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Too Smart for Their Own Good

Musicians at work: The Tragically Hip are on tour supporting the American release of a new record.

It's convenient to know that our apparently unassuming and placid northern neighbors are so easily irritated. When cornered -- ask them if they keep polar bears as pets or why that stupid-sounding "eh" pops up, Tourette's-like, in conversation, for instance -- Canadians are unapologetically quick to set you straight on why they're different (and perhaps cooler) than their American friends. Admittedly, a country where the recent state funeral for former prime minister Pierre Trudeau drew honorary pallbearers like Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro does convey a certain élan, but it's still a stretch for most Americans to associate terms like "cerebral" or "sexy" with those poutine-eating hordes from the Great White North.

That's why it's such a joy (especially from a north-of-the-border perspective) to see the growing stateside popularity of Kingston, Ontario, rockers the Tragically Hip, a surprisingly un-Canadian band that's slipped under the Distant Early Warning line and been causing damage to the indigenous U.S. music scene. Led by enigmatic vocalist/lyricist Gordon Downie, who channels equal portions of Michael Stipe and Crispin Glover in concert, the group has built a reputation for arty lyrics and a heart that's straightahead rock and roll. As a result, the band is both cerebral and sexy -- and more engaging than most of the current rock canon. Could this be the band that finally topples Rush as the hottest Canadian import since high-test British Columbia hydroponic?

With limited airplay, the Tragically Hip does remain a bit of a mystery south of the 49th Parallel. U.S. audiences have likely felt the presence of the band only since the American release of 1998's Phantom Power, with its easy-going single "Poets." If you've ever been exposed to Canadian radio or watched MuchMusic on satellite, you know that the group's alternately folky and power-chord-heavy mojo has made it an unshakable staple at home since its start as a college bar band in 1986. Singles such as "Courage," "New Orleans Is Sinking" and "Blow at High Dough" have helped the Hip occupy a niche in its native land that verges on bigger-than-Jesus status, quite an accomplishment considering the nation's normal abhorrence for hero worship. A free benefit concert mounted by the band this summer in Winnipeg drew 80,000 fans, and the Another Roadside Attraction tours (featuring such imported guests as Los Lobos and Sheryl Crow) set attendance records on both sides of the border. The Hipsters have also heightened their visibility with performances on Saturday Night Live and a pre-mud/fire set at Woodstock '99.

Bassist and vocalist Gordon Sinclair said the band's current touring strategy will see it hitting mid-sized venues like the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins and the Paramount in Denver in support of the American release of Music @ Work, a CD produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. For the most part, it's been the band's live performances -- with guitarists Bobby Baker and Paul Langlois, and drummer Johnny Fay rounding out the lineup -- that have earned the Tragically Hip a stunningly loyal group of followers. "For the most part, we're going back to places that we've been before in the U.S., more centralized locations in various regions," Sinclair says. "It's pretty flattering that we have fans who are prepared to travel those kinds of distances to see us, so we always go out of our way, in deference to them, to change our sets night after night." Word of such a fan/band love-in might immediately set off a patchouli-and-smoothie alert for those not hip to the group's sound, but Sinclair said that near-fanatical dedication is where the Hip's similarity to Phish or Widespread Panic ends. "We've been compared to jam bands before, but we've never really looked at ourselves in that regard. We do leave things open-ended on stage, with a lot of room for improvisation, but that's just one aspect of what we do. We use a traditional rock instrumentation, but we're really fortunate to have an insightful lyricist whose intelligence is reflected in what he writes."

Over the course of nine albums -- more than a million sold in the U.S. -- Hip fans have been interactive participants in Downey's cerebral lyrical journey, with songs spinning off more allusions and literary imagery than a Dennis Miller rant. Backed by feedback-soaked rock riffs, cuts like "Nautical Disaster" (from 1994's Day for Night) and "Locked in the Trunk of a Car" (on 1992's Fully Completely) glow with a complexity that will make you feel as if you've taken a course in Symbolism in Contemporary Canadian History. It's unlikely that you'll find fellow Canucks Shania Twain or Bryan Adams crafting pop songs that contain heartfelt nods to the World War II tragedy on the beaches of Dieppe or the collective hand-wringing during 1970's FLQ terrorist crisis in Quebec, as Downey does. Sinclair said he hopes the concrete imagery lends an extra air of emotion to the band's creations, even if American audiences don't immediately identify with the references. "We don't feel like it's necessarily an alienating thing. The concept of a wide-open space or the isolation you might feel in the wilderness is something we've always considered fairly universal, and the themes that Gord's been developing in lyrics are very, very universal."

Deconstructionist rockers may concur that Music @ Work's epic track "Tiger the Lion" has outclassed them all, with Downie heading off on a mythopoetic journey that borders on master's thesis material: "John Cage had come to feel/That art in our time/Was much less important/Than our daily lives....The purpose of it's not unique/Not to build masterpieces/For a delectative elite/But simply to wake to your life."

Sinclair admits that dropping props to legendary modernist composer and music theorist Cage will probably fly over the heads of most listeners, but insists that it's just part of the Hip's distinctive lyrical pastiche (and probably a hell of a lot easier to understand than anything Geddy Lee was ever screeching about, come to think of it). "Over the course of the last tour, Bobby and Gord were passing around this book with the selected writings of John Cage, just satisfying some curiosity. As we started to jam and some of the ideas developed into songs. Gord thought it would be cool to centralize this theme and make it about spontaneous artistic creation. I realize that's not something that you're normally going to be hearing on Top 40 radio."

That intellectual rock has occasionally left the band's corporate label-masters a bit rattled, but Sinclair said impressive sales at home and a foothold in the States have allowed it a certain degree of autonomy. "There's certainly a tendency, particularly with American pop music, to dumb down to an audience level. But Gord writes primarily from an artistic point of view, and we think our fans really appreciate that. When [1991's] Road Apples came out, Universal Music determined that they were not going to release the song 'Cordelia' as a single because they felt that the Shakespearean reference would be too highbrow for the audience. That's about the same time that we started to shrug off the business concerns and just make writing for ourselves the number-one imperative."

More recently, the band's eccentric character materialized in a wonderfully unusual writing scheme for its new album: Downie and company intended to travel by modified Pullman car, riding the rails and absorbing heartland-true material by pure osmosis. "The idea originally was to write while we took a cross-country trip from Chicago to New Orleans, a traveling woodshedding session through the backyards of America. We figured the imaginative fodder that would be available from peering over the fences would be incredible. And we could have come up with nothing, or we could have come up with fifty songs with a train rhythm in the background." Unfortunately, last-minute technical problems scuttled the idea, so the band instead headed directly to New Orleans' Kingsway Studios to craft the product.

Music @ Work marks the second consecutive time that the Tragically Hip has enlisted the assistance of producer Berlin. It's an arrangement Sinclair said he and the band find invaluable after many years of collective efforts. "Steve's main contribution is objectivity. We've gotten ourselves to a point now where our songwriting is -- well, I wouldn't want to say, systematic -- but we certainly have a routine we go into. We keep writing and adding more things and taking stuff out of songs and you get to the point where it's a little difficult for us to actually know if the song's finished or unfinished.

"Left to our own devices," he adds, "we would probably end up with forty half-finished ideas and we'd end up making Sandinista over and over again instead of one good record."


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