The Story of Saskadelphia
By Lindsay Pereira
I responded to a tweet in January 2021, inviting writers to pitch their music stories to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). My perspective as an immigrant, on Canada’s lasting relationship with The Tragically Hip, somehow resonated with people. As a result, a little over a month after the piece was published, I found myself in a virtual meeting with Rob Baker, Johnny Fay, Paul Langlois, and Gord Sinclair. My task was to introduce their latest project called Saskadelphia and so, pinching myself, I put forth questions about recording sessions that had taken place three decades ago. Here’s what they told me.
It is 1990 in New Orleans, in an old mansion that looms over the neighbourhood called Vieux Carré or the French Quarter. It is a place of ghosts, mostly friendly, that suddenly find themselves sharing space with a Canadian rock band trying to exorcise demons of its own.
The Kingsway Studio, at the heart of this mansion where recording sessions are being held, comes with ceilings that are 14 feet high and the troubled spirit of an alcoholic woman who died in the 1800s. It is said that she fell and hit her head but continues to party on the premises. If the young men from Kingston, Ontario, making music in what was once her home — singer Gord Downie, guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois, bassist Gord Sinclair, and drummer Johnny Fay — are troubled by this, they betray nothing. Guided by producer Don Smith and engineer Bruce Barris, the sessions yield an avalanche of gritty rock ‘n’ roll with a relentless quality to it, like a stream of blues that struggles to be contained.
The musicians are all in their late twenties, flush with the success of a debut album that has gone Platinum and earned them a JUNO Award for Most Promising Group of The Year. They have the jinx of a second album to disprove, and now have the resources to accomplish this. “We were excited,” says Rob Baker. “It seemed like an incredible follow-up to Memphis and the first record. We felt as if our career was taking off and we were firing on all cylinders creatively. We went in guns ablaze. It was also an interesting time in music because a lot of diverse things were happening. We had written a lot of songs and done a lot of touring over the preceding five years.”
As the songs come, they are tinkered with and then evaluated for their worth, their positions sometimes ceded to other tracks that slowly bring an album called Road Apples (1991) to life. With no shortage of material, a trickier problem emerges: what do they leave behind on the studio floor?
Then there is the question of a title. Johnny Fay comes up with a suggestion that, he believes, best defines the band’s place at the time. “I remember seeing this Church of the Christadelphians and thought about how part of it could be crafted onto any other word,” he recalls. “We were touring a lot, going from New York and Boston to Philadelphia and Saskatoon. It seemed like the clubs were the same size, and you could be anywhere. So, we crafted one part of a Canadian city onto an American one.” What rose to the top of the ballot from a bunch of possible titles was Saskadelphia. Baker remembers how their American record label reacted. “They thought it sounded too Canadian,” he laughs, “So we suggested Road Apples instead, which they loved because they didn’t understand the reference. We couldn’t get more Canadian than that and got laughs about it for years.”
And so, one album heads out into the world, a rung on The Tragically Hip’s climb into legend, while the tracks that don’t quite make it are tucked into boxes and moved out of sight. They stay that way for three decades until June 2019, when an article in The New York Times incorrectly listed the band among those who had lost tapes in a 2008 fire in the backlot of Universal Studios that triggered the memories of their existence.
“We felt we must have lost something too,” says Fay, “so, we began asking questions and eventually found our boxes of two-inch tapes with no labels. It became like a forensic process, looking for the handwriting of engineers we had worked with, like Bruce Barris or Mark Vreeken.” As it turned out, all of The Tragically Hip’s materials had been relocated to Canada in 2001, and so in summer 2020, these abandoned souvenirs from the past were opened, revealing tapes. “We knew we had a lot to look for because we recorded a lot back then. We didn't know what was there,” he adds, “so this meant baking them and listening to them as they were being transferred, hearing them for the first time in 30 years. It was crazy.”
It must have been interesting to consider why these songs, all perfectly formed, didn’t make the first cut. “It isn’t always a unanimous decision,” Baker explains. “We thought about these things because they came up during a time of vinyl records and albums. You would put on Side One and, if that was good, move to Side Two. You wouldn't listen to one song and skip ahead. Gord Sinclair was a master at sequencing, and I started to get a bit of a complex because songs I loved would be left off. I remember loving “Ouch,” for example, which just faded away into the mist. I didn't think about it again for 30 years, so it's awesome to hear it now. They have a life after, I guess.”
Sinclair says they had waited their whole lives to make the first record, as most bands do. “We had so many opportunities to play together, like during sound checks, and we would put new ideas into the middle of a song like “Highway Girl” to jam things out. Gord Downie was moving leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of us as a lyricist. He was a prolific writer, so we had a lot of tunes. Our producer was all about recording the band playing at the same time instead of building up tracks. I was set up in one room, the guitar amps in another, and Gord singing in a third. We just kept playing until we got one solid take for each song. It was just a great, creative time. We were worried about having enough material, but it turned out we had an overabundance.”
Fay remembers the sessions because they marked a period where the band was obsessed with writing and recording. “We were asking people if we could borrow their cottages to record in,” he says. “We were crazy about the process of writing, which is why there's all this material, more for this session than any other. We were in one of the sexiest cities to record, in a haunted mansion. We would have listening parties every night because we wanted to get better. We wanted Don Smith to be proud of us. We would work the tunes and try something new the next day. What's incredible is being able to get these songs out from that era, from this unique house that has its own little voice in our band.”
Those ghostly presences, along with undeniable confidence, are obvious from the first crack of percussion that opens “Ouch,” its bed of guitars weaving in and under Downie's impassioned vocal. "Ow! How it hurts!" he roars, lips close to the microphone. "Please gimme more." The track “Not Necessary” sounds as fierce but belies a tenderness in the lyrics about weariness and emotional baggage.
“Crack My Spine Like A Whip” barrels down like a train shooting out of a tunnel, the kind of good old-fashioned rock song that compels crowded arenas to rise to their feet. The handwritten lyrics sheet refers to it as ‘Paul's song’ which, Langlois explains, is how Downie would remember things. “We were all contributing,” he says, “and gathering confidence because we had been playing live successfully for a good six years by then. For a young band, it's amazing how often people will try and change you, whether it's record companies or the industry. Don Smith was someone we looked up to and he saw that we were at our best when we played together. That instilled a whole level of confidence. Maybe that's why we weren’t on the cover of Road Apples because the first couple of albums is about trying to get known. We believed we had a great record and didn’t feel that we had to be on the front anymore.”
“Just As Well” is another cut that could easily fit into Road Apples, while “Reformed Baptist Blues” is an unapologetic jam, its lead guitar writhing like a preacher at mass. And then there’s “Montreal,” recorded live at the Bell Centre on the eleventh anniversary of the horrific École Polytechnique massacre of 1989. “We wrote it just after the incident and played it a bunch of times,” says Baker, “but haven't located the tapes for this track. We got a great version from the live show.”
He has an interesting memory of the performance. “That night, it was suggested we could play ‘Montreal’ and I was in the dressing room. I ran through it to make sure I knew it, but there were questions about whether we would pull it off. Gord Downie wasn't sure about the lyrics, so a road manager pulled them up on the Internet. He did a quick once over and said, ‘Okay, we got this.' Then, we went out and played like we had been playing it forever.” He describes it as one of those songs that just came out of the ether. “It's like some of our better tunes, and every record had a song like that where you didn't feel you were writing it; like the song existed and you tapped into it somehow. It was one of those tunes you just fell back into. We didn't have to relearn the song; there's nothing fancy or complicated about it. It was just getting the vibe right, which wasn't hard to do on that anniversary, in that venue, with a great crowd.
Downie introduces “Montreal” as “a song about the identification process,” which, Fay believes, refers to the identification of a body. “We were young when we first did it,” adds Sinclair. “By the time we played it at The Molson Centre in 2000, we had all become parents and it was even more profound. It's a tribute to the way Gord was able to put himself into that situation and capture an emotion. It had real resonance for us.”
It is special for Langlois too. “I think it's a song that uses a sad, tragic image of a mother having to do that sort of thing and being told not to worry,” he says. “There's an attempt to be comforting and I think that's one of the reasons it's a natural song for us. We always retained a soft spot for it. The incident was such a tragedy, and it’s nice to be part of something that was meant as some sort of comfort.”
This is a bittersweet record. As Sinclair puts it, “We are, sadly, never going to have the chance to put out new stuff. For us, in our minds, this is new.” Langlois calls it nerve-wracking but hopes fans old and new appreciate “the sound of a band on fire.” Baker is curious about the reaction, while Fay recalls how things used to be. “When we made a record,” he says, “we would be able to sit with it for a while after it was mixed and mastered. It was this golden time of two months or so, where we could play it for friends, but had no idea how it would do. We were just happy because it was a time capsule of that period of our lives, though we had probably moved on and played other gigs. It's one of those things that, when you're a band, you want as many people to hear your music as possible. You never really know, but it's nice to be able to get it out at the end of the day. It's part of our DNA.”
This, then, is Saskadelphia: The record that stayed in the wings as Road Apples hit the stage. It still sounds as fresh as only music that must have been made in a haunted mansion can be. Proof that some ghosts refuse to lie quietly.
“I went ‘WOW’ when I heard ‘Ouch’ after all this time,” says Rob Baker. “We were a pretty good little band.”