We normally only cover theatre here, but those of you who have followed us from the beginning may be aware that long before I had the opportunity to cover theatre I wrote about music (at the now defunct Call Upon the Author). I was lucky enough to cover my favourite band The Tragically Hip a couple of times and in 2013 I interviewed their lead singer Gord Downie. He was then, and remains, a huge inspiration for me as a writer and as a person.
Last night Gord lost his battle with brain cancer. For me a light has gone out, so here is the transcript of the interview I was so lucky to have with Gord!
ME: I suppose the best place to start is not. You played Canada Day in London last night In Trafalgar Square
GORD DOWNIE: Mmm…
ME: The biggest crowd they’ve ever had by a long shot!
GORD: Is that right?
ME: Yeah, it’s about 15,000 tops last year. There were more than that definitely for your set.
ME: This year they reckon about 25,000 people throughout the course of the day. What was it like playing to that big a crowd in the UK when I guess you don’t play to that sort of crowd normally?
GORD: In the UK?
ME: In the UK, yeah.
GORD: No, no, um. Well I mean I think there were a few Canadians there. I don’t know, maybe, some might say, in capital letters, way too many in one place but we knew that were we signed on. They’ve been asking us to do that for a few years now and it’s sort of, um, worked out this time and we’re happy to do it. It’s, um, a big day of celebration for Canadians and I’m sure Canadians abroad, you know, get pretty homesick so we found that wherever we play, you know, we’re always met, you know, Canadians who will come out and see us.
ME: You’ve sort of from my experience (I think this will be the fourth time I’ve seen you guys now), you’ve become sort of a symbol for Canada abroad, you always get a big following of Canadians coming in. It must be quite heartening that people associate you with home.
GORD: Yeah, I mean it’s heartening that they associate you at all, you know, obviously and anyone will tell you that. Um so I don’t question it too much. There was probably a day where you know, you’ll be playing in Indiana and be 22 people there and 18 of them would be Canadian and one of the guys would have a Canadian flag you know wrapped around like a cape be way too drunk, way too early and um that with some patriotism and homesickness makes a very potent, almost, um, almost, err, almost unmanageable situation for an entertainer where you become part babysitter or something. But anyway all that’s […] moving past that. You know, music brings people together I think, that’s what I sort of, that’s what everything seems to know.
ME: It seems to be a big thing for you as well, um, the way you always end a set, you always say ‘thank you music lovers’, and with you guys it seems to beabout the music you, don’t get the bells and whistles that a lot of bigger bands who have been around for a long time seem use to flesh their set set out, lasers and crazy stuff. With The Hip it seems to be “we’re going to come out, we’re going to play our songs and have a great time”. So is that the thing, that music speaks first?
GORD: You have to put a lot of pressure on it, I realise and it’s not lost on anyone. I think everyone realises that music is one of the last places where people can get together and experience things as a group. I mean you go to an art gallery, a very personal, individual experience it’s quiet but you come to see music with other likeminded people and you enjoy that for 2 hours. Something that is yours alone and can’t be downloaded and can’t be sort of experienced in private, you have to get out. And I appreciate that and with that in mind every show is a chance at something, for a show to be great something has to happen and it’s got that. Even though a show is old hat, it’s spontaneous it’s always a first.
ME: On that basis you guys have been around for what 30 years now?
GORD: Almost, yup
ME: You have a huge back catalogue, how do you go about approaching a set list. It must be difficult to juggle the greatest hits, the songs everyone knows, against the lesser known songs to try to give them an airing as well. Is it something you plan or is it pretty spontaneous?
GORD: Well Robbie – we’ve gone through different things over the years – Robbie (Baker, lead guitar) now writes them up. We went as far to get a sort of system where we would group songs into threes. There would be an old chestnut, a brand new one and then a, I don’t know what you’d call i
t, a song, a more obscure song. An every triplet had to have one of those elements and then we would comprise, the set would be comprised of three, three and three so you would always and we just made triplets, tons of them so in that sense the set could be very spontaneous and new every night and challenging. Again it’s all about challenge, it’s after 30 years it’s about fighting expectation, it’s what the expectation is for you which is dull trying to meet expectation, even meeting expectation becomes dull and I think you can get into bells and whistles and fireworks and things like that when you get too lost in what you think expectation is it should always be challenge and you should always be on the edge of that.
ME: Keeping it fresh must help when performing night after night; if you’re playing the same set it must get pretty dull?
GORD: I mean Bono said once you don’t give them what they want, you give them what you want and um you know I think that’s what’s important, that’s what I go to see. You know.
ME: You want the truth of the artist
GORD: Yeah. I want what they’re thinking now. I’m not so hung up on the greatest hits. I’m more interested in what Bob Dylan is about to than in almost anything he’s ever done.
ME: So obviously the tour is now, I guess as much as any tour now is, built around a new release. This is for ‘Now for Plan A’ but you changed producer on this one to Gavin Brown after 2 albums with Bob Rock. Was that a conscious decision to change or was it that you wanted to go in a new direction?
GORD: Yeah, I don’t know. Like me personally. I love Bob and he’s become a great friend of mine and I talk to him like every other day and I done a side record with him and we chipped away at it for like 6 or 7 years and he would send me songs and we’re now mixing that. He brings out the best in me and I loved working with him and I would always have loved to have a producer do 4 or 5 records in a row, you know what I mean, that hasn’t happened yet but that would have been a guy I would have liked to do that with.
ME: There’s always time though right?
GORD: Yeah well there he is today he’s a busy guy and Gavin wasn’t a guy we had known for a long time and that worked out for what it was and when it was.
ME: Was it very different approach to how you put the album together? I’m guessing for you guys you already have a degree of an approach
GORD: Perhaps, it’s always seems like we’re, I don’t know, every guy has a different kind of approach.
ME: From what I gather of Gavin he’s a bit more play it live on the floor than what Bob is. I don’t know if that’s true
GORD: Yeah, it was really conflicting ideas of what way to go. Me personally, I wanted a real emotional fairly emotionally raw record. That’s what I wanted my performance to be. Even writing the songs I would ask the guys you know give me 5 ideas each and I would go through them and would react to one very viscerally and not get hung up on it put it away but not really labour over it in hopes of getting lyrics that were as light as air maybe. Not overthought but really felt and try to sing that way too you know. So really on the edge of my range, not with sentimentally you know, sentiment does not age very well but emotion it’s real, people respond to it and people respond to singers singing it at the edge of their selves
ME: We Are The Same had a more relaxed tone but this album has a lot more urgency around it. Was that just a reaction to the changing times?
GORD: I think there was a concerted effort on We Are The Same to do that, to take it in a different direction which I think can be dangerous, especially if it’s a group. If it’s a one person calling all the shots and says this is my idea this is my direction, it’s a theme record, it’s a record in three parts, it’s a story line, It’s, you know, whatever then you can do that but with a group that makes art as a group and it’s been said of art by a group that any mount success is mere blind luck and there’s so many variables and they only increase when making a record. One decision makes two more decisions. Those kinds of variables, those things get lost and I think We Are The Same started with everyone signing on to this idea but then quickly forgetting about that so then you end up with what you end up with which I love. I love the record and I love Bob, I love what he does. Again, like he brings out the best in me.
ME: I think it’s great; it sits apart from the rest of your back catalogue
GORD: I agree
ME: but it’s got its own voice and I really like that, it’s a time capsule.
GORD: That’s true
ME: So, over the course of your career how would you say your approach to writing and lyrics has changed? Have you refined it or has it been more of a natural evolution?
GORD: Yeah, it’s changed and it, uh, it doesn’t get any easier. In fact, it sorta gets harder, it gets harder to sort of rationalise why you’re doing it. When you’re younger you have lots to say and you assume everyone wants to hear it, and as you get older you have less to say and assume no one wants to hear it, you know? So it makes it a tight hole to get through and… But anyway, I do it and you know, but I, actually I’ve worked on so many projects in the last five years, like 4 Hip records and, no I don’t know, how many? And then two solo records and made a record with the Sadies. Anyway, I’ve just been writing-writing-writing it seems, for about 5 years solid.
ME: Time for a break then?
GORD: I actually, for the first time ever, said I’m not actually gonna live in the uncanny for a while, like “oh, isn’t this uncanny? And isn’t that uncanny” because you start seeing everything as a potential turn of phrase
GORD: Right? And uh, it’s… yeah, whatever.
ME: You all seem to have sort of, side projects and different things you do. Does that help to keep it fresh when you come together as The Hip and…
GORD: I think so, I mean I can’t know, I… well, I think it does yeah I mean coming into this, there’s something about The Hip that’s very easy and there’s something about The Hip that’s very difficult for me. So there’s a repulsion-attraction thing going on. The shows are very hard, they’re very soulful for me and I love that about them. I get to get close to try and touch my heroes; Otis Redding and Johnny Cash and James Brown… people like that, that perspire. But I like that soulfulness and really trying to touch that somehow and live performance is about the only way and with this band is about the closest I’ve ever gotten, you know? So if that wasn’t there I don’t know how I would get it, so I like that and so the soul stuff is different, y’know it doesn’t have that same… but it has something else.
ME: I think it has a connection, an emotional connection that I find with a lot of soul and blues and jazz, that a lot of rock music doesn’t have but I think a lot of your songs do…
ME: You mentioned James Brown, he was a character, a force of nature on stage and you’re very active, you dance around and interact with the audience and things like that. Did that just come naturally when you started out?
GORD: Yeah, it did, and again those were the people I enjoyed growing up. Bowie, Iggy, Otis, James Brown, it goes on and on but it’s all… they weren’t people that, I don’t know, I think they got on stage and something had to happen, it wasn’t enough just to stand and deliver, you had to put on a show, but it’s a very nerve wracking experience to be that guy, the front man, the… y’know, when you’re actually inherently fairly shy, it requires a real, I don’t know, transformation. And I think I like that, but I’m afraid of it too, so.
ME: Sort of like wearing a costume? You can be Gord of the Tragically Hip and then be yourself when you walk away from it?
GORD: Yeah, but it happens on its own thankfully. Like, I don’t have to go up there and conjure it up if I’m just faithful and loyal and patient. I just get up there and something kicks in and it’s adrenaline and it’s, uh, it’s like here we are and its one night only and you’re here and we’ll never be together again as a group all of us, so let’s make this mean something. Y’know? And you’re nervous – I say this to my kids- you’re nervous because it means something.
ME: I understand what you mean, you want to make every night special. You don’t want to just go through the motions because they’ll know and you’ll know
GORD: Yeah, and the feeling afterwards is terrible. Y’know you just feel like you had a chance and you missed it.
ME: Absolutely! Going back to a point I made earlier, you guys have been around for a long time now, released a lot of albums. Is it hitting that point now where your record label are saying let’s do the big re-releases and things like that. Do you get involved with that side of things or d’you just leave them to it?
GORD: I do. I mean I sort of get involved in decisions of our future or what our next project is going to be. The record companies, yes they definitely want to do that stuff. Y’know, the repackaging… and when you’ve been around a long time it seems like those are the only ideas. In an industry that I would say, regardless of your age or how long you’ve been doing it, there’s a bit of a drought of ideas. It feels that way to me and it’s hard to say that without sounding a bit craggy or pessimistic but if the idea is looking backwards all the time to sell the same record to ten percent of the people who bought it the first time, you call that a hit. That’s crazy. I’m not really part of that, that doesn’t interest me, there’s no role for in that really and I don’t spend a lot of time stopping the tractor and looking back at the field I’ve ploughed. I’m fairly consistent on that, and probably to an annoying level, because there’s people who say “well you have to stop the tractor” and you know you have to, but I have no interest in that and it’s probably the side projects and all that too cos’ I just, it…
ME: Keeps things moving?
GORD: Yeah, moving forward. And as an artist that’s really all there is, y’know? That’s primarily what I’m interested in doing and being.
ME: Is there ever anything that maybe you haven’t released before – a track or part of an album – that you’ve ever felt the need to go back and revisit?
GORD: Yeah, you always think you will, but you rarely do. If you leave something off a record it’s rare that you go back and… we’ve maybe gone back and – I’ve done this – you feel kind of funny but you go back and you take a song and separate the music and lyrics from it and use the music again and write brand new lyrics.
ME: Strip it for parts?
GORD: Yeah, you strip it for parts and rebuild it with new lyrics or a new idea so… y’know, yeah.
ME: So, obviously in the UK we’ve got a large swathe of audience that hasn’t heard The Tragically Hip, for those who haven’t come along to the show, haven’t heard a record. If you were asked to describe the band, to give them a flavour how would you sum up your sound?
GORD: Is Maximum R&B taken? Oh yeah, The Who took that.
ME: That was a long time ago, you can take it back.
GORD: [laughs] yeah, y’know I don’t know, I really don’t know. I think that we’re quite, um, beyond the pigeon hole. I’ve heard a lot of descriptions of us and we get discounted as, y’know we started this interview talking about patriotic furore or the association of the band to Canada but I always thought that was even sort of misplaced, in the lyrics there’s not a shred of nationalistic or jingoistic or hyper-patriotic rhetoric. I’ve never really subscribed to that. When it comes to Canada and it’s always like, you’re really as great a country as how you treat the weakest and poorest among you, y’know, as a society. It’s old hat, everyone knows that, I just, y’know, to never question yourselves… Anyway, all that said, I feel like the band has sort of defied that description and outlived the dismissers and those that would try and explain you away. Maybe that’s why we’re still here. Out of spite.
ME: That’s a strong motivating force.
GORD: They live the longest.
ME: You’ve been around to the point now where you’ve become the elder statemen. Do you deal a lot with younger bands?
GORD: Yeah, I see a lot of other guys, I meet everybody generally, and we play with a lot of bands. It’s a nice community in Canada and it’s a growing one, a big one and a lot of these kids or whatever are going out in the world doing big things, y’know, making great music and I uh, yeah I have great relationships with everybody. I mean Canada’s such a small – it’s huge – but it’s such a small country in a way. If you were to be less than generous and kind, y’know what I mean? It gets around.
ME: It seems like everyone knows everyone
GORD: Yeah, and it’s just… there’s just no currency in being a dick! [laughs] I guess you can apply that to most cultures.
ME: So, obviously you mentioned The Sadies, who you’ve worked with. Are there any other bands you particularly enjoy working with, or listening to, away from…
GORD: Yeah, there’s a band The Rural Alberta Advantage, a three piece, they’re fantastic, Nils and Amy and Paul and they’ve done a bunch of shows with us, even recently. Sam Roberts Band, they put on a great show. Sam, he’d from Montreal. We just did a tour with the Arkells who are making their own way.
ME: They played last night (at Canada Day in Trafalgar Square)
GORD: Yeah, they just did a Canadian tour with us and they’re nice guys. Um, yeah there’s just, there’s many many you know? Broken Social Scene, those guys are all my friends and they are maybe, maybe, getting back together. Kevin Drew is a great buddy of mine, y’know.
ME: That seems to be a big thing; that everyone gets on with everyone. I recently spoke with a couple of guys from Wintersleep (another Canadian band whose music means a great deal to me) and they were saying the same thing.
GORD: that’s a great band.
ME: It feels like the larger Canadian scene is almost like a local scene, where everyone helps each other out.
GORD: Yeah, I mean it’s probably the same here. It’s a fairly small community, guys do attempt to separate themselves from each other but in the end everyone kisses and makes up…
ME: That’s the important thing,
GORD: Well, that’s music and it’s competitive out there. There’s more band out on the road than ever it seems, there’s a lot of competition for that live… no one’s selling records so, everybody’s on the road now and I think that probably, although it increases the competition, enhances the sense of solidarity with one another. As musicians out there on the road there’s a lot of kinship.
ME: As a band who have such a reputation, and a deserved reputation, for really strong live shows, in this age where people aren’t buying music to the degree they were, do you think that gives a bit of a strength to work from?
GORD: Ah well, even at the most robust times, even when Tommy Mottola convinced everyone to replace their record collection with the compact disc version, the most robust times – bands like us, the 99% of us, were still relying on gate receipts, concert tickets, cash on the barrel head. So that never changed really. The 1%, those selling millions, could see record sales and royalties obviously, but that 1% made the world go round… made the record industry go round So for us it never really made any difference. We’ve always taken a lot of pride in the show and again I think we’d rather chew our right arm off, or at least I would, than have that’s sort of desultory feeling after a show where you’re just like “God!”. Y’know I’m a thousand miles from home and I’ve been in this city for two days, all gearing up for this two hours… and it didn’t go somewhere, didn’t transcend and it feels like, again, just a missed opportunity and it’s a lousy feeling.
ME: It seems to be where it begins and where it ends, up there on the stage.
GORD: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, that’s what we’re here for and we really enjoy it. I think, y’know, I’m learning something. I’m learning things every night. I’m learning things about singing and my voice and I’m trying for things and in that sense reinventing the songs. They sound different, new, there’s something emerging in them that I didn’t see before. All based on very technical aspects of singing, which I love to do. But over 30 years my singing, I’m , it’s just, my range is growing, it’s expanding which is very odd to me.
ME: It’s a huge achievement as you get older to increase…
GORD: Yeah, I’m really enjoying that, really greatful about it, y’know, and for 30 years I’ve been trying to become a better singer. Always. I respect drummers for that reason, they never stop learning no matter how big, or good or old they get they’re still seeking out lessons from particular gurus or teachers. It’s a work ethic that I really admire, I’m inspired by. So, there’s all that there for me and I’m just enjoying that.
ME: Awesome, so maybe you’ll be taking a break after this, but then back on it?
GORD: Yeah, we have all of our summer shows to do back in Canada and the States. We’ll be done in the middle of the fall and then we’ll see what we do next.
ME: Sounds like you’ve earned some time off.
GORD: Yeah, yeah.
ME: Well, thanks for your time Gord, I really appreciate it.
GORD: Nice, a pleasure talking to you Matt.