New York Press – JON LANGSTON – Hip Check

New York Press – JON LANGSTON – Hip Check
The biggest band in Canada is not from Montreal
By Jon Langston

Canada’s favorite band doesn’t garner four-star reviews in Rolling Stone. They get no fawning fluff jobs in indie rags, no name checks at cooler-than-thou music websites. No, the biggest band in Canada is not some quirky-cute hipster collective from Montreal (neither is it an aging power trio that admirably churns out albums year after year). It’s a quintet called The Tragically Hip, and they’ve just released their 11th album, World Container, which was produced by veteran twiddler (and fellow Canadian) Bob Rock and is a welcome return to form.

The Tragically Hip’s early sound, bluesy and tinged with twang, was an immediate hit up north. By the early ’90s, the band had matured sonically into a more polished rock that maintained its wry lyrical hues, and The Hip endured a groundswell of popularity, cementing their status as Canada’s favorite sons. To date, they’ve sold more than six million albums worldwide, have won more Juno awards (Canada’s Grammys) than anyone ever and have been inducted into the Canadian Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They routinely sell out arenas from Vancouver to Halifax. But The Hip, which still boasts its five original members—vocalist Gordon Downie, guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay—have never ventured past cult status in the U.S. And after 25 years together, they’re just fine with that.

“Something as mundane as ‘breaking’ in the States is certainly not an ambition of ours at this point in our career,” says Downie. (Indeed, on playing the SXSW Festival earlier this year, Downie said the band felt decidedly un-hip: “That slouch,” he says with a laugh, “comes straight out of some manual that I sure didn’t get.”) When touring America the band plays smaller, midsized venues, and Downie admits that he and his mates relish the intimate challenge.

“When you’ve been doing this as long as we have, you take a certain amount of pride in being able to play anywhere, at any time—on the ass of an elephant, if need be,” says Downie. The Hip’s live shows are legendary in Canada; the band’s versatility and Downie’s onstage antics and peculiar banter make every performance distinctive. The band squelched a black market early on by allowing the recording of its shows; the Internet is rife with fans’ dubs, which these days include numerous digi-vid files as well as audio clips. The band embraces the new technology and Downie, for one, doesn’t mind the effect downloading has had on the music business.

“I don’t lament it or despair for the industry,” he explains. “I’ve always felt that rock ’n’ roll is just melodious air. I get perplexed when music gets blunted at the border by some artificial demarcation line—whether a corporate border or a technological one. Music, or any kind of art, is like water, and it needs to be able to find its way. Fifteen years ago, we would have needed a licensing deal, some kind of emissary to chaperone our music into the same kinds of places that it’s getting to naturally these days. It’s fluid; it’s just doing what it should be doing.”

As for the recent popularity of Canadian bands such as Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene, Downie understands the appeal. “Those bands are exuding exuberance and enthusiasm,” he says. “People want authentic, organic music these days. As the old model of the music industry shrinks daily, there’s so much more room to make it up. And given the opportunity to make it up, what do you do? You speak from the heart. Kids want to hear the sound of guitars going through amps. They’re sick to death of being virtualized.”
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