There's something surreal about seeing The Tragically Hip, one of the country's biggest and most iconic bands, play in a small club in Toronto's perennially underground Kensington Market.
The crowd packed into the back room of Supermarket -- renamed "Now For Plan A Headquarters" for the duration of The Tragically Hip's three-day residency in celebration of the release of their brand-new album of the same name -- can barely believe what's about to happen as they wait for the band to take the stage for their first in a series of free mini-sets they're playing throughout the day.
Despite the fact that The Hip stopped foot traffic with a number of surprise performances the day before during one of the artisan neighbourhood's beloved Pedestrian Sundays, despite the widely publicized promise of more shows later in the week, and despite the fact that the wristbands we were given at the door prominently display the band's name in bold black letters, the fans around me nervously joke that the whole thing might be a ruse, that some no-name band who didn't write Canadian classics like "Courage" and "Ahead By a Century" will promptly take the stage at 3pm on a Monday afternoon and dash all of their dreams.
It takes the appearance of all five founding members of the band -- guitarists Paul Langois and Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair, drummer Johnny Fay and, of course, singer Gord Downie -- onstage to finally convince them that this is really happening.
The Tragically Hip, the band that have been filling Canada's hockey arenas for over two decades with stories of wrongfully convicted killers, tragic hockey players and young love blossoming in the face of the cold war, somehow seem both larger than life and completely at home amongst the few hundred fans who have skipped work and school to see them play.
Downie shares conspiratorial smirks with the crowd as they launch into Now For Plan A's opening track, "At Transformation." Then they encourage a singalong to "Grace, Too" before capping things off with a chilling take on another new song, "Man Machine Poem."
But after the band finish their three-song set -- and wrap-up a genial autograph session in which the band trade jokes with fans as they sign every last piece of Hip memorabilia and Plan A vinyl -- I find myself in a scenario that makes everything that happened before it seem normal and mundane by comparison: interviewing The Tragically Hip.
After trading trade greetings, shoe compliments and, somewhat inexplicably, neck tattoo jokes with Rob Baker and Gord Downie, I start things on a light note. I ask if the title of the song "Streets Ahead," a phrase that became a running joke on an episode of the cult TV show Community, was inspired by the character of Pierce Hawthorne (played Chevy Chase) and his use of it.
"Pierce Hawthorne," Downie repeats, blank-faced. "Is that a writer?"
I say that he's a character on a TV show, and that he claims to have coined the phrase.
"Oh really? How do you 'coin' something?" he asks, bemused.
The Hip, it seems, came across the words "streets ahead" in an entirely different way.
"I definitely heard it in passing, but I think it was a BBC program... Is that guy English? He sounds English."
"Pierce Hawthorne. He's French, Gord," Baker jokes.
"Well then, I understand," Downie says with a laugh. "No. I don't know."
I try to explain the joke and the use of the phrase in the context of the episode, but it's too late. I have unwittingly started a feud between the lead singer of The Tragically Hip and a fictional character.
"I'm just incredulous, aghast and really impressed by that kind of convincingness. 'I coined that!'" he muses. "Anyway, you tell him I'm looking for him."
We move on to more serious topics after that, starting with their lyrics. For a band that made their name on storytelling epics like "Wheat Kings" and tongue- and brain-twisting tunes along the lines of "Poets," Now For Plan A feels like a departure.
Over time, the dense wordplay and metaphors that characterized their work seem to have evolved into more oblique and sparse imagery, with relatively simple phrases often repeated like mantras. The difference was particularly noticeable during their performance when the thoughtful and wordy "Grace, Too," from the band's 1994 album Day For Night, was juxtaposed with the more stark and obscure "Man Machine Poem."
I ask if they feel that their lyrics have become more abstract over time. Downie mulls it over.
"Abstract? No. Visceral, for sure. But again, a practical, not a mystical kind of thing. I said to the guys, 'Give me five things each. Let me just react to something.' And they did, knowing a sort of improvisation is better than anything you can write -- spontaneity. And so certain songs came like that. 'Man Machine Poem' is an example. It came very quickly and I really did want to screw with it. So what did you call it? Impressionistic? No, you said abstract," he pauses and considers the word again.
We move on to the sound of the album, which mixes meaty, Fully Completely-esque bar rock with the more introspective and occasionally haunting sound they've been nurturing since Trouble at the Henhouse and "Ahead By a Century."
Baker takes over.
"I don't think you ever leave stuff behind," he says. "You know, we're a rock 'n' roll band. We know what we do well and you try and learn from everything you do and carry that forward into what you do next. We had great experiences making the last bunch of records and they're great learning experiences. And we carry that forward, and some of it is 'Yes, we want to take this and we want to leave that.'"
Downie leans over and asks his guitarist a question.
"With Fully Completely, did we know those songs really well before we went in?" he says. "We went over to England to do them, so I bet we did. We really worked the shit out of them."
"Well, it was a mixed bag with Fully Completely," Baker reminding him. "About half the album we really knew and had road-tested and there were about five songs that we hadn't."
"It's like this record in that regard," the singer offers.
Baker recalls feeling frustrated with Fully Completely at first, that the songs he loved playing so much on the road sounded "sterile" on the record.
"You never know," he shrugs. "When you walk out of a studio after making a record, you feel pretty shattered. Like, I don't know what I'm doing. I can't play the guitar or... it can be a pretty brutal experience sometimes. And I remember walking out of Fully Completely feeling that way."
"What brings you back?" Downie asks, stroking his chin in mock-seriousness.
"Because you go out live and it's like 'Yeah. This is really good. These songs are good. Some of these songs really have life.'"
I ask Baker if he's reached a similar level of acceptance with Plan A yet.
"Some of these songs we've been playing live for two years now," he replies.
"We knew them well," Downie agrees. "For various reasons, the record was held up and delayed, but it just meant that we would sort of woodshed and really work the tunes, like we did in the earliest days, because you only had limited amounts of studio time to go forward."
"We never made a record so quickly as this record," Baker interjects.
"And then we went in, here in [Toronto neighbourhood] Parkdale, on Noble Street, and cranked it out in 10 days, really," Downie continues. "And so those sort of sonic differences or sonic similarities might be that, might be that we knew our songs well before we started singing them, as Dylan says you should, and then recorded them knowing everything, going through those elusive things like emotion and performance and then you're close. Then you're close on a recording.
"But we just played 'Modern Spirit' yesterday for the first time live out here in Kensington and it just jumped into where it should be. You know, it's there, but now it's exactly where it should be. But it just took 10ccs of Kensington Market."
"Sometimes it feels like the songs on the record are a template for what the songs are supposed to be. We kind of freeze dry them in recording, but then you have to thaw them out and microwave them up on stage, serve them up and it's often very different. Sometimes it's way better," says Baker. "Records are like... they're very strange. I always think we're in the... our chosen profession is performing music live. That's what we do and the records feed into that, the songwriting and everything else."
With record culture giving way to Internet-fueled singles and Radiohead-style releases, though, will a legacy band like the Hip continue to make traditional albums in the future?
"I don't think record culture's gone," Baker replies. "There are people who are very devoted to it."
"And they'll always want to come together with other people," Downie adds. "Which is why we're here doing this today. I'm not going to say 'It's still a people business!'" he laughs, adopting a cartoonishly earnest voice. "But it is. People who are into music want to talk to other people who are into music and that's where record stores... Like the passing of Sam Sniderman last week. My God, it just reminded people of what a hub that was, for a million reasons. You're coming in from Newmarket, 'We'll meet you at Sam's,' and everyone knew what that meant. Music meant... but it still does mean that stuff. It's just because the hubs are leaving and gone..."
"You know today's the 30th anniversary of the CD," Baker points out. "The sale of the very first CD was 30 years ago today."
"I promised I wouldn't cry," Downie deadpans. This rather conventional interview happening in the midst of a rather unconventional promotional event is about to take a turn for the strange.
"Yeah, you know what? The very first CD was Billy Joel, and it was a horrible day for music, really. Because I think it was..."
"Wait a second," Downie stops. The horror of the situation slowly dawning of him. "The first CD down the line..."
"It's like the invention of the Big Mac to me," Baker muses.
"Billy Joel," sneers a stunned Downie, pounding the table in front of him.
"Billy Joel," Baker confirms.
Downie collapses back into the couch, giggling. "A Big Mac sounds way better. The Billy Joel burger!"
"Yes, the Billy Joel burger was served today out of the window to a passing car."
"I heard a guy on the radio today say that the NHL was like KFC," Downie offers, like it's the most logical segue in the world. "It's a franchise and if people in the market don't like your chicken, you've got to go."
I try to argue that most Canadian will probably never be able to look at hockey in such clinical terms that the way many think about hockey is more...
"Abstract?" the singer grins. "I'm giving it no oxygen, Sarah. Just, full disclosure. I'm giving it no oxygen. Tell me when they're gonna drop the puck. Everyone else do that same. I'm telling you now. Save your oxygen! It will make the fire go out!"
Their label rep slips back into the room. After 11 minutes of streets ahead, abstraction and fast food metaphors, my time with The Hip is coming to an end.
But Downie's not quite done yet. He's given himself something to riff on -- hockey -- and he's reacting to it. In this case, he begins to rhapsodize about the twine used to mesh hockey nets in the '70s versus present .
"And make the nets with looser meshes, so that every goal's an explosion. Every goal's an event! Everyone in the rink knows it's a goal. The mesh explodes.
"It used to be like... The Russians, they had the mesh that hung down. As a kid, I used to draw that. With the puck, the mesh ridiculously extended. In soccer, net into the mesh, like these tight meshes? Why? The ball hits, bounces, goal. But when the mesh..."
The rep refers to the phenomenon as "the old bulging onion bag."
"Oh, Christ. I knew it!" Downie groans. "Bulging the onion bag!"
"I thought that was something entirely different!" Baker jokes.
"Sorry, Sarah," Downie says. "That was so brief and weird."
Given everything that's lead to this moment -- from the multiplatinum-selling band finding themselves amongst the indie shops and bars of Kensington, to the elusive new tracks they've debuted in such a unique fashion, to Downie's eccentric, stream-of-conscious storytelling between songs in the short pre-interview set -- brief and weird seems somehow strangely appropriate.