Gordon Downie Speaks

By James Keller

The Tragically Hip’s auspicious career has never been thoughtfully planned out. Their ever-changing musical style, ranging from Road Apples’ blues-inducing riffs to Day for Night’s glowing imagery, never alluded to its next destination. Instead, the Hip’s music always carries its audience by the hands, sometimes kicking and screaming, arriving somewhere entirely unique, completely unpredictable.

This being said, the Hip have found a new locale for a career spanning 18 years, producing nine studio records and one live album. This destination, for both the band and their devout followers, lies within the bounds of their new CD, In Violet Light, and comes alive through their new tour, already underway.

However, this is just a stop, one among many. Where the band goes from here, up to and including the new tour, is a discussion full of ambiguity. This uncertainty is one frontman Gordon Downie not only shares, but is one he would like to maintain as well.

“We’re not big on blueprints,” says Downie. “We don’t spend any time in think-tanks laying out our plan of action; we have no real strategy; we lack any kind of preconceived notion. We tend just to come together.”

With this, ironically part of a greater methodology in and of itself, the Tragically Hip brought In Violet Light to the surface earlier this year, a noticeable progression from 2000’s Music at Work. The album was a culmination of a career still ongoing, bringing together the loud, crisp sound from early in their career, merging it with the complex instrumentation and melodies from more recent efforts. Still, Downie is unsure how the record will be perceived and compared, insisting instead that he seldom looks back on his career and how things fell into place.

“A friend told me that, as a farmer, once in a while you have to stop your tractor and look back on the field you’ve plowed. I really don’t do that much,” he says. “I want to look forward. I’ve only got so much time on this planet.”

Looking forward isn’t as easy as it sounds. Right now, the only thing that seems certain for Downie is that there will be something to look forward to. The more imminent vision of said future is their new tour, dubbed “A Theatrical Extravaganza,” an excursion devoid of the usual stadiums and amphitheaters. Instead, fans in slightly smaller audiences will get a more intimate performance, promising to be completely different with every show. Beyond that, Downie is reluctant to provide much else.

“I don’t think there’s anything you can expect; there’s nothing that can prepare you for it. We’re all experiencing it for the first time,” Downie says of the tour. “It’s all about discovery. It sounds maudlin, but you step on the stage and that’s what you’re really hoping for: discovery of something.

“After 18 years together, I find myself on a whole new plateau–technical things, musical things, spiritual things that inform the show, that inform the moment. I look out, I see a smiling face and it does something. It contains a spark and I can’t predict what will happen.”

That spark, Downie says, is all about building a relationship with the crowd, a connection that has taken him years to learn and even longer to perfect. And despite practice and experience, that connection is different each night and for everyone watching.

“Ultimately, it’s about throwing down on stage. Whatever you happen to be, if you don’t throw down, you’re not worth shit,” Downie explains. “That means losing everything you know, realizing there are people that have paid to come see you and they want to relate. They’ve listened to it and they want to get to the next stage of the listening experience.”

This desire to relate the singer to the audience, the music to the listener, isn’t one-way, either. The audience’s desire to connect with Downie and company is matched by his need to build a relationship with them, one person at a time.

“I want to relate to them. I want to find something new in every line,” he says. “Every day, that changes. The circumstances around each day, historically and socially; every day is a brand new thing and I don’t know if I was aware of that my whole life on stage.”

Despite the album’s obvious differences from previous works, especially from their older, more established records, Downie isn’t prepared to guess how audiences are receiving In Violet Light.

“I don’t really think in those terms. You make it, you’re listening to things that please you. That’s about it. You’re not really thinking about what the fans might like or what the journalists might like, what’s in, what’s out.”

These concerns weren’t at the forefront of the record-making process but this in no way suggests a lack of planning or intention.

The Hip chose to construct the album at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas instead of the Bathhouse, their own studio outside Kingston. They also began their collaboration with famed producer Hugh Padgham.

“The last three records were in our own studio which means that there’s no meter running. You can take as long as you want, and we would,” he says of a process that saw him commuting daily from Toronto. “You tend to lose yourself a little bit. You lose your way and don’t necessarily know where you stand in relation to what you’re making.”

Padgham, a newcomer to the Hip’s process, is a veteran in his own right. With a history of producing legends like the Police, Phil Collins and Paul McCartney, Padgham came to In Violet Light without the baggage of someone well-versed with the Hip’s library; a completely fresh set of ears to the process.

“It’s not like he came armed with our entire catalogue. I doubt he even had any preconceived notions except ‘how to make this guitar sound really good,’” Downie suggests, adding Padgham’s history in British rock isn’t obvious or visible. “It sounds like a Hip record to me–whatever that means.”

What that means, it would seem, is an album that stands on its own, as the rest have, with little hint of things to come. For In Violet Light, it means a progression from what we’ve heard, careful to leave nothing behind. And for Gordon Downie and the rest of the Tragically Hip, it means a constant reinvention of who they are and what they’re capable of creating.

“I listened to it yesterday in the dentist’s chair to drown out the sound of the drill. It was very effective,” Downie says. “All these months since, and my opinion is ever-changing about it. As I sat in the dentist’s chair, I thought, ‘this record has depth. It’s chock-full of imagery and the sounds are really good.’ I was really impressed at how the songs jumped to life.”

This seems to reaffirm his belief that the band is nothing if not capricious. The uncertain and indeterminate nature of the group seems to be the only constant, and Downie won’t even guess where they’re headed from here.

“Five years from now, what do you think you’ll be reading? What will you be into? What are you going to like? What are you going to be doing? By then, you’ll have had experiences that will change you–as long as you’re open to it. I’m interested in doing more with less, and I have faith in the fact that I will evolve, that I will grow.”

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