In the liner notes for the expanded edition of the Casino album, Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor analyzed the history of the Canadian group and expressed that “sometimes I wonder as a band how we ever survived. It seems to me sometimes that we made so many wrong decisions that it’s a wonder that we’re still making music.” Keelor’s words ring awfully close to those of the many bands and artists who have made their way through the major label system in search of a career.
But indeed, more than 25 years removed now from their debut album Outskirts, Blue Rodeo has had quite a career with a discography of albums that contains far more wins than losses when you look at the collective output from the group. The band themselves took stock of their most celebrated period with a box set last year that collected five of their albums beginning with Outskirts in 1987 and concluding in 1993 with the Five Days in July album. The Five Days record remains a highlight in the music collection of many a fan and it is one which would forever alter the spiritual makeup of the band and their approach to making albums.
The box set is an essential acquisition, if only to get a hold of the three discs worth of unreleased material contained within the set. A particular highlight is the inclusion of the demos for the Casino album, a situation which found the band setting up recording gear at their rehearsal space to lay down full band versions of the tracks that they had written in preparation for their next album. Stripped of the layers of polish that were eventually applied to the final release of Casino (much to the band’s dismay), the demos reveal a band that wasn’t so far removed from the musical stylings that would emerge a few years later on Five Days in July.
The band has made a really inspired and varied string of albums in the 20 years that have passed since Five Days in July. Just from reading the title of In Our Nature, the latest collection of new music from Blue Rodeo, you can feel that the mojo is still good with this group and on this new album, it is particularly potent. Keelor and his co-conspirator on songwriting and lead vocals, Jim Cuddy, have come together once again to share a particularly diverse set of songs.
We spoke with Cuddy at the end of last week in a phone conversation from his Canadian home to talk about the new album and the state of the band and for those of us here in the States, we got a bit of info in regards to when we might expect to see some U.S. Blue Rodeo dates.
The last time that we spoke, we were talking about The Things You Left Behind, an album which really found the band working on more acoustic-based material, which if I understand it correctly, was partially to address the state of Greg’s hearing. This new album seems like it is somewhat continuing on in that vein. What other things were in play?
Well, I think since we sort of ascertained what Greg’s problem was, which is basically super-sensitivity in his ears, we’ve completely reconfigured ourselves as a band. We changed all of our stage sound and got all of the sound off stage and we all went on in-ear [monitors] and learned to sort of communicate that way, which we hadn’t done. I’d been on in-ears for a long time, but the rest of the band has not, so it took a whole summer to sort of figure out how to put the life back in the music. Because one of the things is that people get very cautious [with their playing] on in-ears because everything’s coming through in a very small dynamic range.
So once we found that, we did a big tour for the 25th anniversary of the release of Outskirts, our first record and by then we were really ready. So when we went back in to record this record, we knew that it was going to have an acoustic heart, but it could have anything. You know, there’s lots of electric guitar playing on it and there’s lots of energy. The drums are still brushes or glass sticks, but now that we’ve figured out the mechanics of playing, we can put back all of the dynamics that were there before we had to be super-sensitive for Greg’s ears.
Did you have to take a different approach to recording? Were there things to figure out there?
It wasn’t so much a different approach to recording, because it’s something we’ve done before. But, what we’re not doing is cranking up all of the amps. Before, we probably had a room and in there would probably be an amp and it was just blaring loud. We just really found all of the sounds that we wanted at a much lower volume. Anybody that’s recorded knows that’s entirely possible. Because the way we were recording is pretty much the way we play live on stage, we were very, very simpatico with each other. We very much understood what we needed out of each instrument and each part of the song. So you know, it was actually pretty easy. We went to Greg’s farmhouse [to record].
Greg’s farmhouse, the whole thing is wired so you’re just in one of the bedrooms or we’re down in the living room — the drums and the bass were in the living room. Greg was in the control room with his own little section and a little tiny speaker and he could get whatever he wanted at whatever volume he needed and he sang and did all of his vocals in there too. Basically, the most important part was that once we had back a fully-functioning Greg Keelor, then the band could relax and just play like it plays.
The band has recorded a few things at Greg’s farm in recent years, but this is the first time in a long while that you’ve done a full record there.
Yeah, pretty much. We did two [albums] in a row there. We did Five Days in July [there] 20 years ago and that was a great experience because it was all of our friends hanging around and it was warm weather with the windows and doors open. We followed that up with Nowhere To Here, which was not a good experience. We did not have a good time and there was a lot of tension in the band. We were cooped up in the farmhouse because it was winter and Greg hurt himself. It was miserable.
So I’ve always been really uncomfortable going back there, because that really kind of traumatized me making that record. We went back for some of The Things We Left Behind, because Greg was comfortable there and [doing his] singing there, but I did my stuff downtown where we had a studio. So this time, it was a bit of a leap of faith. It was because Greg was most comfortable there for his ears, but it was also to sort of see whether we could recapture a bit of the peace that we had when we made Five Days.
Because if you can get the sounds you need and it suits the type of record you’re making, working out of Greg’s is just idyllic. It’s beautiful — you’re right in the woods and everybody is comfortable and believe it or not, it is handy to have everybody away from their lives — even if it’s only an hour. It just helps to have everybody in a place where they’re just concentrating on music and they’re not going to be called away or counted on to do something else.
Sonically, I’m always interested to hear a new Blue Rodeo record and this one is no exception. I found it to be an intriguing listen, hearing the way you framed things such as the guitar intro on “New Morning Sun” and also “Over Me,” from an audio perspective. You’ve already mentioned the Five Days element, but I’m curious to know if there were other things you were using as reference points in the way you approached the way you wanted this album to sound.
I think Greg and I had a couple of different examples. I know that the last Ryan Adams record, Ashes and Fire, sonically I really liked that. I like the fact that the acoustic guitars could lead a song but that there was lots of electric guitars on there. Very significantly, we added Colin Cripps who was the electric guitar player to sort of take over for Greg’s role as the electric guitar player. Colin has a myriad of sounds — he can get all sort of natural sounds, compressed sounds or whatever, plus he’s a real whiz.
He picks up parts really quickly and he can play fast or he can play [parts with] atmosphere. The idea for me was to have my songs have a bit of an acoustic heart, either acoustic guitar or piano, but then to have a full electric orchestra around them. I think that Greg was sort of the same, because all of these songs would have been done on acoustic guitar, because that’s all he plays anymore. But he was of course willing to have anything [on his songs]. I think his are a little bit more defined by the Wurlitzer.
Michael Boguski is our keyboard player and it’s Michael’s first record where he’s really been asked to take a lead role. On The Things We Left Behind, he was still kind of in the shadow of the previous keyboard player, but this time it was like “okay dude, it’s up to you.” He did a wonderful job and I think he and Colin really make a huge difference. To me, it sounds like a really renewed band and I think it’s because of the addition of those two guys.
You’ve worked with Colin a lot in your solo work. Did he fit comfortably into the Blue Rodeo side of things?
Well it’s a little different for him. [Laughs] It was a little different for me too. Because I’m so used to having him as my collaborator on my solo stuff. The Blue Rodeo thing is a little bit bigger and it’s a little more intimidating because there’s a lot of well-worn behavior in that band. Just like any dumb group of guys, you don’t just bully your way to the front, so Colin has a more significant role in my band then he does in Blue Rodeo. So we’re always calling him “rookie” and telling him all this stuff.
But he not only has a lot of playing chops, but he’s also done a lot of producing. And it’s not like Blue Rodeo needs another producer, because everybody in the band is a producer. But Colin has a very specific knowledge that he brings. So once we kind of eased into [having Colin in the band] — you know, it’s hard to break up patterns of behavior. Once we kind of accepted that Colin was going to be offering suggestions about songs, arrangements, production and once everybody had their sort of way of making fun of that and then accepted it, it was great. I think and hope that he would say that he felt fully accepted and that this is, I think, a great achievement for him.
He had been in the circle previously though and I have to ask you if it was somebody that was not in that circle, if they might have gotten shutdown offering those same kinds of advice and suggestions.
There’s no doubt about it. I suppose it’s part of the cruel nature of bands, but you know, I think it’s one of the reasons that we haven’t really enjoyed using producers in the past. Because we have enough and we can generate enough ideas in the band. Once you start working in that context [it becomes comfortable to work that way] and it has a lot to do with history. You know, you come in as a new person and your suggestions are listened to but with a lot more skepticism than let’s say our drummer Glenn [Milchem] would have. But I think we all recognize it, that infantile behavior and if it’s a good suggestion, it’s a good suggestion. We made Colin pay a little bit, but yes, I think he was fully accepted at the end.[youtube width=”602″ height=”350″ video_id=”WZB-smS9q3U”]
“New Morning Sun” fits very well, both as the opening track on the album and also as single-type material. On that subject, is that something that you concern yourself with these days, the idea of writing at least a few things that will be commercially palatable for the radio or whatever it might be?
You know, I usually do, but it never even occurred to me with this record. I usually think “that would be a good single,” but I don’t know, things have changed so dramatically that the idea of a single really now again means just a good song that will be played. Because we’re played on so many different formats. I think the last record we certainly weren’t played on very much commercial radio. We were played a lot on CBC and that kind of stuff — national radio stations. This time, I don’t know, it just never occurred to me. I thought it was more important maybe when we made Five Days. I thought it was more important for the album to have a sound and for the songs to sort of knit together then it was to pick a single and say “okay record company, go do your magic” when all signs sort of point to the fact that we’re not that kind of band anymore. But all said, we’ve had more radio play than we’ve had in years.
It’s always interesting to me hearing how the dynamic of the songwriting that you and Greg do fits together on an album. “New Morning Sun” sets one kind of tone and mood as the opener, something which immediately shifts with song #2 when you hear Keelor’s first entry with “Wondering.”
We’re very aware of that. It’s hard for us to hear it like other people hear it. When we hear it, we hear a sort of harmonious contrast. We think those two [types of] songs work well because somehow they define how each of us is going to write our songs. My songs sort of fit with “New Morning Sun” and his songs sort of fit with “Wondering.” So then we start to have this kind of conversation back and forth between his songs and my songs. I think that we’re just as interested in the other guy’s song as we are in our own. So I like the vibe of “Wondering” a lot — to me it felt like an easy nice round beat of Rumours or something and I thought “okay, this is good.”
Obviously, it gives Michael — I love the songs that give a single player a chance to shine and that was a good one for Michael to play these kind of jazzy licks. Thematically, that’s one of Greg’s song themes through the record. I was sort of surprised when somebody said to me after hearing the record, “it really sounds like one record is your song and one record is Greg’s song,” because that’s not the way I hear it. I hear it as very unified it, but I don’t think I’m the best to judge.[youtube width=”602″ height=”350″ video_id=”dTAQGw_S3x8″]
I heard that unity on this record for sure and in fact, I think that on this record, the songs that you both wrote hang together really well as an album.
Well that’s good. That’s the way I hear it too. I think they’re just different rhythms, but I think somehow there’s the same approach to each song. You know, one of the things about Greg’s place is that no matter how aggressive you make a song, it somehow has a nice round edge. It’s not going to be really edgy, because that’s not his place. It’s all the wood around and it’s not the way you feel when you’re there. So it’s more like a driving dynamic than it is a “get out of your head” dynamic. It’s just a very comfortable place to be and I think that all of those songs have a certain sonic similarity.
I think that you’re in a very similar place to us as listeners, because you yourself probably never know what Greg is going to come in with, material-wise.[Laughs] [youtube width=”602″ height=”350″ video_id=”SiR0B6cDEek”]
His songwriting is so interesting, because he’ll write a song like “Mattawa” which is pretty light in musical tone, even though there is a bit of darkness in the lyrics. So even the contrast of what he’s doing within his songs is interesting.
I really like the song “Paradise” and that was the first song where I sort of understood, I think, where Greg was going on this record. I love the idea of paradise being something he would be leaving behind on Earth as opposed to something he would be entering into. It’s very Greg. Greg has always been very good at writing himself into his songs. Even though there’s a lot of songs about other people on this record, Greg’s sensibility and his particular view of life is very evident on this record. So yeah, “Mattawa” is good and he makes up this story, but I know for a fact he just wanted to say Mattawa and Wahnapitae and talk about Highway 17, so….
Do you demo stuff out for albums at this point or do you just make songs?
Well, we just make songs, but they’re songs for the record until they’re not. We just sort of started and I guess I was a little confused because I went out to Greg’s not really understanding that we were going to make the record out there. The first song, you know, we did it but we didn’t do it to a very high standard and I was surprised when he said we were moving on. So I said “by the way, are we making demos or are we making the record?” and Greg got pissed off [and said] “I’m making a record!” And I said “okay well, if we’re making a record — that song does not cut it!”
So we just go from there. But because we have the time and because we have the accessibility to studios, we’ll do a song and finish it and then think “okay, that’s not right, let’s just do it again.” I [also] loved the break in between [recording] which was three or four months. It gave you the time to write other songs and understand what you had and figure out what works and what was the character of this record? Also, Greg’s place is really only good to work, like I said, in the nice weather.
This album comes on the heels of the box set of albums and assorted rarities that came out last year. Did the process of going through some of that archival stuff filter itself into the framework of the songs on this album?
I think what it did was it laid to rest a lot of stuff. First of all, Greg got to know his studio a lot better, because he did a lot of work on [the box set] out of his studio. It was good to celebrate what we had on tape with different versions and redoing [some things] and just sort of getting our house in order with nothing lingering. So by the time we came to make this record, it was really all about the present tense. It was really all about what we’ve done to change our operation to make music and to help Greg’s ears and the kind of songs that we felt like we should write for this type of record and then just [finding] the way to record it. There are connections to the past because we are who we are and we have recorded at Greg’s before, but otherwise I think it felt like a brand new event and I think that was very good for everybody.
I think that the band has made a remarkably consistent string of records over the years. But I know there have been struggles too along the way. What were the key things that changed which made it possible to get re-engaged in a fashion during those rough times that made things feel good again when it came to making music in the context of Blue Rodeo albums?
Well you know, I think it’s like a marriage in that regard. You come to these crisis points and you look at each other and say “do you want to continue?” As long as the answer is yes, that is enough impetus to carry on. I think that what you feel at the bad times is that somebody doesn’t want to continue. I think that always at those junctures, even as bad as it has gotten, I think that we always realized that we make music really well together. We’re friends and that’s worth saving as well and it’s the way we make our living.
Those three things combine to sort of say “look, let’s just take a month off and come back to this.” I think that maybe a lot of what’s helped us in the last bunch of years is having to accommodate each other. We’ve had to accommodate all of the different family situations that people have. The band has been very good about accommodating my solo career, which I know bugs them at some point and I think we’ve been very good about accommodating Greg’s physical stresses. That builds a lot of goodwill I think among a band.
It would seem like the experimental elements of the band have always been an important component, but also one that could potentially cause issues when things go too far left of center. As an example, on one side of things, you have the Five Days in July album and on the other, the Nowhere to Here album which came after that one.[Laughs] Yeah, I think we’ve always been willing to….like with Five Days, we had a very good trajectory up in the United States and that was pretty much topped by Nowhere To Here. It was a weird thing to give people that played “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet” or “Five Days in May,” to give them “Side of the Road.” But I think it’s still always been worth it to us. Even though I have trouble with that record, I would still defend it, because it’s part of what we’ve done. I guess that it’s more important for us to be able to have that side to the band and not feel constrained by what we worry that might wreck our career than it is to try to think about what do people want and what should the singles be? I think we’re also lucky where we’re situated. I think there’d be a lot more pressure for us if we were in the States. I think up in Canada, people have been very accepting of whichever way we want to go. Our audience is large enough that if we lose somebody for one record, they come back on the next. So we’ve had a lot of encouragement. [youtube width=”602″ height=”350″ video_id=”ZR2uLXpDZlQ”]
We’re 20 years removed from Five Days in July and there were very positive things happening at the time that the record was made and how it was received. How did you go from that to really almost the breaking point with Nowhere to Here?
That would be hard for me to really figure that out. I think we made Five Days and it was a very idyllic time. Maybe it didn’t represent everything that was in the band. I think that Greg still had a lot of things that he wanted to do and he was really still into electric guitar. Also, he had undiagnosed diabetes, so everything was completely up and down all of the time. Greg has a very adventurous nature and doesn’t like to feel like he’s repeating himself. We were in a position where we had so much acceptance that we could challenge that a little bit.
That’s less my nature than Greg’s, but it is the nature of the band to be loyal to each other and follow where one person wants to lead. Even though we gripe about it backstage, we still did it. Greg has said that so many of the things that have taken us down have also been things that we’ve learned from and we’ve rebounded with something we felt was very valuable. It took us a while to come back from that because I think there was a little bit of a crisis of confidence in the band.
The record that came after that was Tremolo and I think that’s our most cautious record, because we were very cautious around each other. But then I think after that we got our mojo back and we were able to do the kinds of records that we wanted and I think this [new album] is part of that string of records. I think it’s important to feel like you are accomplishing what you feel you set out to do and I think on the last few records we have.[youtube width=”602″ height=”350″ video_id=”HuLX_HpuQc8″]
The Days in Between is an album that found the band going down a really interesting path musically as far as the songs and the overall tone of the album. Can you talk a bit about the landscape of what was happening at the time that you were working on that record?
That was a good one. The Days in Between was a record we made with Trina Shoemaker and I believe we made it down in New Orleans. I think if we undervalue that record, it’s because it was the last one we made still learning what we wanted to do with a record. Because we made it at Daniel Lanois’ studio and we made it still under his system. Trina, we loved working with, but we were still kind of giving over control to what somebody else did. After that, we sort of took everything on ourselves. I think it’s a good record too. I like the songs on it and I like the sound of it. You know, I don’t know why, but Greg doesn’t seem to play very many songs from that record. He’s just not comfortable with them and he doesn’t know them well. I don’t know why. We always try to get him to play things like “Bitter Fruit” and “The Days in Between,” but he’s just not interested. I don’t know why.[youtube width=”602″ height=”350″ video_id=”rcwvuqVFERQ”]
That was an exciting record to get as a fan, because from the moment it began with “Cinema Song,” it was like “wow, where are they going with this record?” “The Seeker” continued to intensify those thoughts.
Yeah, I agree with you. We played “The Seeker” quite a bit and I think that sonically that album opened us up quite a bit. But again, maybe it was because sonically, that was Trina’s stuff — it wasn’t ours — but I guess we found our own stuff after that.[youtube width=”602″ height=”350″ video_id=”nsvs2uxY8HU”]
Going back to the new album, “You Should Know” is a particularly beautiful entry in your side of the catalog.
Thank you very much. That was one of the nice things again about working at Greg’s is that you can have any combination of instruments that you want. A lot of times, Colin and I would just sit in the same room and we’d play around an omni-directional mic and that was one of the ones where if we did acoustic stuff, we’d just play facing each other and we’d have beautiful guitars and you’d get such a beautiful blend of these guitars. Sonically, that one was a beauty. You know, I was also kind of far behind on my songwriting for this one, because I had done so much solo stuff. I knew we were going to start the third week of September and I was like “fuck, I am way behind — I’d better get going!”
So I did everything I could and I got my songs all lined up but they weren’t finished. Greg had a lot of songs, so we did a couple of his off the top, but then I knew I had to do one, so I would drive out to Greg’s a couple of hours before we were supposed to there and just park somewhere and I would just force myself to finish a song. I can remember that I really had maybe a third of “You Should Know” done. I knew I had the opening lick and I knew what I wanted to write about, but I didn’t have it. I sat there and it was an absolutely beautiful day and I was sitting by this river and it all came together and I thought “oh, this is going to be really good.” Going back to the studio and then getting setup, it came together really fast. It’s actually a pretty fragile song. We found it difficult to figure out how to do it because it was a little bit of the moment in the studio. It’s a nice result.
What’s the plan as far as U.S. tour dates?
Well, I think what we’re going to do is in late spring or early summer, we’re going to come down. I don’t think we can do clubs anymore so we’re going to come and do small theaters — places that have higher ceilings that we can set up our sound. I think we’ll probably do border towns and we’ll go to Chicago and we’ll see. But we’ll probably stick with the Northeast to begin with to see if this works. But we’ll try. We certainly haven’t forgotten.
What else is up ahead for you guys?
Well, really this. We have a tour starting in January in Canada and we’ve been doing lots and lots of promo up here and we’re just enjoying ourselves now.
Band image courtesy of Blue Rodeo