Interview: Johnny Fay of The Tragically Hip
The Tragically Hip has recorded a handful of records in New Orleans, but nothing prepared the members of the Canadian rock band for what they witnessed on the way to the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, TX, earlier this month.
"You would have thought the hurricane hit yesterday," drummer Johnny Fay said. "There were sections that they just haven't done anything with. If you didn't know and you arrived in the French Quarter, you would never know except lots of places are for sale because the crime rate has gone up.
"Knowing what you know, it's kind of sad for the city. There's been some real improvements in the quarter, but overall the city is struggling. It needs people to go and spend their money. That's what we did. We went and took our crew out for dinner. Stayed in hotels. There's so much music and so much history in that town, it can't die. It would just be a shame. But it seemed like the outer-lying areas--like the Ninth Ward that was really hit bad--is just sort of sitting there. It's not right."
Currently promoting 2006's "World Container," The Tragically Hip recently toured with The Who as an opening act. Fay--who is joined in the band by singer/acoustic guitarist Gordon Downie, lead guitarist Rob Baker, rhythm guitarist Paul Langlois and bassist Gord Sinclair--said playing with The Who was like completing the holy trinity.
"We played with Page and Plant. We played with the Stones. When the opportunity came up to play with The Who, we jumped at it. Those are the big three," he said.
Fay talked to SoundSpike about "World Container," the song "New Orleans is Sinking" and the importance of notoriety.
SoundSpike: Your experience in New Orleans really gives new meaning to your song "New Orleans is Sinking."
Johnny Fay: We had people in Canada and they said, "We're not gonna play that song." But if you did the history on that city, they've always been expecting a big one. They have a drink called the hurricane. You go down Bourbon Street and they say, "Bring it on. Bring it on; we're ready for it." Gord [Downie] wrote that in 1984. That's a long time ago. He was just even then getting the vibe of the city and the people. They were talking about it back then. Waiting for the big one. It was done with no disrespect, obviously, if you listen to the lyrics. It's nine feet below sea level, so it was bound to happen. And it's very sad that it did. Gord introduces the song now as "New Orleans is Sinking and We Don't Want to Help." It just seems like people don't want to help.
You've pretty much consistently released albums every two years. Is that a schedule that's tough to stick with?
It's interesting, because Bono said you don't want to let too much time pass before you get together and at least write some songs and keep that going. When you do take time off, that's when it gets harder. If you're a true band and you hook up with each other at least every couple weeks, then you've got that thing going and you're able to stick to it. Then you got a couple songs, then you go into the studio and you're ignited again. That's the most important thing.
Do you write mostly in the studio or outside of the studio?
I think it's a little of both. We used to write in jams. With "New Orleans is Sinking," the music was written out of a jam for a song we were playing. I forget what it was, it was so long ago. That gives you an initial spark for a song. You might hone in when you're in the studio.
What was it like to work with producer Bob Rock on "World Container"?
It was really cool. We spend so much time going in the southern states working with Americans, it was really cool to record in Canada with a Canadian after all these years. We kind of pick the producer based on his prior work. Don Smith, on our first couple records, he worked with Tom Petty and he worked with Keith Richards. We liked his approach. Maybe we didn't know too much about him as an arranger. We were very happy with the way those records turned out. Working with Bob, he's awesome. He gets involved in everything. He sort of hones in on the parts. The songs come together pretty fast with him. They're either a song or they're not.
In your bio, it mentions you had a newfound freedom on this album. What were you able to do on this record that you couldn't do before?
[Rock] would tell me to play out, do crazy Keith Moon rolls, and only Keith Moon can do that. He gave me direction and [told me] to have some fun with it. It wasn't all business, and he never once came out and said, "We're not getting a track here." He said, "Just explore that." It's kind of sounding a little like the SNL, "Just explore with the cowbell." But it was a little like that. He gave us all kinds of room to just have fun. He was really open to stuff. I think when you're that mega, nothing really phases you. You just take it in stride. We've worked with, obviously, guys who have not been as mega and they've been really protective: "This is my sound and I have to do this." He just let stuff happen--the happy little accidents. And also, for all the stuff that he's been through, he was very about sounds. He'd say, "See you guys later. Be back tomorrow," and a half an hour later, you'd still see him in the studio playing a guitar or playing the piano. He just loves music so much. It was really refreshing to see a guy who's been through all of that with Metallica and back, if you watch the video, those records couldn't have been easy to make. It hasn't jaded him in any way. So it's very refreshing.
It sounds like it was a very organic experience.
Very much so, yeah. He didn't want us to know the songs too much. He wanted sort of rough ideas, and then none of the bad habits crept in, which is cool. We wouldn't spend much more than six or seven takes getting a track.
On your new album, there's a song called "Lonely End of the Rink." Tell me about the meaning of that song. I'm a huge hockey fan.
"Lonely End of the Rink," well, Gord [Downie]'s a goalie. Many times, he says it's not a hockey song. But I think our songs are cool in that way that it's left up to whoever wants to interpret it. I think there are some hockey references in it. It can be a very lonely job if your team's good. But goalies have the hardest gig out there in hockey.
You've opened for a myriad of legends. What did you learn from playing with those bands?
It's really interesting. I think the band we maybe learned the most from was Midnight Oil. We toured with them. We did a thing called Roadside Attraction. We toured across Canada years and years ago. The way they attack their songs live--they play them a little faster, a little more aggressive. They were already a heavy band. You take something away from every song like that. How they re-intrepret those old songs it's cool.
You're nominated for four Junos. Congratulations. Is it important to win a Juno?
No, it's not so much important to win. When it's fan-voted on, that's when it's most important. We've won a couple of those awards. I did watch the Grammys, and it was really crazy for the Dixie Chicks. I never bought their record. I still don't think I would. The politicking that goes in those sort of things ... we don't invest too much in that. When it's fan voted on, that's what's best.
How about being inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame?
No, no, no that was cool. It was kind of weird, but it was kind of cool. We were just about to put our greatest-hits package out. We walked down the red carpet and there's all these young bands there. But we still got gas in the tank. It was a little crazy. The induction is kind of crazy because you think they're putting you out of your misery; then you look and Neil Young got it, Rush have it, all those people are still playing. It's nice. Awards in the early days were cool and now they're for your families. I gave all mine to my mother, for instance. It's nice to be recognized.