Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Gordon Downie 2000

As a CanCon chronicler since I was a wee lad, Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip have loomed large over my musical education. In high school, they were visceral rock'n'roll believers who provided the soundtrack to many a summer night. Their riffs cut to the gut, Downie was a manic frontman, Paul Langlois and Gord Sinclair's harmonies tapped into a Canadiana of the times (see: Skydiggers, Grapes of Wrath, Blue Rodeo, 54.40 et al), and they wrote unassailable classic rock songs to rival the boomer bullshit forced down our throats. I have many fond memories of seeing them at a mid-day slot at Molson Park in Barrie, at the Ontario Place Forum, at the Concert Hall when Road Apples was released. Each of them were defining moments of deliverance for me.

By the time I hit university, they were the biggest band in the land, and therefore totally inacessible to me. Maybe I was too busy exploring new avenues, but I fell off around the time of Fully Completely. One of their best loved albums, I nonetheless found it grossly overproduced (see: Concrete Blonde), neutering the band's raw edge in favour of a radio-ready sound. Yet even at their worst, Downie was still nothing short of compelling. No other lyricist of his day conveyed the same sense of playful poetic mystique, never settling for the obvious, always ready with an unexpected turn of phrase.

The next time I saw them was Canada Day, 1994 at Molson Park (the rest of the line-up: Daniel Lanois, Rheostatics, Jane Siberry, Eric's Trip, Change of Heart, Spirit of the West, etc.). What struck me that day was not only the musical abstractions they were exploring with the material that would form Day For Night (one of three essential albums in their discography), but how Downie had tens of thousands of people reciting his decidedly non-rock'n'roll poetry back to him, like a massive recitation of Al Purdy... or something. Add to that the ease with which he incorporated forgotten or maligned Canadian mythology--both real and imagined--into his prose, in a way that a precious few of his contemporaries (or predecessors) dared attempt.

Since then, like many fans, I've had an on/off relationship with The Tragically Hip. 1999's Phantom Power was another high water mark, but nearly everything else in the last 12 years has left me cold. Much greater pleasures were to be found in Downie's two solo albums, 2001's Coke Machine Glow (my review in Eye, a personal favourite, is here; the album title is now better known as the name of one of this country's most popular blogs) and 2003's Battle of the Nudes, where he collaborated with Dave Clark (Rheostatics), Dale Morningstar (Dinner is Ruined), Josh Finlayson (Skydiggers) and Julie Doiron, among others.

I've interviewed Downie three times. Once was in the summer of 2000, in a hotel room in a decaying cylindrical tower in downtown Syracuse, NY, with my co-author Jason Schneider for the book Have Not Been the Same. Downie gave us over an hour of his time, and was generous, funny, articulate and humble. You know, Canadian. We later roped him into writing the forward to the book, which he insisted on doing in verse--much to the confusion of our publishers, who were hoping for something a little more... normal?
That pretty much sums up The Hip's relationship to the Canadian media since 1990. Gord himself was amused that the publisher put his name in a bigger font size than the authors of the book.

Gord was also a gracious secondary source for this story on his old friend Sarah Harmer.

I'm happy to report that after years of indifference--six, in fact--that the new Hip album, World Container, is a joy to behold, containing many of their finest moments since Phantom Power. [However, listening to 2000's Music At Work today, it's not nearly as bad as I remembered. In fact, shockingly, I liked it more today than I did was I was ostensibly a bigger fan of the band. Take the first seven tracks and the closer, and it's almost as good as this new one.] Particularly worthy is "Family Band," an amusing ode to weekend warriors and nascent rock'n'roll dreams.

The conversation below was the second time I'd interviewed Downie in 2000, this time for an article in Eye in advance of a Hip show at the Air Canada Centre. Earlier that year, prior to our book interview, I penned this less-than-flattering live review. Part of their touring band at the time were our mutual friends Chris Brown and Kate Fenner.

So, to celebrate the man's 43rd birthday today and The Tragically Hip's umpteenth appearance at the Air Canada Centre this week, here's one from the vaults.

I don't know where the original tape is, and my original transcript opened with brief notes that had something to do with demagoguery. I wish I knew what my questions were and what his complete answers were. They're still on tape somewhere. Nonetheless, the rest of the conversation remains intact.

Gord Downie

November 24, 2000

locale: phone interview from his house

Some of the lyrics on this album suggest an overall mood or theme. “I’m starting to fail to be impressed.” “I’m starting to choking on the things I say. “I’m starting to fail to know what’s best.” “Talking in whispers again. “Presaging pell mell. “Everything you thought you sought is uncovered.”

What do you think those themes are? As you list those quotes I was trying to come up with a psychological profile. What’s it saying – is everything alright?

There are hints of frustration or finality.

Oh yeah? Yeah. Hmmm. ‘Starting to choke on the things I say.’ I don’t know. That’s more like a self-deprecating comment on your way out. If you’re going to say to someone, ‘I’d practically kill not to be afraid.’ Then you have to say, ‘What do I know? I’m starting to choke on these things myself.’ Regarding ‘I’m starting to fail to be impresed,’ I like the idea of not really failing, but beginning to fail, which to me denotes an out. It’s reversible, perhaps. That would contradict what you’re talking about, in a way. ‘Presaging pell-mell’ is a phrase I like a lot, especially with ‘augers’ and ‘presages’ in the same line. You might as well call that song “Thesaurus.” I didn’t use one, by the way. My Thesaurus At Work.

“Tiger the Lion” quotes John Cage. Have you been reading John Cage theories lately?

I was trying to figure out why I chose to do that, why I chose to take that phrase and paraphrase it and stand on stage and deliver it with oratorical flourish which it demands. Because you can’t dance to it. I get to the “simply to wake to your life” part and it feels like a good thing to say to someone. In doing that, you can discover as much as anybody about yourself and what you can do and how you can express yourself and how what you express is totally valid.

There are people who start playing rock’n’roll at the age of 16 and they continue to play it at age 50 for the same reasons, then there are people who start playing rock’n’roll at 16 and move on to other things entirely.

Rock and roll is not unlike love. You find it oddly strangely comforting that no matter how old you get, when it comes to matters of the heart, you’re always 15 inside. I know an 85-year old with boy trouble. That’s a strange and comforting thing to me. As we move towards resolution and understanding and greater serenity in all aspects of our life, love’s pretty elemental and that’s nice to know. I think rock and roll is the same. I don’t pretend to understand it; it feels confusing and frightening and wonderful.

I’m sure there are moments when you feel like the 16-year old and moments when you feel like a man creating something that a 16-year old could never envision.

Yeah. But I’d rather be a 16-year old. You’ve got the very potent combination of na├»vete and energy and hormones. It’s a good way to get things across. If you can stand up there like a 16-year old and lay down some half-assed John Cage theories, I guess they’d call you a prodigy!

How does the presence of Kate Fenner on stage [in the 2000 tour] colour the stage show? What does her feminine presence provide to what was previously an impenetrable fortress? It seems very different.

I think both she and Chris [Brown] have had a ripple effect, and over time those two have managed to eke out an existence up there [on stage]. I’m proud of what they’ve done, because it’s not easy. In terms of singing, it suggested a whole new universe to me, and allowed me to stretch out – stretch out to the point where I don’t even know what song I’m in. Which is maybe a testament to my bad memory. I can get pretty lost. There’s certain songs where if I try anything remotely new, like singing the melody even slightly different, it will rise up and say, ‘if you’re going to be like that, we’re not going to tell you what song you’re in anymore.’ You can stand in front of all these people and try to find your way back, and that in and of itself is part of the waves of entertainment for everybody but me, whose cables of his heart have been cut and the elevator is careening towards defeat. But I feel pretty happy and supported. Since the beginning of the tour, I’ve had people tell me that they expected to see a guitar band, and now it’s a singers’ band. And I think we can absorb that and accept that growth. It’s taught us a lot. Generally, emotions and thoughts and feelings and morale are pretty high, based on the work we’ve done and sticking with the decisions we made.

The other recent female addition to the band is Julie Doiron’s presence on the new record, who I understand is also working with you on your solo album.

I’ve always liked her writing. She came in and worked on the Hip record, and I was impressed with her work ethic, the way she approaches a song or a line or even a note. She has an incredible musical memory and she’s a great technician, which is not to say she doesn’t have heart or emotion or these vital things – she feels things very deeply. It was a great thing on our record, and I look forward to the songs that she sings on when I listen to the record. And it begat another decision and advancement in our world.

Now that you have a book of poetry coming out soon, does it change in any way the way you approach lyrics and how they relate to the written word?

This makes me think of John K. Samson of the Weakerthans. I was looking at the booklet for his last record before hearing a note, and thought, ‘wow.’ It was interesting even the way it was laid out: it had a sensibility with which it spoke, that of a poet or someone who thought about how to lay this out without music. It seemed like prose, and I read it accordingly. Then hearing the music and hearing where the rhymes fell and where the obvious line breaks where, it altered it and changed it a bit. That was part of the permission process for me. In the early stages of any project, you’re looking around for permission to proceed. I think I’m a better writer now, and this process has been beneficial and a huge success. Working with an editor has been really illuminating, in terms of looking at how stuff goes down on the page.

A word that came up often in our last conversation and that’s come up again today is “permission.” Do you feel like you have to ask permission? Is that a Canadian thing?

Oh, I knew you’d say that. It’s not like I’m standing there saying, ‘Can I do this? Can I say this?’ I usually say it all and let time strip away what doesn’t need to be said: the obvious or the profane or the proclamations that age like limburger. Permission comes in weird forms. I remember hearing Pavement for the first time. Stephen Malkmus seemed to eschew lyrics and make them seem like they’re less than meaningless, but they’re so obviously not to me. They’re so beautiful and strange.

Did that feel like a validation of sorts, of inarticulated thoughts you may have had?

I’m not saying that I assume someone else has to do it first, but I’m certainly not ‘not assuming’ that.

What’s interesting to me is that you can hear these things at work and they seem like sketches—or sketchy, if you will.

Like, not formed?

Like this is going to lead somewhere else.

And doesn’t?

It holds things to be explored further. I don’t know if the writing process was different or if you’re at a point in your discography where you ask, ‘what can we do next?’

Is that what you’re asking?

Well, where do you think it fits into your discography? Is the album a statement? Is it a question?

I think it’s the end of a line, of one particular line. But I don’t really know, to be honest. I don’t think about where these things sit once they’re out. We finished the album a long time ago now, and for better or worse I’m happy with it, given that it’s the best and most succinct expression we could make of our collective idea about making records. It’s not easy.

In terms of the lyric writing, I think certain things are really strong and others are not as strong as I’d like them. In terms of where it sits in our discography, it tells me that it was time to shake things up and go somewhere else and learn a new language in terms of expressing ourselves.

On stage, I don’t know when I’ve felt more relaxed and comfortable and worth it. That’s primarily because I know I’m on a new track. I want to become a better writer. I’m glad I arrived at that conclusion at the end of this than the opposite, which would be, ‘Hey, I’m a hell of a writer! I won’t change a damn thing!’ This is what I respect about Neil Peart or Johnny [Fay], drummers or dancers who work every day and at 60 decide they decide to need to study a whole different way of drumming, because they know what the instrument is and they know how ancient it is. They know you only have so much time on this earth to scratch the skin of that instrument. That’s what I really admire. That’s what I aspire to.

There’s the old idiom of people who played for years and then they say, ‘One day I sat down at the drum kit and pretended that I didn’t know what it was.’ Or with the guitar, saying ‘I know have no idea how to play this.’

Oh, I do that. It doesn’t stop me. It’s good to pick up a guitar and play it the way it’s tuned, which is the Joni kind of way – not really think about it, just see what the guitar wants to say. That’s a salient observation on my part because I’m just realizing it now and I’m glad I arrived at that conclusion.

There’s a line here that says: “You’ll be serving the song/ when you find out you won’t change.”

Exactly. I thought it meant one thing originally and now I think it does mean another. We used to say that a lot, “We’re just serving the song. We’re just letting the song be what it wants to be.” I think that was a very normal way to try and answer the unanswerable. Serving the song, if you’re not careful, can put you into roller skates with A&W root beer gliding out to the station wagon to see if they need any more ketchup. Serving the song can become very militaristic.

Well, all your songs are about war, I understand. [Downie made this remark on-stage at a Winnipeg concert benefitting WarChild, if I recall correctly.]

Did I say that? Well, they are! That’s an interview-stopper if there ever was one. ‘They’re all about war. That’s all you need to know.’ That was part of the WarChild thing. That was a rare opportunity and only the second time I can remember in our Hip history that I felt like that on stage against a very ugly historical truth.

What was the other one?

Mayday in Holland. May 5th we played a festival in Harlem. There were kids and grandkids and great-grandkids who remember the war. It was an outdoor free festival in Harlem, Holland and they remember Canadians quite fondly. That’s what I sensed, at least. We were headlining the show. It was such a powerful feeling to sing these songs and have them be injected with this whole different spirit of meaning. The ability to use your songs and have them function for people as a tool for memory. I don’t know what the songs were doing, but I felt an honor and a privilege to be able to do this. To stand up there and say, ‘Since I was a little kid I’ve been afraid of war and it’s occupied my nightmares.’ I think all of us are the same that way. Then the WarChild one in Winnipeg was the same sort of thing. Getting to stand up there and say, ‘I think this is atrocious. This is a crime.’ There’s no pretense of rock posing or career advancement or any kind of personal wish fulfillment. It’s more saying that I’m a soldier up here and this is what I do.

Even worse, there’s no irony, which is often the only vehicle those motivations come to light.

After a show like that you’re resonating in waves and aftershocks where you think, ‘What was that?’ It’s moments like that when you feel quite lucky to do what you do. At least I do.

Do you feel like a demagogue then?

No, that’s just a wet suit I slip into before the show. I can’t walk around with swim fins on all day, Michael. I won’t get anywhere.

What should we expect from the solo record you have coming out soon?

It will be equal parts curious, confounding, and entirely predictable.


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