By Paul Goguen
May 11 (Bloomberg) — Back in the ’80s, five schoolmates got together in Kingston, Ontario, and formed a rock group that would become one of Canada’s most successful, recently sharing a bill with the Rolling Stones.
The Tragically Hip’s newest disc, “World Container,” is its most polished effort, likely to please home-country fans and possibly win new ones in the coveted U.S. market.
Lead singer Gordon Downie, 43, spoke about the Hip’s recording life in Bloomberg’s New York studios.
Goguen: The band’s 1989 breakthrough song, “New Orleans Is Sinking,” has an ironic title after Hurricane Katrina. I noticed on your Web site that you are trying to help the people of New Orleans.
Downie: We wrote the song way back when, obviously not about Hurricane Katrina or the city sinking all in one go, but sinking over time — you know, with its position under sea level. That was the idea then, about being a Canadian kid going down for Mardi Gras and spring break, saying that if the city goes down, I don’t want to swim.
After Katrina, great fanfare was made about the pulling of the song at various radio stations — that probably didn’t play it anyway. We had another song called “If New Orleans Is Beat” from our last record, “In Between Evolution.” And so I, with a friend of mine, Joseph Boyden — who lives down there and teaches writing — made a small effort to try and raise a little money and awareness, toward the Red Cross.
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Goguen: “World Container,” your latest, was produced by fellow Canadian Bob Rock, who is famous for his work with Motley Crue and Metallica. How did you connect, and what it was like working with him?
Downie: It started as a conversation, and we gingerly moved to cutting a few tracks together. We hit it off immediately.
Bob is just really something else. He is a musicologist through and through. He can tell you what he was wearing when he bought “Exile on Main Street,” he can tell you who played on what, he knows music through and through and he loves it. That’s why the records he makes sound the way they do — a 14-year-old who can’t believe he makes records for a living.
Goguen: The jacket copy on “World Container” says “all songs by the Tragically Hip.” Sharing coveted writing credits has caused battles within so many bands. Why do you do it that way?
Downie: We had a brief discussion about it in Paul’s (Hip member Langlois) parents’ basement once. I think that it has really created our main goal or aspiration, which is really just to know each other, to support each other, to grow. It was a good decision.
Goguen: Band members sue each other all the time over songwriting issues.
Downie: Oh, we still sue each other (laughs).
Goguen: The band is hugely popular in Canada. You were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and you’ve won 15 Juno awards, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy. Does the new album specifically target the U.S. market?
Downie: Well, no. It matters, but not for the reasons one might expect. We have been coming down here for 15 years and converting people, say, 45 at a time, just building it up slowly and surely with our show.
Obviously, if you are in a rock band with a rhythm-and- blues foundation, you want to come to the United States and play your music down here. You want to get close to the source, you want to get close to the flame, where this music originated.
(Paul Goguen writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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