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How did the The Tragically Hip become Canada’s band?


Canadian rockers The Tragically Hip brought their Man Machine Poem Tour to Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome August 1 and 3, 2016. I lived in the Hip’s hometown, Kingston, Ontario, for more than a decade and was fortunate to get the chance to interview them, attend their shows and write often about them (in a former life as a newspaper entertainment reporter/editor/columnist) as well as getting to know them personally. What are they really like? I shared my insight on the Global television Calgary morning show (video above) on August 2.

Here’s a feature story I wrote about the band that was published in the Kingston Whig-Standard newspaper on September 11, 2004:

Talking to Rob Baker and Gord Sinclair at a downtown Kingston restaurant, you have to wonder why the Tragically Hip hasn’t written a self-help book for all the musicians in Canada who would give their right arm to have half the career the Hip has had during the past two decades.

With 11 albums, millions of discs sold, tours, tours and more tours, hit songs such as Ahead By a Century, Courage, Long Time Running, At the Hundredth Meridian, Poets, New Orleans Is Sinking, and the undying love of Canadians in our home and native land, the Hip is Canada’s band.

The band quickly transformed itself from the hot thing at Queen’s University and Kingston in the 1980s to the hot thing in Canada for much of the ’80s and the ’90s. It has also pretty much guaranteed itself a stronghold for the first 10 years of this millennium – the band’s 10th album, In Between Evolution, debuted as the No. 1 record when it was released this spring.

Baker stresses that the band doesn’t often look back and it rarely looks forward. The band doesn’t even really analyze where it is now. It’s called living in the moment.

Over coffee – a black cup of caffeine for Baker and a cappuccino loaded with not one, but two packets of sugar and a mountain of white bubbling foam for Sinclair – the musicians quickly shrug off the possibility of preaching to aspiring rock stars.

As he sips his coffee and waits for his family to join him for breakfast, Baker says the band has been offered some crazy opportunities.

Once, a major Toronto store offered the Hip a gig on a rooftop in the downtown area during rush-hour traffic along with the bonus of having its disc front and centre in the store. It turned out that no one would actually be able to hear the band at the stunt but the scene would cause a nice gridlock and halt traffic while everyone gawked and glared at the band up in the sky.

Baker and his bandmates turned down the offer – too irresponsible and dangerous, they said.

The moral of the story?

Not taking part in the scheme was the right decision for the Hip but another band may think the rockers blew the biggest opportunity. That’s fine with Baker. He’s a strong believer that every band needs its own story.

Tomorrow, the Hip will headline a concert at the Royal Military College. Gord Sinclair, Gord Downie, Johnny Fay, Paul Langlois and Rob Baker will rock Across the Causeway to raise money for the Joe Chithalen Lending Library, Camp Trillium and the Community Foundation of Greater Kingston.

This is their story.

As far back as Baker and Sinclair can remember, they’ve loved music. It was their first love and, as we all know, your first love stays with you forever.

They were a couple of young punks – but well-off punks who lived in nice houses across the street from each other on Kingston’s Churchill Crescent – who liked to rock their parents’ basements after school and on weekends.

Baker was 12 and Sinclair was 10 when the future stars formed their first band, the Rodents. Baker had just got his first electric guitar and Sinclair his first electric bass.

After elementary school, Baker and Sinclair went to Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute.

Music was still important – actually, make that very important. Baker remembers the songs and the albums the guys perfected after school and at high-school dances. Building on their repertoire of Stones and Who material, the duo dabbled in punk and learned the Clash and the Sex Pistols

While Baker and Sinclair were at KCVI, they also kept tabs on some swell singer who was apparently all-that fronting another band, the Slinks.

What was that guy’s name again?

Oh right, Gord Downie.

Baker remembers that even as a teenager, he was impressed with Downie.

“I remember seeing his band and thinking ‘He’s a really good frontman.’ ”

The guys weren’t friends, Baker said, but more “acquaintance- friends.”

You know how high school works – Downie and his bandmates may have been so cool they were hot but that didn’t make up for the fact the Slinks were younger than the Rodents.

Sinclair joked that while Baker may have said “hello” to Downie in the hallway, he was cooler than to associate with someone who was his junior.

“I brushed him off the way I do now,” Sinclair said with a laugh.

Throughout high school, the two bands rocked and rolled until it was time for graduation. The three guys, albeit at different times, ended up studying at Queen’s University.

The start of university meant the end of the Rodents and the Slinks.

Now, the two Gords and “Bobby” as his friends call him, were all on the same campus and all loving music but the trio wasn’t jamming all day every day. In fact, the trio wasn’t jamming at all.

Baker was playing with other bands and Sinclair was busy with the Fort Henry Guard. He was a member of the Guard in the summer and hung out with some of the guys during the year.

“The bands’ dreams ended with the high school graduation. We didn’t really play together in university until Rob and I were in fourth year,” Sinclair said.

By the end of university, the threesome – to use Baker’s words – just fell together.

Baker and Downie had been playing in the Filters and Sinclair was playing with other local musicians.

“We started to really take off after a couple of years. I guess we were the big band in town,” Baker said.

“We were playing Cornwall, Brockville, Belleville, we played a couple gigs in upstate New York. It was becoming more of a growing concern that Gord and I weren’t prepared for. We just decided we wanted to scale it back. We decided we wanted to go back to playing for beer and how to win friends and influence people,” he said with a laugh.

Looking for something a little more low-key, Baker, Sinclair and Downie decided they wanted to play with their university friends – but they also remembered this super drummer kid who was in Grade 9 when they were in their final years of high school.

“We were fishing around. We needed a drummer. We said, ‘There was that kid in high school. Do you remember him? He was yeeaars behind us,'” Baker said.

“We’d heard these rumours there was this kid in Grade 9 who was a good drummer. We sought out Johnny and brought him on board. That was it.”

Sinclair plus Baker plus Downie and Fay make four.

What about Paul Langlois?

It’s a little known fact, but he came later.

The guys always point to the same concert as the band’s first “official” gig – a November 1984 concert for Queen’s fine art students in the space on Queen Street that now houses the Modern Fuel Gallery. The guys had a rented PA system and borrowed songs from the Monkees, the Doors, the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones.

Back in the day, almost every news story that described the Hip’s song list noted the band played some originals and some crowd favourites, such as Suzy Q.

“It was a terrible sounding room for a loud band but we played three sets of tunes and in each set we did three original tunes,” Baker said.

Until a week before the show, the guys were named the Bedspring Symphony Orchestra – they had taken their name from an old Rolling Stones bootleg, Bedspring Symphony.

It was around that 1984 art show that the band picked its now- famous name, the Tragically Hip – which is often shortened to just the Hip.

The band got the name from a segment of a video by former Monkee Michael Nesmith, in which a phony telethon is started to support the Foundation for the Tragically Hip – overprivileged rich kids who needed more money for fun in the sun, frolicking and fast cars.

“We got talking about the Tragically Hip and we thought, ‘That’s a better name. Let’s do that,’ ” Baker said.

“You don’t think about how it will stick with you or on you. It’s just like, yeah, that’s funny. That’s a good one. Let’s use that.”

If the band members could have dreamed they’d sell millions of CDs under the name “the Tragically Hip” would they have kept it?

Baker isn’t totally sure.

“We probably would have given it more thought. It was a one-off thing. We’ve got a gig. We don’t know if we’re a band beyond that one gig. We have to call ourselves something and that’s as good as anything,” he said.

Sinclair and Baker said looking back on their lives, it’s funny to think about being a teen living in upper-middle class suburbia rocking out to loud, angry, punk tunes. Maybe they really were the Tragically Hip.

“We used to laugh – even when we were in our teens – playing songs by the Clash and the Sex Pistols in our basements? What do we really have to be angry about? Couldn’t get the BMW on a Friday night?” Sinclair said.

Soon, the Hip got its fifth member.

But, brace yourself for this, it wasn’t Langlois. For awhile, the Hip included a saxophone player named Davis Manning, an older musician who’d been around the block a few times. The guys say for the year he gigged with them, he was the songwriter and he encouraged them to write more.

Eventually, after about a year and a half with the band, Manning started to wonder just how far this outfit could really go and he quit the band.

“He was a good player and he pushed us a lot, but in the end, in his parting words to us, he said, ‘I can’t put my life in the hands of a bunch of dumb college f—s,’ ” Baker recalled.

“He’d been there, done it all. He knew how it should be done and we were out there making all the mistakes, all the rookie mistakes we had to make.”

While Sinclair and Baker were sipping their cappuccino and coffee recalling their past, the guys occasionally poked fun at their bandmates and the band itself.

It seems not much has changed.

The Queen’s Journal, the university’s student newspaper, ran a feature on the rockers and a photo of them in matching raincoats in October, 1985.

The Journal asked the band how it wrote its songs. Baker, who was called “Bobby” in the interview, replied: “Gord Sinclair writes the basic song, I arrange it and Gord Downie forgets it.”

The Journal also asked if there will one day be Hip posters and T- shirts.

“No, but we’re coming out with Tragically Hip pencil cases and lunch boxes,” Sinclair said.

The Journal also enquired about the possibility of a Tragically Hip cartoon.

“It would be a deep and lasting honour to appear with Scooby Doo,” Downie said.

It wasn’t all jokes, though.

Baker said the band was taking a wait-and-see approach to its future.

“We’re going to stick together for a year anyway, make some demo tapes and see what happens,” he said.

What happened was Sinclair and Baker graduated from Queen’s in 1986 and Downie followed one year later. Soon, the guys would find the guitarist who would complete their band, and begin another chapter in their story.

It was after Manning left that Langlois joined the band in late 1986, early ’87. He was a friend of the band’s and Baker wanted another guitarist.

Downie, Sinclair and Langlois lived with another guy, Bernie Breen, who is now the manager of a number of musicians, including Matthew Good and Kingston’s Hugh Dillon, who are also playing at tomorrow’s concert. If memory serves them correctly, most of the Hip lived at 585 Brock St., right across from Victoria Park.

“Paul [Langlois] would come out to all of our gigs. We’d be on stage playing and Paul would be dancing in the front with the most beautiful girl in the bar,” Baker said.

“We got him in the band to spite him,” Sinclair said with a laugh.

In the late 1980s, the Hip was the hottest band around town. The musicians probably could have recruited the best guitarist in all the land but this band was about more than just being the best. These guys wanted another friend along for the ride.

“Paul could play a few chords on the guitar. He wasn’t very good. But you know, we were like, ‘He’s got a great attitude, he’s a great guy. Anyone can learn to play the guitar – it’s not that hard.’ He’s a phenomenal guitar player now,” Baker said.

“It’s just been in the past couple of weeks he’s come into his own – he’s getting there, he’s practising,” he

Thanks to one of those friends-of-a-friend situations, the band soon attracted the attention of manager Jake Gold. He’s no longer with the band but has become a celebrity as one of the judges on Canadian Idol, the hit reality TV show.

Gold knew right away the Hip had that special something. In 1986, Gold booked the band to open for a Rolling Stones cover band at Larry’s Hideaway in Toronto. Thirty seconds into the set, he was ready to sign them.

“The day I saw the Tragically Hip for the first time was the day the bar was set,” Gold said last year.

“I remember to this day, Gord Downie opened his mouth and sang like three words, and I said, ‘Oh my God.’ It was an involuntary reaction and the thing I still feel today. When something moves me like that, it’s greatness.”

Two years later, on Dec. 22, 1988, the band signed a record deal with MCA Records based in the United States.

Baker swears that millions of records later, the Hip is the same humble band that signed that deal in 1988. He said the musicians have learned to make their relationship work and, after 20 years, things are progressing smoothly and happily.

“I’ve often said we’re like a five-way marriage without sex. Like any marriage, after 20 years, we don’t talk to each other at all. We’ve survived by a total lack of communication,” Baker said with a laugh.

“There’s an intuitive thing, there’s a little raising of eyebrows. There’s an occasional snort or guffaw that happens, but outside of that, most of the communication is pretty intuitive.

“We don’t sit down and analyze, we don’t spend any time looking backwards. It’s all about what’s happening today, six months from now.”

For many Hip fans, tomorrow’s show at RMC may seem like deja vu. Thirteen years ago, in 1991, everyone was buzzing about an end-of- summer concert the Hip was holding at Fort Henry – a concert site next door to RMC.

The concert sold out. Five thousand tickets at $20 a pop gone the day before the concert. Proceeds from that show went to Almost Home.

One week after that show, then mayor of Kingston Helen Cooper gave the band the key to the city “for the honour and glory they’ve brought to Kingston.”

It’s a good thing the band got away with just a key – there could have been an off-key catastrophe.

Cooper had joked before the key presentation that perhaps she’d have the city’s aldermen serenade the band with some of its popular songs.

“We could serenade them but that means they’d never come back to Kingston again,” she said.

That same year, the Hip won a Juno Award for entertainers of the year.

The band knew it was going to win but Baker professed that he thought it was possible someone was going to snatch the trophy away – not that it mattered much. The band has always maintained that awards just don’t matter and Baker said the band probably wouldn’t have attended the show except for the fact that the award was voted on by fans.

“I kept thinking they were going to announce the winner was Jeff Healey. I was sure it was some sort of cruel hoax,” Baker said in 1991.

“Five minutes before we were supposed to go up I told the guys we still had time to back out of it. And then when we got up to the stage all I could hear was my heart beating and my voice quaking.”

The guys were nervous after accepting the trophy. They had to face hungry newspaper and magazine photographers and reporters.

At the time, Baker said there was a another scene that distracted the media from paying too much attention to them. That scene? A little man with big pants known as MC Hammer. The Hip had to follow the man who was Too Legit 2 Quit.

“We were out of our element. Luckily we were coming in on the heels of American rapper MC Hammer. It was Hammer time so no one was too bothered with us.”

Later that night, with the MC Hammer experience behind them, the musicians got to meet Steve Tyler of Aerosmith and a number of their idols at private music parties.

“We got to meet our childhood idols. They were really mild- mannered. In fact, they were all I would have hoped they were and more,” Baker said.

The band’s Juno story didn’t start in 1991 but that year was the first time the band accepted an award in person.

In 1990, the band was nominated and won for best promising band but played hooky from the Toronto ceremony to keep a gig in Portland, Ore.

“We thought if we’re going to be the most promising band, then we should be where the most promising band should be – out working,” Downie said after the win.

The win was celebrated as the Hip’s – and Kingston’s – first Juno.

Kingston-born Bryan Adams had won Junos by the year 1990 but the Hip was different – this was a born-and-bred quintet.

The Hip now has 11 Juno Awards – and there could be more nominations and trophies on the way this year with the release of In Between Evolution, which, after nine weeks on the charts, is the No. 44th album in the country, according to Nielsen Soundscan Top 100.

Baker said sometimes he’ll be walking down Princess Street and some guy will sneer at him and make some comment about the Hip being too good to play a hometown show.

But that “when ya gonna play Kingston again, huh? huh!” didn’t just start in the past few years.

The phenomenon of Kingston desperately wanting the band to play hometown shows seems to have started after the band’s highly successful 1991 year thanks to the Junos and the smash-hit record, Road Apples.

But even way back in 1988 (that’s 16 years ago, which means the children of Hip fans could now be Hip fans) The Whig ran a story saying, “The Tragically Hip are finally coming home.”

The Hip – get this – had been away for a whopping nine months and the city was absolutely dying for the band to return. To play at home.

And the following year, there was a 12-city Canadian tour but there wasn’t a Kingston date – though to be fair, it was just six months earlier that the guys played a secret show at The Toucan for 75 people to preview new material.

The following day, the paper ran a story about the hometown show under the headline “Hip, Hip, Hooray! Band Debuts New Songs in Surprise Kingston Gig.”

That was such an important, be-there-or-be-square show, one Queen’s student risked flunking school. Dave Anglin had to study for a final but he took his books to the bar. C’mon – studying while the Hip is playing?

“I thought, ‘I can see the Hip or pass my year,’ ” he said.

The Hip also played a show at Richardson Stadium on Queen’s campus in ’93 – the kind of show great stories are made of.

When you talk to hardcore Hip fans, it’s the 1991 Fort show and that gig at Richardson that seem to make people get that “I remember when …” misty-eyed look.

The Hip played here again for 4,000 people in February 1995 at the Memorial Centre and later that year, the Hip made a late-night splash on Dan Aykroyd’s turf. Live from Saturday Night – it was the Hip playing Grace Too and Nautical Disaster.

An Ottawa woman, Shannon McNabb, slept on the street the night before the show so that she’d get tickets to see a little Canada in the Big Apple.

“They represent what Canada is all about,” she said.

Two decades after that first show for Queen’s fine art students, the band has continued to make Kingston its home and its members say life could have turned out much differently if the guys hadn’t been from a city like Kingston.

“Part of the reason we were able to get enough gigs is that we were townies and Queen’s-ies all rolled into one so were part of both communities and both communities came out to see the band,” Sinclair said.

Baker said the support started when they were at KCVI.

“On an even smaller level, in high school, KCVI is one of those schools, particularly back then, that really drew from a wide variety. You had the rich kids and you also had the people who lived in what we called the inner city so there’s a real cross-section of kids at KC,” he said.

“There were different entrances. If you were from one social set, you walked in the Earl Street entrance, whereas the rich kids tended to use the Frontenac Street entrance, the real outsiders used the Alfred Street entrance, I don’t know why but we were able to transcend those divisions and use whatever door we liked and hang out with whichever group we liked.

“At the university, it was the same thing. Those barriers all seemed artificial. Why can’t we play at Queen’s and The Manor on the same night?”

Today, the Hip has its studio in Bath and all the members, except Downie, make their homes in Kingston.

The Hip is always quick to point out that this is home – they even had their managers defending their hometown status in 1991 when the band was nominated for four awards at the Toronto Music Awards, created to honour “musicians who’ve made a contribution to the Toronto music scene.”

To this day, Baker said he never feels too much pressure from Kingston. He wishes he could do more for his hometown and its charities, but sometimes life is about spending time playing hockey with his son in his driveway.

This past June, while doing interviews to help promote In Between Evolution, Langlois said the band was hoping to play Kingston soon – but it was unlikely the rockers would get here this summer. It turns out he spoke too soon – the first day of fall doesn’t arrive until Sept. 22.

When four of the five band members met in City Hall for the Across the Causeway press conference last month – everyone was there except for Fay – Baker said there was a simple reason why the band, after a 3,500-day hiatus, was playing Kingston again.

“We can’t pass Kingston by again – it’s not right,” he said.

After James McKenty and the Spades, the Sadies, the Trews, Hugh Dillon and the Redemption Choir, Chris Koster and Matthew Good rock for the 20,000 expected concertgoers tomorrow, the Hip will take the stage.

The Hip used to do 300 shows a year. Now, the guys do one-third that number but they’re always up for a good, loud rock concert.

“Songs don’t really have a life until you get them on a stage,” Baker said.

“It’s the consummation of everything – everything up to that point has been a lot of flirting with the notion of creating.”

What happens to the Hip after tomorrow’s show? What does the future hold?

There’s a 100-date tour that kicks off south of the border in the United States this month but, remember, Baker doesn’t like hypothesizing about the future. So, no, Baker didn’t dish about how many more albums the band is planning or hoping to make. He didn’t promise the band would come back a year from now and play the second annual Across the Causeway show, and there was no talk of the R- word.

Hey, if the Stones don’t have to retire and still get satisfaction from touring and playing, the Hip has decades to go – but, of course, that’s up to Gord Sinclair, Gord Downie, Johnny Fay, Paul Langlois and Rob Baker.

This is, after all, their story.

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