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."
What happened was the Hip got netted by MCA, which, like RCA, sent that first recording to American critics. The label claims the band was signed on the strength of a live show, perfectly believable according to those who've seen the Hipsters on-stage. Though the two subsequent MCA albums - Up to Here and Road Apples - consist of straight-ahead, guitars-bass-drums rock, the records are also carefully crafted sonic wonderworks.
"The live show is a bit different," Downie says. "We're interested in using the studio. Recording live off the floor is what everyone's into, but it's still a record. It's only representative of the band at that particular point in time. A song might be written three weeks before recording and then it's there on the album. When we play them live, they evolve. Live is one part, records are another part. What would be great is if everyone who bought a record got a comp ticket to a show. The whole thing would make more sense to some people." If one were so inclined, he could read into certain tunes a symbolic addressing of the band's live-versus-Memorex dilemma and their tentative position in America's collective cultural consciousness. The tune Hip publicists are hyping as the group's anthem is the lead track on Road Apples, "Little Bones," written while the album was in preproduction and stuck on at the eleventh hour. Admittedly, it's a brilliantly constructed piece of writing backed by squalling, dizzying instrumental blowouts. And certain lyrics - "Music, all its delicate fear/Is the only thing that don't change" - speak directly to the rock aesthetic (and ethic). "`Little Bones' can serve as a theme song of sorts for this band," the press materials state. "`Little Bones' is about being in New Orleans [where the album was recorded]," says Gord Downie. "It's almost a collection of things I heard from a taxi driver." That Crescent City cabbie must have a degree in literary composition.
Maybe a better choice for Hip Theme Song would be "Long Time Running," a sparse, floating acoustic number that makes virtually no sense lyrically but means the world musically. Rich guitar lines meander as Downie showcases his emotive, vibrato-laden vocals, a little drum pound seeps in, the inflection twists, a mumble, a noise in the attic, and then, like a ghost, it's gone, and so are you. There's maybe one lyric in the whole song that makes sense ("We don't go anywhere/Just on trips"). "That song is really ambiguous," Downie admits, "even while I was writing it."
Like R.E.M. and few others, the Tragically Hip is a band, not a singer and a bunch of musicians. While attending Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Downie got together with guitarist Bobby Baker and bassist Gord Sinclair. They enlisted a high schooler named Johnny Fay to drum. Then they completed their formal educations - Downie graduating in political science and film, Baker in art, Sinclair in history. After that, they brought on board guitarist Paul Langlois. "It was really weird," Downie recalls. "When we started in university we were wearing lampshades on our heads and playing wacky covers like `I'm a Believer.' Later we saw the rebirth of the Monkees, people doing the sort of covers we were doing eight years ago. I thought we had our finger on the pulse, but obviously we were just drunk."
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They outgrew that, although the band will still occasionally slip in parts of randomly selected tunes during live shows. "College kids say their favorite band does this awesome cover of the Brady Bunch theme," Downie says about weird covers. "Yeah. Okay. What we do is in some songs stretch out with elongated jams for no other reason than to give me a breather. It's never planned, just squeeze in whatever song, ad hoc, something we heard on the radio that day maybe. But no tributes." (The Monkees, it should be noted, are about as unlike the Hip as possible, but ironically the group's bizarre name comes from Michael Nesmith's Elephant Parts avant-video.)
All five members equally share all songwriting credits, although Downie is the primary lyricist. "We're all actively involved in songwriting and involved in the process," the singer elaborates. "We knew any enjoyment we'd derive or any success we'd derive would only come with the five of us together. We were interested in making a long career out of this, rather than being `Canada's Newest Hitmakers.' It seems to work, and it trickles down to every aspect of the band. It slows us down, but it does work for us." (Coincidentally, or maybe not, Up to Here contains a bouncing rocker dubbed "Trickle Down." But that's not the Hip Theme Song either.)
The teamwork wins, leaving one big obstacle for the Hip to hop over. Without big radio hits, MTV videos, and national press, the Canadians still need to make Americans aware of their existence. Actually, the band isn't obligated to do anything of the sort, but rock lovers do need to make themselves aware of the Hip. Downie says he and his cohorts have something that might help. "We just shot a concert film," he says. "It was done fairly well, we kinda went to town on it. We do this charity gig in our hometown, and we shot it this year. It could solve our video problem and be a good representation of the band live. We basically did it ourselves, with a bit of a grant from the Ontario government, and the CBC kicked in. But I don't know whether we can get it on the American market. We filmed at this old fort, a real magical place, a stone fort originally built for the defense of the Americans. Canada worries about being annexed, and a couple hundred years ago they were more worried. We'll see. Maybe we can sell it as a package."
THE TRAGICALLY HIP perform with Eric Johnson at 8:00 p.m. Friday at the Cameo Theatre, 1445 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, 532-0922. Tickets cost $18.50.