For years, The Tragically Hip have straddled the line between stadium act and bar band. In their native Canada, tour stops take place in arenas, while gigs more than a few miles south of border towns like Buffalo or Detroit are booked in clubs and theatres. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing front man Gordon Downie several times over the years, and with the group out supporting their current release Now For Plan A, I sat down with Gord once again before a recent show at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club. We discussed reinventing oneself, the difficulty that even a seasoned band encounters in making records, and the NHL lockout. Read all about it, and (BONUS ALERT!) listen to the full interview at the bottom of the page.
Weeping Elvis: The band is a fair bit into this tour by this point, are the shows going well?
Gordon Downie: I think they’re going very well. I read something about when you record (an album), you start the songs, and you perform them to finish them. And I feel that’s happening. And personally, I’ve found a new way to sing, which is thrilling at this stage of the game. It keeps it interesting and moving forward, but it’s all about trying to tackle fear…the fear of going on stage.
Which you still encounter, all this time in?
It’s a scary place, confronting the reasons why you’re there. I think Bruce Springsteen talked about a self-loathing recently in a New Yorker article, and how you only hear one voice when you’re up there and it’s you and the voice you’re speaking in. And I thought that was illuminating for Springsteen to say that, this idea of self-loathing that many artists share. That’s a hop, skip and a jump away from fear, I think.
What’s this new style of singing you’ve found, where did it come from?
I think it’s kind of a use-it-up-and-don’t-save-a-thing-for-later kind of idea; have at every note with everything you’ve got. I found that over the years maybe I was employing more restraint and conservation in the average show and within the average song, and that’s actually more work than just letting it all hang out. But at the same time, being in control and letting the note dictate the direction of the next note. And in that way it makes me feel closer to Howlin’ Wolf or Johnny Cash or some of my idols, and it just gives me a real strength up there and makes me feel that I can do it all night. So that’s exciting, that feels like I’ve got some new ideas, and those are always welcome.
The essence of this band has always been the live show, the live experience…is it still as exciting as ever to go out (on tour)? Besides maybe what you pack — like iPads — nowadays compared to 20 years ago, has that changed at all or do you guys still love to get out there and do it?
Touring has changed obviously. I’m a hockey fan, and I remember having to go to sports bars that had an Irish lilt to their name thinking they would have the Boston Bruins game. So I would trek miles between sound check and the gig with yellow pages in cabs to find a game in a bar that had a satellite dish, and an amenable bartender who didn’t hate hockey. And now, I can watch it in my bunk rolling down the road. Performing is thankfully always a challenge, and it’s that challenge which makes it exciting. Bands are formed primarily for parties, they’re hired for parties. Singer-songwriters are hired for other things, but bands are required for good times, generally. So with that, you proceed. Before a show I’m just confronting things inside me, to go out there and achieve something like discourse. And that sounds very antithetical to what I just said about being hired for a party! But I don’t like to think that you’re just up there adding to the pile of illusions, I like to think that you’re up there talking a little bit, that you’re saying things to people and making a connection with people. You’re not merely trying to sprinkle fairy dust and tell them to keep on sleepwalking while the rest of the world convulses.
With this new album Now For Plan A, we’re up to about the 12 album mark for you guys. Does the writing of the albums and the songs get any easier at this point, or are there still those days when you’re looking at a blank piece of paper going, ‘alright…what am I trying to say here?’
I wouldn’t say it gets any easier. I would say it gets complicated. And in any creative process, there’s always that 11th hour where it’s all in pieces on the floor and it’s due at 8:00AM. And you’re feeling very bad about yourself and you’re wondering about your abilities and you’re thinking about your vanity and your show off-iness and ‘Why are you doing this?’ and ‘What gives you the right to even think you should do it?’ and ‘How did you get so far away from your original ideas about doing it for fun?.’ And all of that’s happening at 4:00 in the morning, and as you know there’s no good hours between 2:00 and 5:00…though maybe Buddhists would disagree. But you have to go through that valley to get to the end. Ultimately I’m looking for something that really resonates…a line that just works and sings on its own. It doesn’t have to be highfalutin’ or intellectual or anything like that, and they’re hard to come by, and oftentimes you can’t force it.
When making this record, didn’t you have the guys throw a few objects or topics at you to see what you could react to?
Yeah, we sort of started a certain way and then scrapped it. It was probably that 11th hour for the group where everything was in pieces. We had a plan of attack but the results we were getting were like plates of piss, they were just…flat. As a group, our first and maybe only concern should be friendship, that’s all we’re selling is the sound of our group…(jokes) available for parties! So I suggested to the guys to send me five things each from your cupboards, maybe even five things that you don’t think are appropriate for The Hip. Give me the five and let me viscerally react to one of those things quickly. I hear it, write lyrics to it and the melody and react to it and walk away. And we got some great results. “Man Machine Poem” is one of those quick songs, and I love it, it’s one of my favorite Hip songs of all time.
You mentioned earlier watching hockey games from your bunk on the bus, and you’re probably getting much more sleep these days considering the lockout…but this is the first time I’ve been able to talk to you since the Stanley Cup victory of your beloved Boston Bruins. The last time they had one, you were probably a kid…
Yep…so what was it like?
It was interesting…in ’72 I was in the driveway hugging my brother. I was 8, he was 12. And in 2011 I was hugging my son — not in the driveway — and he was 10 then. It was fantastic. I always thought I’d get a tattoo when the Bruins won the Cup, like a Bruins logo. But things like the lockout make you glad you didn’t do that, you know what I mean? What, was the Coke emblem not available?? They just seem like corporate symbols more than they used to.
If you could walk into that negotiating room with the two sides, what would you say to them to get this thing going and get us out of our misery?
I might not be the guy to ask. I maintain that the entertainment should never walk away with less than 60%. I know the owners own this (the teams) but it’s the entertainment, it’s the players. I don’t know, it’s hard to watch actually so I’m giving it no oxygen. That’s my plan of attack, and I’ve so far failed with you…but give this fire no oxygen and maybe it will go out.
Hear the full interview here:
The Tragically Hip, live at 9:30 Club photo gallery (all photos by Tim Pogo):