Photos: Vanessa Heins
George Stroumboulopoulos is sitting at his dining room table — a table he wasn’t able to use “for months” because it was smothered in mixing gear while an endless cast of bands recorded music in his downtown Toronto townhouse — trying to explain the emotional gravitas he experienced watching Barenaked Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn cover a Gord Downie song in his living room.
“Hearn plays ‘Chancellor’ on this special, and it will bring tears to your eyes,” says Stroumboulopoulos about the song from The Tragically Hip lead singer Downie’s 2001 solo album Coke Machine Glow, which he recorded for Hip30, The Strombo Show‘s big four-hour tribute to Downie and Hip airing on CBC Radio 2 on Jan. 1. “It will destroy you, and partway through the song, when it goes ‘I could have made chancellor without you on my mind’ suddenly the rest of Barenaked Ladies kick in and Ed [Robertson] starts singing ‘Ahead By A Century’ and it’s really special, dude. It’s really overwhelming. When I was sitting right here when they were recording it I started tearing up it was so heavy.”
That the members of the Barenaked Ladies, a solid yet not entirely devotion-worthy novelty pop band, could rock Strombo so deeply, gets a whole lot more understandable when you dig a bit deeper.
For one, Hearn is a two-time cancer survivor, having faced his most recent bout against the disease in 2015. It’s not hard to see the parallels to Downie’s own struggles considering the Hip singer has been battling terminal glioblastoma brain cancer, which he was diagnosed with in December 2015. On top of this Hearn, a Lou Reed-endorsed player, was an important contributor to Coke Machine Glow. That album helped Downie, long considered the king of hoser Can-Rock, get taken seriously for his “art,” what with its companion poetry book and contributions from indie stalwarts like Julie Doiron, By Divine Right’s Jose Contreras, The Skydiggers, The Sadies, and even filmmaker Atom Egoyan.
When you dig deeper into the Hip30’s almost-50 acts deep list of musical contributors, you’ll realize pretty much every one of them has a connection to the Hip that resonates just as deeply. The Rheostatics, who get a shoutout from the Hip at the top of 1997’s Live Between Us, and whose member Dave Bidini wrote the book On a Cold Road: Tales of Adventure in Canadian Rock – in part based on that band’s travels opening for The Hip – cover one of their biggest songs, “Bobcaygeon.” The Sadies, who recorded a solo album with Downie in 2014, unearth “Long Time Running” from the band’s 1991 breakout album Road Apples. The Dears, one of the many bands to benefit from The Hip’s policy of always trying to bring credible emerging bands on tour with them, broke their self-imposed “no cover songs” rule to reimagine “Tired As Fuck” from this year’s Man Machine Poem album as a world weary acoustic track. Kasador, which features Hip guitarist Robbie Baker’s son Boris Baker and drummer Johnny Fay’s nephew Angus Fay, covered Day For Night‘s “So Hard Done By.”
“We had family on it,” says Stroumboulopoulos, simply.
What the Hip30 special is, then, is a love letter to a band and a man with an uncertain future.
“We wanted to honour the Tragically Hip,” says Stroumboulopoulos about the special. “We really put a lot of effort into it. Colton (Eddy, The Strombo Show producer) and I, and the whole team, [put a lot of effort] into making sure that our show represents not just the audience, that’s just half of it, we want to also represent the art. And sometimes the stuff we honour on the show the mainstream doesn’t really care about it. I don’t care, we’re doing it anyway. We believe in the songs.
“We didn’t know what it would be. We thought we’d have a bunch of bands covering the Hip. But like anything, our eyes are bigger than our stomach. Suddenly it became apparent what it was going to be — Colton would be like ‘I got this band and this band,’ and I would talk to bands — and we started to make a list and suddenly it was almost 50 fucking bands. Holy shit. Then I had this stupid idea that every band has to play in the house…”
And play Strombo’s house they did.
From peers like Blue Rodeo, Sarah Harmer and Cowboy Junkies, to acts The Hip have inspired like Daniel Romano, Hawksley Workman, Etiquette, D-Sisive, Death From Above 1979 and many more, they all came, Field Of Dreams-style.
The Strombo Show team had been working on the Hip30 project before The Hip publicly revealed Downie’s illness in May 2016. Navigating this added a whole new level of weight to the special.
“We were very, very careful that we didn’t want to exploit it,” says Stroumboulopoulos. “It was really important that we weren’t exploiting it. We understand that we want to generate an audience for our radio show. We’re not naive about that. But it was like, ‘We really like these guys, we were doing this anyway.'”
Strombo’s love of The Hip is absolutely genuine. He’s quick to list off his three favourite Hip songs: “Grace Too,” “Scared,” “Ahead By A Century.” But if you give him time he’ll waver and add more (“Nautical Disaster,” “So Hard Done By,” “My Music At Work”) until it devolves into a game of, “Oh, and this one… and this one…”
What might be more valuable than any single song, though, is the unique window into Canadian culture — be it songs that reference author Hugh McLennan, hockey player Bill Barilko or the Horseshoe Tavern’s checkerboard floors — that The Tragically Hip provide.
“The Hip taught me to be more,” says Stroumboulopoulos. “Gord knew who the Group Of Seven was. I didn’t. That wasn’t taught to me. Or if it was, I didn’t pay attention. So Gord connected me to a part of the art world I had never grown up with.”
But Canadian art is far from the only thing Downie has help Canadians connect to. Downie’s current efforts towards reconciliation, repairing the Canadian government’s decades long cultural genocide of its First Nations people, is another area where Downie is shining a light right now through his Secret Path solo album and graphic novel/animated film project.
“I think it’s great that Gord’s doing it,” says Stroumboulopoulos. “I don’t think it’ll change everybody’s point of view, but it’ll change a few. And if some of those people want to be better MPs or better CEOs or better teachers or better principals or better counsellors, I think he’ll have done his job. I love that he’s doing it, not just because it’s in line with my values – it is – but you have one of Canada’s greatest national symbols saying, ‘Nah, we fucked up.'”
It’s these values that also resonate with people like Rush’s Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, who Stroumboulopoulos interviewed about The Hip for the special.
“Geddy and Alex were here in the living room and they were talking and when Geddy said, ‘You know what? We’re really proud of them,'” says Stroumboulopoulos. “I’m thinking there’s no greater compliment than if you’re a musician in this country, and the most genuine man in the country, Geddy Lee, says ‘I’m proud of you.’ To hear Rush call The Hip ‘Canada’s band,’ that’s something.”
Something indeed. The same something that can cause Barenaked Ladies to make you cry, to teach you who Franklin Carmichael or A.Y. Jackson were, or to make you want to repair Canada’s legacy.
The Strombo Show’s Hip30 four-hour radio special takes place Sunday, January 1, starting at 8 p.m. across all Canadian time zones on CBC Radio 2 and CBCMusic.ca.