Calling himself a “reluctant solo artist,” bassist Gord Sinclair is nevertheless the first member of the Tragically Hip to release new music since the death in 2017 of the band’s iconic frontman Gord Downie. The album is Taxi Dancers. Some musicians are born to solo, some achieve solo and some have solo thrust upon them. Speaking to The Globe and Mail on what would have been Downie’s 56th birthday earlier this month, Sinclair sounded like he needed some more thrusting.
“I’ve never had the itch to make a solo album,” Sinclair said. “My singing voice is what it is. But after the final Tragically Hip album and tour cycle, I still found myself with that compulsion to take a song out of the bedroom or basement studio and actually seriously record it and seriously work with creative people to make it a better piece of music. So, here I am.”
Here, being the downtown Toronto offices of independent music company Cadence Music Group. It’s a typical record label boardroom: expensive sound system, plate of scones for undernourished media members, gold records on the wall. Dominating the room like an elephant is a poster for Long Time Running, a 2017 film by Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier that documented the Tragically Hip’s final tour. The memory of Downie literally hangs over Sinclair.
“Forty years strong, 40 weak-kneed," Sinclair sings on new song In the Next Life, his voice thin and adenoidal. And on Forward March Fight, “Didn’t know the ebb and flow was 40 years behind."
Sinclair and Downie were high school friends four decades ago. The poignantly rocking In the Next Life was written in the aftermath of the singer’s death and the 2018 passing of Dave Powell, the quintet’s first road manager and, according to Sinclair, the unofficial sixth member. "The song is a rumination on youth – leaving it behind, or wondering if we ever do leave it behind.”
The album’s brooding alt-rock opening tracks (It’s Already Too Late and Wonderful Way) wouldn’t have been out of the place on the Tragically Hip’s self-titled debut EP from 1987. That record’s best tracks were written by Sinclair.
In the early days, each member would bring song ideas to the band. The process changed in the early nineties, when the songwriting turned to a more collective (or “woodshedding”) approach and after Downie insisted on being the solo lyricist. “It freed the rest of us,” Sinclair explained. “We quickly discovered that the best stuff happened when we wrote together. The flood gates opened, and it made the Hip what it was.”
Co-produced by Sinclair and guitarist John-Angus MacDonald of the Trews, Taxi Dancers has a Tragically Hip feel, despite piano and keyboard parts. On the strummed Never Coming Back, one can almost hear the rusty breezes of Hip music past.
Last fall, Sinclair and Hip guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois were on stage in the band’s Kingston hometown for a benefit concert that ended with communal versions of Wheat Kings and Ahead By A Century, which had the crowd singing the words once famously handled by someone else. Before he died, Downie, upset that his eventual demise would cause the end of the band, suggested that a replacement singer could take his place. Could a Hip reboot happen?
“I will never say never,” Sinclair said. “But I just don’t know if I would be able to stand up on the stage quite yet without looking at Gord from behind.”
Other bands in the past have attempted, with mixed results, to carry on following the loss of long-time signature singers. INXS, Blind Melon and the Doors failed to keep the magic working. But AC/DC only got bigger when frontman Bon Scott was replaced by Brian Johnson, and a Freddie Mercury-free Queen has toured successfully with replacements Paul Rodgers and Adam Lambert. (Queen + Adam Lambert recently re-enacted the band’s memorable 1985 Live Aid performance at a benefit in Australia aiding those affected by the country’s recent bushfires.)
Regardless of a band resurrection, fans can probably expect new music from the Hip. Drummer Johnny Fay is currently going through what Sinclair describes as a “treasure trove” of old tapes looking for salvageable tracks. Included with the older material is music recorded following Downie’s cancer diagnosis. “It’s available,” said Sinclair. “Should it see the light of day? I don’t know.”
Sinclair says Downie is still around, “on my shoulder, whispering in my ear.” Asked what the late singer is saying, Sinclair quoted a Downie line from the Hip song Flamenco, about walking unafraid, like a matador would.
“Gord was writing right up to end,” Sinclair said. “He wouldn’t have wanted any of us to stop.”
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