The Hip “live between us” in 2 days

Don’t tell me what Mr. Downie is doing.
Don’t tell me what Mr. Downie is doing.
Photo courtesy of
There’s no ‘I’ in band.
There’s no ‘I’ in band.

The Tragically Hip are coming home.

After becoming one of the most popular bands in the history of Canadian music, Kingston’s favourite sons are returning to the place where it all began.

Not that they ever really left, or anything. All but singer Gord Downie still reside in the Limestone City, but it’s been more than 10 years since the local boys-turned-Canadian-icons have played a full-scale, publicized show in this fair city.

Most feel that it’s about damn time. But, after all these years, why now?

“The reason I guess we’re doing it now is because we’re planning a cross-country tour of Canada for this November and yet again we find ourselves unable to play Kingston, our hometown,” said Hip bassist and Queen’s alumni, Gord Sinclair.

“It really just doesn’t have a suitable venue for us to play, which is a perennial problem,” he said. “It’s just a bummer, you know, we would like to be able to do it.”

Enter the Community Foundation of Greater Kingston. The umbrella-like charitable organization approached Hip guitarist, Rob Baker, a few months ago about playing a show to benefit the charity next summer. The commandant of RMC then offered up the College’s soccer fields as a venue.

“[The soccer field] was something we had never really considered before,” said Sinclair. “Whenever we spoke to people about it, we’d run into brick walls in terms of doing it outside because of proximity and noise violations,” he said.

When the ball started rolling, the band wondered about doing the gig this summer instead.

“We only started talking about it in the first week of August and once we got all the people lined up and signed off, things got rolling really, really quick.” In a summer that has seen promising festivals such as Lollapalooza and Blues Fest cancelled due to poor organization and lack of ticket sales, it seems nothing short of a miracle that the Hip and the Community Foundation of Greater Kingston were able to pull this massive gig off in barely a month.

Much like when the Hip organized the cross-country touring festival Another Roadside Attraction the lineup is an impressive capsule of Canadian music both new and old. In addition to the Hip, the hugely successful Matthew Good, the up-and-coming Trews, and Can-Rock legend Hugh Dillon will be playing with his brand new Redemption Choir, as well as The Sadies, The Spades, and Chris Koster.

There is a strong Kingston connection as well, with not only the Hip, but also Hugh Dillon and Chris Koster playing on home turf.

What makes this event even more special is that it’s a benefit for not only the Community Foundation of Greater Kingston, but also Camp Trillium and the Joe Chithalen Memorial Music Lending Library.

“You know, four of us in the group still make our homes in this town and these charities are all very close to our hearts,” Sinclair said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to get people together, raise a little money, and have a fantastic day of music.”

Sinclair continues, “That’s really the theme of this whole thing. If there’s something that can benefit the community, then we all stand to benefit.” “Kingston is an odd town. It’s made up of a bunch of quasi-disparate groups,” he said. “You’ve got the townies and the university kids and the college kids and the RMC kids and the people from the east end and people from the west end, who all live under this spectrum of amalgamation,” he said.

“But our philosophy is that we all occupy this space and we’re all a part of the community,” Sinclair said.

Not Another Small Town Hometown Bringdown

However, despite all their professed love for the city now, there was a time when the members of the Hip wished, as all young people do, to break out of the borders of their small town.

On their 1987 eponymous debut, Sinclair himself wrote the song “Small Town Bringdown” as a cynical response to John Cougar Mellencamp’s glorification of the small town experience in his Small Town record.

It’s a sad thing / Bourbons all around / To stop that feeling / When you’re living in a small town.

“Obviously there’s a bit of irony. I wrote that song years and years ago, actually when I was still going to Queen’s. I was a younger man, definitely looking beyond the borders of my hometown,” Sinclair said.

“I was living with Gord [Downie] and Paul [Langlois] at the time and I put the tune together with that youthful mentality that you’re off to seek your destiny or whatever, somewhere out in the world,” he said. “The irony of it is that Mellencamp was probably closer to hitting the nail on the head than I was at 20 years of age, because everything I know and love is contained in this community,” Sinclair said.

The story of the Hip begins at Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute, where all the band members met. Earlier than that even, Baker and Sinclair were childhood friends, who grew up in the same neighborhood.

However, the real seeds were sewn in high school where the Hip’s members were in a variety of short-lived bands including The Rodents (Baker and Sinclair), The Slinks (Downie), and The Filters (Baker and Downie). The Hip never really came together until the boys headed off to university.

Baker, Sinclair, and Downie all studied at Queen’s, taking Fine Art, History, and Film, respectively, and Langlois went to Carleton to study Journalism. When The Hip became a full commitment for the guys, Baker and Sinclair had just graduated, but Downie and Langlois decided to cut their studies short. They recruited drummer Johnny Fay, who was still at Kingston Collegiate, to round out the group.

Sinclair spoke about the band’s decision to remain in Kingston. “At the time that we started playing music, we were playing with a lot of different groups that moved to the Toronto area or moved down to New York or Los Angeles to seek their fame and fortune,” he said. “At that time, a lot of those bands found themselves swallowed up by the city or by the music scene within the city. Kingston, for us, was always a jumping off point, where we were able to go into New York to play and go into Toronto to play, but have a place to come out of as well.”

Kingston has given birth to a seemingly inordinate number of great bands given its population. Aside from the Hip, there was an explosion in the late ’80s and early ’90s of musical talent, including 13 Engines, Weeping Tile, The Mahones, The Headstones, and The Inbreds, to name a few. Many of the members of those bands actually spent time in The Rodents, The Filters and The Slinks, as well.

“[Kingston has] always had a really healthy music scene,” Sinclair said. “I think in no small part the University is responsible for that.”

“We’ve got a fairly small local population with 20 to 25 thousand young people here that give the city a real energy and vibrancy that a lot of similarly sized communities don’t have,” he said.

Sinclair spoke fondly of legendary live venues, Lakeview Manor and Dollar Bills, places where you would sneak in for your first illegal beer and be exposed to great, live, rock music.

“There has always been a really strong music tradition in town and there have always been a lot of people to play with. Joe Chithalen (see page 28) embodied that kind of spirit,” Sinclair said. “There was always a gig and always someone playing.”

Last American Exit

Emerging as a rugged, garage rock band from small-town Ontario, The Tragically Hip have grown into multi-million record selling, Canadian musical legends.

But, with typical small town sensibility, Sinclair remains humble. “I find it [the band’s success] very flattering,” he said. “But to be perfectly honest, we’ve always been flattered by the level of support we’ve enjoyed from our fans.”

“We’ve always measured success on our own terms,” Sinclair said. “The way we look at it is, we’ve been making records since 1987, we just finished our 10th studio record, we’re in the position where we can tour when we want to perform, we record when we’re finished writing, and we have the freedom to get together and be creative with each other for a living.”

Sinclair continues, “By our own terms, we’ve had a very successful career.”

Success is not always considered on one’s own terms, though. Our country as a whole is rarely satisfied with success within its own borders. We tend to be skeptical of any homegrown talent, who has not received equal success south of the border. Only when they are validated by American appreciation do we recognize the talent that was there all along.

We live to survive our paradoxes.

The Hip, however, have always avoided this trap, remaining enormously popular in Canada, despite lacking similar success in the United States. Still, the question of their lack of popularity in the States is of frequent debate by critics both north and south of the border.

“We’re perennially questioned about whether we’re satisfied with the terms of our success, based on what we have or haven’t achieved in the United States,” Sinclair said. “I guess if you look at someone like Avril Lavigne or Alanis Morrisette, we haven’t achieved that level of commercial success in the States,” he said. “At the same time, we have a great fan base down there ... and we play sold out shows everywhere we go.”

Sinclair actually revels in the somewhat disproportionate level of success they have achieved in North America.

“We’ve always enjoyed this great position where we’re successful enough commercially that our record companies continue to make money off us, but we’re not so successful that we make them so much money that they want to bother and meddle with what we do,” he said.

The Dark Canucks

The Tragically Hip are Canada’s band.

Few, if any, would bat an eye at that claim. Without ever really intending to be, The Hip have always been a source of national pride for its leagues of adoring fans. They have spawned nationalistic fervour by singing songs about this country in a way that always seemed so indescribably Canadian.

However, this was not always something the band was comfortable with. There was a time when they were very cynical about any kind of nationalist connections to their band.

“Earlier in our careers, when we were first touring the United States, we were always tagged as ‘The biggest band in Canada!’ or ‘Canadian national heroes!’ he said. “And those labels didn’t really help our cause down there.”

Isn’t it amazing what you can accomplish / When you don’t let the nation get in your way?

Canadian iconography has always played a key role in the band’s lyrics. Whether singing about David Milgaard’s trial, Bill Barilko’s mythical death, the constellations above a small cottage town, Hugh MacLennan’s literature, or Tom Thompson paddling past, The Tragically Hip have told our country’s stories in song, far better than any of our history textbooks ever could. They have always sung about Canada, not because they are overly patriotic, but because they are Canadian.

Fans have responded in many different ways, not always to the band’s appreciation.

“We played a gig once in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with Spirit of the West,” Sinclair said. “There were maybe 150-200 people there, probably 10 or 20 from Canada. And there was this one guy, hammered beyond all recognition, with a red and white top hat and a Canadian flag as a cape, running around on the dance floor like a lunatic, and you’re playing onstage wondering, ‘Is this Canadiana thing really working for me?’”

Aside from the occasional drunken ‘yob, however, the band has come to embrace the pride that fans feel from their music.

“The way I look at it is, Canada and Canadians in general, are a pretty cool group of people,” Sinclair said. “Nationalism at its worst can be a really, really ugly thing, but at its best, it can be quite charming and quite endearing, and that’s the way I look at it, and I think that’s the way it’s intended by our fans, who do feel this little bubble of patriotic zeal when they come to the Hip show,” he said.

“The people are there because they share this sense of community,” he said. “If we are able to provide with our music and with our performance, this touchstone with home, or evoke the feeling of belonging, then that’s not a bad thing,” he said.

Sinclair continued, “As a musician, that’s all you can hope to achieve.”

Are We Family?

The release of their tenth studio album, In Between Evolution, marks a rejuvenation for the band. The record is a return, in part, to the straight forward rock ethic that the band built their early success on, without relinquishing anything that they have achieved over the last 20 years.

After a long and somewhat arduous tour in support of In Violet Light, the band struggled with some of the relationships on the business side of what they do. Primarily, they decided to split with manager Jake Gold, who had been with them since the very beginning.

“We did a lot of soul-searching during that tour and we realized that what we really love, probably most of all in the group, is the opportunity to perform together and to play together,” Sinclair said.

“It was very vindicating for us,” he said. “We didn’t want to lose what the five of us share, both in the studio and on stage.” Sinclair continued, “I guess, when you’ve been doing this for a long time, it becomes like a marriage.”

“So, when we set out to start writing In Between Evolution, we kind of said, ‘This time around, let’s approach it the way we did our first two records, before we owned a recording studio and before we had all this advanced digital technology,’” he said.

That’s the approach The Hip took with producer Adam Kasper, who enjoys recording “live-off-the-floor” rock records, and has achieved massive success with bands like The Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age.

“It’s The Tragically Hip as a rock band,” said Sinclair. “It’s about five guys standing in a giant recording studio together with a really talented producer.”

In Between Evolution is an intense and passionate exploration into death, war, and commitment. The album was recorded in Seattle and the band admits to being heavily affected by the tumultuous climate of the United States.

“It’s hard not to be moved by what they face everyday in their media, and what they’re being told by their leaders. I mean, we take that stuff really seriously, and Gord [Downie, the band’s lyricist] was really affected by it,” Sinclair said.

He continued, “It was a very heavy and serious time when [Downie] was lyrically putting this record together, both within the band, but certainly also in the world around us.”

Long Time Running

While it is impressive in itself that The Tragically Hip have remained a band together for twenty years, what’s even more impressive is how they continue to create new and consistently relevant music without ever becoming complacent in their success.

“It was really important to us, creatively, to keep moving this thing, this group, this writing collective that we have, keep moving it forward,” Sinclair said.

Without ever alienating their loyal fan base, the band has always progressed forward with every album, constantly evolving into something different.

“We were really conscious of that, even around the time of our first record. We were pegged as this bluesy, kind of three-chord swagger and it was very successful for us,” Sinclair said. “Our record company would have loved if we had written “New Orleans is Sinking: Part II” for Road Apples, but right away we knew we had to branch out if we wanted to continue to do this for a long period of time,” he said. “Consciously, that’s always been our ambition.”

While the band has grown and evolved, its members have always remained faithfully together. Sinclair attributes this to the “socialistic sense” of how the band writes. They all contribute ideas equally, and are then able to share in their successes and failures, without letting ego or money ever get in the way.

“Because all of us write music, we had this collective idea that we always knew that we were better as a band than we were as a group of individuals,” Sinclair said. “The thought is that if we’re all pulling on the oars together, we’re going to get to wherever we’re going much more quickly and certainly with a full boat,” he said.

Sinclair likened the experience of writing with The Hip to a “creative cabal” where friends can hang out, exchange ideas, feed off each other, and together make music. “We know more than anything, more than commercial or monetary success, we know the most important thing is the fact that we are a band.”

It’s this sense of determined unity that has kept The Tragically Hip together as a creative force all these years.

“We’ve been doing the same gig now for twenty years, with the same people, and we still can’t get enough of it,” Sinclair said. “When you’re able to share all these great experiences with your best friends, it makes for a pretty sweet career.”

From their humble roots as a brash, bluesy, barroom band waned on punk and classic rock, The Hip have evolved into one of the most versatile, intelligent, and highly revered bands in Canada’s musical history. Now they can finally be congratulated by the city that has been there from the very beginning.

It’s been a long, long time running
It’s been a long, long time coming
It’s well worth the wait.

Let’s certainly hope so.

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