25 years ago: the Tragically Hip brings Road Apples to the Town Pump

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      Twenty-five years ago today--on February 21, 1991--the Georgia Straight published my interview with 28-year-old Bobby Baker, lead guitarist for the Tragically Hip. (He didn't become known as Rob Baker until 1994, for those who keep track of such things.)

      Two days earlier the band had released its third album, Road Apples, which you may recall for such fine rockin' numbers as "Little Bones", "Born in the Water", "Three Pistols", and "The Luxury".

      The group was getting set to play Vancouver's Town Pump, which was always the best place to see them.

      Man I miss the Pump. I reckon Baker does too.

      Anyway, here's that old story:


      I wasn’t expecting such a cheery tone from Tragically Hip lead guitarist Bobby Baker when he called recently from the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario. When the band played Vancouver last—at the Trade & Convention Centre’s New Year’s Eve bash—the crowd pelted the band with beer cans and at one point doused singer Gordon Downie with a jugful of orange liquid. The fact that the band played a relatively short set and didn’t return for an encore led led some observers to the opinion that they were ticked off, to say the least. But Brooks begs to differ.

      “It was a good crowd,” says the 28-year-old string-bender. “It got a little hairy a couple of times, but that’s okay. We don’t really encourage people to throw things at us, but we don’t take it personally when they do.”

      Those over-zealous New Year’s partyers might be forgiven for their rowdiness anyway, considering that the Tragically Hip’s raucous, steamroller sound incites such frenzy. And Baker’s claims that he’s seen crowds a lot worse during the band’s frequent trips around the country.

      “The last time across Canada we had a few bad incidents—two in Calgary and one in Edmonton. Someone broke their neck at one of our gigs. Mostly it’s stage jumping, but somebody climbed up into the scaffolding and fell off. And the last time in Ottawa was pretty bad too—we had about 30 people taken out on stretchers. But I don’t know what you can do about people jumpin’ off the stage. They want to show their enthusiasm, and we don’t want to put a damper on ’em.”

      Fortunately for local Hip fanatics, the stage they’ll be performing on next Friday (March 1) at the Town Pump doesn’t leave much of a fall to the dance floor. It’s actually the first venue the band ever played in Vancouver and a personal fave of Baker.

      “I think it’s one of the best rock ’n’ roll clubs in Canada,” he enthuses. “It’s not the biggest, or the most beautiful, but it’s a great club to see a band in. That’s why we’re there as opposed to someplace else.”

      Ticketless Tragically Hip fans needn’t fret too much about not getting in to Friday’s sold-out show, though, since the band is planning another swing through Vancouver early this summer. The group wants to take the tunes from its new album, Road Apples, to every nook and cranny of the country. And tough tracks like “Little Bones”, “Born in the Water”, “Three Pistols”, and “The Luxury” are bound to be crowd-pleasers.

      “The songs were much more of a collective effort,” says Baker, “which is something we’ve been working toward since the beginning. We’re probably better players and better songwriters than on the last album, and we knew our way around the studio a little bit better.”

      Forgoing the Memphis studio that they used on the previous Up to Here album—which sold 200,000 copies in Canada—the band recorded Road Apples inside a big old house in New Orleans. But they didn’t mess with the basic songwriting process much.

      “Often what happens is Gord just sits with a book in front of him, a little sketch-pad basically, and he’s writing down things as they come to him—little snippets of conversation, or a road sign, or whatever may inspire a line or two. So he ends up with these pads full of lyrics, and we’ll just start jamming, and Gord’ll flip through his book until he finds something that feels appropriate, rhythmically. And if we can get a good groove happening, then he just starts singing.”

      Having made an impressive mark on the Canadian music scene in a relatively short time (winning a Juno for most promising band, and taking home no less than four 1990 Casby awards), Baker admits that the Tragically Hip are a bit like hometown heroes in their native city. But it’s still not Beatlemania on the streets of Kingston.

      “We don’t get mobbed or any such thing, but every once in awhile someone’ll stop and ask for an autograph. And whenever something’s going on, like a Juno nomination or something, there’ll definitely be a big headline in the local paper.

      “And when a band gets out of Kingston and starts to play around—has a video on TV or whatever—then it gives other musicians from the town hope. The music scene here went through sort of a slow time, where there was just live music in a Mexican restaurant one night a week or something, but now it seems to be really turning around. I can’t claim that we’re responsible for it, but right now there’s a lot of bands playing around in Kingston.”

      As well as being proud of the burg his band began in, Baker is also somewhat of a patriot when it comes to his country. That pride showed through when it came time to find a title for the new album.

      “It’s actually a funny story,” he says. “We had several names for the record, and the American label—we’re signed directly to MCA USA—felt that all of our titles were too much inside jokes, or that they sounded too Canadian. And they’re really giving us this, ‘Oh no, Americans won’t understand it.’

      “So we said, ‘Oh, how about Road Apples,’ ” Baker says, recalling the old slang for horseshit. “And of course they had no idea what road apples were in Los Angeles. They said, ‘Oh yeah! Songs that you wrote on the road! We love it!’

      “At that point everyone was a little pissed off that we were encountering so much resistance from the American label about the name of the record, and the fact that we’re Canadian…and proud of it, I guess.”