From The Toronto Star….

Ben Rayner
AUSTIN, TEXAS — Gord Downie is wary.
Unnecessarily so, I might add. The Tragically Hip front man has, in this writer’s very limited experience, always come across as a thoroughly decent, thoughtful cat and a most un-rock-star-like rock star – not to mention the sort of bona fide music fan who doesn’t just name-check Eric’s Trip in his tunes when it’s cool to do so, but who seeks out that band’s Julie Doiron as his own bassist years later when it’s time to do his own solo thing. He’s in the presence of a fan on this sunny Austin afternoon, although I’m not sure that he believes it.

There’s been some behind-the-scenes fretting on the record-label front that the Star only wants to talk to Downie and the Hip at the South by Southwest festival — where the beloved Kingston quintet played venerable downtown concert hall Antone’s last night to 1,200 or so reverent fans — so it can rehash the 15-year-old tale of how the Hip’s “conquering rock heroes” status at home has never translated abroad.

Downie is quick, too, to bring up the fact that I’d recently mentioned his band in the same sentence as Our Lady Peace in a Canadian Music Week piece about changing times in the domestic music industry; even though the connection wasn’t made disparagingly, I instantly feel guilty. I get the sense he thinks I’m coming at him from some loaded, “indier-than-thou” perspective that would negate the Hip’s crucial, bricklaying role in giving Canada a homegrown music scene of which it can be proud. A national scene that ranks among the most admired and envied on air at SXSW 2007, if we’re to believe the smoke being blown up our country’s collective arse by innumerable insiders and outside observers here in Austin.

“Any rock ’n’ roller worth his salt would want none of any of that,” says Downie. “To be honest, I think affiliation is anathema — if you’re a rock `n’ roller, you’re a lone wolf.”

So, no, the Hip isn’t part of the Arcade Fire/Broken Social Scene/Metric/etc. mafia And unlike fellow elder-statesmen-in-Austin Sloan — who seem to be playing every hour on the hour this weekend (“Ripley’s has been notified,” guitarist Chris Murphy quipped yesterday — the Tragically Hip feels slightly removed from the Golden Dogs, the Hylozoists, Inward Eye and the countless other Canadian indie acts vying for attention down here, because the band has enjoyed such a long run at the forefront of our national consciousness.

And while the fact that several consecutive U.S. labels have consistently failed to turn a band with such glaringly obvious popular appeal above the 49th parallel into even a minor sensation in the States has become an overstated part of Canadian popular mythology, it’s still a baffling fact. The Tragically Hip might be a “major-label” band in Canada, but the Hip is the sole “industry” force pushing its new disc, World Container — released in the States just a week and a half ago — south of the border.

“We’re essentially an indie act down here. We’re goin’ it alone, so it makes total sense for us to be here,” says Downie, eager to point out that the band has no complaints about the way it has been handled for years by Universal Music in Canada. “Within the Universal deal, we’ve always felt like an independent act. We’ve never been told what to do. We’ve used their resources to our own design.”

In any case, it’s weird that the Hip, like Sloan, is on a level playing field with pretty much every other act at SXSW. It also makes you appreciate what we take for granted in Canada when you see Sloan or the Hip play a relatively intimate club show in Texas — not because of the loudmouthed Canadians who turn out in droves to wave the flag and, I’m sure, irritate the hell out their favourite bands, but because the non-Canadian fans there are people who’ve clearly sought the bands out through sheer love of their music. The tunes have reached them honestly, free of hype and radio/video saturation.

“Not to be immodest, (1992’s) Fully Completely just went diamond,” says Downie. “I’m proud of that. I don’t usually care about those things, but I was really proud of that because it took so long. It means people are still plugging into it and buying it over time. That’s our career, and it’s really uncharted …..

“There are certain places where we arrive to a bit of acclaim, if certainly not to screaming girls at JFK (airport). At this point, we’ve had not one shred of national-profile-enhancing anything. We’ve played on Saturday Night Live and got not even a Rolling Stone review. Nothing. Which I’m not lamenting, really, but it gives you an idea of how we’ve been doing it, which is 50 people at a time — literally. We played in Dallas last night to 1,000 people, but I can distinctly remember playing Dallas to 45.”

World Container’s lead single, “In View,” has won enough enthusiasm that Downie is cautiously optimistic that things are once again happening in the U.S..

“We haven’t had that one song,” says Downie. “I think Randy Bachman said that about us once. My tight-lipped response to a radio interviewer in New York once who told me `Randy Bachman says the reason you’re not big down here is you never wrote a hit’ was — after I thought `F— you, Randy Bachman’ under my breath — that he’s probably right. I’m not saying we’ve done that now, but when I hear `In View’ down here, I think that song is the thing that’s sort of opening the door a little bit. Not our sparkling personalities, not our Canadian-ness, not any quirk or the fact that Paul (guitarist Paul Langlois) has 25 cats.”

It’d be great if they tasted just a shred of the adulation they’ve had at home, in the U.S., England, anywhere. But what would top that would be neither the Canadian press nor the Tragically Hip having to worry about the Tragically Hip’s fortunes anywhere but Canada — because we like them and, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that the band sells records to anyone but its fans.

It would be nice, too, to tell Gord Downie you’re gonna go see his band and not get a disbelieving brush-off.

“What? You’re not going to the Stooges like everybody else?”

“No, I haven’t seen you guys in a club in a long time. I actually really wanna come tonight.”

“Well, even if you don’t, Ben, thanks for doing this.”

Damn you, Tragically Hip. Believe it when we say we love you.