Revisit NOW’s 1989 cover story on the Tragically Hip

With their debut LP Up To Here about to drop, Gord Downie was already uneasy about being painted with too broad a "Canadian" brush

NOW has been covering the Tragically Hip since they first emerged from the Queen’s University bar scene. Gord Downie and Bobby Baker appeared on the cover of the August 31, 1989 issue of NOW, on the precipice of the release of their debut LP, Up To Here. 

It’s fascinating to go back to a time when Downie’s icon status was still ahead of him and he was already talking about the dangers of painting “Canadian” music with too broad a brush. The excerpt below from James Marck’s feature gives a sense of the thoughtful but populist persona Downie would perfect over the next 18 years. 

Even if the Tragically Hip’s smooth rise through the rock and roll ranks ended tomorrow, they could still count themselves among the privileged handful of independent bands that the mainstream music industry, for a time, has smiled upon.

No serious rock band comes out of the blue, and “overnight sensation” is nothing more than an expression. But a band that can show obvious musical growth over the short sprint is often a band that’s “got legs,” and that is an expression the major labels listen to. Now, with an almost sublimely confident new LP on MCA Records, the Hip are hoping their musical strengths will subdue the “success story” and buy them a shot at the long haul.

Singer and songwriter Gordon Downie winces at the notion of having lucked out. It annoys him that the five years the Kingston-based band has spent hustling in the bars and on the road could be construed as overnight success. To be fair, his indignation is justifiable. A deal, even with a powerful record company, is not a ticket to the big time. It offers few guarantees and often mangles blooming acts with budgets, bureaucracy and indifference – until there’s nothing left for the lawyers to fight over. 

Hard-won goals

Still, it’s a goal that most career-oriented bands aspire to – a signing represents a significant, hard-won achievement. Serendipity plays a part in every successful careeer move, especially in a business that’s notorious for overlooking talent in favour of an easily marketable commodity. 

But the Hip’s self-starting style and determination ultimately carried the day. They have seen their indie vinyl debut EP of two years ago re-released (on CD no less) by MCA, who acquired the seven-song album from BMG (formerly RCA) along with the band. At that time, through independent Rock Records, the Hip had a distribution deal with BMG. The new LP, Up To Here, now in the racks in Canada, is scheduled for worldwide release, with the U.S. already primed for a big push. 

It’s too early to tell if any kind of high-profile hit will emerge from Up To Here, but MCA seems to have faith in the HIp sound. Downie sighs at comparisons with other guitar bands, and admits to little more than trace elements of “regional” influences. 

Even so, the band has retained the distinctly American flavour that characterized their debut EP and that, ironically, has been toned down somewhat on Up To Here. The project saw the Hip recording with Don Smith at Ardent Studios in Memphis. No mere babysitter of an ingenue act, Smith has produced tracks for Roy Orbison, Keith Richards and the Travelling Wilburys.

Staunch writers

Downie confirms, however, that Smith didn’t come out of the sessions handing them their product in a designer bag. He lent them a sophistication they understandably lacked on their first record, without robbing them of their edginess – he basically built them a better garage. Up To Here is more focused song by song, helping to put each track over in its own context. The songs are no longer sacrificed to the Hip’s dominant sound, which tends to be overly derivative, revealing their limited innovations within the jangly guitar genre. Downie’s voice is by no means soothing, but its aggressive, nasal twang commands attention. And, fortunately, his lyrics are, for the most part, worth listening to. 

The Hip is a stanch songwriting band that accepts the misses along wit the hits. Downie is capable of mustering a chameleon-like quality, both vocally and lyrically. What rings true is authenticity, whether he’s taking on Jagger’s swagger with the white blues or a near-folk lament full of strangled anguish. If he can strike the right note with radio, the Hip might pop up with a hit single – they’re capable of it. But Downie insists they’re in for the duration, regardless.

“We’re not necessarily aiming for the hits,” he says. “We want to play music for a living, for a long time. So, of course we want to make records that are better than the last one. The first record wasn’t going to be too hard to improve upon, as far as we were concerned, because we spent so little time doing it. We knew that over the two years (since the debut album) we were writing potentially stronger songs. And I would hope we always do. If you’re writing lyrics, you’re alwyas trying to find your style – you strive for that as you listen to different things that influence you.

“But I think that somewhere in the back of your mind you hope that you never do find that style, because once you’ve got a definable style, everyone comes to a consensus on it, and you’re fucked. I hope we can keep moving and stay ahead of that.”

Although Downie is reluctant to pursue the point, it could be argued that the evolution of the Hip’s personal style has been distictly shaped by their environment. A quintet of longtime friends who virtually grew up together in Kingston and still live there, they exhibit the casual camaraderie that goes with so much shared experience, both in and out of the band. And the intellectually stimulating but generally laid back atmosphere of any university town encourages the pursuit of the protracted project – particularly among loyal friends.

Hard roadwork

So the Tragically Hip, in spite of the zeal and enthusiasm they invested in the band, weren’t striving for a record deal. To their enduring credit, they worked themselves hard on the road, in Toronto and across the country, earning a reputation as a very spunky live act. But back in Kingston, the lure of hot meals, warm beds and the support of the hometown fans kept them satisfied with choosing their own pace, balancing tortured chequebooks and carefully polishing their material. 

Had the band come up out of Athens, Austin, Minneapolis or Madison, the Hip’s future might be different, but the sound would be essentially the same. University towns are full of ambitious artists with big ideas and small budgets who all but invented the stripped-down sound that rode the wave of college radio all the way to the mainstream. It was a trend that occurred naturally – simple, smart songs that like-minded listeners could relate to, with poetic moments concealed behind a curtain of cheap guitars. 

By every indication, the Hip slipped into this populist groove easily. They, as much as anybody, owned the rights to it. And having made peace with his “small city” upbringing, something Downie refers to as “getting over the hump,” he relishes the inspiration it brings him now.

For all his resistance to isolating the things that might have set the Hip apart, Downie remains intrigued by the prevailing tendency to lump every rock band this side of the border into the “Canadian” catchphrase. 

“In the States,” he offers, “people seem to be able to whittle the music down to a particular region – something they can’t seem to do here. Maybe it’s because all bands from Canada are seen as being ‘the same’ across the board – if you use two guitars, you’re the same as any other Canadian band that uses two guitars. But I would say that our outlook would be different, growing up here, than say (Vancouver-based) 54.40’s, who grew up on the West Coast with a different lifestyle – it has to have an effect.”

Sound stereotype

“I was watching MuchMusic and Daniel Lanois was on, and I don’t know how much he knows about music but he’s got to have a pretty good grasp of sounds. He was talking about Rick Danko’s singing and how it was a style that was only found int he Lake Simcoe area – the Lake Simcoe falsetto, or something. And he did an imitation and it was true, which leads me to believe that Canada has any number of indigenous musical characteristics, but nobody listens closely enough to spot them.”

This speculation may be pretty academic now, but Downie will undoubtedly have to confront these sorts of curiosities for the Americans come October when the Hip begins a lengthy Stateside road trip. Naturally, enduring dopey questions on the mystery that is Canada isn’t a priority concern at this point. In fact, he doesn’t seem to be nervous about the impending tour at all. He only admits hopes that the album will go over well.

That’s part of the Hip strategy, though. Be cool, and things just happen cool. Downie is almost nonplusssed by the idea that things won’t eventually go his way. And even if they don’t, he’s sure he could turn things around. 

“It’s like a game of golf,” he reasons. “You always aim for the hole, and sometimes you hit it in one shot. If you miss, you take another shot, but the goal remains the same.”

And should his philosophical attitude fail him, Downie always has his unshakable confidence in the Hipsters. 

“I’ve always thought we were a good band. Even when we were playing at Alfie’s Pub in the basement of Queen’s University, falling down and getting back up, hearing the applause, I still thought we were a good band.” | @nowtoronto

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