THE THIRD TIME REALLY IS A CHARM (PART 2)
A CONVERSATION WITH ROB BAKER OF STRIPPERS UNION
The bands Odds and The Tragically Hip are intrinsically linked through their music, touring, and years of friendship as they go way back to the early ‘90s. Steven Drake, who departed Odds after their first hiatus, mixed various albums for The Tragically Hip (Trouble at the Henhouse, Music @ Work, Yer Favourites) and mixed, recorded, assisted production, and played instruments on Gord Downie’s first solo album (Coke Machine Glow).
“We were big fans of the Odds, we loved the music. We were playing in Seattle at The Moore Theatre, and Gord Sinclair called up Craig and said ‘We’re in Seattle, we love your band, do you guys want to come down to the show and hang out?’. And they said ‘Yeah, we do!’. So they piled into a car and drove to Seattle to come and see the band. They were at sound check and I remember we finished our soundcheck and we walked side stage and started chatting with them and it was like we’d known them our whole lives. All of us, it was instant friendship all the way around. We became great friends, instantly. Years later when I had a build-up of songs, writing songs for The Hip, I might write 10 or 15 things in a year, I’m probably writing a lot more than that now. I would present ideas to the guys in The Hip, but you might only get two or three songs on a record because everyone was a songwriter. You end up with a lot of songs that you believe in, that you’re excited about, that aren’t seeing the light of day. When it came time to clear the pipes, sort of a creative enema, as it were, I never wanted to be a solo artist, I never wanted to be the guy in the spotlight, I always thrived on being in a band, that was always my thing. It’s like, okay, if I can’t be in a band with these guys for this material, who would I chose as a band. It seemed pretty obvious to me, you can go the route of assembling all the best musicians you can find, or you can go the route of assembling all the people you want to hang out with. Who also happened to be very fine musicians. It was an easy choice for me, I just thought, Pat, Doug, and Craig, there’s the band. Johnny (Fay) is still very close friends with Steven Drake, I haven’t spoken to Steven in a long time, but I love him dearly.”
As a member of The Tragically Hip, the legendary late lead singer, Gord Downie, as with most bands, was often the focal member of the band, being seen and heard in interviews, music promotion, and during live shows, along with the other four band members. In his role with Strippers Union, Baker is thrust more into the spotlight along with Northey, as a spokesperson, artist, and musician. This understandably is something that can be an anxious experience.
“At a certain point Gord did not want to give interviews. Gord had enough spotlight on stage, more than he could handle. Anyone who has common sense has some level of performance anxiety, and certainly Gord did. Gord would say ‘I’m not going to be a dancing monkey anymore, I’m going to get up and I’m going to sing the songs.’. The second the spotlight was on him he’d be self-conscious and he would start dancing and miming (laughs) and doing all the things that people loved and were bewildered by. Similarly, he didn’t want to do the interviews so much. He didn’t want to talk about songs, he didn’t want to be asked ‘What does this song mean? What’s the influence of this?’. He wanted the music to speak for itself. On the other hand, on stage, I had no particular desire to be in the spotlight. It’s like, keep the spotlight on him, all eyes are on him anyways, let me just do what I do over here in the half darkness, that’s perfect. But I’m happy to talk about the music and I’ve always enjoyed talking music with people, so, this aspect of promotion, you know, having The Undertaking out and talking to people about what Craig and I are doing, and The Hip and various musical things, I’m totally fine with that, I quite enjoy it. Being on stage, if and when Strippers Union is out playing festivals or something, I will be absolutely stricken with anxiety for the month leading up to the shows, and I’ll be stricken with anxiety up until the moment I step up to a microphone. Once you’re doing it, you’re doing it. A hundred percent more than I sing with The Hip.”
Baker’s guitar influences include David Gilmour, Jimmy Page, Paul Kossoff, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, both of The Rolling Stones. Although these are all bands and artists that got their starts decades ago, Baker keeps his finger on the pulse of new music, in particular Canadian new music, including bands that he’s involved in producing.
“My son (Boris Baker, bass player with Kasador) is a huge fan of Catfish and The Bottlemen, I went to see them in Toronto and I enjoyed them, I thought they were really good. Jason Isbell is kind of like a go-to, I absolutely love Jason Isbell, he’s my number one guy now and has been for a couple of years. I really like Donovan Woods’ writing. There are a lot of good bands out there. Crazy band Crown Lands is a really good band. The Jon Batiste album (We Are) is really good. Sam Coffey and the Iron Lungs, they have a new album out (Real One), holy smokes it’s pretty awesome, it’s a really good record. I love July Talk, big fan. I can’t say enough good things about them. In a weird way, I tell people they remind me of the original Alice Cooper band, except they’re singing about sexual politics instead of, you know, theatrical horror.”
Baker has produced his fair share of music, not only for Strippers Union but for his son’s band Kasador and another Kingston, Ontario band The Wilderness. Putting his skills to use apart from his work with Strippers Union is important for Baker in helping to mould young acts that he works with.
“I have all of these skills, I play guitar, some might say I barely play guitar, but that’s a skill, I’ve spent so much time in studios, I have some skills there. It’s like, how do I put this stuff to use? I have opinions about songwriting and some songwriting chops, so why not just keep doing it? Maybe I won’t make any money at it, and it makes no difference, I get personal satisfaction and a sense of self-worth from doing it, so that’s what I’ll do.”
“Now is not a great time for young road musicians. My heart goes out to them. My son (Boris Baker), he and I get together in my studio downstairs at least one day a week and work on songwriting together, plugging away at songs. Maybe the two of us will have an album at some point. Helping him with songwriting for his band, whatever I can do to help them. I produced half of their last album, their first album, Brood & Bloom. I’m producing another band called The Wilderness, who are a local band here, and their singer should be an international star already, I feel like I’m failing him. The guy is like a young Bruce Springsteen, he’s quite incredible.”
The Tragically Hip have worked with a plethora of producers over the years including Steve Berlin, Don Smith, Bob Rock, Chris Tsangarides, Kevin Drew, Dave Hamelin, and Mark Vreeken, just to name a few. With so many different styles and personalities working with The Tragically Hip over their decades of work, Baker has adapted his very own style of producing, taking what he’s learned from some of the best in the business.
“I take the same approach that a song takes. Sometimes you have to get in there and try to shape a song, if you do, it’s usually because there’s a fundamental problem with it. Most of the time, it tells you what it needs, and it’s kind of the same with a band. When we did our first two albums with Don Smith, who was far and away the greatest producer we ever worked with, for The Hip he was it. He loved The Tragically Hip, he loved the way we were, the way we sounded, the way we interacted, and he said ‘My job is to just capture lighting in a bottle, to get the best performances of those songs with the best possible recording.’. A song here and there where he might say we need to tighten up the ending a little bit, or just play rhythm here and we’ll overdub a solo. It was very hands-off. He was an engineer. I spent the first week in the studio waiting for him to tell me how to set my amp. It was like, oh, he doesn’t do that, because he worked with (Bob) Dylan and Tom Petty and Keith Richards and Roy Orbison. He was just there to capture the lightning. There were other producers we worked with who try and change everything like the way you dress, the way you act (laughs), it’s like, come on dude. Steve Berlin, from Los Lobos, he did Phantom Power and Music @ Work, was a fantastic producer for The Hip. He was kind of a hybrid of Don Smith hands-off, ‘I love the band, I just want to capture them.’. He would get in and coach a little bit, in a very good and positive way, like maybe the way only a musician can with other musicians. So, he was great.”
“Steve Berlin and Bob Rock said a similar thing to us. Bob Rock, it would drive me crazy sometimes, but he’d say ‘Okay, I want the rhythm session on this one played exactly like Fleetwood Mac would play it. But I want the guitars to do…’ and he’d reference someone else. ‘On this song I want the guitars to do what The Clash would do, but I want the bass and drums to do what The Psychedelic Furs would do.’. It was that kind of thing and we’d kind of look at each other, like, really, is that what we’re doing? Someone actually said ‘We don’t really want to sound like Fleetwood Mac’. He said ‘It doesn’t really make any difference, you could spend the rest of your life trying to sound like Fleetwood Mac, you’ll only ever sound like The Tragically Hip’. I was kind of like ‘Yeah, he’s actually not wrong’. Steve Berlin said a similar thing. Gord Downie said ‘I don’t think we should be doing the song, I think it sounds too much like The Rolling Stones’. And Steve Berlin said ‘I think you should try and play it exactly the way The Stones would play it, and I guarantee it will sound more like The Hip than The Stones’. The song was “Poets” and it became probably our best-performing song at radio. Steve Berlin was not wrong”.
“We did the third album (Fully Completely) with Chris Tsangarides, and we did that in London (UK). We only knew Chris from his albums with Concrete Blonde, and we loved Concrete Blonde’s early albums. So we were all excited and Chris was so enthusiastic that, yeah, this is who we want. It was only once he started producing us that we realized he was the godfather of English metal . Which is just a bizarre fit. I don’t know if he knew what to make of us and I don’t know if we knew what to make of him, but he was just such a lovely guy and we had a very successful record with him. It was completely the exact opposite of how we did the records with Don Smith. It was like three-and-a-half weeks of nothing but bass and drums. Then it was like four days to do all of the guitar parts. Then we’ve got four days to do all the vocals.”
Hockey is a religion in Canada. Strippers Union’s “The Enforcer” helps to further embody the ice sport into our musical relationship with the game. It helps that Baker comes from the hockey-hotbed of Kingston, Ontario, childhood home of Baker’s friends, hockey greats Kirk Muller and Doug Gilmour.
“I thought when we were doing the lyrics, and Craig really had this idea that this is where he wanted to take the song, in my mind, I had been chasing down the direction that was kind of like John Martyn, early ‘70s English guitar player, he had “Solid Air” and “May You Never”, a lot of great tunes. So I was kind of chasing down that sort of acoustic soft vibe, and Craig said ‘I think it’s about a hockey enforcer,’ and I was like ‘Really? I don’t know’’. I was like ‘I got that The Hip are kind of known for hockey songs, but do we really have to go down this road?’ And then we started talking about it and writing the lyrics and I thought, okay, a hockey enforcer is a pretty great metaphor for friendship and for being in a band, for being in any group collaboration where it’s this person’s time to shine and I need to do something, I need to be the back that they step on to get over the top. I thought it would be a very strange one if they cut together footage of hockey fights and played it over that song, it would make no sense. Lyrically maybe, but not musically.”
Baker wears many hats. When not producing music, writing music, and creating art in his home studio, he also plays the role of DJ, which he’s been doing in one way or another for as long as he’s been into music. Baker also DJ’s on SiriusXM’s The Tragically Hip radio, channel 757, occasionally taking over The Verge, SiriusXM channel 173, two or three times a year with his music show.
“I have a radio show on Sirius. Friday nights at six o’clock, usually 70 or 80 minutes, it’s satellite radio, it doesn’t have to be one hour or two hours. If I want to do a three hour show they’d say ‘Awesome, great!’. In the band I would DJ on the tour bus, I’d DJ in the dressing room, I would put together the music that got played in the house at whatever show we were playing, whether it was a club or an arena. I would DJ that music, that was my thing. In a weird way it’s almost why we became a band in the first place. It’s about trying to hit people to the music that you are into. I was the guy that would always show-up at a grade 8 party with a stack of albums under my arm and I’d take over the stereo. That would be my position. I would settle in there and if someone wanted to put on the new KISS album they’d have to fight me first. ‘Boston? Fuck you!’ I don’t play The Hip because it’s The Hip Station and there’s enough already. We did (The Undertaking) it in two parts. We did sides A and B as one show and C and D as a separate show. Craig and I did a Zoom call and talked about each song.”
Singer-songwriter and guitarist Gordon Lightfoot is a Canadian music icon who influenced many Canadian musicians over the years. In 2003, the tribute album Beautiful – A Tribute To Gordon Lightfoot was released. Artists including Blue Rodeo, Cowboy Junkies, Ron Sexsmith, Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, and Murray McLauchlan contributed songs. The Tragically Hip contributed “Black Day In July”, a Lightfoot song about the 1967 race riots in Detroit.
“All the guys in The Hip love Lightfoot. It doesn’t get any more Canadian that that. Gord is a very Canadian thing. We got asked to do a song for the tribute album and, I guess we were maybe an afterthought, and they had given away a lot of the songs, it made no difference because our first choice would have been ‘Black Day In July’ anyway. It was one we knew no one else would be doing. Gord didn’t write too many, sort of, aggressive political angry songs. It was one that Sinclair and I grew up listening to and loved. I think The Hip had tried, in a couple of rehearsals, in the early, early days, we had attempted it and it proved to be a little more than we were willing to take on, at the time. And then when the opportunity came to do it for a Gordon Lightfoot tribute album we said ‘Yep, let’s do it.’ There’s a documentary about Gordon Lightfoot, that they run sometimes on tv, a really good documentary. In it, he talks about the impact his music has had on musicians and how people have done cover versions, and he said ‘Of all the cover versions of my songs, I think my favourite one is ‘Black Day In July’ by The Tragically Hip.’. I was sitting in my kitchen one day, watching this documentary with my son, and he said that and I was just pretty floored. I got to meet Gordon on a number of occasions, such a gentleman, such a good guy, he’s amazing.”
To say that The Tragically Hip played a lot of live shows during their career would be an understatement. They’ve played many concerts and festivals around the world, including Another Roadside Attraction, which was a traveling music festival created and headlined by The Tragically Hip which toured parts of Canada in 1993, 1995, and 1997. Some of the bands that were included in the Another Roadside Attraction tours include Midnight Oil, Crash Vegas, Daniel Lanois, Blues Traveler, Eric’s Trip, Rheostatics, Spirit Of The West, The Inbreds, Sheryl Crow, Wilco, Los Lobos, Change Of Heart, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, and Ron Sexsmith.
“Picking all those bands, that was a great joy. That’s why we did (Another) Roadside Attraction. It was about ‘We can be a live jukebox. We can pick all these bands that we love. Who is it that we would wanna go see?’ And then, we’ll make all these people sit through them. That’s what it was all about for us. We enjoyed that, that was a good part about being in the position we were in. We didn’t play a lot of shows opening for people, it was one of those things. But in the very early days we did some opening slots for people and they inevitably treated us like shit. Later on we did some slots opening for people like The Rolling Stones, or Page and Plant, or The Who, and you get treated very differently. Those people lasted in the business because they know how to treat people. You see all the same people on your way down that you saw on your way up. If you’re a dick to people, you know, it comes back. You try and be decent, treat people well, and remember what it’s like to be a band coming up, hoping to get a break. Pass it on.”
“I did chat a little bit with Jimmy Page. Got to chat with Robert Plant on a daily basis. Very funny, amenable guy. He’d just walk into our dressing room, flop down, crack a beer and hold court. He’d just walk-up in soundcheck, pick-up a guitar and start jamming with us, or sit down at the guitar kit. He’s a great guitar player, a great drummer. A really lovely, fascinating guy. Very opinionated, got into some heated debates with him about music. It was good, an incredible guy. We did thirty shows with those guys.”
Strippers Union’s The Undertaking continues the legacy of members of The Tragically Hip and Odds contributing to the musical landscape. New previously unreleased music from The Tragically Hip is also on its way, according to Baker; “Keep your ears peeled for new Hip music too.” With any luck, we’ll also see Strippers Union touring their excellent catalogue, continuing to grow the friendship between Rob Baker and Craig Northey.