Canadian Rock’s Poet Laureate Returns

The Tragically Hip have a new album, a new producer, a new tour — and a meatier sound

Vancouver Sun - October 14, 2006

Judging by his animated onstage antics and offbeat lyrics, you might expect Gord Downie to be a jocular sort, full of jokes and hilarious stories.
But no. The tall thin guy in the Andy Capp hat sitting in the coffee shop of the Coast Plaza Hotel on a glorious Tuesday morning is surprisingly subdued, with more of a Commercial Drive poet vibe than a small-town Ontario rocker feel.
Downie is in town for a press tour to promote the new Tragically Hip CD, World Container. If you count the hit CD/DVD Hipeponymous, it’s the band’s 14th album. But with the help of erstwhile Vancouverite Bob Rock, it sounds as fresh and invigorating as anything the band has done in years.
Rock is famous as a hard rock producer who helped bring acts such as Metallica and Motley Crue massive mainstream success. Rock has a rep as a demanding producer, someone who drives musicians nuts by doing things over and over and over again until they get it right. But Downie said the band went in without any preconceptions, and were gratified with the results.
“I don’t know a lot of the [Bob Rock] mythology,” Downie said.
“I didn’t see the films, and I didn’t read the books. What I found was a warm, engaging, interested, enthusiastic, inquisitive 16-year-old, with great hair and an incredible work ethic. He was the first one there and the last one to leave, and he was easily the most enthusiastic person on this project. A revelation is what I called him then, and it’s what I think now.”
The record definitely sounds like the Tragically Hip, but it is a bit different. The crunch of the guitars is a bit meatier, and there are some very poppy melodies.
Downie said Rock wasn’t shy about making musical suggestions.
“He would preface it with ‘Call me crazy …,’ ‘This might be nuts …,’ but they were constant,” Downie said.
“I think he was very impressed with the group, as I was, at their ability to conjure up what he needed almost instantly. That’s something about the Hip that maybe a lot of people don’t know, that these guys could do almost anything he asked them to do.”
One of the most intriguing songs is The Lonely End of the Rink, which has an opening guitar riff that is very Coldplay or U2. But the lyric is very Canadian: the phrase came out of Downie’s days as a hockey goalie.
“That’s an interesting story,” Downie said.
“My brother suggested I write a song called The Lonely End of the Rink, based on a letter that he found that I had sent to my dad at some point, maybe for a birthday or something. I had said to my dad in that letter, ‘Thanks for being there at the lonely end of the rink with me.’
“I was a kid growing up in a small town, all there is to do is play hockey, and I was a goalie. He wasn’t a hockey dad: he had five kids and he was a salesman, so he could rarely attend the games. But I would look up and he would be there, and he would hold his fist in the air. And that would say to me ‘I’m here, but I can’t come down there, you have to play the position, I can’t.’
“My brother suggested that to me, and I went home and wrote the song in about 20 minutes. It debuted on Hockey Night in Canada last Saturday night with a full video montage underneath it of goalies being scored on. Goalies playing the most noble position in all of sports.
“But in and of itself it’s not just a hockey song. I think it’s really a song about that voice, that person that we all have, that we all carry with us into whatever it is we need them for. The person we use for the hard stuff.”
You might be able to glean the meaning of The Lonely End of the Rink without an explanation, but some of Downie’s lyrics are a bit more … obtuse. There’s a great line in Fly (“coastline rising out of the ocean, coastline rising like a pair of glowing thighs”), but frankly I had no idea what the song was about. So I asked Downie, who said the song was “loosely inspired by the plight of the refugee in this country.”
“The person that comes over very qualified to make a very positive contribution to Canadian society, let’s say, and ends up driving a cab or pushing a broom, you know?” he explained. “If there’s anything holding this country back, it might be the under-utilization of some of our finest citizens.”
Agreed, but frankly I’m still confused about the glowing thighs … maybe that’s the vision new immigrants have of B.C. or Newfoundland when they fly in from abroad.
In any event, the Tragically Hip will be promoting the record with a cross-Canada tour of smaller venues; the current plan is to take it to the hockey rinks in early 2007, then go to the States and Europe.
The Hip have a famously fanatical fan base. There’s a fan website called Hipbase that keeps track of every show they ever play (the total to date is 755 concerts, 453 different venues, 227 different cities, and 159 songs in the band’s catalogue).
Given their fanatical fans, it isn’t surprising that the Tragically Hip sold out all four Vancouver shows at the Commodore Ballroom (Nov 3, 4, 6 and 7) in something like 12 minutes.
Downie loves playing the historic Commodore, which is steeped in rock and roll history.
“It’s to be part of a great chronology of live entertainment, a great lineage, to be part of that line of performers,” he said.
“You want to honour the tradition, you want to live up to your calling or something. You want to be great. Like the greats before you.”