The Tragically Hip

When a band sees their career end prematurely from forces out of their control, it can be a bitter pill to swallow for both band and their fans. That's the case with The Tragically Hip who saw their remarkable 32-year run come to an end after vocalist Gord Downie succumbed to brain cancer in 2017. But anniversaries are always a time of reflection and with the 30th anniversary of their 1991 sophomore full-length release, Road Apples, it's a chance to celebrate one of Canada's most important bands.

It's easy to get side-tracked into grief and anger with the thought of unfinished business but ultimately, it's healthier to just focus on the tremendous accomplishments of a band that Canucks could claim as their own. The band (Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair, Paul Langlois and Johnny Fay) has done just that and put together deluxe CD and vinyl packages containing a remastered edition of Road Apples.

The box set will certainly delight Hip fans because it's jammed with great bonus material. In addition to the original record, it also includes Saskadelphia, a whole disc of unreleased material that almost made its way onto the record.

Perhaps most interesting is a separate disc called Hoof Hearted (say it out loud) that contains demos and alternate versions of songs from Road Apples. Fans get to hear the likes of the original demo of "Little Bones" which sounds nothing like the finished product, as well as a very stripped-down version of "Fiddler's Green" with just vocals and a single guitar. And though there have been bootleg copies floating around for years, there is finally an official disc of the famous live show taped at The Roxy in Los Angeles shortly after the release of the record.

And that's not all folks. While you're listening to the whole set, you can also peruse a 36-page booklet with never-before seen photos, commentary from the band and reproductions of the lyrics from Gord Downie's own notebooks.

Needless to say, as a long-time Hip fan, I had to speak to them about this great package. Here's my conversation with guitarist Rob Baker.

antiMusic: I've been a fan for the whole ride so it's an absolute pleasure to speak with you. People seem to center on Gord and his contributions were obvious but for my money, one of the biggest defining characteristics of The Hip is your guitar work so thanks very much for taking the time today.

Rob: Thank you very much. I appreciate that. Thank you very much. I always thought we were a really solid, well-rounded band, and I think we fought for that for years....Gord included. He didn't want to be singled out from everyone but in the end, of course, with the way it played out, that's the way it happened. And as glorious and victorious as that seemed in some way, it also felt like it was a surrender...like we'd lost the war. We won all the battles and lost the war, so to speak, but that's how it worked out.

antiMusic: Congrats on the box set. There's a lot of great stuff in here and it must have been fun to put it together. I guess it's silly to ask if this was an emotional project, but were there moments when you started to delve into it, that you were sorry you opened the door on all these thoughts and memories?

Rob: Never sorry. No not at all. But it really was an emotional project. There were lots of times, a couple times, in particular...like when we first got the songs that would become Saskadelphia. You know, we haven't heard these songs in over 30 years or so. And to hear them and to hear that they were actually as good as they were...

The sound of the band playing in the room with you...it was pretty overwhelming. Then there were a couple of points when we were putting songs together for the extra record of demos and outtakes and alternate versions that's available in the box set that's called Hoof Hearted.

There was a version of just Gord and I doing "Fiddler's Green", a very stripped back early version. And the arrangements are the same...the lyrics are the same, but there's just something about it. I turned it off about a minute in because it was too much. Then the second time around, I made it about two minutes. I finally got through it, but...it was a lot. It really felt like I was sitting there face to face with Gord playing the song and obviously I knew I wasn't.

antiMusic: Tell us a bit about what went into the assembly of the box set, how you determined all the other things that went into it.

Rob: Well, it's kind of documented now, this whole thing. You know the fire at Universal which was the spark, so to speak, that kind of lit a fire under us thinking, we have to make sure we know where all of our stuff is and get it all together.

That kind of sent Johnny on a quest because he's living in Toronto now and he had greater access. Then, once the lockdown happened, we were completely shut out of the process, so it was really Johnny hunting down what he could find. And we didn't find it all by a long shot, but we found a lot of the stuff in warehouses like Iron Mountain in Toronto.

A lot of it was on unmarked two-inch tape, so you have no idea what's on the tape. You only get two listens before all the silver nitrate starts to fall off the tape and it's gone forever. So you have to bake the tape for so many hours at a certain temperature and then you get two good listens after which you transfer it to digital medium.

And then from there, you can assess what you've got and mix it, which is what we ended up doing, and we were just kind of shocked. We knew there was a lot of stuff from Road Apples, but we were shocked, I think, at how together it already was. Like it didn't even really need to be mixed per se, it was just pushing the faders up.

antiMusic: The Hip had just burst onto the scene in a big way with the success of Up to Here and you were starting to enjoy a new level of popularity. What was the mindset of the band going into the recording of Road Apples?? Were you confident that you were really onto something career-wise here because of the success of the many singles from the last record and your already becoming-legendary live shows?

Rob: Yeah, I think we all felt that we were on a good path, but we weren't taking anything for granted. We had good management and a really great A&R guy and they reminded us every step of the way about the sophomore curse that some bands face. You know you take five to six years to write your first album and five months to write your second album.

And then you're writing your third album in the studio...as it seems a lot of bands do, so we really hunkered down and spent a lot of time on the writing.

We went in with a load of material and the other thing was we were working again with Don Smith at our A&R guy's suggestion. We loved Don and Don loved us and he really gave us confidence. The first time in the studio when we were doing Up to Here with Don, that's really what it was about. It was about us finding our feet in the studio and gaining the confidence. In a weird sort of way, I feel like Road Apples is part two. It's the other side of Up to Here.

So we've done Up to Here, we now have the confidence and Road Apples allowed us to stretch out and be more comfortable and I think you hear that in the band. We're still tight and we're the same band that you heard on Up to Here but we're a bit more relaxed, a bit looser and stretching out a bit.

antiMusic: I've heard that actually the band wanted Road Apples to be a double disc. Is there any truth to that?

Rob: I don't think so. We certainly had enough material that it could have been a double disc, but I think we would have thought we are in no position to put out a double disc as a new band. If anyone had suggested that I'm sure the record company would have batted that away very quickly. (laughs) But I don't recall. I don't recall it even actually being suggested. It was probably said that we have enough for a double disc.

I remember being very focused on that...when we went down to New Orleans, everyone kind of brought track listings of their two or three favorite albums. And we thought very much in terms of side A and side B and how to pace a record. There were certain albums that stood out pacing-wise for us and you know we really kind of emulated that...chased that a little bit. We're album fans and that's all we're really focused on...making a good album.

antiMusic: What did you bring?

Rob: Probably Sticky Fingers. You know, 11 songs. A little bit fast side and slow side, ending with something kind of dreamy.

antiMusic: What were some of the songs that were written first for the record?

Rob: I think the first one we had, that we were convinced was the single before we got down to New Orleans was "Not Necessary". I distinctly remember playing it at a university pub in London, Ontario at Western University. We had finished our show, and they wanted a second encore and Sinclair said "Let's play that new song, "Not Necessary". Everyone was kind of like "I don't really know how it goes."

And he picked up an acoustic guitar in the dressing room, ran through a verse and a chorus and we said "Okay let's do it." We went out and tried it out on stage, and then it was in our live show after that for the next few months. We used to write songs specifically for the live show. Songs served functions. We needed an opening song so that was "Crack My Spine (Like a Whip)" and we needed a closing song, and that was "On the Verge". So those songs were in for some time and they were functional tunes, you know? They were in the set for probably...I don't know six months anyways before we went down to record.

antiMusic: Whereabouts were you personally writing your stuff? Were you back at home when some of the initial ideas came to you or was it on the road because you were obviously touring heavily back then?

Rob: Some of the ideas I remember very clearly where I was when the ideas came. "Cordelia" and "Twist My Arm", I was jamming in Johnny's parent's garage with him. And I said I've got this kind of funky riff and I played "Twist My Arm" and we worked on that for an afternoon. Then we had another song called "Leather Man". But the music of "Leather Man" got grafted on to the lyrics of another song called "Angst on the Planks" and that became for "Cordelia".

And "Angst on the Planks" also appears on Hoof Hearted. Sort of different music, same lyrics. I think we made the right choice in the end.

antiMusic: What are some of the memories that come back to you when you think about the whole period of making the record?

Rob: I remember so much of the studio...the vibe. It's all very clear in my mind, but a lot of what I remember about that time is the writing of it. You know those days in Johnny's parent's garage. We had a writing session in my parents dining room when they were out of town and we got "Fight", "Montreal" and "Ouch" out of that one-day session.

And then Gord Sinclair got us into the place where they do convocation at Queen's University here in Kingston. It's a big grand old building, almost like a university style cathedral, and it has a stage in it. I don't know how the hell he got us in there, but we were in there for four days rehearsing on the stage in this giant empty venue and something about that made us feel like we had to step up our game.

We got some really good songs out of that. "Fiddler's Green" came out of that and "Long Time Running" came out of that. I remember playing "The Luxury" there. And I'm sure at that point we were probably already rehearsing "Twist My Arm" and "Cordelia"...maybe "Bring It All Back" so yeah we were getting it together.

And those sessions, I remember very well. We had a rehearsal place, a warehouse in the 9th Ward in New Orleans. It must have been 105 degrees in this wooden warehouse. And we went in there for three or four days to acclimatize and just kind of get our chops up before setting up in the studio. We got "Little Bones" and "Last of the Unplugged Gems" while we were there. They just popped up and they ended up pushing other things off the record like "Not Necessary". It happens. You're always more excited about the most recent song you've written and one that was first in line for the record is probably the first one to go.

antiMusic: You guys played live off the floor. How much do you think that added to the magic of the record?

Rob: I think that's totally the magic of the record. That is what we sounded like you know? If you heard us in a sound check with no one in the club, that's what we sounded like. Very, very few overdubs. Gord re-sang some, not all of the vocals. In one or two cases, I overdubbed a guitar solo or a second part.

And there were some percussion overdubs. There may have been a couple of tracks that were built up from the bass and drums but really not much. It was us playing live. And it's hard to do.

It makes perfect sense, on one hand, that if you've got a young band and they've been out on the road for a year, two years and playing hundreds of shows a year, you take them into the studio and set them up like they're on stage and record them. But as a performing seal like we were, you rely on the energy of the audience and it can be really hard to play live when there's no one there. You just treat it differently instantly.

So over the years, we found sometimes if we were doing a live tracking session that just bringing in a couple of people to hang out in the control room or sit in the room, with us, you instantly play differently. You bring a different aggressiveness to it.

antiMusic: Did you notice that difference right away, going into Fully Completely with Chris (Tsangarides)?

Rob: That was a completely different album. We were bowled over by Chris's enthusiasm. We only knew his work. We didn't know he was the godfather of English heavy metal. We knew him through Concrete Blonde and we loved Concrete Blonde so...it made perfect sense to us.

And when we got to England, he had his working method, and it was a very old school method of building it up from the bass and drums. We were there for five weeks. And in the first three and a half weeks we didn't keep a single note of guitar or vocals. It was just bass and drums. I did all my guitar parts in two days on that record.

antiMusic: Wow.

Rob: Yeah, I'd record a solo, for you know..."Pigeon Camera" and he'd say "Let's do two" and then when I was done, he'd say, "Which one do you like?" (laughs) I'd pick one. And that would be the solo. I was like okay. (laughs)

It was pretty old school and I appreciate that. I listen to that record now and I take a certain amount of pride, you know. Maybe it could have been better, but I listen to it and say I played that live. That's one take.

antiMusic: That's amazing. I've read that "Little Bones" started as a little acoustic piece by Gord Sinclair. I don't know if that's true, but what can you tell us about how that developed and if so, is the acoustic version on Hoof Hearted that close to the original version?

Rob: That is the original version. Gord had this simple little acoustic round and he played it. He didn't really know what it was and Gord Downie just saying "Better eat that chicken slow. It's full of all them little bones." And he just kept saying that, over and over maybe six or eight times over top of this little acoustic snippet and we just thought that it was really cool. There was something mesmerizing about it.

And then when we were in that rehearsal space in the 9th Ward...I don't even remember how it happened, it just it started to get expanded into something. The night before there was a cab ride in New Orleans that kind of shocked us into some kind of...we knew we were not in Kansas anymore (laughs). It was an alternate reality. The cabbie said something that was just shocking and offside to us. And I think that spurred the idea to take that song further into something else.

I don't think that the song was necessarily topical about that cab ride, but there was something about that cab ride that....Gord wanted a song that kind of had the feel of New Orleans...sticky, sweaty and sort of like a little danger lurking around the corner kind of vibe.

antiMusic: Probably my favorite song not on the original record is "Ouch". Was there anything in particular that popped it off the record?

Rob: No. You know, for most records, we would go in with like 17 songs that we were really happy with and you're trying to get it down to 11 so you try and bump a couple right out of the gate and usually that's the producer saying these ones aren't up to standard of the others. Then you try and record 15 songs, if you can and make your call from there, and in the case of "Ouch", I think it was just a matter of we had "Ouch" and we also had "Twist My Arm".

I think we all felt like "Twist My Arm" had jumped up and that there was something kind of more magical about it. And "Ouch" was already in the live set. We continued to play it even after the recording of Road Apples for at least a few months. Because we all really liked the song and we enjoyed playing it.

But I think it was kind of the time of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and we didn't want to feel like maybe we were jumping on that kind of bandwagon or that we were a bunch of white funk rockers or something. You know Gord Downie always used to say, if you marry the spirit of your generation, you'll be a widow in the next one.

We were very aware of whatever was kind of the happening thing at the moment and we'd play with it, but we would never adopt it as our own. It was never ours so same thing with the funk rock thing. We loved it but we just said, maybe two is one too many.

antiMusic: "Montreal" is a close favorite as well. What can you tell us about this one?

Rob: It was written in my parent's dining room and it was within a day or two, maybe three days, of the Ecole Polytechnique massacre in Montreal. And everyone was really kind of struck by, the idea of that sh*t doesn't happen in Canada. And shouldn't happen anywhere.

Femicide...what a f***ing concept! So disturbing. And so Gord had these lyrics. I had a kind of a riff that I had been playing with for a while. Very simple. Nothing groundbreaking about it. And I started playing it and Gord had those lyrics because he just written them. They were fresh off the press, so to speak.

It just fell together very quickly, and I know we recorded it for Road Apples, but we're still missing about 20 rolls of two-inch tape that we haven't found and haven't been able to bake yet. So there may be a studio version of that yet.

Years later, we were playing in Montreal, and it was the day after the anniversary of that horrible event and we were in the dressing room getting ready to go on for an encore. I said let's play "Montreal" and Gord said "I don't think I remember the lyrics".

And a friend was there and since we're fortunate that we are in the modern age, the person pulled out their phone and pulled up the lyrics off YouTube. And Gord read the lyrics and said "Okay, let's go play it" and we walked out and we played it at the Bell Centre in front of like 16,000 people and that's the version that you hear on Saskadelphia.

And we just kind of fell into it again. I mean it's a pretty simple song. I think it's got depth because of the lyrical content and the way Gord tells the story, but musically it's very direct, a straightforward song. And we just fell back in like we've been playing it the whole time.

antiMusic: The Live at the Roxy show is amazing. I've heard bits and pieces over the years. What do you remember most about that show? Was that the first time that Gord did the killer whale tank bit?

Rob: It's really the only time Gord did the killer whale tank bit. He may have hinted at that story or toyed with the story one or two other times. I don't recall. But Gord's stories tended to be one offs. It was often informed by something he'd read in the news recently or seen in a movie or whatever and he would just go with it and tell a story.

antiMusic: Was it hard to navigate a show around Gord's raps when he went off like that? Because I have always likened you guys to The Doors who would have to be nimble in reacting to Jim Morrison when he went off-script. Were some of these things worked out in advance in a certain number of bars or whatever or did you just know that he could be going somewhere at any time?

Rob: No. (laughs) Going off script was not unusual. Sometimes there were some spectacular train crashes. (laughs) But for the most part we were able to keep things on the rails and find our way. But yeah, it was always off script and even from the earliest days, Gord would do that and we loved that. It was fun.

I couldn't always hear what he was doing. Like I couldn't pick up the details of stories and follow along like maybe the crowd was following along. Because it's like you're trying to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time. You're juggling a lot of balls back there. So it was more just emotionally trying to keep up with it, and if the story was building in intensity, I would try and pick up on that and we'd try and push the music that way.

You know, we would just try and be sensitive to what he was doing and follow along. And you never knew where he was going and you didn't know if he was going to tell a story at all, and if he did, you didn't know if it was going to be 30 seconds or 13 minutes. So that made it fun for us. It kept us on edge and I always thought if we were having fun...if we were enjoying it, then other people were going to enjoy it as well. They would be able to tell whether we're phoning it in or whether we're having a blast.

antiMusic: I could only imagine the conversations on the bus after something like that along the lines of, "I can't believe you actually said that...did that".

Rob: Yeah, there were a few of those. (laughs) Sometimes we'd listen back to a show and have some laughs about it. But we tried not to analyze it too much. We'd really just kind of went with it. It was a performance thing. We didn't think of those things as we were trying to hone in on something. It was about honing in on our playing ability...our ability to communicate in real time with each other. That was what we were after.

antiMusic: What do you remember about The Roxy show and why was it significant to warrant being featured in this box set?

Rob: We had only played in LA a couple times. That was maybe our third play in LA. We had played The Whiskey before and we played on a flatbed truck one time. Which is a story unto itself. At a record conference we pulled up on a flatbed truck and played a couple of numbers. But this felt more like a legitimate play, playing at The Roxy and it was a sold-out crowd. And it was an LA crowd and we used to find you know, certainly for a young band the census that you know, LA crowds, New York crowds, even to some extent Toronto crowds or London crowds, they've seen it all. So they kind of have a tendency to sit on their hands a little bit.

They don't often give back a lot and that night we were getting lots back from the crowd. They were clearly into it and we were different enough from what they'd seen, that they thought there was something interesting happening. So yeah, we were getting something good back from the crowd. We were having fun. We were just doing our show and going where it took us. And Gord had two particularly good rants that night, the killer whale tank and the double murder suicide in "Highway Girl".

And I think the reason to revive that show...one is, you know live on the Sunset Strip...live at The Roxy. That's a nice moment. It's an iconic venue...an iconic place and it was shortly after the release of the record, so the setlist was really heavy with Road Apples tunes.

It also it just felt like a good show. It's one that had been bootlegged a lot, but we had access to the two-inch tapes because we recorded that show. It was done as a live Westwood One radio broadcast.

They had a recording truck outside and Don Smith who'd recorded the first two albums came down and said "Well, I'll mix the band live". He wasn't in the room but he was in the recording truck mixing the recording that would go out on Westwood One. So the guy who made the records, recorded the show. That was pretty amazing for us.

antiMusic: Well, you've completed this project. Do you have a lot of stuff in the vault that we could be seeing over the years?

Rob: Oh yeah. As I said, every record you try and go in with about 17 songs and cut it down to around 11 or 12. So there aren't always four or five finished tracks, but for every record, there are at least two songs that didn't get released. Sometimes more. I don't think there were any records where we had as many as we did for Road Apples.

But I know that for a long time, I was reluctant to say what my favorite songs were because they were always the ones that got cut from every record. (laughs) You know, in the case of Up to Here, there is a song called "Wait So Long" that was my favorite tune, and it got cut. And in the case of Road Apples, I think "Ouch" was my favorite song. "Ouch" and "Crack My Spine", and they were two that ended up on the cutting room floor. So after that, I was kind of like, I need to keep my mouth shut. (laughs) I'm not going to champion any song here.

But yeah there are lots of songs from other records and we'll see what happens. It's a big chunk of your life looking back over your shoulder though and to a certain extent I think we're all keen to look forward. But it is good to acknowledge these moments that were important in our lives, and I think, important for other people as well, I hope.

antiMusic: For you personally, do you have anything else on the go or anything that you're looking to engage?

Rob: You know, I have my project Strippers Union that we plug out a record every few years. Usually, I'm in my studio here recording a couple days a week, at least. I put out a double record in, I want to say January...may have been the first week of February. And you know the record industry being what it is, I made 1000 copies of a double vinyl album and sold them all pretty quickly and I leave it at that. No CDs. It's available for people to want to stream it.

I don't have great ambitions at this point. I've toured enough for one lifetime. If the right shows came up...the right opportunities, I'm there but at the moment, nothing's driving me. It's the songwriting and playing that still drives me.

Morley and antiMusic thank Rob for taking the time to speak with us.

Get your copy of the box set here and visit the band's official website to learn more about it here.