Dubbed Canada’s band, the Tragically Hip played their final concert – a gig that was watched by nearly 12 million people – in the summer of 2016. For more than three decades, the group created iconic music together that became the soundtrack for the lives of many people across the country.
Throughout their career, the Tragically Hip’s work ethic was second to none. Their last album, 2016’s Man Machine Poem, won the act Juno Awards for Rock Album of the Year and Group of the Year. That record was released shortly after frontman Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal cancer. While that would have marked the end for many other bands, the Tragically Hip pulled together for one final nation-wide tour.
Earlier this year, bassist Gord Sinclair became the first member of the band to release new music since Downie’s death when he put out a solo album called Taxi Dancers. Sinclair spoke with us for Go Magazine about the benefits of collaboration, why it’s important to always push the envelope and shares some words of wisdom from Downie.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
To approach everything you do as a collaborative exercise. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.
You had the same job for over three decades. When Gord Downie passed away and the Tragically Hip stopped as a band, how did you deal with that major life change? What was your process for figuring out “What do I do next?”
I enjoyed a 30-plus-year career with the Hip and we had a very comfortable routine based around a two-year album cycle in which we would write a record, record a record, tour a record then take some time off before beginning the process again. That all stopped with Gord’s death. As time passed, I began to feel the pull to begin that process again. I have always approached creative expression as a way of dealing with issues in my life and Gord’s death had a significant impact on me. At first, I wasn’t sure what I would do, but gradually the creative juices began to flow and I was compelled to express myself again this time lyrically as well as musically. Gord was being creative right until the end and I know he would not have wanted any of us to stop.
Last year, after the death of another old friend and Hip road manager Dave Powell, I was finally able to write a song that I felt adequately expressed my feelings about losing my old mates. I called it “In the Next Life”. At that point, I felt confident that I could assemble an album of material dealing with the theme of love and loss. I wrote a few more songs with that concept in mind and chose other songs I had composed going back a few years that expressed those sentiments. Mortality is something we all share but don’t talk about enough. We all experience the beauty of love and the pain of loss and must embrace the former to get us through the latter.
Throughout your career, what’s been more important – the journey or the final destination?
For me, both personally and professionally, life is about living in the present and enjoying the journey, with it’s up and downs, but always with a mind to the destination as well. We only have so much time to become our best selves and to share that with those we’re on the journey with. If we all lived our lives with love and compassion as our motivating force, we’d all be better off in the near and long term. Being creative has allowed me to express that philosophy, which in turn helps me to aspire to live my life accordingly.
Why is collaboration a good thing for people to embrace? Is it ever challenging to remove ego from the mix and let others take control of ideas to try and make them better?
I’m a huge believer in the power and value of collaboration. To collaborate effectively you have to check your ego and trust in the motivation your collaborators have to make your work better.
I have always found with the Hip that the guys helped me be better. Likewise, when it came time to record the songs for Taxi Dancers, I turned to two musicians I know very well, whose instincts I trust, to help me make my songs better – John Angus MacDonald (The Trews) and James McKenty (The Spades).
With this new project, you’re obviously pushed to the forefront. Was this a natural progression or did it take you outside of your comfort zone?
I have consistently described myself as a reluctant solo artist. I loved being in the Hip and there is a reason I’m a bass player. I’m a band guy. It suits my personality. I relished that role playing alongside Johnny Fay and became a better musician playing with the same drummer for so long. Watching Gord perform at every show made me appreciate the talent and hard work it takes to be the frontman of a group. That’s something that does not come naturally to me. In stepping up to the mic I always try to keep in mind a lyric Gord wrote in our song “Flamenco” – “Walk like a matador, don’t be a chickensh#t”.
The Tragically Hip never rested on its laurels. Why was it important to maintain such a strong work ethic at all stages of your career?
We learned very early that it’s ultimately unsatisfying to rest on your laurels. You always have to be pushing yourself to move the project forward. We were a very creative and motivated group and we always challenged ourselves to be better writers, musicians and performers. It would have been easy to simply rewrite “New Orleans Is Sinking” over and over, but that would have made for a short career. Push the envelope and you’ll be surprised what you can accomplish. Trust in those you collaborate with and give yourself over to the group. Together you can go far.
I think the big reason the Hip continued to be successful over the years was because we loved and trusted each other. None of us ever wanted to let the other fellas down and we always had each other’s backs. We pushed ourselves to be better. Travelling together from show to show can be very challenging, but we were friends first and co-workers second. When someone was down, the others would always make the effort to pick that person up. We took breaks when we collectively needed them and respected each other as people with lives outside the group.
You have a long history of supporting different charities and the arts community. What drives you to do this?
For everyone in the Hip, we’re Canadians and believe strongly in our country and aspire to make it a better place. Philanthropy is a big part of that. Witness Gord Downie’s dedication to environmental causes and the Downie Winjack Foundation to promote truth and reconciliation with our aboriginal nations. The Hip have always promoted the health of our local community in Kingston and over the years we never took a nickel from our performances there. We always invested that back into various causes. Whether it was the hospitals, the United Way, educational or artistic initiatives, we all believe strongly in giving back.
Going forward I’m working to help preserve the live performance opportunities for emerging artists in Canada. Touring Canada, as a musician or a comedian or a dancer, whatever the art form, is very challenging. Long drives and harsh weather can take their toll. Those that endure, who are driven to succeed against the odds, come out the other side better at what they do. That’s what sets Canadians apart from their peers; we have to work harder to get to where we want to be. It isn’t a coincidence that so many great performers and road crews come from here. To preserve that great tradition, we need to preserve smaller local venues to give young artists a place to learn and grow. Our artists are critical to preserving Canadian culture and heritage. If we don’t support them, we will all lose down the road. We should all be concerned about where the next Gord Downie or Leonard Cohen is going to come from.
The Tragically Hip own and operate a studio called the Bathouse Recording Studio, which also houses a large amount of Hip memorabilia. Can you tell us about the insurance you have to protect the space and its one-of-a-kind contents?
In the music and recording studio business we have very specific and specialized insurance needs. Recording and musical equipment can very expensive. Older vintage pieces can often be difficult to replace. Some individual instruments can have a unique quality and character that can make them irreplaceable. Likewise operating a residential studio as we do with the Bathouse, we need to carry special liability coverage for our employees and for our clients. Our belief in the power of music and collaboration inspired us to create our studio. We wanted to provide other musicians the opportunity to live and work with each other in a creative environment; to be inspired by the place and each other. Making sure they are safe and protected while they are there is very important to us.