Friday, November 09, 2012

Boxing in Blue Rodeo

As the author of the Blue Rodeo chapter in Have Not Been the Same*** (please see end of entry for footnote), it’s no secret I’ve long believed them to be one of the defining Canadian artists of this generation, and I feel somewhat vindicated that they’ve survived as long as they have and their legacy is intact. Maybe I feel particularly attached to them because while they’ve been a mainstream band ever since “Try” was a massive hit, the circles I’ve been running in every since high school have found it easy to disparage Blue Rodeo as weak, safe, old, etc. (When Patti Schmidt told me I got a job at CBC's avant-garde show Brave New Waves, I exclaimed in surprise, "But I'm a Blue Rodeo fan!")

What’s always attracted me to them is their ability to take tried and true conventions—Beatlesque songwriting, country music, Neil Young—and push them in all directions, bringing in psychedelia, jazz, ’60s soul and jam-band excess yet always reining it into a pop song. I also love any band with very different yet complementary singer/songwriters sharing the spotlight equally. And on a personal note, the first four albums, featuring Bob Wiseman, contain many of my favourite keyboard solos from any period of rock music, period.

Blue Rodeo have only recently been recognized in the same breath as Steve Earle, Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, the Jayhawks and other Americana staples, and the next generation of Canadian artists is more than happy to embrace them as cool godfathers.

And so now they’re being venerated with a box set to celebrate their 25th anniversary, which includes the first five albums—Outskirts, Diamond Mine, Casino, Lost Together, Five Days in July—as well as remixed version of Outskirts, the demos for Casino, and a 17-song disc of Odds and Ends. They launched it with a show at CBC’s Glenn Gould theatre, and I spoke to Greg Keelor two days later for this article in Maclean’s.

Below is my conversation, as well as a track-by-track review of the new material in the box set.

Greg Keelor
October 31, 2012
Phone conversation

How long ago did you start planning the box set? Was it thrust upon you or did you see the anniversary coming and decide to do something?

We saw the anniversary coming. A couple of years ago we transferred everything to hard drive. The record company first thought of doing a box set, of doing something simple like five remastered records and putting it out. I thought, if you want anyone to listen to your first record again, you have to remix it at least. I’ve always wanted to remix it anyway. And knowing that we have these Casino demos, I love them, I love the sound of the band recording live off the floor, and I think people will like that.

These five albums are easily your best-loved, the records that people still form the bulk of the set list along with whatever your new record is at the time. These are the canon and a lot of people own them, so you need to give people a reason to buy it.

Yeah, so I think if you’re a fan, you’re going to love the Casino demos. And the odds and ends is just a collection of stuff.

It struck me that there isn’t a lot of songs there that never resurfaced later: they were rerecorded or tried with different arrangements. But I feel you don’t put something on tape unless you’re ready to put it on a record.

There are probably only five or six songs that no one has ever heard before.

Is there anything you realize now that you took for granted at the time, that you appreciate more now?

There is a lot of stuff. When I think of the mistakes that we have made over the years and we’ve survived, it’s ridiculous. That we didn’t use [Beatles engineer] Geoff Emerick for Casino is one of our major regrets. We got Pete Anderson [Dwight Yoakam, Michelle Shocked] and everything he put on the record, he thought was a single. He didn’t want any sort of filler. When he heard the demos that we sent down to him, he picked the ones he liked. The first two songs on the Casino demos I love, and I don’t know why we abandoned those.

I’m surprised they never resurfaced later, never rerecorded for a subsequent album. Those are really strong songs.

And a song like “Room for Rent” on Odds and Ends—that’s a good song, I don’t know why—I remember at the time there were a couple of lines that embarrassed me completely, so I abandoned it. It’s a great song.

Conversely, is there stuff you would rather shove under the rug?

Well, you know, there is still stuff under the rug. And there it shall remain.

I read that after finishing this project that you unearthed another box of tapes you had been looking for the whole time. What was in that box?

That was a whole pile of old Hi-Fi’s stuff, and all the masters for Five Days.

Outskirts is the centerpiece here—and probably the reason for the whole project, it being the 25th anniversary—and you’ve been on record for the last quarter-century griping about the way it sounded. Are you sleeping better at night now? Is this an itch you’ve been trying to scratch for that long?

Most definitely. I’m very happy with what that record did for us, but it always sounded like we were using Tears for Fears samples when they went to mix it. It was a treat to just go back and listen to those recordings and hear the way that band played, and make it sound more like the band—put a bit more of the bar in there rather than the ’80s radio sound on it.

I had a revelatory experience when k.d. lang put out a best-of her country years, and her early records sounded way worse than yours did in terms of ’80s production.

What, with the big gated snares with reverb?

Huge. And she remixed all of it and it sounded completely new and amazing. It was the best de-’80s trick I’d heard up to that point. Had you heard that or anybody else doing that?

No, but it was the same desire, to get rid of that ’80s cheese and just have the sound of the band playing the music.

Other than the sonic differences, are they entirely different Wiseman takes on “Piranha Pool” and “Floating”?

Yeah, that was fun too. Going back, there were seven intros that he played. I just loved that one. “Floating” was a different solo. There are four bed track vocals we used rather than the overdub vocals, too. So “Rose,” “Joker,” “Piranha Pool” and “Underground” were the vocals that we would have done with the tracking of the song, rather than the overdub.

Because the band has been so popular for so long, it’s easy to forget the context of 1987—which Jason Schneider touches on in his liner notes—where people didn’t really blur genre lines that much, unless they happened to be playing both pop and metal. There was nobody in mainstream country music who came to it via punk and new wave—other than k.d. lang, who had to deal with a lot of suspicion and resistance. There were a lot of people at the time who thought Blue Rodeo were the most mainstream band possible, and others who wondered how they ever became a mainstream band.

When we came back from New York—we moved there in 1981—it was funny that it was in New York where we started to listen to country music. There was this bar called the Lone Star that we used to go to all the time. Mostly it was Texas country, not Nashville country. People forget that there are all different types of country. You can go to Bakersville or Nashville or Memphis or Texas, and we definitely leaned toward Texan country, which was more rock’n’roll. There was one show at Irving Plaza that Jim and I went to with Los Lobos and NRBQ. It imprinted on both of us what we wanted to do. 

When we came back to Toronto, that was where we wanted to be, a cross between those two bands. Handsome Ned had this matinee at the Cameron on Saturday afternoons, and all the old punks and guitar players and singers, we’d all hang out all afternoon there. So you had a guitar player who once played with the Viletones playing James Burton licks with Handsome Ned: Steve Koch, who was in the Demics, too. So from that world came this new country. It took the punk ethic and applied it to country. That seemed like a great way to approach country music. So we were never thinking we were going to be Merle Haggard. I can hear my attempts on Outskirts to sing like Merle Haggard, and it’s terrible. 

Hearing Jim’s vocals on that album, he sings the same then as we first did when we started the Hi-Fi’s and as he does today. He has the same melodic structures, the same intensities, the same dexterity with his falsetto. And Bazil—we amped all the bass parts—so for a whole couple of hours you’d just hear his bass parts being re-amped—and it was like he was just sitting upstairs. He plays the exact same then as he does now. Then I listen to my vocals, and I start a song with an American twang; halfway through I change to a British accent; and then by the end of the song I’m a combination of the two. There’s a few songs there where I sing in my own voice.

You weren’t tempted then to go in and just, you know, touch that up a bit?

We had done recording, but we were still novices in the studio. I know myself that when I listen to the overdub vocals, they’re a bit too overwrought. I’m trying to sing too much. The ones I did off the floor with the band are just so much better. It sounds more like me.

More like you than the guy in the isolation booth with his hands cupped over his headphones.

That’s right, yeah. I didn’t wear them well.

Something that has come up since the beginning of the band is the two singers and the difference in styles. How often were you given gentle suggestions to step aside, or to ask Bobby to leave the band, or do things to make the entire project more normal?

The Bobby thing was quite evident with Pete Anderson producing. For me, that was the beginning of the end for Bobby. Pete Anderson just didn’t like that part of our band. He would have wanted to have some guy who understands the L.A. thing. As far as having one singer, I’m sure it happened, I can’t really remember. Jim has a story he tells about being told to let the scruffy guy step aside and let the blue-eyed soul boy do the singing, but that was never an interest to us. We enjoyed the two voices, and since our first band we love singing together.

It’s still rare to have more than one singer in the band, and the only exceptions I can think of are all Canadian: Arcade Fire, Sloan, Broken Social Scene.

It is, it’s a strange thing. It’s hard for people who want to sell your music to make it into a widget that people will identify with.

For all the regrets you’ve had about producers or recording decisions or the band second-guessing themselves, do you also think that resulted in a tension that created Blue Rodeo’s best-loved work?

The idea of working with Geoff Emerick: there’s something beautiful about not doing it, because I can then just imagine how beautiful it might have been. I mean, it could have been a disaster. Everything goes the way it’s supposed to go. Casino is for a lot of people their favourite Blue Rodeo record, for all the reasons Pete Anderson put into it: it is a concise, snappy little effort. It isn’t self-indulgent and full of meandering solos, and a lot of people really love that record. They all stand as they are.

The contrast to what I just posited is that Five Days was entirely the band left to their own devices, and that record is your biggest seller and most beloved: your set every night still has at least four songs from that record.

There are times when a band, everything fits. That was a time for us. Everything came together. It was easy to do. It was quick. We had a lot of good songs. We had a lot of fun. As a band, when you look at bands’ histories, it’s really lucky when those times happen. And for the most part, you take them for granted. You don’t think, Omigod. You think, Oh, we’re making a record and it’s fun.

There was a story told on Monday night: did you offer "Hasn’t Hit Me Yet" to the Skydiggers?

I think Andy phoned me up and asked me for a song. I went to Phase One and played them "Hasn’t Hit Me Yet." They tried to record it that night but they couldn’t get a version they liked. I think I’d just written it, which is why I offered it to them.

I’m sure they’ve been kicking themselves ever since.

I know, they could have had it out before us.

You once told me about a song called “Railway Crash,” which you told me was an homage of sorts to A Neon Rome and that it was an incest/murder/drugs sort of song.

Couldn’t find it anywhere. No existing versions.

Where there other things from that time that didn’t surface? That song was described to me as the most out-there Blue Rodeo got at the time.

It was pretty out there. After going through all that stuff, I think that’s the only one that I couldn’t really find. There were so many surprises along the way. That one song at the beginning of the Casino demos, I’d completely forgotten about, "If I Had A Heart." And again, it was something where I was embarrassed by a couple of lines in it so I canned the song. I’m so lazy I couldn’t rewrite it; I’d just can it. But also, it’s that phase of Blue Rodeo; it’s a good phase. I’m glad I found that recording.

Those demos: where were they done?

They were done on Sorauren Ave in our old rehearsal space. It was pretty rudimentary. We had a Tascam—maybe half-inch eight-track machine with mics in the room, and that was it. We’d just press record. We didn’t know anything about the process. Our live engineer, Kenny McNeill, made us cassettes, and sent one off to Pete Anderson, and that was the end of it. We didn’t find them until halfway through remixing Outskirts.

To me, those eight-track recordings could have been released as is.

We always did love those. But none of us had listened to them since. It was just a memory. We’re bad that way. I knew that I loved them at the time, so it was great to find those.

More recent history: the last record came out three years ago and was the best-received album you’d put out in more than a decade and one of your best-selling ones. Do you have any theories why? Is it just cycles of attention spans: one year you’re washed-up, the next you’re a creatively reinvigorated, revered godfather of the scene?

It’s just a good record. There are times over 25 years where the band goes through good times and bad times. There are times when the band is firing on all cylinders. The band was working well. A lot of it has to do with songs; we had a good bunch. We’re just about finished making a record now, and I think it’s better than that one.

What makes it so?

You know my ears are toast, eh?

Both, or one?

Both. So the band made big adjustments this year. All the electric amps are off-stage. Everyone has in-ear monitors. I wear plugs that cancel sound above 25db. I just play acoustic guitar; I can’t play electric. Colin Cripps is playing electric guitar and Mike Bogulski is playing piano. He was on Things We Left Behind, but only half of it; we had two keyboard players on that one. The band has made this great effort to accommodate me and my ears, and through that the band is playing great. It’s a connected unit, and having Colin and Michael has given it a new spark. The songs are really good, and the recording sounds great; I’m quite happy. It’s a simpler presentation of the music.

You once joked that Colin has been chasing you for 25 years, first out of Crash Vegas, and then as the guitarist in Jim’s band. Do you tell him how to play his parts in Blue Rodeo, or do you give him free reign?

He’s a pretty great guitar player. I can play electric guitar in the studio, but I don’t wear headphones anymore; I sit with the speakers. That volume is fine, and we can play electric guitar together that way. We play well together; it’s very enjoyable for both of us.

So with your condition and regular solo records for both you and Jim and Jim tours all the time with his solo band and all the lineup changes: can you imagine anything putting an end to Blue Rodeo?

(long pause) Right now we’re okay. My ears are toasted, but the way the band is playing right now it’s working out. This record will come out next year this time, and we’re going to do 25 shows before that; the record will come out in the fall and that will be another tour. That will take us another three or four years there. We might have had enough and Jim can go full-time on his solo career.

I also hear you’re working on a Michelle McAdorey album. What can you tell me about that?

It’s so funny, eh? Last year she wanted to come out and write some songs. It was so natural and easy and we wrote a whole pile of songs, so we started making a record and it sounds great.

I still think it’s a crime that all the Crash Vegas records are out of print, because I love those so much.

It’s weird, eh? That first one I thought was a great record. If Red Earth were to come out today, I think it would be a very popular record. It’s very much in the style. I’m also doing a record with Julie Fader and Graham Walsh. They’ve been coming out here and doing Julie’s record, and it’s brilliant. A really great record.

For the ubergeeks, here’s a track-by-track take on the box set’s bonus tracks. But of course, the liner notes by my Have Not Been the Same co-author Jason Schneider are worth your while alone. Speaking of whom, have you seen or heard this yet?

Odds and Ends

“Room to Rent”: A perfectly pleasant, if unremarkable, Keelor mid-tempo number.

“No Miracle No Dazzle”: A lazy Cuddy country version of a song that was later redone as a raging Keelor rocker on Tremolo. Co-written with Colin Cripps and Michelle McAdorey of Crash Vegas.

“Moon and Tree”: A sludgy electric Neil Young take on what would become the breezy acoustic opener of Tremolo. It’s perhaps one of Keelor’s most underrated songs, and it sounds fantastic in either version.

“Bad Timing”: This Five Days favourite recast as a piano ballad, without acoustic guitars or harmonicas

“Dark Angel”: A solo piano demo for Five Days that’s almost identical, minus Sarah McLachlan’s voice (is she on piano here? I don’t have liner notes).

“Head Over Heels,” “What Is This Love”: Virtually identical demos of more Five Days favourites.

“Til I Gain Control Again”: Slightly slower take on this Rodney Crowell song for Five Days, one of only three covers Blue Rodeo have ever recorded (one is the Bee Gees' To Love Somebody on their greatest hits album, the other being a Gordon Lightfoot song for a tribute album). Andy Maize is more audible on backing vocals.

“Shine On”: Autopilot Keelor.

“We Walk Together”: Autopilot Cuddy.

“Tell Me Your Dream”: solo voice and didgeridoo field recordings of Keelor on the farm, with frogs and cats. Intimate and enchanting.

“Tell Me Your Dream (piano outro)”: Exactly what the title suggests.

“Willing Fool”: This demo sounds more sneaky and sinister than the blustery rocker that ended up on Lost Together—one of the only demos here that is a definite improvement, not just an alternate version. Both Cuddy and Wiseman pull off superior solos, and who else in rock or country but Keelor was writing a lyric like, “You kinda remind me of those psychos in a German film / you’re a cool, smirking weirdo with the voices in his head.”

“5 Day Disaster Week”: The fact that Outskirts sounds so rich and full is probably because they left subpar early material like this off it.

“God and Country”: A slower, less hungry version of the lead-off track from Diamond Mine.

“The Ballad of the Dime Store Greaser and the Blonde Mona Lisa”: A demo from Diamond Mine that’s just as moody, ever-so-slightly quicker, and featuring cello and a guitar solo

“Not My Time (Question of Love)”: A pre-Blue Rodeo Cuddy and Keelor demo recorded in New York City with New Zealand band the Drongos, it’s a decent ’80s slice of jangle pop. The guitar pedals make it the most obviously dated thing Blue Rodeo has ever recorded—that and the faux-British accents.

Casino demos

Keelor is right to be proud of these: it’s a collection of Blue Rodeo’s poppiest songs recorded live in a room, capturing all the band’s strengths. However, if this is truly representative of the band at the time, it’s a myth that Wiseman was clipped by Pete Anderson; he’s no more present here than he is on the studio recordings. What they ended up recording and releasing on Casino was exactly where they were at that moment in time. The differences in arrangement here are negligible: “Trust Yourself” has superior backing vocals; “Last Laugh” has a guitar solo. The only truly improved version here is an extended version of “After the Rain.”

The real treats are the two unreleased songs. “If I Had a Heart” opens with a fractured honky-tonk solo piano intro from Wiseman, and is perhaps the strongest unreleased track in this entire collection, though the tempo inexplicably drags in the second half. “Always Have a Place For You” is a Cuddy power-pop number, and one of his best from this period. There is no demo version here for Casino’s “You’re Everywhere”; in its place is a mandolin-driven early incarnation of “Photograph,” with electric guitars and Wiseman on accordion, which wouldn’t be re-recorded until Five Days; this take is arguably much better. They also recorded Lost Together’s “Is It You” during these sessions; it sounds just as lovely on either take.

The takeaway lesson here is that Blue Rodeo was more than ready to produce themselves for the American market or anywhere else; Pete Anderson didn’t seem to offer them much other than better amps and mics.

Outskirts (remixed)

For all of Keelor’s griping about what producer Terry Brown did to this record, it is nowhere near as bad as he imagines it is.  Granted, the original 1987 version doesn’t sound like the bar band Keelor is justifiably proud of, but neither is it The Fixx. As noted in the interview above, the only audible changes for non-audiophiles are alternate Wiseman performances on “Piranha Pool” and “Floating”; steel guitar on “Underground”; and slightly less reverb on everything. It’s nowhere near the radical reimagining that k.d. lang’s Reintarnation compilation was, and is a curiosity at best. I’m ecstatic to hear the alternate Wiseman takes. But that’s just me. Most fans will be just as happy to hear a remastered version of the original, which remains one of the finest debut albums in Canadian music history. 

*** This is probably as good a place to any to correct the text of the book, which states that cellist Anne Bourne, who plays on Five Days in July, was going out with Blue Rodeo drummer Glenn Milchem at the time the album was recorded. This is not true, and she was invited to the session as an old friend of Greg Keelor, with whom she performed in an early incarnation of Crash Vegas. This information only recently came to my attention, and I regret that it has been incorrect in print for so long and not corrected in the revised version of the book. I'd like to publicly apologize to Ms. Bourne for this.