By Jason MacNeil
(Album: Now For Plan A released on October 2, Canadian Tour tentatively starting in January out West, no dates announced)
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in Kensington Market, an eclectic area of downtown Toronto known for its cross-section of nationalities, foods and businesses. But on this day (and for the past couple) a great Canadian band is calling the area’s Supermarket bar home, performing brief but free mini-sets throughout the day on a club stage before a meet-and-greet afterwards.
The Tragically Hip – releasing their new studio album Now For Plan A today — have just concluded their 3 p.m., four-song set and will spend close to the next 70 minutes side by side shaking hands, getting hugs, signing Cds, vinyl albums, hats and t-shirts. They’ll also hear dozens of anecdotes from wide-eyed fans who saw them on different tours, enjoyed a small club show Stateside or who simply wanted them to know how integral they’ve been to their lives.
“Meet and greets are cool because we never really did it before,” drummer Johnny Fay says when the crowd has left and holding his neck after a bee (or hornet?) stung him. “We did it in Buffalo once and it was awesome but we never really done it in Canada. It’s the new way of doing business. We’re dinosaurs, the way we make music is from a different age. And that’s a good thing.
“The delivery system is completely different. Sam Sniderman (the late Sam The Record Man founder) is gone. In those days if you didn’t have somebody who didn’t believe in you or put you in a window through a display, that was kind of how you got to the next town. Now this is how you get to people by doing this sort of thing and it’s really cool and new for us.”
What also seems somewhat new is Now For Plan A, an album which perhaps unlike the last few studio efforts (We Are The Same, World Container) has an immediacy and urgency throughout. Fay says part of that came from working with acclaimed producer Gavin Brown (Metric, Billy Talent).
“When we convene to write and do a record we’ll always pick producers that we like the kind of records that they’ve made,” he says. “That’s what we did with Don Smith because he worked with Keith Richards and Tom Petty. And we worked with the great Steve Berlin, he was in Los Lobos and he made some amazing records. We like to get a guy that we know makes great records sonically or has made them. The vision or the direction that it’s going to go comes from there.”
The drummer also says unlike some producers who sacrifice an album for the sake of figuratively fighting to the death for one song, Brown was very direct and focused.
“Gavin, he doesn’t mince words,” Fay says. “He has no problem saying, ‘No’ which in some recording sessions you have to hear. ‘No, I think what we need to do is hone in on this.’ He’s a drummer too so tempo…you don’t get groove unless you have tempo and he’s very good about that.”
Fay says the fact this studio album is their twelfth makes the process more enjoyable.
“Just being in the room and playing,” he says. “That’s part of the nice thing about being a career band is that those things can take shape. You know you’re investing in something whereas if you’re making your first record you really don’t know. That doesn’t mean to say that your red light fever doesn’t disappear because it never does. But it’s a different experience every time. You just know those nuggets you think you can capitalize on.”
After writing between 15 to 16 songs, some whittling down took place to get Now For Plan A’s final running order. Fay says the title track, “Streets Ahead” and the lead single “At Transformation” were finished early in the recording process only to be “retracked” with slight tempo changes.
“It totally made sense because it was way better, the versions that we re-cut,” the drummer says. “But it’s hard. Bands always have a hard time beating their demo. You’re used to listening to that and trying to beat it. That’s always a hard thing and you can never do it.”
One thing which wasn’t so difficult was having Sarah Harmer guest on a couple of tracks, including the title tune. Fay says Brown invited Harmer over to a barbecue to hear the songs.
“The next thing was the microphone was up,” he says. “She’s really amazing because not only is she a national treasure but she’s an incredible musician in the sense that if she can’t bring something to the party she won’t sing on it. She was like, ‘I hear myself on that.’ Many people would say, ‘Oh I’m going to play drums on this or play guitar, play over everything and just pick what you want.’ She’s of the mind that she didn’t hear herself singing.
“And the pairing of the voices is really cool. To me it was really reminiscent of (R.E.M.’s) Michael Stipe and the lady from the B-52s (Kate Pierson) when they did a track together. Sometimes the voices they knit together and sometimes it’s a little too contrived. This is just so natural, she’s pitch-perfect and she did it in a matter of minutes. It was awesome.”
The Tragically Hip will play the final concert at Hamilton’s Ivor Wynne Stadium on Oct. 6 before an extensive American tour kicks off in early November. The Canadian arena tour is slated to begin in January in Western Canada and head east. But sadly the group are at the mercy of a certain group of sports owners and players as far as nailing down dates to perform in certain markets.
“I think it’s kind of changing as the hockey schedule is not coming together,” Fay says referring to the NHL lockout. “I think there’s talk that in January it might be back, Wayne Gretzky said something about that.”
As for plans for the band’s 30th anniversary, Fay says unlike certain sites who have 1983 as their formation, the “brand was born in 1984” so plans will be on hold until 2014.
“We had this shirt that came out that said 1983 and I was like, ‘Is this somebody trying to push this?’” he says. “But it was Wikipedia, it turns out somebody had a date wrong and that becomes the gospel.”
Finally, being in the Toronto area made famous in a 1970s CBC comedy, has the Tragically Hip thought about covering the King Of
Kensington theme song during their Supermarket residency?
“Well, we all loved Larry,” Fay says about Larry King, the character played by the late Al Waxman. “He was a beautiful man. And I watched the show religiously too. It never even came up but I did see see a poster of him somewhere around here.”