Love of family and hockey bonded the late Tragically Hip frontman and the Payola$ co-founder
By Nick Krewen
Special to the Star
So, it turns out that Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie had at least one more album in him.
But there’s a difference between Lustre Parfait, the brilliant work he recorded with Payola$ co-founder and über-producer Bob Rock (Metallica, Michael Bublé, Mötley Crüe) that’s out Friday and recent releases Away Is Mine, Introduce Yerself and Secret Path: Downie, who passed away in 2017 from glioblastoma at the age of 53, started this one on a lark.
“It’s a happy accident,” Rock said late last week from his studio in Maui, Hawaii. “This is really just two guys that are friends making music that we love with all our influences.”
The camaraderie between the two was sparked after The Hip, 10 albums deep into a career that spawned three separate million-selling albums – and still the only act, Canadian or otherwise, to achieve that sales summit domestically – hired Rock, who has sold more than 60 millions albums helming everyone from Metallica and Bon Jovi to Bryan Adams and The Offspring, to produce World Container in 2008 and its follow-up We Are The Same.
During the sessions, the duo bonded over their common love of hockey and family (‘we talked about Bobby Orr a lot because he was a huge Boston fan, and I was a Bobby Orr fan, but we’d laugh because of the Canucks and Boston. I’m a Canucks fan, so there you go,’ said Rock) and when it came time to wrap, Downie posed a question to Rock.
“He said, ‘Do you have any music?’ Can you send me some music?'” Rock recalled.
“So, I sent him a few things and they came back songs, and I thought, ‘well this is cool.’ And he wrote 14 songs to the tracks that I had written and put together.”
Rock explained that when he isn’t producing, he’s composing, which was the reason he had stockpiled so many instrumentals.
“Basically the reason I had all those tracks recorded was because I write,” Rock explained.
“That’s what I do. That’s just my passion. I guess, in a funny way, the studio is an instrument to me.”
Lustre Parfait was then recorded in piecemeal fashion: when Downie wasn’t working with The Hip, he and Rock would “grab a weekend, or two or three days” – either in Toronto, L.A. or Vancouver, “’til we finally got it finished.”
While there was little doubt the 62-minute work would be released as an album, there was no timeline for its release nor much attention to the promotion and publicity aspects usually worked on after such a project’s completion.
Even the video for the single “Greyboy Says” – which showcases a live performance featuring Rock on guitar accompanied by The Offspring members Dexter Holland and Noodles, ace drummer Abraham Laboriel Jr. (k.d. lang, Paul McCartney) and Jamey Koch (Art Bergmann) – barely contains a few snippets of Downie singing the song in a vocal booth and sitting behind the control board, due to the impromptu nature of their gatherings.
“This was so nonchalant that there is no video and barely any pictures of us together, because we weren’t even thinking about that,” Rock admitted. “We were just thinking about the music.”
Eventually, Downie’s terminal diagnosis became a reality during the latter stages of recording Lustre Parfait.
“His recording was done months before – and when he got sick, I looked to finish it so he would hear it,” Rock recalled. “So, he kind of heard the finished product, but when he passed away, I really couldn’t listen to it, to be quite honest, for a long time.”
At the recent behest of Tragically Hip manager Jake Gold and the Arts & Crafts record label – and honouring a pledge he made to Downie – Rock put aside his grief to finish Lustre Parfait.
“Basically Gord made me promise that everybody should hear this,” said Rock. “Looking at it I realized that the most important thing was Gord’s vocals and his lyrics, so, I finished the album because I had a new perspective.
“I never had a chance to mix it and finish it properly. I actually took a couple weeks and it was really great finishing it and I fulfilled my promise. So far, people seem to like it.”
As they should: Lustre Parfait is a stunning, thrill ride of an album that features Downie at his rocking, passionate, best and Rock sculpting the perfect musical foundations around his lyrically cryptic musings. The addition of Adam Greenholtz‘s keyboards offers a sonically diverse palate where barnburners like “The Raven And The Red-Tailed Hawk” and the horn-spiced title track rattle with adrenaline, but also add gravitas to the moodier “The Moment Is A Wild Place.”
There’s even a pseudo-reggae-fueled track called “Safest Day Of The Year” that harkens back to the feel of Rock’s Payola$ roots, underscoring the album’s spontaneous feel.
“The thing that was great – and we talked about it – is that there were no expectations on what it should sound like,” Rock enthused. “If you listen to the record, there are all sorts of my influences – I wear that on my sleeve – and he was having fun doing it.
“There was a certain amount of freedom because there was no path to the project. And unfortunately, there’s no future, which is a drag – we really enjoyed it and we had plans to continue when the timing was right. We had a lot of fun.”
Rock described Downie’s writing approach as similar to the Grammy-winning Winnipeg native’s initial partnership with his Payola$ co-founder Paul Hyde: one that yielded such late ’70s and early ’80s hits as “China Boys,” “Eyes Of A Stranger” and “Hammer On A Drum.”
“Paul and I still write together – although I don’t know if any of that will ever surface – but with ‘Eyes Of A Stranger,’ I put together the whole track of the demo and ‘Eyes Of A Stranger’ is a demo.
“Based on what he heard, that’s how Paul wrote the song. It was the same with Gord.”
For “Safest Day of the Year,” for example, Rock stated that Downie just improvised lyrics like “The night sky’s a rye and Pepsi” and “Afternoon’s white as smoke/And zebra-wound-red, and worn-out-tradition yellow.”
“It’s almost like poetry in a way… the verses. The (musicians) just had the groove and he just started free-forming all the lyrics. He just like the way it sounded and he was really happy with that. Once again, the images of his lyrics are so strong.”
Although Downie typically kept most of the meanings of his lyrics private, Rock revealed that the singer asked him about an instrumental song he had given him entitled “Camaro.”
“The title came from my wife Angie’s favourite car and he asked, ‘what’s that all about?’,” Rock recalled. “He came back with the lyrics, and if you listen to the lyrics, they’re absolutely brilliant.”
A sample: “Camaro/reveal what I feel in my heart/my heart is set on you/ Daylight between us/ the great sea crashes/silver fingers approach/Our toes.”
Rock was floored.
“I don’t know how you can work the word ‘Camaro’ into a song but he found a way. It’s amazing.”
Rock also admitted that when he received the initial recording of “Greyboy Says” from Downie, he didn’t think the music was up to snuff with the quality of the vocal performance.
“Basically I just stripped everything away and started from scratch musically,” Rock revealed. “I just rewrote all the music.”
Rock said he was impressed by Downie’s efforts.
“All of these songs have amazing stories and his perspective on everything is so great.”
The duo had so much fun assembling Lustre Parfait that Rock said Downie also wrote a screenplay based on the album – although it’s unknown whether the film will ever be produced.
They had also toyed with the idea of performing the occasional tour upon its release, before Downie’s deteriorating health made it an impossibility. Rock said that he may be open to performing a show or two with guest vocalists if such plans are ever solidified.
“Gord and I thought about it (performing),” Rock confirmed. “We thought, well, we’re not going to tour, but we thought it would be great to do a show in Toronto or Montreal – the major cities…maybe in art galleries.
“When you hear it, you feel it should be played, because it sounds lively – there’s a feel to it. We’ll see how it plays out. I’m just glad it’s out at this point.”
Rock, who has been working in the studio again with The Offspring and Mötley Crüe and is also planning to produce Lukas Nelson – son of country music icon Willie Nelson – says he’s extremely proud of Lustre Parfait.
“It was a long journey and it was great that I fulfilled a promise to Gord,” said Rock.
“He was a great man. I care for him dearly and I miss him.”