Hip frontman talks rock, Rock

Hip frontman talks rock, Rock
Producer’s skills on new release impress band

The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie discussed the band’s new album at an Ottawa hotel yesterday.
Photograph by : Julie Oliver, The Ottawa Citizen

Lynn Saxberg, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Tragically Hip’s relationship with legendary producer Bob Rock started with a phone call, singer Gord Downie explained yesterday, probably for the umpteenth time in the last week.

142921-55246.jpgDownie was in Ottawa for a day of what the industry folks term “press and promo” to drum up interest in the veteran Canadian band’s 12th album. In addition to newspaper interviews, he had an early-morning phone interview with a classic-rock radio station, a live question-and-answer session with fans at a mixed-rock radio station, and was an afternoon guest at a new-rock radio station.

Last week, there was a similar schedule in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. While promo tours are fairly common, this one is rare because Downie, the enigmatic frontman, isn’t usually the band member doing the talking when a new Hip record comes out. World Container, in stores today, is the Hip’s zinger of a 12th album, but it’s probably Downie’s first Hip promo tour on his own.

Intense and thoughtful in person, Downie was dressed yesterday in black cap, long sleeves, scarf and funky striped trousers when he came down from his hotel room for photos in the lobby and interviews in the lounge.

He requested coffee — strong, grande, double-double — and sat down to talk about working with Bob Rock and how the band plans to tackle the new songs live.

Why him in the hot seat? “The guys have done a lot of the heavy lifting over the years and it’s probably my turn,” he said.

Besides, it was Downie who made the first connection with Rock, the Canadian musician/producer noted for his work on some pivotal Metallica, Motley Crue and Bon Jovi albums. Thanks to Rock, World Container is the Hip’s most insanely catchy record since Fully Completely.

Rock was at home in Maui and Downie was outside an East Indian restaurant in downtown Toronto when the two musicians first made phone contact. They talked for an hour, Downie says.

“We talked very easily and effortlessly about music and our kids and the doves, and just different things,” he says, “and we just decided ‘why don’t you fly out here?’ ”

Downie visited, armed with a couple of CDs of Hip music. As they drove around in Rock’s pickup truck, the chemistry began to click. It fell into place when Downie invited Rock back to his “shack” to play music together.

“I wouldn’t have seen myself doing that but I just thought he should come and get a sense of these things, and I think at that moment, that was enough to convince him to get the band together in Vancouver, and that should be the next step.”

There were three different sessions with Rock to make World Container, with enough time between to reflect on what had been accomplished. The band members were awed by the producer’s instinct and abilities.

“I can tell you, he’s got the heart and soul of a painter,” Downie says. “He’s an artist through and through, more so than anyone I’ve ever met. He has boundless inquisitiveness and enthusiasm for the project. The work ethic is outta control.

“I’ve never met anyone like him. He’s a rock ‘n’ roller, a music lover through and through, and he doesn’t require any voodoo or mojo or incense to get it going.”

Downie says he was the “exact right guy at the exact right moment” for the Hip. He and guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay came together as a band in Kingston in the mid-’80s, and were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

“If you’re not thinking about it, and just making music with a reckless abandon, I think that’s a lot of what Bob is about. Build a song, make it more interesting. Get everyone so that you know what you’re doing, and then he comes on hard with ‘OK. Passion, emotion, performances. Let’s have it.’

“That might sound like it shouldn’t be a novel concept, but it kind of is. I think they probably have more rock ‘n’ roll good times at NASA developing something to blast into space than they do making records.”

Among the extra dimensions that Rock brought to the Hip’s music are multi-tracked sonic flourishes and many layers of instruments, including piano. If the Hip wanted to created an exact replica of each studio song on stage, they would have to tour with an extra load of gear and a few more people.

But that’s not their style. True to Hip form, the same five guys played the same instruments at concerts over the summer.

“The songs are different than the record, which is good,” Downie says. “We have to make them wild and woolly and disrespect them a little bit, or at least, just try and lose that need to emulate the record. It’s rock ‘n’ roll. I’m looking forward to that.”

A cross-Canada arena tour is expected this winter.