The Tragically Hip Feel The World Slip Away.
By Jessie Piper
"Ascetic thin and coveted by vultures/And rendered child-like by the road,
Das Hips repair to leeward culture/They back the truck up and unload."
--Tales of the Hip
FOR THE TRAGICALLY Hip the leeward is a big limestone house on the outskirts of their native Kingston, Ontario, where the band spent last winter bringing a long-held dream to light. After 10 years working with numerous producers in varied recording environments, they took to their own studio to turn out their first fully self-produced record.
A solid work ethic and a collective vision has guided The Hip to major awards and multi-platinum fame in Canada, but Trouble at the Henhouse represents real success in the band's self-imposed value system. The record shines with artful inventiveness, set apart from five previous releases by an infused ambience felt even in its most unleashed moments.
"I think what you're hearing is...that deep, low sigh of a band that's getting what it wants," frontman Gordon Downie says in a softly weathered voice, phoning in the midst of The Hip's current U.S. tour. Intensely focused and articulate, he frames his comments in the brilliance and wit that animate his masterful lyrics and dynamic stage persona.
When The Hip decided to dispense with the services of a producer for the Henhouse sessions and go it alone with their longtime stage soundman, Mark Vreeken, the intuitive communication that comes of over a decade of playing together was pushed to a higher plane.
"While making the record we were concerned," Downie says, "about taking that leap without the sort of nurse, nanny, father figure, psychologist, field general...basically the arbiter of all secrets." Downie says the band never feared open conflict so much as "the even worse scenario which is silence...unable to move, unable to operate."
Left to their own, however, band members were forced to communicate openly, reflecting on their own motives and tuning in to potential problems before they could arise. In this self-motivated atmosphere Downie and bandmates--drummer Johnny Fay, guitarists Robby Baker and Paul Langlois, and bassist Gord Sinclair--gravitated to various roles. To keep creative momentum going they moved the work from one room to another in the Kingston house or changed the instrument setup to bring a fresh approach when ennui threatened.
Taking Henhouse to the road in America, The Tragically Hip feel a sea of change, as if the leap of faith involved in taking full command of the recording process has set some kind of grace in motion and the years of incremental gain here have reached a threshold. Downie is still processing the previous night's gig in Chicago that he says washed out any vestiges of a Canadian inferiority complex.
"I don't even dare to call it an ascension," he laughs, "for fear that'll be the card I pull away and it'll all crumble."
For Downie, the bus where band and six crew members travel together is "a great place of solace and protection" once the doors shut and they can reflect and regroup as they roll on to the next venue.
"I don't think we could pull it off if we weren't close," Downie says of the tight quarters. "So it requires a certain amount of communication and understanding, and grudges...grudges have to be dragged out in the yard and beaten to within an inch of their lives."
Does traveling the States prod The Hip's lyric writer creatively? "That's exactly what it does. It's America for Christsakes!" he snarls and then laughs. He goes on to describe the inspiration he draws from the road and the charge of playing here.
The singer is quick to defend the numerous Canadian bands who don't really make a showing in the States. While a variety of circumstances might prevent talented compatriots like The Skydiggers, Blue Rodeo or Change of Heart from making the kind of extended foray into the States The Hip embark on annually, it's not for any lack of commitment.
"The idea of touring Canada in and of itself," Downie assures me, "is nothing if it is not sacrifice. Canada is a massive country with huge spaces between cities, and touring Canada, especially in winter, is a death-defying thing. And it's a daredevil class, the musician class, and it forces a certain commitment."
As The Hip's star, already high on the northern horizon, ascends in America, Downie is exuberant, yet grounded in the deeper, all-encompassing values governing the individual and collective lives of the group.
"We learned a while back that our personal lives are a direct result of why we are what we are as a band," Downie observes.
Trying to walk the tightrope between personal and professional fulfillment has led The Hip to a deliberate road strategy. Unlike many bands that go out on the road for indefinite periods, leaving their home lives to roll with the punches, The Hip limit time on the road to three weeks and then head home for a week or more.
"After three weeks you start to really lose your grip," says Downie. And for him, home life is "another form of inspiration....You need to be able to come back home and reflect on what you saw." He paraphrases Leonard Cohen (who was quoting Norman Mailer) when he said, "Love is the reward for hard work."
"I use that a lot," the soft-voiced singer tells me, "because I think it really works."
Unfailing commitment, a strong artistic vision and the command that comes of self knowledge--not exactly the stuff of sizzling rock and roll exposés.
"These dreams we have are dull," Downie says with a gentle laugh. "But if this is our story, this is our story."
In the end, The Hip will tune out the accolades, as well as the external pressures, and take their cues from the way the music feels as they play it, searching constantly for true glory--that incandescent moment when, as Gordon Downie describes it, "the world slips away."
The Tragically Hip will appear in concert at 9 p.m. Wednesday, July 17, at the Outback, 296 N. Stone Ave. Tickets are $16 in advance, available at the Outback and all Dillard's ticket outlets. Charge by phone at 1-800-638-4253. Tickets will be $18 day of show. Call 622-8297 for more information.
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