Road tales from the Tragically Hip

[Big thrill for me to interview the guys from the Tragically Hip a couple of months back. This article appeared in on November 4, 2012.]

KINGSTON, ONTARIO — Armed with will and determination, the Tragically Hip embarked 30 years ago on a rock ‘n roll journey that has taken them around the world and across Canada more times than the band members can remember.

Those trips have resulted in songs and lyrics that will forever resonate with the group’s devoted fan base. “At the Hundredth Meridian,” “Last American Exit,” “As I Wind Down the Pines” and “Silver Jet”— with its continent-binding lyric about flying “fromClayoqout Sound to Cape Spear” — are only a handful of the Hip’s songs that reference Canadian geography and a sense of the nation’s vastness.

Another travel-inspired tune is “Broken Road,”which appears on guitarist Paul Langlois’ solo album, “Fix This Head.” The song was written “while I was in the middle of doing a lot of driving for these guys,” says Langlois, whose lyrics speak of being 700 miles away and homesick for Cataraqui — the river that flows through the Hip’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario. It recalls the quintet’s early days in the ’80s when they toured the country in a van, not the luxury bus or airline flight that takes them from stop to stop these days.

“Travel is a big part of lucky people’s lives. We’re lucky enough to travel. I’m quite happy to know the country pretty well. Certainly not all the areas, but the places along the highways for sure,” Langlois said after a performance of his own songs at Kingston’s Market Square in August that featured Hip bandmates Robby Baker and Gord Sinclair on stage while Gord Downie watched with the rest of the crowd of about 400 people. “Every writer is different, but i think travel’s a big part of a lot of songwriters’ lives because you do that so often and it does influence your outlook on the world.”

Travel, according to Baker, should be an essential rite of passage for Canadians.

“Everyone should be travelling. I think when you graduate from high school you should get a Canadian rail pass, a round-trip ticket to go anywhere in the country. I think that will build national unity,” said the band’s lead guitarist who was elated to support Langlois’ solo show, proving the Hip are a tight band in more ways than one.

Their 12th full-length studio album, “Now for Plan A,” was released last month and they’re on the road once more, touring the United States until December 15 before kicking off yet another cross-Canada journey on January 19, 2013.

For a generation of Canadians, the Hip changed Canada. They filled a cultural void. No longer were songs about this country folksy sing-alongs that broke out between whistles at the junior hockey rink. Nor were they sentimental country numbers from the prairies or Maritimes. The Hip pushed into unexplored territory in rock: tunes about leaving America because you were homesick for Canada and about thriving to escape small Ontario towns full of bringdown; references to Canadian politics and literature; dark lyrics about serial killers on the open highway and prostitutes in the big city; songs about landscape, nature, Tom Thomsonand the 401. To some extent, travelling made the music possible. It also facilitated a deeper understanding of the world. Outside of Canada, places like Nashville, Copenhagen, Nepal, Ohio’s Chagrin Falls and New Orleans — the inspiration for more than one Hip song — provided spark for the band’s creativity. As Baker points out, travelling the globe also offers what only tangible experience can deliver: The ability to make informed comparisons and the knowledge to challenge assumptions.

“I think Holland is the greatest country on earth — no offence to Canada,” he said, noting the Dutch ability to innovate. “They lead the world in so many things, whether it be socially, scientifically or economically. They’re fighting way above their weight category.”

In Canada, Baker recommends the north, far-off places “where you’re meeting down-to-earth people.” Those spots include Fort Albany near James Bay in Ontario and Norman Wells, a community in theNorthwest Territories that’s 685 kilometres beyond Yellowknife.

Gord Downie spent his honeymoon in Newfoundland and named it as a favourite spot in the country. While the Hip have likely seen more of Canada than any other rock band, Downie is convinced there’s more to explore.

“You can tour it as long as you like and you won’t know anything,” he said.

When listening to Langlois’ live set, I gained an understanding of how much his songwriting ability impacts the Hip. The tight, crisp, frenetic guitar work that is an unmistakeable part of so many Hip songs and concerts are evident in Langlois’ music and, surprisingly, the lyrical style was also familiar. While Downie is the Hip’s lyricist, Langlois’ songs, particularly “Fix This Head” and “Broken Road,” would fit easily in the band’s catalogue.

“He’s a real poet. I’ve always known it, everyone does,” Downie said, praising his friend for “laying it down” in front of the hometown crowd.

Baker said he knew being the lead singer would mean an adjustment for Langlois and he wanted to be there to support him. “If he was playing a song around the campfire, I would be punching someone out to grab a guitar to play along to that song. So when he asked me to come and do it in a setting like this, I’m like, ‘Of course I will do it,’” he said. “I just wanted to be good for him.”

Soft-spoken and friendly, Langlois wasn’t sure if he wanted to step in front of the microphone. “It’s not something I’ve done too much,” he said. “Part of the reason is I didn’t think I had the personality or desire to do it. But I guess I must have.”

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