THE THIRD TIME REALLY IS A CHARM (PART 1)
A CONVERSATION WITH ROB BAKER OF STRIPPERS UNION
Strippers Union, a veritable Canadian supergroup featuring Craig Northey (Odds) and Rob Baker (The Tragically Hip), recently released their third album, the 18-song double white vinyl The Undertaking. We had the opportunity to speak at length with half of the equation, Rob Baker.
Strippers Union released their first album, the self-titled Strippers Union Local 518, in 2005. Their second album The Deuce in 2011, and now in 2021 with The Undertaking, with the latin phrase “coepi ut a iocus” on the cover, which generally translates as “started as a joke”. 15 years between Strippers Union’s first album to the new, third album, The Undertaking covers a vast portion of the lives of those involved. Sounds evolve, musical preferences and inspirations change and, most importantly, people grow.
“Kind of our band motto, it’s like the name of the band that started as a joke, you know. Being Craig and I had come up through exactly the same sort of feeding grounds as young musicians, and you’re playing in the bars where you have to do your soundcheck by 11:00 am, because the strippers come on at 11:30. They’re done at 8:00 pm and then the band starts at 9:00 pm. We played a lot of those places and we just thought it’s kind of the same thing we do anyways. You get up there often, sometimes for an overenthusiastic audience and sometimes for an audience that is paying no attention and you get up there and bare your soul and do your thing. If you have to you go deep inside yourself and do it and enjoy it for what it is.”.
“There’s a whole side of sci-fi on The Undertaking. There’s also a lot more thoughtful things on friendship and loyalty and the way relationships change over time. Craig and I had both been in long marriages, and long marriages have their challenges as well, and things change over time. It’s about friendship and loyalty and common ground and learning. Craig wrote that song “Take It Back” about knowing when to say I’m sorry, and not leaving it too late. It’s a different approach, it’s a more mature approach, just trying not to repeat what we’d already done. Craig is really drawn to “Take It Back”, and I think it’s because the lyrics flowed out of him very quickly. There’s something about that that’s appealing as a musician. I do think that “We Are The Underworld” would be a lot of fun to play live, in part because it’s a very simple tune. Getting together with my son (Boris Baker) and doing the video for that, I realized it’s such a simple, straightforward song, it would be a gas to play live. Some of them are a lot more complicated, in fact, I’d be a little nervous about trying to pull some of them off live. I got to do these things in my home studio, so I can take as long as I want getting an acoustic track, and then I put an electric track, and then maybe a second electric track, and maybe a separate solo or a pedal steel. And when you go to put something like that live, you have a lot of decisions to make.”
“When we put the first one out, I guess that’s 15 years ago now, no one was making vinyl. It was virtually impossible to get done, not impossible but next to it. That one never came out on vinyl, and I would love to issue that on vinyl, but I don’t know if there’s demand for it. I’m all about the vinyl, vinyl is what it’s about for me. The Deuce is still available on (red) vinyl. I’m getting requests for The Undertaking out on CD, but I’m not a fan of CD’s, never really was, in spite of the three or four thousand of them that I’ve bought over the years. It’s a very different experience, with a CD you put it on and you walk away. Or you’re streaming and it’s just there in the background like wallpaper. But a vinyl album is a much more interactive thing. You put it on, then you’ve got the art that you hold in your hand, it tells you who wrote the songs, where it was recorded, who played on what, maybe the lyrics, who the publishing companies are, you get all of this information that, as a musician, I love that stuff. Music continues to get devalued in subtle little ways and people think that they’re being done a greater service because it’s so available and I don’t know if that makes any of it better. The easier something comes to you, I don’t think it makes you appreciate it more.”
The sound of Strippers Union has evolved over the past 15 plus years. The Undertaking, as with the previous two albums, can be heard to have many musical and genre influences, but with an evolutionary growth and maturity. The album includes Pat Steward of Odds, on drums, Doug Elliot, also of Odds, on bass with Emily Fennell (aka Miss Emily) on backup vocals.
“Craig and I are both huge fans, borderline musicologists I would say. There’s sort of a wheelhouse, you know, the Venn diagram of our tastes, there’s a lot that intersects, the area that intersects is much larger than the area that doesn’t on it (The Undertaking). It includes everything from classic soul and gospel, R&B, the Stax Volt stuff (Stax Records and Volt Records), you know. When Craig and I were making the record, I was out in Vancouver and Pat Steward and Doug Elliot were putting down bass and drums, Craig and I were talking about ‘What was the first album you bought with your own money, your first real album?’ and it was the same album, a Beatles American best of, the Hey Jude album. I just thought it was ironic that on separate coasts, but we’re the same age, we’re in the same line of work and we were coming from the same place. I’ve always tried to let a song dictate where it wants to go, rather than me pushing it in a direction. It’s just like the music gives you a clue of where it wants to go and you try to serve that.”
“From the very first Strippers Union record we had Samantha Moore and Georgette Fry sing on that one. And then, on the second album, we had our backup singers who are Samantha Moore, Miss Emily and Gord Sinclair. This time around it was a bit more of a stripped-down affair, you know, no horn section, no strings, it was just the four of us, in-fact, it was just going to be the two of us because I had originally played all of the bass and drums. I played all of the instruments, Craig did the vocals, and then I started chipping in on vocals. Craig suggested ‘Well, it might be good if we got Pat and Doug to play on at least a couple of the tunes, I think they’d bring them to life’. So I headed out to Vancouver with my hard drive under my arm, and thinking that, well, there were five or six songs that might benefit from them. And then they laid down 17 songs in three days, and every single one of them, I felt, stepped forward. They followed pretty closely to what I had laid down but there’s no substitute for having high quality musicians. I can lay the drums down and take two weeks to do it, but Pat Steward can do it in two takes and it’s way better than anything I’m going to do in two weeks.”
Rob Baker designed The Undertaking’s album artwork, including the cover and inner-fold drawings, one for each song of the record, inspired by the prolific artist Robert Crumb. Baker has also been involved in album design for numerous releases by The Tragically Hip, including Phantom Power and the heron painting on the cover of 2002s In Violet Light.
“R Crumb and the old Paramount Race Records that used to have the illustrations for every song, it’s all a little verboten these days, but the illustrations were incredible, and I just thought, well, kind of like the Janis Joplin Cheap Thrills, doing illustration for every song. I gave myself one day to do an illustration and no take backs. It’s like once you start it see it through to the end. It’s like an improvisation and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.”
“As far as the iconography on the album goes, I’ve had people coming at me over it saying ‘All that Illuminati shit, you’re part of The Illuminati.’ and ‘I had no idea you were a Freemason’. It’s like, ‘Oh yes, I’m a part of The Illuminati, Freemasons, whatever. If you dig a little deeper into the iconography of it, what it all means, those people adapted it from the French Revolution, and they adapted it from the original Prussian or Austrian Illuminati, who were really just a group that was trying to keep Church and State separated and make sure that science was respected. Science and reason need to be foremost and should be the foundation of decision making. It was the Eye of Enlightenment, not the Eye of God. The enlightenment of reason. I just liked the image and I used it for the second album (The Deuce) and so I just did a revamp of it for this one. The 518 (on the cover) is the Kingston musician’s union and 145 (also on the cover) is the Vancouver musician’s union.”
Dogs play an important role in the lives of Rob Baker and Craig Northey. It’s something that helps to bond the two musicians and it shines through in The Undertaking. Two songs are written with dogs in mind; “Dogstar” and “When I Come Back As A Dog”. In fact, the album’s inner album drawing for the former features the body of Baker’s husky with the face of Northey!
“When we do get together it’s ‘How’s the family, how are the dogs?’. The dogs are as important as any family member to us, we love them. The one instance, the song “Dogstar” on the record, Craig happened to be passing through town, I think he was with The Art of Time or he may have been Stephen Page, out on the road. He was staying at one of The Kids In The Hall’s houses for the night and he couldn’t get down to Kingston so I hopped onto the train with my computer and went up to spend the day with him, songwriting, and we sat down, we were chatting about our families, we started chatting about our dogs. Then we chatted about things we’d seen on tv recently and one of the things was Afterlife, the Ricky Gervais series. He’s in the bathtub with a razor to his wrist and the dog is looking at him saying ‘Feed me. Take me for a walk’. The dog kind of saves his life and it cuts to him in the park throwing the stick for the dog. That led to a whole conversation. We were talking about all of this and Craig said ‘Well, we should write this song that we’re talking about, but let’s write from the dog’s perspective, make the whole song consistently only the dog’s point of view’. I said ‘That’s a great challenge, let’s do that’.”
The Tragically Hip ended as a touring entity in 2016 after Gord Downie’s terminal brain cancer diagnosis. In the summer of 2016, The Tragically Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour landed in a select number of dates across Canada one last time. In the years following, Baker has found a new purpose in the realm of music writing and producing with the continuation of Strippers Union, which will likely result in live concert dates in the future.
“I went through this period after The Hip ended as a touring thing, and if you’re not a band on the road, getting up on stage playing for people, what are you? Maybe you’re not a band, and if you’re not a band then you’re not a member of that band then what are you? I got into a major identity crisis, you know, I’d lost my parents, my wife’s parents, one of my best friends who happened to be a bandmate, I lost my career as a band member and I was kinda lost and worried about what I was going to do for the rest of my life. Did I even want to be here for the rest of my life. So to avoid all of these questions, I just went down into my studio and worked, because it’s a form of meditation. When you’re working like that, if you’re playing music or painting or whatever, doing yoga, running, you’re probably not thinking about anything else except what you’re doing. In a sense I was doing it to avoid my issues, but it actually solved my problems, because at a certain point it was like, well this is actually what I do, I don’t have to worry about a second act, it’s a one act play, it’s not over yet.”