A Hip displacement of water
Love and liquid abound on band’s liveliest disc in years
Published: Saturday, October 14, 2006
EDMONTON – It’s almost too tragic to even think about — life without The Hip.
Frontman Gord Downie won’t come out and say his group was on the verge of breaking up, but he does admit the 23-year-old Canadian rock institution didn’t have any plans after recording the first four songs for World Container, in stores Tuesday.
“We weren’t convinced we were going to see each other again,” he says during a brief promotional stop in Edmonton.
“There was no tension or anything, but nothing was planned. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’re going to make a record.’ It was like, ‘We’ll meet in Vancouver and we’ll cut a few songs and we’ll go from there.’ That’s about as planned as it got.”
Two studio sessions and a year later, The Tragically Hip give us their liveliest album in years, World Container, featuring hints of reggae, gang vocals, Moogs, ’70s punk, sexy bass grooves and some of most straightforward, personal and powerful lyrics ever written by Downie. “I love you / You know I do,” he sings on the first single, In View, a boppy, rootsy ditty about phone calls.
Love and water, in lakes, oceans or frozen sheets of ice, play a central role in The Hip’s songs.
One of the most touching is The Lonely End of the Rink, a cold-climate number propelled by the sunny reggae rhythms of Jamaica.
It’s also a tale of silent solidarity, inspired by Downie’s dad.
“I was a rink-rat growing up,” he says. “I was a goalie and my father was a busy father of five, so he would come when he could. When he did show up, I’d look up and there he would be. He’d never go so far as saying ‘I’ll be there,’ because you don’t break promises to children — unless you’re Stephen Harper — and then I’d make a couple of saves, look up and he’d be gone. So it was a really cool phantom in my life.”
Downie credits The Hip’s newfound exuberance to powerhouse producer Bob Rock, who recently severed ties with Metallica after a decade of recording with Lars Ulrich and company.
You wouldn’t know it by listening to The Hip’s 50 Mission Cap or Little Bones or Fireworks, but the Kingston rockers are big fans of Rock’s work on Motley Crue’s 1989 metal classic, Dr. Feelgood.
“Every musician I knew of every stripe had that record, because the snare drum just sounded so good,” smiles the singer.
“I think Bob brings an artistry to everything he does. I think he’s underestimated, I think people assume too much about him. He’s very much an artist in temperament, inquisitiveness, work ethic. He’s got the heart and soul of a painter.”
As the “benevolent dictator” of the project, Rock tried to wring every ounce of passion out of the musicians and push them in new directions. Every day in the studio was an unpredictable adventure.
“He would hear (a song) and say, ‘I want to do this.’ He’d preface everything with ‘Call me crazy or this might be in-sane … . ‘ It was endless,” says Downie.
“He doesn’t plan too far ahead, he doesn’t plan two lines ahead in a song or chorus. This is what’s in front of him, this is what he thinks we should do, this will be our next step. That’s very refreshing. That’s how we approached it. I’m very lucky to have met him when we did. It feels like we just started (as a band).”
Downie says working on World Container in bits and pieces was also a big help for The Hip, who released their self-titled debut in 1987. For the first time in the group’s recording history, the five musicians were able to take a break from their songs and contemplate them over a few weeks.
“It was a real boon to the record to be able to step away, in my case, and listen to the lyrics and reconfigure and edit them. As opposed to being immersed in them for six weeks. You can get very lost in that. This way, it was very civilized — do a few tracks, step back, listen to them, go back in, mix things, change things. I would do it the same way from now on. It’s not very practical, but it was the way to go,” says Downie.
“It allowed the record to organically develop, for it to make its needs known, as opposed to us forcing too much, trying too many changes. It allowed us to be very patient with the material. You have to — you have to allow something to tell you what it wants to be.” For the first time, the enigmatic lyricist was also challenged by one of his producers.
Rock wanted to know the meaning behind all of Downie’s cryptic lyrics and persuaded him to use repeating choruses on Fly — a songwriting convention he usually spurns. He even uses the same opening line — “You said, ‘If I ask you a question, are you gonna lie to me?’ ” — in two songs, The Kids Don’t Get It, a clangy punk number, and Pretend, a soaring piano ballad.
“I was definitely shooting for conciseness. Bob did a lot for adding a whole chapter to my book on how to be a songwriter,” he says. “He was very, very helpful. It wasn’t easy. We’d talk a lot, which to date, I hadn’t really done much. It’s fine — producers have a lot on their plate when they’re making records, but Bob manages to fit it all in.”
More importantly, Downie says he has a greater appreciation for his friends and bandmates, guitarist Rob Baker, drummer Johnny Fay, bassist Gord Sinclair and guitarist Paul Langlois.
They’ll tour Canada in January and February, but exact dates haven’t been announced yet.
“You sort of get so lulled into thinking of yourself as this five-headed thing, the group, the band, The Hip, I guess you just forget,” he admits. “It’s a family, and like every good family, you can forget. But you’re also committed to each other, so there’s always room to grow, to learn and relearn.”
Read more of Gord Downie’s quotes on my blog at www.edmontonjournal.com.
Check out the Hip’s new CD, World Container.
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