AUSTIN, TEXAS â€” Gord Downie is wary.
Unnecessarily so, I might add. The Tragically Hip front man has, in this writerâ€™s very limited experience, always come across as a thoroughly decent, thoughtful cat and a most un-rock-star-like rock star â€“ not to mention the sort of bona fide music fan who doesnâ€™t just name-check Ericâ€™s Trip in his tunes when itâ€™s cool to do so, but who seeks out that bandâ€™s Julie Doiron as his own bassist years later when itâ€™s time to do his own solo thing. Heâ€™s in the presence of a fan on this sunny Austin afternoon, although Iâ€™m not sure that he believes it.
Thereâ€™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 â€” where the beloved Kingston quintet played venerable downtown concert hall Antoneâ€™s last night to 1,200 or so reverent fans â€” so it can rehash the 15-year-old tale of how the Hipâ€™s â€œconquering rock heroesâ€ status at home has never translated abroad.
Downie is quick, too, to bring up the fact that Iâ€™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 wasnâ€™t made disparagingly, I instantly feel guilty. I get the sense he thinks Iâ€™m coming at him from some loaded, â€œindier-than-thouâ€ perspective that would negate the Hipâ€™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 weâ€™re to believe the smoke being blown up our countryâ€™s collective arse by innumerable insiders and outside observers here in Austin.
â€œAny rock â€™nâ€™ roller worth his salt would want none of any of that,â€ says Downie. â€œTo be honest, I think affiliation is anathema â€” if youâ€™re a rock `nâ€™ roller, youâ€™re a lone wolf.â€
So, no, the Hip isnâ€™t part of the Arcade Fire/Broken Social Scene/Metric/etc. mafia And unlike fellow elder-statesmen-in-Austin Sloan â€” who seem to be playing every hour on the hour this weekend (â€œRipleyâ€™s has been notified,â€ guitarist Chris Murphy quipped yesterday â€” 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, itâ€™s still a baffling fact. The Tragically Hip might be a â€œmajor-labelâ€ band in Canada, but the Hip is the sole â€œindustryâ€ force pushing its new disc, World Container â€” released in the States just a week and a half ago â€” south of the border.
â€œWeâ€™re essentially an indie act down here. Weâ€™re goinâ€™ it alone, so it makes total sense for us to be here,â€ 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. â€œWithin the Universal deal, weâ€™ve always felt like an independent act. Weâ€™ve never been told what to do. Weâ€™ve used their resources to our own design.â€
In any case, itâ€™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 â€” not because of the loudmouthed Canadians who turn out in droves to wave the flag and, Iâ€™m sure, irritate the hell out their favourite bands, but because the non-Canadian fans there are people whoâ€™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.
â€œNot to be immodest, (1992â€™s) Fully Completely just went diamond,â€ says Downie. â€œIâ€™m proud of that. I donâ€™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. Thatâ€™s our career, and itâ€™s really uncharted …..
â€œThere are certain places where we arrive to a bit of acclaim, if certainly not to screaming girls at JFK (airport). At this point, weâ€™ve had not one shred of national-profile-enhancing anything. Weâ€™ve played on Saturday Night Live and got not even a Rolling Stone review. Nothing. Which Iâ€™m not lamenting, really, but it gives you an idea of how weâ€™ve been doing it, which is 50 people at a time â€” literally. We played in Dallas last night to 1,000 people, but I can distinctly remember playing Dallas to 45.â€
World Containerâ€™s lead single, â€œIn View,â€ has won enough enthusiasm that Downie is cautiously optimistic that things are once again happening in the U.S..
â€œWe havenâ€™t had that one song,â€ says Downie. â€œI 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 youâ€™re not big down here is you never wrote a hitâ€™ was â€” after I thought `F— you, Randy Bachmanâ€™ under my breath â€” that heâ€™s probably right. Iâ€™m not saying weâ€™ve done that now, but when I hear `In Viewâ€™ down here, I think that song is the thing thatâ€™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.â€
Itâ€™d be great if they tasted just a shred of the adulation theyâ€™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 Hipâ€™s fortunes anywhere but Canada â€” because we like them and, at the end of the day, it doesnâ€™t matter that the band sells records to anyone but its fans.
It would be nice, too, to tell Gord Downie youâ€™re gonna go see his band and not get a disbelieving brush-off.
â€œWhat? Youâ€™re not going to the Stooges like everybody else?â€
â€œNo, I havenâ€™t seen you guys in a club in a long time. I actually really wanna come tonight.â€
â€œWell, even if you donâ€™t, Ben, thanks for doing this.â€
Damn you, Tragically Hip. Believe it when we say we love you.