The Tragically Hip is a band that needs no introduction. For more than three decades, the band has been a staple, particularly in its native Canada. The band has sold more than 10 million albums in Canada and won 15 Juno Awards. The band has sold another 1.5 million albums in the United States and has toured extensively across North America.
The band is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the album Road Apples with a box set. The box set includes remastered versions of Road Apples and Saskadelphia as well as an album of unreleased outtakes, demos, and alternate versions. Fans will also appreciate the photos and the lyrics from Gord Downie’s notebooks that are part of the packaging of the box set.
By phone, Rob Baker and Gord Sinclair discussed the origins and contents of the box set as well as the key to the longevity of both the band and Road Apples.
Americana Highways: How did the Road Apples box set come about?
Rob Baker: A couple of years ago, I was in Rome and I read an article in The New York Times about a fire at the Universal lot. I got on text with Johnny our drummer and asked if we had any tape in that fire and he thought that there was a good possibility that we did. So that kind of lit a candle under us to try and get our assets all in one place. As we got talking about that, Johnny did the deep dive and started finding the tapes. As he did, we started talking about what we had what we thought was there, what we were finding. The quality of what turned up seemed to be so much better than I guess we remembered. We just thought, maybe we should share it and management said, well, it is the 30th anniversary of Road Apples, maybe we could do something around that so that was the genesis of it.
AH: And how happy, are you guys with it?
Gord Sinclair: I think we’re all super happy with it. Johnny was able to find two-thirds of the tapes. We were still missing some of it. Each of us kind of had our trepidations about going back and listening, This is stuff that didn’t make the record. In some cases, I didn’t really remember the titles or anything. Don went into the studio and listened back to the two-inch. Then he kind of all caps like, “You won’t believe what I found! You won’t believe what I found!” He sent it through the first few reels and there were two or three numbers there. It took me a little while to get through it. So I was a little nervous about listening to it and sure enough, as soon as you put it on, it had all the earmarks of the sound of that record. Don Smith recorded in a very specific particular way with our group, hard panning the guitars and just had a real live ambiance. That entire record did. The tracks really stood up, actually kind of exceeded my expectations. We were touring a lot at that time for our first record Up to Here and were super aware of the sophomore jinx so we were using every opportunity – sound checks and hotel rooms and anytime we could to write and record. We were sticking stuff that was half-finished on stage trying to work out arrangements. We went down to New Orleans really ready. We had an overabundance of tunes and not all could go on. We were still thinking in terms of LPs back then: five songs on one side, five songs on the other, and everything else has to go.
RB: I still think in those terms.
GS: I still think in those terms too, but, you know, those of us in our mid-30s, Rob. (laughs) So anyway yeah, some stuff got left off, unfortunately. It was nice to go back and hear it again and have it really kind of stand up, If it was crummy we wouldn’t be talking now. We would have never gone ahead in this process.
AH: Every band member had some input into the box set so what were some of your ideas to include in it?
RB: I got to do the art direction. That doesn’t mean I designed it all. I’m more of the shepherd of it and trying to amalgamate everyone’s ideas and the information. One thing I was keen on was that we’ve always believed that if you’re going to believe your good press you have to believe the bad press. i’m one of those people that I skipped the good notices. I go straight to the bad ones. I want to see what someone ripping us apart said. So we included a page of those, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
GS: Rob is being really, really modest about this because he was instrumental in doing the design. From picking the colors to the layout and everything working with some other folks. So yeah you’re just being modest Robbie. It’s a super cool-looking package for the fans. For me, the selection of personal photographs of our experience down there working in Daniel Lanois’s studio which is basically a big haunted mansion. That’s the most evocative positive memories.
Our lead singer Gord is no longer with us and Bruce Barris our engineer and Don Smith our producer have since passed away. It was a fun time. We were young guys and we were having a blast making music and recording music with those guys. And you can see it in the pictures. Just very, very happy memories. The sound of the record itself has its own memory. I can hear the room that we played in – old school recording – playing together in the same room at the same time. But to see the visual aspect that’s included in the booklet. It’s really quite great.
AH: A little walk down memory lane.
RB: A lot of walk down memory lane. I think what would Gord think if he were here. If Gord were here we’d be making a new record we wouldn’t be mining our past. We find ourselves in a weird situation where, unfortunately, this is where we are. We’re also very fortunate that we have some rich soil to mine.
AH: Why do you think Road Apples has resonated so well with fans for so long?
GS: It’s really hard to say, not being amongst the group of fans. It was our first record to go number one sort of immediately in Canada. We had built up a lot of goodwill amongst our fan base traveling back and forth across Canada and sort of begun that same process in the United States after Up to Here came out. Playing lots and lots of shows, and as I alluded to earlier, we were just coming into our own as a group learning how to write with each other and write collectively. It was an exciting time to be on the road, to be in a band. Music was still kind of front and foremost in people’s minds in terms of entertainment We were learning how to play well with each other and learning how to write and work on the road. I think there was a level of expectation for Road Apples when it first came out in Canada. We had some decent support from our record company and stuff. We were really fortunate we wrote “Little Bones”, the opening track from the record when we got down to New Orleans, which, to me, is really evocative of the city and the place and the vibe down there. That became the first single off the record, and I think that excited a lot of people. So it was really cool and then it’s just continued to resonate. One of the tracks from Saskadelphia that we included was our show opener on that tour that ended up getting left off because it got bumped off the map by Road Apples. It’s just a good, fun track. It’s hard for us to say why that continued to resonate, but to me it comes back down to the band was sort of based around and geared towards live performance. That’s what we were all sort of fixated on – learning our parts and learning to play off of each other. We continued to do that in empty bars and full hockey rinks for the most of our career.
RB: I think that’s what it is, more than anything. It’s that we built up a following based on live performance. When we went into the studio, what did we know about the studio – building up tracks, overdubbing, and everything. We went in, we set up like we’re a live band, and we recorded ourselves playing the songs the way we would. The record sounds just like the band except when we take it out on stage we’re a little looser and we stretch it out. The songs that you hear on the record are those songs performed that day. When we take them on stage you’re going to get a slightly different version of it each time out. I think there’s an honesty in that that I think a lot of live music fans related to that may not have been what was hot on the pop charts, but that was never us.
AH: What do you think is the key to the band’s longevity?
GS: I think it’s more of the same on that front. We made our living for the longest time playing live and continued to do so. You never take your audience for granted. Even when we were playing bigger clubs and theaters in Canada, we would always take a left turn and come down to the States. For us, it was kind of like starting over. Very early in our career, we were able to resonate with American fans and we would find that they would follow us around from gig to gig when we were in a particular region. You’d look out in the crowd and you’d see the same faces intermixed with newer faces. We kept mixing up our sets and throwing in different tracks and trying different openers, stretching things out, and jamming things. It was really no small way in deference to those folks that were coming to see us every night. We’ve all been to shows where they kind of phone it in, and you kind of know it’s going to be the same sequence night after night after night.
RB: Say the same thing between songs.
GS: Before COVID hit, even then they were young artists, even at a club level that would hit spacebar on the on the Mac and play along the tracks. We always had our audience in mind and tried to give them something, a memorable night. That ultimately came down to us making it memorable for them. That was really how we learned how to perform off of each other. We were very fortunate to have a really enigmatic frontman in Gord Downie who never sang the same thing, the same way twice and great soloist guitar player in Robbie who never played the same solo twice. It was really, really cool and on those nights where we really were hitting it together. We didn’t want it to ever stop. We’ve kind of been trying to entertain ourselves at the same time, and I think that’s maybe why we’ve had that resonance with the fans.
AH: It makes sense. I just read a book called Rock Concert. There’s a section about the Grateful Dead and how they never wanted to play the same show twice, and that’s kind of what their fans got from following them around.
GS: Exactly. it becomes every night, every show, every day is an event. it’s a happening. it’s a coming together. The Dead were the archetypes of that. We had buddies in university that were Deadheads. One friend of ours had a wall of cassettes of every show that he’d been to. He’d revisit them and take him back to a place in time. It’s not trying to sound nostalgic, but that’s what it’s like to be in a rock band. You play with each other. You play for the crowd, and you learn how to play your instrument. You don’t stand up there and let the computer take the backing vocal parts and stuff like that, which so often happens.
RB: There are lots of bands that go out on a promotional tour to promote their single or promote their album. I think we always thought each show was kind of a special thing unto itself. It’s about the vibe and the community that you create at a show. Yeah you’re out there, promoting a record, but that was never really in the forefront of our mind. That’s how the business worked, but that’s not the approach that we had. That’s not we were thinking.
GS: In this new package that we’ve just released, there’s a live performance from The Roxy in Los Angeles while we were touring Road Apples. We were just really fortunate that there was a moment in time, where Westwood One wanted to record us. Don Smith was in town to record with the band live on two-inch tape in the truck. L.A. is always a tough gig for a young band. We were signed out of New York, not out of L.A. There were a lot of suits there with their arms folded. They wanted to make sure that they got to their dinner reservation. We weren’t their band. We had the advantage that lots of Canadians living in L.A. It turned out to be one of those moments in time that we were really fortunate to get on tape because it was a fun night. You can hear it in the crowd. You can hear it coming off the stage. We had a lot of fun that gig. Like Robbie said, it’s a moment in time, that live performance. I certainly never took it for granted as a musician or as an audience member.
AH: What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
RB: Trying to get in a band. Going to art school to meet other people who wanted to get into a band. Isn’t that how you do it? I guess on some level I’m not in a band anymore, and I make music purely for myself at this point in my life. If other people want to hear it, that’s great. i’ve always been a musician. it’s always been what I want to do. I have a recording studio in my basement and I have a painting studio on my top floor. Every day of the week I’m in one of the two. I’s a way to do something satisfying and not have to spend time with a jerk. I spend enough time with myself where i’m not even part of the process in a weird way. I’m down making music or I’m painting, and I can fall away from that. Some people golf. Some people run, do yoga. I make music and I paint.
GS: I 100% concur. Robbie and I grew up together doing this in high school and whatnot. We graduated from university at the same year and kind of looked at each other, and it was like “What the F*** do we do now?” We put the band together and we decided well let’s take the show on the road and see what happens. And here we are talking to you.
RB: We were making just enough money to keep body and soul together to pay rent on a student place.
GS: And to avoid getting a real job.
RB: Well let’s ride this and see how far it will go. Ride it to the wheels fall off.
GS: It’s true and once you get the itch, once you get that bug, you realize that you have the opportunity, make a vocation of your avocation is a real good thing. It’s a blessing for sure.
Find music and more info about the Tragically Hip, here: https://thehip.com/
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