PUBLISHED IN THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR ON Thursday, February 9, 1995
Only in Canada could being so famous be so ordinary
TORONTO — Anonymity has its rewards.
Gord Sinclair and Paul Langlois — respectively bassist and guitarist for Canada’s coolest band of the moment, The Tragically Hip, are crossing a busy strip of Toronto’s Queen Street West en route to a Mexican restaurant.
There are no glass-shattering screams of instant recognition from surprised schoolgirls. The air remains unpolluted by the honking of car horns, nor are there whoops emanating from the rolled-down windows of drivers, happily blasting the band’s latest album, Day For Night, from car stereos.
In fact, both Langlois and Sinclair don’t even warrant a second glance from passers-by, and reception is equally warm in the restaurant.
No one knows who they are.
“Any of us can walk down Queen Street. We’re almost imageless, ” Sinclair, 30, is saying later over a plate of burger and fries.
“That’s been one of the goals — to keep it focused on the music. When you think of The Tragically Hip, one focuses on a blurry bunch of faces.”
“We’re lucky,” adds Paul Langlois, a smile crossing his lips. “We don’t have nice faces. We’d be in a lot of trouble if we had to rely on them.”
Still, in an age where television breeds instant facial familiarity — and God knows the pride of Kingston has had enough videos on MuchMusic alone over the past eight years to justify immediate recognition — and taking into account the band’s molten-hot popularity, it seems almost unimaginable that The Tragically Hip could be enjoying the semblance of normalcy they’re allowed in their private lives.
Need further proof?
The public was so hungry for The Hip’s new album, Day For Night, that record company MCA shipped 240,000 copies in time for the CD’s September 24 release date. Three days later, the album passed the 300,000 — that’s triple platinum — mark.
Every Hip album ever released has surpassed 500,000 copies sold in Canada. The list includes Up To Here, Road Apples, Fully Completely, and now Day For Night, which reached the half-million plateau late last week. Their self-titled debut EP is at 200,000, for a grand total estimate nearing the 2.5 million mark.
Within an hour of going on sale, the majority of the 165,000 tickets for 19 arena dates across Canada The Hip are playing this month sold out. All 14,000 tickets for Copps Coliseum disappeared in 50 minutes.
“It’s been the same group of guys together for ten years,” says Sinclair, recalling the days when he, Langlois, singer Gord Downie, guitarist Bobby Baker and drummer Johnnie Fay first got together as student at Queen’s University in Kingston.
“It’s rolled off our backs. We’ve always approached The Tragically Hip as a songwriting unit first and foremost. Living down in Kingston, it’s not really a huge deal to anyone there.”
“We’re not the kind of guys to ride around in limos,” adds Langlois, 31. “We’re more modest.”
The duo adds that singer Gord Downie prefers to share the spotlight rather than hog it, hence the reason he’s doing minimal interviews for the tour.
“Gord has always been interested in being in a group foremost,” explains Langlois. “If anything, he doesn’t like being separate. During the time we’ve known each other, we’ve never had an ego problem within the band. It’s much easier being in a group than being the main focus.”
“Obviously the singer is going to be the focus, and we happen to have a good one,” states Sinclair. “But Gord’s always been pretty insulated. We may sound self-indulgent, but it’s a self-indulgent business. We do things to please ourselves.
“But we’re not the type of band that has green hair or wears nose rings. People don’t come to see us smash our guitar or see Gord jump off the lighting tower. We’re just interested in making creative music. That’s where it begins and ends.”
That humility also serves as an explanation for why the band won’t be returning to Hamilton for The Juno Awards ceremony on March 26 — or any subsequent awards show, for that matter.
“We went down to the Junos in Vancouver a few years ago, and we felt awkward,” confesses Sinclair. “It just wasn’t us. We had a good time seeing the other musicians, but we always thought it was weird — getting an award to do your job. We’re in the music business , but we’ve gone out of our way to separate ourselves from the industry. We don’t go to parties because we don’t really like them all that much.
“It’s not like we crave the attention. No one’s really interested.”
“At least we got to see M.C. Hammer,” chuckles Langlois.”
Instead, the band will be playing the United States, which has so far resisted The Hip’s charm. Day For Night will be released next week on the band’s new U.S. label, Atlantic, after MCA down south gave up the ghost.
America steadily provides another reason for the band to keep its feet on the ground. Where they can easily fill stadiums in Canada, they have problems drawing 100 people to some clubs south of the border.
“We’ve never been too frustrated about the States,” injects Langlois, anticipating the question. “We’re taking the same route we took with Canada. We’re building from the ground up, through word-of-mouth.
“Texas, Chicago and Tucson are some of our hot spots. In some cases, we’re selling out 1500 seat clubs. Then you go up the road to Phoenix and it’s 50 to 75 people.”
“It’s hard to figure out, but that’s the beauty and the mystery of it — you never know what to expect.”
According to Sinclair, new technology — especially the Internet, the computerized electronic mail system — is making things easier.
“We toured for two-and-a-half months in the U.S. without supporting a record, and organized the whole thing on our basic e-mail list,” said Sinclair, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and within the next two weeks, on the World Wide Web at http.//www.cimtegration.con/ent/.music/hip/hip/htm.
“It’s been our most successful U.S. tour to date.”
Langlois says The Hip reads almost all of its mail, as they’ve hired a full-time employee to pour through the message traffic.
“It’s great, because you can talk directly to your fans,” says Langlois. “”We can go into a centrally located place if we know far enough in advance, and get the word out. People will travel 400 miles to see us in the States.
“We first heard about it when a friend said conversation were going on about us on the Internet. But now, every few days, we receive eight or nine pages of little letters.”
Sinclair says he’s looking forward to playing Hamilton.
“We haven’t played the Hammer since the famous brawl at Dallas. It must have involved 100 people,” he says.
“I think a guy looked at somebody else’s girl friend and chairs flew,” recalls Langlois,” But with regard to Copps, we’re hoping everyone will bring a can of food, and we’ve also set up some information booths for other organizations.”
There’s quite a local connection with The Hip as well. They recorded a good portion of Day For Night at Daniel Lanois‘ Kingsway Studios in New Orleans, and Dan’s brother Bob has lensed a couple of videos for the project, “Grace Too” and “Nautical Disaster.”
And of course, former Hamiltonian Mark Howard shared co-production with the band.
“Mark loves to experiment with texture,” says Sinclair. “We spent eight-to-10-hour days and it was really refreshing. We hadn’t tried that much experimentation before.”
But don’t count on that oft-rumored “shadow” album rearing its head anytime soon.
“We’re just mining those tapes for song ideas,” says Sinclair. “We had so much stuff left over from New Orleans that we’ll probably turn it into a real record.”
All in all, members of The Tragically Hip seem happy that they weren’t overnight sensations, and hope for similar success in the U.S.
“We prefer the slow route with long term results,” adds Sinclair. “We want the national exposure, but we don’t want the cover of Rolling Stone until we earn it.”
“We’re aspiring to be nominees for the 1997 Best New Artist Award at the Grammys,” laughs Langlois.
“We won’t be at that show either. We’ll be working.”