On a Friday night in September Gord Downie and his band, The Country of Miracles, performed at Market Square, Victoria, BC, as part of the Rifflandia Festival. It was the beginning of an eastbound Canadian tour supporting a new record, The Grand Bounce.
Downie stepped on stage, as he always does, feeling the heavy weight of doubt. "Your heart is hammering in your chest and there's no recollection of ever having done this before," he says. Then the show started and he was into it. Playing at the outer limits of his ability, "just generally trying to relate how good it feels in the moment, doing something that's designed to disappear as it's happening. There's a joy in that. You realize so much else in our life is trying to capture something and not let it go."
Then the power went out as a gennie failed. Downie and his band just kept on playing, because that's what they do. The consummate performer then had half the crowd chanting, "Faith and trust!" and on the other half "Fuck control!"
"We got that going and willed the generator back to life," he says.
Downie's lived a professional life on faith and trust, between his audience and his bandmates, whether cultivating rock music or goosing generators. It's been the guiding principle in fronting Canada's most adored rock band of the past 25 years, The Tragically Hip, and as a solo performer, putting out three records of genre-defying music, eschewing control in favour of collaboration.
Balancing his creative output between the guys in the Hip and his "extracurricular" work isn't terribly calculated, it's just a question of timing and momentum. He reveals that he'd proffered a few songs from The Grand Bounce for the last Hip record, We Are the Same, but they didn't make the cut. "I just reworked them and really liked them," he says in his distinctive growl down the line from Winnipeg. "Sometimes these songs end up on the scrap heap and you say you're going to use it later but you don't...that's what happened there, with songs like 'Broadcast' or 'Retrace.' But I don't fuss about it...it's more guileless. I'm trying to cut guile out of my daily diet."
The change-up in projects continues to fuel Downie's passion for his work. That and a disciplined work ethic of regular writing. "I guess that's trying to be agile and nimble, which is probably why I'm doing it every day just so I'm kind of prepared for anything," he says. "Did you know you can't really trust in the mystical? The mystical is very good-looking but rarely on time. The practical ain't good-looking so it better be on time."
With inspiration a fleeting thing, the variety in approaches is especially important. "In the Hip it's five guys, we built it," he says. "A lot of times once you've built something like that you're tempted to park it at a Tim Horton's parking lot on a Sunday afternoon and just shine and buff it. You gotta keep mixing it up."
And he makes it clear that in both avenues of his musical creativity, collaborators play a big role. Bob Rock produced the last two Hip records and Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla oversaw The Grand Bounce. Both brought a particular flavour to the music that distinguishes it from the other, as well as from previous albums.
"Maybe people don't think we change or change glacially at best. I'm in that band and the relationship changes and grows and shrinks. We just have faith and trust in change in the relationship and the music and, lo and behold, it does. Friendship changes everything. And that's what you're hearing."