruce Hornsby?

Gord: “I think generally it was really pretty positive. I mean, it seems that every time we come down here [to the United States], we are touring and playing a lot longer and are certainly playing different cities. Certainly the shows we did on our own down here I think we played in front of a lot more people. I think we got ourselves to the point where we go into feeling really fortunate. We’re going in general into some really nice rooms, converted theaters, big clubs, and getting the folks out and it’s been really smooth. The only thing with the States is that, unlike touring Canada, I mean despite its size, Canada it is a relatively easy country to tour [compared to the States]. I mean, there are only seventeen to eighteen cities of a quarter million people. You could tour Ohio and still not play in front of that many people. It’s a long road. In fact, we’re committed to going back down after this tour, when the Canadian tour is done, and do some more dates. I think we’re going to hit some places for the second time and I think we will be playing places we have not had a chance to get to yet. It’s a big country you’ve got down there.”

Rob: “I think other people are looking for some huge breakout and that’s not really the way we gauge how we are doing. In six months of touring, I think there was one city where there were fewer people than the last time. Every other place, the audience was bigger than the last time, so you feel like you’re moving in the right direction. The one where it was lousy was a pouring, rainy Monday night and they had us go on at 11:30 at night during the middle of exams.

How do you compare the American music scene to Canada’s?

Gord: “I think it’s difficult to compare. In some ways I think it is a little easier for Canadian bands to get a leg up because there seems to be, if you’re a decent band, there seem to be a few more opportunities to take the show on the road. There are better gigs starting out at the club level when starting out in Canada. I don’t know what it would be like starting a young band in the States right now. I’d probably spend a lot more time on my hairdo than on my music! It seems to take you a little bit further down here.”

Rob: “There are a lot of cartoon bands, you know what I mean. That seems to be increasingly important. I don’t know. It always seemed that there were cartoon bands: Alice Cooper and early Bowie. In Canada, I think the cartoon thing doesn’t really wash at the same extent that it does down here. The U.S. is driven by pop-hit singles and media image. Other than that, it’s a great Canadian pastime to sit and analyze the differences. We really don’t like to.”

What can you say about your loyal Canadian fans who follow you to the shows?

Rob: “Thank you!”

Gord: “At the end of the day, I think that’s what it’s all about. We always concerned ourselves really, really fortunate, not only for our live fans, but the people who go out and buy the records. They’ve supported us and allowed us time to develop our own thing. They still seem to dig what we are doing and that’s cool. The ones who travel, they’re why we do what we do. We change the set lists up from night to night, try to dig into the vaults a little bit with older songs and album tracks and try to make it interesting for the people who have seen us a bunch of times. It’s important for us as music fans also. We’ve all seen shows/bands who play the same set night after night.

Rob: “The same jokes in between songs.”

Gord: “You feel you’re being cheated, as if you’re reading a script. We try to make every night unique and special. We feel the audience to be a part of that. It is a little bit more difficult to create that sense of intimacy in places this size (arenas) and stuff, but that’s the challenge of touring the States.”

Was it upsetting to hear that the band would not be able to play Maple Leaf Gardens one last time?

Rob: “Well, I think that’s balanced off. It’s sad to see the Gardens go, but we’ll see what will happen to it. But it’s balanced off, being the first show in the new place. The Rolling Stones wanted to do it, but they let us do it, which is a great honor.

Camp Trillum is a great cause. How did the band get involved with the organization (Camp Trillum is a camp for kids who are terminally ill)?

Gord: “Over the years, as we’ve gotten a little more popular and stuff, we found ourselves being asked and requested and it was always difficult to say no to people. I think we started to spread ourselves a little thin. It became a difficult thing to embrace a group. Camp Trillum is just outside of our hometown. Well, the first camp was, but now they have two. We received a letter from this young fellow that was a camper there and was suffering from leukemia. We donated something and he was writing to express his thanks and how much he enjoyed the band. I think that was when we kind of got involved. It was because of a moving letter from this kid and as we began working with the people we learned a great deal more about the charity. It just meshed with the band, and individual senses. Very nice people, very low key. It’s all privately funded and is staffed by ex-campers and families of ex-campers. I think the bottom line is that the service they’re providing for these kids is something we have all grown up with as we always went to the cottage in the summer, enjoyed an Ontario cottage vacation. It is something that will stay with you forever. That’s what they provide for these kids; they’re really easy to work with. You know, we should be thanking them for the opportunity really because of what they provide for the kids. It’s a lot more important than what we do for them.”

Any plans for Another Roadside Attraction this summer?

Rob: “I think it’s not ruled out of the possibilities. I think we are sort of going to try and pull the trigger on that and make a decision by the end of this tour. So, we have got another month to put our noses to the grindstone and decide, but for a number of reasons we were kind of leaning away from that this summer. It becomes harder and harder, the first three, the whole idea of the thing was our opportunity to write up our wish list of bands and go out on the road with these bands we love. A bunch of our favorite bands have already done it. It gets harder and harder to write up the wish list each year. Each year you do it and it is successful, there is more and more pressure from outside to do it. If you play this venue, you can maximize your revenue and if you put this act on the bill, you’ll have more marquee appeal. I think it gets away from the whole concept of why we did it in the first place.”

Gord: “Hey, who’s wish list was Green Day on? What are all these skate kids doing here?

If you were not in a band, what would you see yourself doing?

Rob: “[Being] a bum. Gord (Downie) would be a General in the army!”

Gord: “I don’t know what we’d be doing because we have been doing this since or before we finished our university degrees. So, we started doing this to avoid trying to figure out something else to do, I think. It’s been cool.”

Rob: “I was a mailman, a lousy one at that. Also, I was a really, really bad waiter.”

Future albums: what can fans expect?

Rob: “Expect the unexpected! We will continue to change, evolve, and develop our sound.”

For more information on The Hip, check out their web site at www.thehip.com.

+larry sarzyniak

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