To some, The Tragically Hip is the most important Canadian rock act of the last two decades, even more so than Rush, Bryan Adams, Alanis and those cute and cuddly boys from Sum 41. But to the average passerby, the band is little more than the answer to the question “What would happen if Midnight Oil traded in its Aussie sensibilities for a home in Athens, Georgia?” Herein lies the dilemma – does one pursue anonymous acclaim or fame and fortune in the absence of integrity? To hear the members of The Tragically Hip tell it, they’ve had ample opportunities to take their musical careers in a more lucrative direction, but have resoundly rejected such advances time and again. In today’s ultra-capitalistic, commercialized society, is such a rigid stance to be commended or is it merely the result of the Hip’s “pride fuckin’ with” them, as Quentin Tarantino’s Marcellus Wallace character might say?
Without question, had it been willing to up its marketing and relinquish some of its control over the music, The Hip has enough group chemistry, commitment, fan base support and songwriting talent to carve out a nice profitable niche in the music industry. To a man, the band symbolizes what little purity remains in music, and the hope is that enough groups like The Hip will force the industry to shift to a model in which its purveyors trust that, with good music, profit will follow.
Perhaps even more impressive than its unyielding philosophy is the fact that The Tragically Hip’s five original members have been together since 1983. How’s that for unity? “Charles In Charge” couldn’t even keep original core cast together for the entire six-year run of the show, yet these five friends from Kingston, Ontario found a way to see themselves through industry politics, never-ending tours and the routine in-fighting that comes with the territory.
In advance of its October 13 show, Wednesday night at The Gothic Theatre, guitarist Rob Baker spoke with Kaffeine Buzz to discuss why The Hip took the path of least resistance, what has enabled the band to do what it wants, and how the industry itself impacted its choice.
KAFFEINE BUZZ: You guys are known primarily as an incredible live act. With as many years as you’ve been touring, do you find that with each new tour it takes awhile to get going or is it pretty much second nature now?
ROB BAKER: The truth is that for the most part it’s second nature. You slip right back into the patterns. It takes a certain toll on your body – the physical travel, living on a bus, sleeping on a bus. All in all, it’s great. We’re having a good time. I think the band is playing better than we’ve played in a long time. We’re getting along better than we’ve gotten along in years. And things, as always for us, inch forward very slowly. In terms of the business side, we just keep crawling along. And that’s just fine. It seems to be on our own terms I guess.
KB: And there’s a lot to say for that.
RB: At least we know why people come out to see the band. It’s not because of how much money was spent on a media campaign. There isn’t any of that (laughs). And it’s not because they liked our expensive new video. It’s either they liked the record or they saw us live and liked the band.
KB: Well, I would imagine you’ve developed quite a following over 20 years. Can you cite a single aspect that motivates you to do this year after year? Just like anyone with a regular job, you must have days where you feel like ‘this job sucks’ and you want to go home.
RB: Yeah, you have days like that on the road, but they probably tend to be on days off. When you’re a musician in a far-away city without a gig, you really have no purpose. There’s no reason for you to be. If you have a gig that night, everything is okay. You get to play, and it kind of makes everything all right. For two hours, you can forget about everything else. It doesn’t matter how shitty you feel, or if you have a backache. You get up on stage, and the adrenaline from the crowd and the band and the music sweeps all that stuff aside for a couple of hours. And that’s reason enough to keep doing it right there. But there are certain things about being creative that are really addictive. I also do visual art, and there’s a certain time when you’re drawing or painting that you completely shut down one side of your brain. You have no ego. You exist completely in the moment. You don’t know who you are, where you are or even what you’re doing. And it’s a pretty incredible feeling. And when you can get to that spot playing music, you play music that you can’t even imagine.
KB: From album to album, is there anything you feel that has enabled The Hip to remain relevant while still attracting new fans?
RB: Well, in a weird way, I don’t know that we’ve ever really been relevant. We’ve always done our own thing. When we first came out, we were too classic for alternative rock, and too alternative for classic rock, and we just slipped right down the middle unnoticed. And for 20 years, we’ve been skirting around the spotlight. We can see everything that’s going on in the spotlight, but we’re just off in the shadow a little bit. And that’s fine. Things burn up in the spotlight.
KB: You have control of your destiny, to the extent that you can call the shots on the music and how you’re going to do things.
RB: Yeah, we’re leading our career, or shaping our career the only way we can do it. We’ve turned down opportunities. Management and record companies and other bands would just shake their heads at us knowing some of the things we’ve turned down. But you have to be able to sleep at night. You have to be able to wake up and feel good about what you’re going to do that day.
KB: So along those lines, it seems like you guys all have a common view on things and that you’re on the same page in terms of the direction of the band.
RB: Yeah, well we’re five very different guys, and we have a lot of different ideas on things, but there’s enough common ground. We’re in it for the same reasons, and we want the same things out of it. So, it works very well. But there’s enough diversity that people are bringing new ideas all the time. Some of them are challenging and aren’t always accepted fully. It creates for a good healthy debate, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
KB: In America, we’re obviously over-marketed as individuals and consumers. Do you feel that being from Canada, where perhaps hype isn’t as a big of a factor, has enabled you guys to retain a sound that is, for lack of a better word, more pure?
RB: Well, we’re just as over-marketed as anyone. Living along the border, we’re subject to those same things. There’s very little difference. I think for the band, not being marketed, not having a big pop hit, not having a big hit video, has enabled us to skirt the spotlight. In a sense you want to be in the spotlight, and you want to be where it’s going on. But it was never our aim as a band to be on that big rocket, going up in a huge explosion. I hate to mention bands, but like the Spin Doctors or these bands that were the biggest bands in the world for four month. They were on the cover of every magazine, and they were the “it” thing. And now they are in the “where are they now?” category. We saw all these bands do that, and we just said, ‘We don’t want anything to do with that.’ We just saw ourselves wanting to have a career like (bluesman) Howlin’ Wolf, where you’re 70 years old and you get up on stage and you’re tearing it up.
KB: And that gets you to that question of what you want. Do you want critical acclaim? Do you want commercial success? I suppose the answer is ‘You want both.’
RB: Yeah, I want it all. But it’s ‘What are you willing to do for it? What are you willing to give up to get it?’ And I guess the true answer is ‘Not very much.’ I just want to know that we’re doing well, that we’re making the best records we can make, and that the shows are good. And it doesn’t matter how many people turn up to show. We know when we walk off whether it was a good show or not.
The Tragically Hip will headline the Gothic Theatre on Oct. 13 with US touring partners The Sam Roberts Band.