Hip Surgery

The stereotype of Canadians as beer-swilling hosers seems to have died, but the Great White Northerners are still collectively flawed, and that's why Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, and the other aribiters of arbitrary taste haven't sent a Trend Alert buzzing through their computer systems and jumped on this like hungry polar bears on a porterhouse. "There was the big Australian Trend Alert," explains Gord Downie, vocalist for the Tragically Hip. "People here in Canada figured we'd be next. But we don't package our trends well enough."

Downie's group, along with outfits such as Blue Rodeo and Crash Test Dummies, may not yet be fodder for media "packaging," but they are among the world's prime cutters of honest-to-the-bones rock and roll. Maybe these Canadian rockers need better hype, or maybe their southern neighbors just aren't too bright. Call the Canadian Invasion a trend, or don't, but do call on the Tragically Hip if gut rock is what keeps your soul off ice.

After two American-major-label albums of indisputable greatness, after selling out countless shows in Canada, the Tragically Hip remains virtually undiscovered in this country. They've toured parts of the U.S., and a New Times reporter recently arrived-from-El Paso practically breaks down while attempting to describe the glories of Hip live shows in Texas, but national music publications seem totally unaware of what's going on just north of their brains.

Downie says that during a European tour, a guy from Rolling Stone happened upon a show in Holland. "He said he really liked it," Downie recalls, "and how he was going back to L.A. to tell everyone. He wasn't just some drunk, either. He stumbled on us, which is the way it should be. But nothing came of it." One critic's blowing it doesn't explain the neglect in general. "I dunno," Downie offers. "Maybe they all should have been in El Paso. It concerned us for a while, but then we said fuck it. We never went chasing after press anyway."

After forming in late 1983, the Hip initiated a policy of touring relentlessly, throughout North America. Like so many worthwhile groups, they often found themselves playing to an audience with as many members as the band (five). "We played bars," Downie says, "and there was no money spent on promotion. So there would be nobody in the clubs. That's fine." Eventually people in Canada got Hip, turning the quintet into virtual superstars, lavishing awards on them, attending their performances in droves. The parochial press raved, the albums sold out of the box. "Now in America it's a little better," Downie says. "We're able to pinpoint places where we do fairly well."

The vocalist says he's elated to be introducing the live Hip to the Southeast, including the Cameo this Friday as opening act for guitar star Eric Johnson. "This tour is different," Downie notes, "because it's the first time for us as an opening act. We could be back to six people a night."

Obviously what's needed here is a conquer-the-States campaign. Hasn't some genius thought of that? "Me," Downie says, "alone. The management and the label won't go for it. We made the record that we made, and we tried to make a good record. We got signed to an American label. As far as marketing, I don't think anyone's trying to de-Canadianize us, get rid of our quirky politeness. There's been no concerted effort. But it would be nice to do well in the States because it could open up a whole new ball game. If we could do it in a way that's tasteful. A big huge radio hit is interesting, if you're comfortable with it. But we're happy going the way we're going."

Not surprisingly, MTV is among those missing the Hip tip. Downie says his band has "an armful of shitty videos" that have received some play in Canada. "We have Much Music up here," he says, "which is equivalent, it's pretty cool. In fact, MTV would do well to watch it. It goes coast to coast, further than radio, and they play a variety, not just what's popular. A lot of bands from the States, whether they know it, get played. We never really got a handle on the video thing."

Maybe not, but the Tragically Hip has a mighty firm grip on making magical albums. Their first recording was an eponymous, seven-song effort laid down in four days and claimed by two major labels in 1987. "It was supposed to be a demo," Downie explains. "We thought it was cool for a demo. Then somebody thought it was really cool and released it. It was a bad idea, but we wanted to show our friends a piece of product." He laughs, both at the memory and his choice of the word "product." Issued on Rock Records, the release was picked up by RCA/BMG of Canada, which expressed interest in signing the Hip to a development deal. "We met with this guy," the vocalist recounts, "who saw things going country in the next few years. We thought, Okay, man, this is one of those nightmare record business conversations we always heard about. We sat there in awe. He was deciding whether country or blues would be big next, and we just had to pick a direction, and he'd take it from there. We decided to slip back into the stream and see what would happen."

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