Update: Gord Downie died Oct. 17, 2017. Read his obituary here.
Steve Berlin has been the saxophonist in Los Lobos for 32 years. He’s also an acclaimed producer, whose CV boasts an unusual number of Canadians on it. He was behind the boards for two Tragically Hip albums, 1998’s Phantom Power and 2000’s Music @ Work, a key period of transition for the band: long after their initial burst of creativity, and after two self-produced albums that saw the band shifting its sound, dialling back the pure rock’n’roll energy and embracing abstraction, acoustic ballads and atmospherics inspired by Daniel Lanois. During their “Berlin period,” the Hip became a more economical band, resulting in some of their best-loved singles: “Poets,” “Bobcaygeon,” “Fireworks.” Maclean’s reached Berlin on the road while he was on tour with Los Lobos to talk about his history with the band, who—with singer Gord Downie having been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer—will play their final show on Aug. 20 in Kingston, Ont. The band is currently on tour across the country.
Q: Are you still in touch with them?
A: I reached out to Gord when I heard. We spoke briefly. I can’t even imagine what the reality of their situation is.
Q: When did you first become aware of the Tragically Hip? You made a lot of records with Canadians in the early ’90s.
A: I think I was making a Stephen Fearing record, and I mentioned to someone that the Tragically Hip were talking to me about working with them. The Canadians in the room couldn’t believe it, as if the Beatles were getting back together again and asking me to produce them. I have to say, as an American, it’s different; they’re not exactly a national treasure here. I was aware of the music; I had more than a passing familiarity with them prior to working with them. I knew they were a great band whose songs I liked. Then, doing research, I discovered what a treasure trove of material they had.
Q: What was it like when Los Lobos joined them on the Another Roadside Attraction tour in 1997, and seeing their effect on audiences?
A: Watching them work every night on stage for a month and getting to know them all, that’s when you really get to know people. That’s when we became much closer. Not long after, we were in the studio making Phantom Power.
Q: That tour was a great lineup of Americans and Canadians: Sheryl Crow, Wilco, acts who had such a strong critical and commercial following in the States coming up to tour Canada as an opening act.
A: Because I’m sort of an honorary Canadian, I don’t think the others grasped the cultural significance of who the Hip were before the tour. Talking to Sheryl Crow and her people and the guys in Wilco, everyone was ecstatic to be on the tour, it was a lot of fun. But it even took me a while to grasp the idea that this is not just a band, this is a cultural artifact, what the Hip means in Canada. There is nobody else like them. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Canadian who doesn’t love the Hip. Down here, I can’t think of someone on that level that means the same thing in the U.S., even Springsteen. And they’re a combination of talent and humility, which is unique to Canada. All the work they’ve done and what they represent culturally is unique. Frankly, it’s something I had to ignore in order to make a good record [with them]. I couldn’t be worrying about tarnishing a legend. I’m as proud of those two records as anything I’ve ever done.
Q: Those records came off two very successful records that had shifted the sound of what they do. But for all the strength of Day for Night and Trouble at the Henhouse, they’re also pretty trippy and druggy and jammy. Starting with Phantom Power, I think you pulled them back to a tighter format and there are concise pop songs on that record.
A: I don’t recall discussing it or having a mission statement. They had a lot of ideas. They had sent me probably 30 — not necessarily songs, but ideas, riffs. There might have been 15 songs and 15 “things.” “Poets” was cobbled from three different things: the riff, the chorus and the solo part were three separate elements they sent me and I put them together. Some songs were readymade, and some we had to tinker with a little. We had so many cool ideas to mess with, so many colours to pick from.
Q: It also has two of their best story songs in “Bobcaygeon” and “Fireworks.”
A: Two of my favourite songs, right there. And “Escape is at Hand.” That one just wipes me out.
Q: For all of Downie’s imagistic opaqueness and how hard he can be to parse at a literal level, those three songs are very direct.
A: But like any other great poet, you let those words wash over you and you get a very powerful thing. I can’t think of very many people who work as hard at the craft of songcraft as Gord does. It was life or death. Every syllable was important. We would have silly — I wouldn’t say arguments, but he would want me to push back on whether he should say “a” or “the,” and which was more powerful to say? It seems silly, but it mattered to him. I don’t know if I necessarily felt like it had to be one or the other, but he really wanted that engagement: “If you think it should be ‘the’ then tell me why it should be ‘the.’ ” ‘Uh, okay, well…’ He was really serious. He had — oh God, it looked like a f–king phonebook of lyrical ideas, a binder that was literally bursting with ideas. I’ve worked with a lot of songwriters who, when they’re stuck for something, they’ll cobble through other ideas they have. But for Gord it wasn’t about just plugging in some thing he didn’t use before; everything had to be perfect.
Q: Yet on stage he lets it all loose and improvises. Obviously themes emerge, and you can hear asides on live albums that would become the single two albums later. It’s a combination of deliberation and improvisation.
A: He’s extraordinary. It’s safe to say there’s nobody like that guy that I’ve ever come across.
Q: In Canada we talk about what they mean to this country and how they’re one of the greatest Canadian bands ever, but that does them a parochial disservice. I’m hard pressed to think of anyone else in the world who combines that lyrical approach and that kind of rock’n’roll. There are other poets like him, but not ones who play this kind of music.
A: I think you’re exactly right. I can’t think of anyone, or anyone who does it so—I don’t want to say effortlessly, but the quality level is so high. For instance, U2, who would be paradigmatically similar, they’ve f–ked off for three records in a row without writing anything of substance — and purposely. They cop to it, and say, “This is our version of a goofy rock record.” I think the Hip and Gord in particular is always powerful. This new record is some of the most powerful stuff they’ve ever written; I think it’s fabulous. And that’s hard to do, let me tell you, as a guy who’s been in the same band for 40 years or so, it’s really hard to come up with something that powerful that far into their discography. To hit one out of the park in your third decade? That is not an easy trick.
Q: Well, your band has done that.
A: I’m not tooting our horn on any level, I’m just saying it’s f–king hard to do: to not repeat yourself and to not settle. I had this conversation with a friend recently while we were working on our new record, and there were a couple of songs, to be brutally honest, that I wasn’t that happy about. He said, “Look, dude, you’re 40 years into your career — it’s OK! You don’t have to worry about losing your job!” I don’t think the Hip thinks that way. I think if it didn’t measure up, they wouldn’t do it.
Q: You have the experience of still being in a band with people who’ve known each other since they were kids. You’ve been in the band 32 years now and you’re still the new guy. What do you see in the dynamic in the Hip, who have known each other since high school or earlier?
A: It’s always interesting. Besides the music part, there are always those goofy stories about high school that they share. Whenever there is dissension and squabbling, at the end of the day, because you’ve seen that person at their best and worst, everything just fits in the spectrum and you think, “OK, that guy’s just being an asshole today, let’s let it go.” Whereas new bands, if two members get into a snit, they don’t have either the maturity or the framework to take that behaviour out of the context of the moment and say, “Well, he gets like that when he’s really drunk or really tired, so let it go.” It’s harder to let it go when it’s new behaviour as opposed to something that pops up every five years or so. The Hip, more so than any other band I’ve worked with, approach their work like a team. This might sound way too pat, but they’re like a great hockey team: all five of them have their roles. They go at their shows like an athletic event; they’re in it to win it, and they’ll lay it out there on the proverbial ice in order to win and get the crowd on their side. You can’t do that when you just throw a band together. There’s a sixth sense there that makes it easy. That’s what gets my band through as well. When we’re not necessarily playing our best, we still have this inner cohesiveness that only comes from knowing each other intimately.
Q: The time you were working with the Hip was also when they were starting to have families and perhaps shifting focus a bit and juggle new challenges in their personal lives.
A: That was interesting, too. I hadn’t had my first daughter yet, but they were all dealing with that. It was obviously a new set of struggles for the familiar. On Music at Work at least, going to work every day was a break from raising small families.
Q: Hence the title.
A: They seemed to really enjoy time in the studio, as opposed to dealing with stuff. One day I was leaving Kingston for Toronto, it was me and Gord on the train. We’d just finished Music at Work and were feeling pretty good about ourselves. When we got on the train we both realized we each had about two bucks in our pocket. I think we had to literally panhandle to share a single beer to toast our moment. That will always stand out to me. It was very special.
Q: I also think two of their strangest and funniest singles are from those records: “Poets” and “My Music at Work.” The imagery and word choice seems silly and playful in ways that I think new parenthood brings out — “purposeless play,” as he sings about on “Tiger the Lion.”
A: That’s another hard thing that Gord makes easy: singing ironically. If you don’t do it right, you come off like a snarky asshole or the whole thing just falls apart on its own. He has the ability to imbue something ironic with great seriousness, which is the only way to really make it work.
Q: Music at Work was the first record they really brought in outside people and sounds: drum machines, tabla, keyboardist Chris Brown, Julie Doiron, yourself. And those two records were also the first time someone known more as a musician than a producer was producing them.
A: Interesting. I never really thought about that. There were a couple of songs on Phantom Power that had stuff that didn’t stick around. I was talking to Jim Rondinelli, who mixed it, the other day. There’s a version of “Fireworks” with trombones on it, which completely changed the character of the song. I don’t have a copy; Jim was going to try and find it. It got to the mixing stage before we realized it was a really silly idea.
Q: “Tiger the Lion” is full of odd sound effects while Downie is riffing on John Cage theories. There’s tabla on “The Bastard.” Then I didn’t hear much variation until the Bob Rock records, where they switched things up again, and then Kevin Drew got some fantastic performances from them on this record.
A: Yeah, he certainly did. Like any band, including mine, there’s a comfort zone that’s hard to escape. You kind of need an outsider to tell you that. You think it’s your vocabulary, but it’s a cocoon that’s safe. Producers are supposed to tell you to try things a different way. There was a bit of pushback from the guys, but it didn’t last long. “Fireworks” was one where in the studio everyone had set up in their corners, and then we moved everyone into the kitchen. Johnny was playing this little cocktail kit. Just literally taking them out of their comfort space was revelatory, and helped them grasp the idea of changing the paradigm of everything.
Q: That can go either way, though. Fully Completely, while I love the songs on it, I’ve always hated that record. When I found out how it was made—track by track, not playing together, in a cold studio in suburban England — it made sense that it seems to have the life sucked out of it. It sounds like a Def Leppard record to me, and that’s not who this band is. And yet it’s their most successful record, so what do I know?
A: That might be part of the reason I got the job. They told me how they made that record and said, “Well, I guess that’s how people make records now.” I said, “F–k that, if that’s the way you want to do it then I’m definitely not the right guy for this job. That’s the opposite of what I think records should sound and feel like.” It’s like in my band, we did a record where we just played everything a million times and then we got in the studio and it sounded like we were bored, because we were. The lesson there is that there’s no hiding the sound of a band that is bored with its own music. Whatever it takes to create the sound of excitement, that’s what you want to do.
Q: Anything else you want to add?
A: I’m sure that just like everyone else that loves those guys, it’s impossible to put into words how I feel now, and how brave I think they are, and in particular Gord is, to go out this way. It’s the path of most resistance. It speaks to what kind of people they are, that he’s willing to put his life on the line to go play for people one more time. It’s just — I just love those guys.
Michael Barclay is the co-author of Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-95 (ECW Press, 2001; revised 2011)
MORE ABOUT GORD DOWNIE:
- Gord Downie’s most memorable quotes
- Remembering the life and legacy of Gord Downie (1964 – 2017)
- Gord Downie: A timeline of his life and work
- Gord Downie: Canada’s humble genius
- Gord Downie (1964–2017): A Life in Pictures
- How we will miss Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip
- Ahead by a year: Remembering the Hip’s last show
- Under the covers: How Tragically Hip cover bands are paying tribute