We started Music @ Work in September of 1999. Originally, the plan was to spend two weeks on the road, or on the rails, actually, in an old converted Pullman train car, bouncing song ideas around. We had arranged stops in New Orleans and Los Angeles to record the results. A week before we were to have left, we got the call that the generators on the car were down and that it was unlikely they'd be fixed anytime soon. Plan goes poof. After some scrambling, and through the kindness of our dear friend Karen Brady at Kingsway, we were able to extend our stay down in the Crescent City by a few more days. So we set off back to the scene of so many of our past musical adventures. "Of course we're now traveling by plane ..."
Despite the train disappointment, Kingsway was a perfect get-away for us to start the writing process. Away from home, yet in comfortable familiar surroundings, we set to work, along with our engineer Mark Vreeken and tech Billy Rae Koster. All of us had been writing at home, but this was really the first opportunity to hear each others' ideas. We approached the process in a very civilized and organized manner. Setting up in the main hallway of the studio, we sat in a semi-circle and took turns throwing out ideas. As is usually the case we were able to start moving things ahead very quickly. It seems that someone in the group always has something that will compliment someone else's idea, and before you know it, a new song starts to take shape. It's an exciting time. Another riff, rhythm pattern or melodic twist from someone's library of ideas can turn even the ordinary into something special. We've always been really fortunate that way. With five creative people working together on the music and Gord D's seemingly inexhaustible supply of lyrical ideas, it's relatively easy to move things forward. We give each song a fresh start and the attention it deserves, trying to unlock it's potential. When we hit the wall on one, we pick up and start on another.
Kingsway is the perfect setting for a song writing trip like this. There is something magical about the place that has always brought out the best in everyone who has been lucky enough to record there. After the first two days we had the makings of twenty new songs. Some were barely walking. Others were well on their way to being finished. We spent the remainder of the week working on this first batch, recording as we went along. We left New Orleans invigorated, with a plan to reconvene the next month at our own studio, the Bathouse, to continue the process.
It's difficult to say when the writing process ends and the recording process begins with us. Music @ Work was no exception. We've always tried to approach things one song at a time, doing what we can to keep moving forward. As a result, we often find ourselves nearing completion on one tune while tearing another apart. We've always been able to assess pretty quickly whether a tune is going to work or not. You try to bring it along, fixing the stuff that bugs you and trying to get it to it's logical conclusion. Some will never see the light of day, but that won't be for lack of trying on this end. The variety in the day to day process of "serving the song" keeps it fresh for us.
We had decided early last summer to work with Steve Berlin again on this project. His contributions to Phantom Power were huge and his presence in the studio made a big difference. We figured we'd take it a step further this time around. With the process of getting to know each other and our work habits out of the way, we figured we'd hit the ground running this time around. Our only time consideration was Steve's availability. Los Lobos would keep him pretty busy until December, so we had all of the fall to work on our ideas. Part of the beauty of having our own space is that we're not bound to one set period of time to record. This gives us the luxury to work steadily and intensely for short bursts and then to take a bit of time off to sit back and reflect. You can come back to things with a fresh perspective and maybe a new idea or two. This was the way we spent our time, a week on - two weeks off, inching ever closer to the finish line. For our engineers, Mark Vreeken and Ken Friesen, this meant ample time to try different set ups, mics and bits of gear to capture the sounds. Mark had been working with a new Pro Tools rig, and this session would mark the first time we would record everything to analog and to computer. Steve would send in his suggestions as we progressed, always close to the heart of each song. We came to lean pretty heavily on his objectivity, especially in light of the extended time we had to approach the arrangements. Having gotten to know each other so well over the last few years there was no need to pull punches when it came to discussing the material. We all shared the common goal of making the best possible record. If he felt something was lacking, he let us know. We were more than happy to try anything and everything he suggested. As usual we were running tape all the time, having learned the hard way never to miss the elusive 'best take'. Over the fall we whittled the possible candidates down to fourteen from the twenty or so ideas we had started with.(Our recycle bin is getting pretty full of tasty left overs after ten years of making records.) By the time December and Mr. Berlin arrived, we were more than ready.
With three full weeks in front of us, we decided to try things a little differently this time. We set out to record a song a day, starting from scratch in the morning and trying to complete all the over dubs by the end of the day. In the past we'd run into time constraints working on too many things at once, often having to rush through things like backing vocals at the end of a session. This time we planned what sound we wanted for each song in advance, set up in the morning and played together during the afternoons, spending the evenings working on the individual touches. It was a great way to work. We all knew in the back of our minds that if we wanted, or needed, we could always go back and change anything later. But we stuck to the song a day plan and that really drove the session ahead quickly. The month went by in a blur. The Bastard was first and then Stay if memory serves, though we had no official agenda. The plan for any given day was usually settled in a very casual "what do you feel like?" manner. That's what makes Steve such a great producer for us, beyond his obvious talents as a musician and arranger. The biggest obstacles you face making records are time and the knowledge that once you're finished, the recording will stay that way forever. You have to live with your records, so you want be sure. The drive to perfection has been known to paralyze some artists. Steve's a perfectionist too, but takes all the pressure off with his laid back attitude and good humour. He encouraged us to try out any and all ideas and added more than a few of his own. This 'leave no stone unturned' approach was really healthy for us creatively and kept the session steam rolling forward. Before we knew it, it was time to break for the holidays. We left with the plan to reconvene for another couple weeks in January before the mix.
Nothing could have been better for the record than for us to enjoy a couple of weeks off to digest the month's work and to reflect on how far each song had come. In some cases we'd tried too much, in others not enough. We had committed to play two shows at Toronto's Air Canada Centre to mark the new millennium and this gave us the perfect opportunity to try out the new material live. You never know how a song is going to be until you unleash it on stage. We learned a lot over those few days.
January began with the five of us again, sans Steve, tweaking our individual parts on different songs, trying to get it just so. The shows had made us want to capture a bit more of that live energy for the new record. December's process had yielded great results, but it was great to have the time to revisit the material. It also gave us a chance to bring in some friends to round out a couple of numbers. Sarah Pinette came in to add some cello to Tiger the Lion and Toronto #4. Tiger had begun with some crazy guitar synth lines of Johnny's that had always reminded us of cellos, so Sarah's playing fit perfectly. Her lines on Toronto#4 just made beautiful song more so. We were likewise fortunate to have Julie Doiran come in to sing that week. We had spent a lot of time on background vocals this time out, but in a couple of cases we kept hearing the need for something different. We'd known Julie for years, having played with her in Eric's Trip or the Wooden Stars on a number of occasions. We've always loved the soulful quality of her voice. We didn't necessarily have specific parts in mind, but the moment she started singing along with Gord's lead on the Completist we knew she was all that and more. She elevated that song, Toronto and Pines to new levels. That's the real beauty of working with talented people. Our next visitor was no exception. We have played a bunch of gigs with Chris Brown and Kate Fenner over the years. With a clav under one arm and his skates over the other, Chris braved the wilds of the Canadian winter via New York City. Steve had added a few keyboard bits and synth pads here and there, along with Paul and Gord S on piano, but Chris brought a unique talent to the session. Train Overnight had been through a number of different incarnations over the months and had been a tough song for Steve to accept, until Chris gave it it's final touches on the Hammond organ. He added some more Hammond to Lake Fever along with the piano parts, as well as some great clavinette on Wild Mountain Honey. It was Tiger the Lion that really blossomed with Chris's playing though. All along Tiger had been a work in progress, always moving forward yet never sounding completely finished. Not really knowing what we wanted or what it needed, we left Chris and Mark with the song one evening and when we came back the next morning they had brought it to a new level. Mark would later admit that the song had been catapulted from the bottom of his list to the top over night.
By Gord Sinclair
Produced by Steve Berlin and The Tragically Hip with Mark Vreeken
Recorded by Mark Vreeken at the Bathouse with Ken J. Friesen,and at Kingsway (NOLA) with Phillip Broussard
Additional recording by Graeme McCann, and Aaron Keane
Mixed by Steven Drake at the Bathouse
Mastered by Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering Studios, Portland, Maine
Design Rob Baker, Brock Ostrom and Andrew McLachlan
Art Ian Hodkinson
Additional musicians Steve Berlin (courtesy of Hollywood Records)
keyboards, percussion, midi sax
Chris Brown (courtesy of himself and Kate Fenner) keyboards - #2,3,11,12
Julie Doiron (courtesy of Sappy Records) vocals - #7,10,14
Sarah Pinette cello - #2,10
Mr. Hussein tabla - #6