The Popdose Interview: Blue Rodeo

Written by Music, Popdose Interviews

We chat with Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy to talk about the band’s new album.

Canada’s Blue Rodeo have quietly carved out a fantastic body of work across the decades that they’ve been working as a band. Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of their debut album Outskirts and they’re continuing to create new music together with the recent release of their fifteenth studio album, 1000 Arms, which was released in November.

During a brief run of sold-out U.S. dates that kicked off shortly after the album was out, the band offered an extensive preview of the new material in the setlist, playing nearly the entire record surrounded by a selection of familiar old favorites. The overview of the group’s latest offering was an awfully convincing sell that found anybody without a copy of the new album in hand heading over to the merchandise table at the conclusion of the night to acquire it.

We spoke with frontman Jim Cuddy on Thanksgiving morning not long after the tour dates wrapped up to discuss how it all came together and what fans can look forward to in the coming year.

It was great to see you guys back in the States over the past couple of weeks. I got a chance to see the show in Ann Arbor and it was really a treat, getting to see you guys play such a cool room……

[Cuddy interjects] Such a great room. My God.

I know you said something about it from the stage that you couldn’t believe you guys had never played there before.

Well, but I think also, we were just too loud a band before. We were just trying to cram everything in. [With] Greg [Keelor]’s hearing problems, we’ve come way down and now we can play those rooms very comfortably and it’s a lot more musical. Yeah, that’s a great room and boy, you see all of the pictures on the wall and it’s stunning who has played there.

Yeah, you were like, “All of our friends are up here on the wall!”

[Laughs]

It seems like it’s probably fun for you guys to play rooms of that size here in the United States, but it also seems like something that would present some challenges. From the pictures that I saw of some of the other shows, it looked like the band was configured in different spots depending on the layout of the stage. One night Greg is here and Colin Cripps is on this side and then the next night, maybe it’s completely different.

Truly, that was just a little indulgence on Greg’s part. He’s just like, “Oh, put me over here.” So there was no real rhyme or reason for that. [Laughs] I mean, the idea is really to keep it quiet. You know, because loud noises will hurt Greg’s ears and it takes him a long time to recover. So as long as we can keep it relatively quiet [things are good]. It’s been a funny journey, because we did it in order to just keep playing. I mean, we got to the point where Greg couldn’t be on the stage when it was loud and we thought, “Well, you know, bands have been hiding their amps and putting them off stage forever. We should look into this.”

When we reconfigured the stage, it was initially very difficult, because everybody was on in-ear monitors and people could hear, but they played very timidly. So we had to sort of run around the stage yelling at everybody, “C’mon, play! play!” Now that everybody’s used to it, it has helped our playing so much, because you can actually hear. I mean, when you’re used to playing louder and in loud rooms, you’re kind of dealing with trying to find yourself or find other instruments in the din. Now, that’s all gone. So it’s been really beneficial for just the coordination of instruments in the band, especially the singing. Because now, the singing is not fighting against a whole bunch of noise. I think it’s been really good for our singing.

So in a way, you know, the [smaller] stage provides a challenge, because Greg’s nervous and we’ve got to make sure that it goes okay, but it’s also quite a joy to play in that setting. It’s quite a joy to play so close to each other and the audience is so close. If I remember, the people at the Ark were right in our faces, right?

Absolutely.

So that’s kind of cool too.

It was really evident seeing things this time around how much more comfortable you guys have gotten with where things are at at this point. Even if it’s a quieter show, there are plenty of places in the set, where Colin for example, has room to let loose with a good guitar solo.

Oh yeah. I think the idea was that we’ve got to play quieter, but we can’t lose the energy. That was the whole trick and that was what we [worked on]. It took us about six months to put the energy back in so that everybody feels like, “Yeah, now I understand the dynamics. I understand if I do this, the dynamic goes up.” But yeah, we’re comfortable now and I would say that although we’re much closer together on a stage like that, our stage show wouldn’t be that different. We’re spread out, but we’re still communicating with each other in the same way. So there’s actually a kind of consistency now that we didn’t really have before.

And that wasn’t even the smallest stage I’ve seen you guys play. I remember seeing the band on The Days in Between tour — you played a club here in Cleveland called the Grog Shop and that was the most equipment I’d seen any band ever jam onto one stage. It was incredible.

[Laughs] That’s ridiculous. And we were a seven-piece then, right?

Right!

We would have had Bob Egan. We’ve done some crazy stuff. Have you ever been to the Mercury Lounge in New York?

I haven’t. But I saw you guys play a show at Martyrs in Chicago and that was pretty crazy.

Martyrs is pretty crazy, yeah, but the Mercury Lounge has a tiny little stage and we were crammed on there and did our whole thing. It’s a lot more sane now. I think that those tours used to just bash us up. We would do them because we would just put whatever show we had on a big stage, we’d put it on a little stage, but by the end of it, we were super-fatigued from all of that volume. Now, it’s like, you know, when we finished New York a couple of nights ago, everybody was really happy and we’re having champagne — well, some of us — and I thought, “Okay, this is the result of just simply figuring this out in a better way.”

It was cool to see that it looked like all six of these U.S. shows were sold out. When you look at how early in the cycle for the new record it is, that seems like it provides some good potential mojo for another run of U.S. dates next year.

We’re definitely going to do that. Because we’ve got to do the West Coast and I think a lot of the places [on the most recent run], we should have done two nights. We sort of underplayed those markets. And we’re also hoping that there might be some festivals in those places in the summer. That’s when we have a little bit more time. It’s hard for us during the year, because we have so many commitments in Canada. But we have the spring and we have the summer, so we’ll see. I would certainly like to. Everybody was pretty keen on the bus ride home, so that’s a good sign.

The new album is the final record with Bob Egan. There wasn’t anybody filling Bob’s slot on this most recent tour. Are there plans to eventually bring someone in?

Not full-time. There’s a guy named Jimmy Bowskill who is currently the guitar player for the Sheepdogs. He’s a phenomenal player. He plays pedal steel, he plays mandolin — he did a couple of the mando solos on the record. We’re going to bring him on for the Canadian tour, but I think what we’re enjoying is….I mean, we were a six-piece for a long time and we’re enjoying the additional space. We miss Bob, because we miss Bob.

We miss Bob because he was kind of like the color analyst, you know? We’re the play-by-play guys and he’s the color guy. So we miss that, but more often than not, if it’s just a normal show, it’s actually nice to have the extra space, give the solo to….you know, I think Michael and Colin both shine a little more, because they have a few more solos and people hear them play a little more. So [because of] that, we would never go to the stage with a seven-piece anymore. In Canada, we’ll do our big tour, but then I think we’ll be a six-piece for a while.

Were you aware going into the record that Bob was planning to leave?

No, no, no. No. [Laughs] It’s sort of funny in this band, because no, we had no idea. I don’t think Bob had any idea. Because he really got this job after the record was made. And he does such a….you know, he is the quietest contributor, so he never speaks up. And all of the sudden you think, “Bob, that’s a nice line, you should follow that line.” So when I listen to the record, I realize all of the important little things that he added. He got the offer afterwards and we were in Banff doing something and [we heard], “Bob needs to talk to you guys. Bob has to have a meeting with you guys.”

We sat down with Bob and we just said, “So when are you leaving?” [Laughs] He goes, “How’d you know?” We said, “Well, what other reason would you have to have a meeting with us? We spend all day together!” [Laughs[ So we knew he was going. And you know, his circumstances have changed. He’s got a new beautiful young boy and this offer, to be able to stay home and to curate all of these art projects for this library was too good to pass up. It’s a risky thing being a pedal steel player in a band. It’s not full-time, but it’s not everything you want to do with your life, so I get it. I know it’s’ rough for Bob, because it’s hard to leave the artistic world, it really is.

This is such a beautiful sounding record. I love the way it starts off with “Hard to Remember,” just the vibe and the tone that song sets for the album. Is that one that came along pretty early in the album process? What do you recall about how that one kind of came together?

Well, to tell you the truth, we had this joke about [how] Greg’s [songs] took three days and mine take three hours. I don’t remember where it was. I think “Hard to Remember” was one of the earliest ones, but we worked on Greg’s songs for a long time to make them sound [like they do]. I listen to it now and I think, “God, this sounds like we just whipped this off,” but that was just not the case. It was great that Greg provided us with songs that were…there’s a very wide spectrum of dynamics on Greg’s songs this time [like] “Hard to Remember,” “Jimmy Fall Down,” “Mascara Tears” and “The Flame,” I mean, [that’s] just the epic. There was a lot of work to be done on those songs. A lot of different instrumentation to figure out and the harmonies.

I would say that the one thing that was important about “Hard to Remember” was our co-producer and engineer Tim Vesely, who was also the bass player for the Rheostatics, who were a Canadian band. When we were just talking about the record, I guess the first couple of days, he said, “I went back and I listened to your early records and I think you should sing more together. And we said, “Well, we always sing together.” He said, “No, not like you used to.” And so we went back and we listened and we realized that when we started, we only counted on ourselves having two voices. We’d either sing together in two-part harmony, or we’d do a call and response.

Later we got into layering vocals and all of these block vocals and that was all fun, but I guess it did take away from a certain personality that the band had at the beginning. “Hard to Remember” was one of the ones where we were definitely going to go hard at the double vocal and I think that to a certain extent, it kind of defined what we were about to do. I think the first six songs on the record really do define…..the singing anyway, not necessarily the instrumentation, but the singing style that’s going to be presented on the record.

In talking about this new album, I saw you describe it as one that started out with a “Brinsley Schwarz, late ‘70s pub scene” sounding kind of record that kind of turned into something else, but there’s “still pinches of that in it.” Looking at where things kind of started out with this album, as you describe it, what would you say kind of had you guys working in that direction and vein and what kind of happened that things shifted in a slightly different direction that gives us the record now that we’re holding today.

I think initially, like anything when you try and impose this on music, for some reason, an era just piques your interest. You start listening to those songs, the Costello and the Brinsley Schwarz and Joe Jackson and all of that kind of stuff and it’s very appealing. And then I think that initially, we tried a little too hard. The instrumentation was a little bit too close to that. We were trying sort of more whiny keyboard sounds and I think what happened to us is that we said, “Well, now we’ve got the construction of these songs, but let’s go back to our most natural sound. It will still be different, because the songs are different.”

Once we did that, the songs got fuller and you know, we seem to have a little bit more of a strummy style than those records. Those records are a lot more staccato and our bass player is so much more fluid than that. Well, you know, more like later Costello. More like Bruce Thomas, but later, because Basil [Donovan] is a very fluid bass player. He plays a lot of notes — that’s what we love. So we didn’t totally fit the mold that we were trying to fit to begin with. But once we let the bass go free and strummed a little more and let Colin do his thing, then it felt very natural and then it was easy to finish what we were doing.

You’ve made solo records in between some of the Blue Rodeo albums in the recent past. You didn’t do that this time around. Did you have a pretty good base of material yourself because of that?

You know what? I always write album-specific. So if there’s Blue Rodeo next, which I’ve known for, I mean, we did the Christmas record in between. That might have been the time when I would have done my own record. The Christmas record [2014’s Merrie Christmas To You] was actually fun.

It’s a cool collection of songs.

Yeah, I loved doing those songs and then writing a Christmas song. So that took that time, but then I knew I was writing for Blue Rodeo. Now that’s done and now I can write for myself, but I don’t ever want to have any crossover. I don’t want them to feel like I am holding back a song or anything like that. So now I just have fragments of stuff that’s left over from writing for the Blue Rodeo record.

The Christmas record was fun because I think you can tell if somebody does a holiday record just to do it and just to get some product into the stores and the stuff that’s on that record very much represents the stuff that anybody is familiar with your band knows that you guys are into.

[Laughs] Yeah, I couldn’t agree more! I think sometimes people play it and say, “This is kind of dark!” [Laughs] Well, I don’t know, I mean, you know, we love these songs. “If We Make It Through December” and “River.” But it was also really fun. We really imposed a very short time limit on ourselves. When I proposed the record to everybody, I said, “We have to do this complete in five days. Everyone was like, “Oh my God, how can we do that?” Well, you just have to be prepared! You know, there’s no overdubbing. You’ve got to play your part and get it right the first time. We can fix a mistake, but you can’t wait and then do it over.

We really enjoyed it. I mean, it’s a little different doing songs that are already recorded songs. So at least you know they go. You can change arrangements and stuff, but it’s not as big of a deal. And we really did it — in five days, we were done. Everybody was really thrilled in the band, because you know, we didn’t think we could do it and I think it sounds pretty pro and we like the record itself and like the songs. It was a good template for how we worked [on this new album]. Obviously, not that quickly, but we worked in a similar manner and with the same guy. Tim Vesely, that’s the first time we worked with Tim, on the Christmas record.

Just looking at the title track of this new record as an example, it seems like you were drawing on some inspiration for songs that at times, came from interesting places.

Yeah, I mean, it’s so funny. Every time I say that it came from a podcast, I feel like I’m an old guy trying to be modern. But I do listen to a lot of podcasts. I find them [to be an] extremely interesting view of youth culture. I think it’s amazing. My own view is that sometimes I listen to the people talk on the podcast and think, “You’re almost inarticulate.” The amount of likes and you knows and ums and ahs, and yet what you’re saying is really interesting. So I have found it really an interesting study for myself. And then also along the way, I picked up some really interesting stories.

That whole story about community and the woman with bipolar allowing to be looked after by the community was just fascinating to me. You know, I think the reason it became our title is because we’ve been thinking a lot about our musical community and the challenges that it’s faced in the last year with Gord Downie and then with Spirit of the West and John Mann, who has early onset Alzheimer’s, and just how close everybody is, how much support has been going back and forth with phone calls or emails or showing up. I think once it was proposed, very unusually, there was unanimous agreement among the band, yes, we should actually do that. That was a nice acknowledgement of, it’s a relatively small community. It’s not tiny, the music community up here, but it’s relatively small and it’s definitely close.

With a song like “Jimmy Fall Down,” one that kind of reaches back in the history of things you guys have seen as musicians and band mates, how much do you guys open up during the songwriting process, sharing with the other where a particular song is coming from? With that one, because of the subject matter, I would guess that you had a pretty good inkling right away what he was writing about.

Yeah, I think so. I mean, when somebody brings a song to the band, when I do or Greg does, there won’t be any questions initially. People will learn the song and figure it out. After a week or so, somebody might ask a question. Is that about such and such? And then you fill them in. Or there will be a specific lyric. I mean, I usually know the history of Greg’s songs. “Jimmy Fall Down,” I know who that was. I also understand the way that songwriting goes, that it can often be a pastiche of a couple of people. So sometimes I’ll ask Greg about things, because I do know his romantic history and I’ll ask him about things.

I also know what he’s trying to say. You know, sometimes he’s trying to tell somebody something and just uses bits and pieces from the past. For myself, I mean, I know that one of the reasons I’m a little bit reluctant to assign “1000 Arms” to that particular woman from that podcast, is because there’s a lot of imaginative details in there. I don’t know that she cries when she drinks. She might find that super-offensive. I don’t know. I heard the podcast, I figured out who she was and then I added details that were from my imagination. So I’m trying to tell the heart of the story and we’ve had a lot of response from bipolar people or people who know bipolar people, so I’m glad the story makes sense. But I don’t know, maybe she finds it offensive. [Laughs] You have to be very careful about really naming somebody in a song, because then they’ve got live with all of the other details in the song.

It seems like you guys are having a lot of fun playing the new material from this album. It was great to see you stick in “Can’t Find My Way Back To You” at the beginning of the encore. That’s a great tune.

Oh, I love that one too. That is definitely the three hour one. That one, we did so quickly.

[Laughs]

I’m not kidding! We had just done about three days on one of Greg’s songs and it was about 7 o’clock and they said, “Okay, Jim, do one of yours” and I’m like, “C’mon, it’s 7 o’clock at night! Alright.” We did it and we finished it. A week later, I was asking Colin about something, because you know, he does quite an elaborate solo at the end. I couldn’t even get him to remember the song! I would sing a little bit of it and he goes like, “No, no, no.” I said, “You mean, we did it that quickly that you don’t even remember doing it? Anything?” So yeah, that was the absolute three hour song. But it has a really nice vibe and it’s really fun to play.

Three days working on Greg’s songs vs. three hours with your songs, is that a usual thing? Or was it just this record? Is it consistently that way?

I think that Greg brings in rougher versions of his songs. He brings in a version and then he has a lot of ways that he wants to go. I am truly the opposite — I am pretty sure what I want as soon as I come in. So it generally is true, but no, not always. Lots of Greg’s songs go quickly and some of them might take longer. But you know, Greg loves mulling things over. “Why don’t we try it this way” and “Let’s try it that way” — and I hate that. I want to make a decision right away. If it’s wrong, I’ll go back and fix it, but I just want to make a decision. So I’m impatient and he luxuriates in it. So generally, we follow our own personality form.

You mentioned Tim, who co-produced, engineered and mixed this album. Prior to the Christmas album, it had been a long time since you guys had shared the production credit on a record with somebody else, going back to, I think, The Days in Between. How did it happen that you guys decided to bring somebody else in?

To tell you the truth, it really is just a name at this point. Since we started to produce ourselves, which was I guess, Lost Together, we’ve worked the same way with everybody. We bring in somebody who we value as an engineer and then we see what kind of collaborator they are. Sometimes, they’re just engineers. Sometimes they just do sounds and sometimes they step over boundaries and try to be too collaborative with us. We have to find a person who is the right balance and Tim is the right balance. He’s very, very invested and he’s very interested and he gives his opinion when it’s required.

But I think we still hold the producer’s reins. We still decide arrangements, we still decide instrumentation and we still shepherd the project along. But we need somebody that is an objective ear and Tim has really good ears. He’s got really good ears for sounds obviously, that’s a given for his profession. But he’s also got really good ears for instrumentation and if a song is getting to its point, if it’s taking too long. The Rheostatics are a very metamorphosing band. You can see two different performances and they will seem like an entirely different band. One will be just nice, short, poppy songs and then one will be a long jammy thing. He plays in a band that really explores a lot of the corners of roots music, so he’s pretty good at that and he was a good judge for us sometimes when we needed that to figure out if we’d gone far enough or if we should go further. In that way, he collaborated.

He’s obviously a guy who is very secure in his boots too. It was great hearing you talk about how he told you, “You guys should sing together more” and then when you say, “We do” and he further qualifies that and says, “Well, not the way you used to.” Depending on the band, some bands would have taken that guy and tossed him right out of the room, you know, “Don’t tell us what to do!” That’s somebody that has paid attention to your band that knows the different eras of what you guys have done and steps up to say, “Here’s something that you should really bring back more of.”

Yeah, I agree. He never said anything frivolously and he never said anything to be sarcastic. It was always a concerned suggestion and we always took it seriously. He wasn’t always right, I mean, nobody’s always right, but sometimes, [like with] “1000 Arms,” [that’s one that] used to start cold. And then we heard a playback and all of the sudden there was a drum fill and we’re like, “Tim?” He said, “I thought it needed a drum fill.” And I said, “Well, you know what? I’ve been thinking that myself and I just haven’t said it, because it just sounds weird to me.” So you know, sometimes you nail it and sometimes you don’t! [Laughs]

At the Ann Arbor show, Greg noted “Heart Like Mine” was the first song on our first record and this is the first song on our last record,” setting up “Hard to Remember.” You smiled and said, “He means our latest record.” Greg says, “I’m not sure about that.” In a way, that’s typical Greg. But how much should somebody read into that statement? How much do you guys think about the end of the line?

[Laughs] We don’t. To tell you the truth, I think with In Our Nature, that was the first time I read Greg saying [something like that]. His joke on that one was, “This isn’t our last record, this is our last good record!” [Laughs] And so you know, that’s just Greg’s sense of humor. He also knows that it bugs the shit out of me, so that’s why he says it. And listen, I am in better shape to retire than Greg, so he’s got to keep working! [Laughs] Honestly, I think we are very happy making music and as long as we can accommodate everybody’s physical restrictions, then we’re good to go.

It is fun seeing how much you guys just visibly enjoy playing together on stage. I recall a moment during the show where you kept grinning at Colin after he played a solo on “Disappear” and eventually he just looks at you and says, “What, what did I do?” It’s fun seeing that visual language going on on stage.

[Laughs] He’s usually the unnerved. I think it is fun. You know, there’s a lot that goes into being on that stage and I think that by the time everybody gets up there, we have a unified desire to make it enjoyable. It’s got to be good music and it’s got to be the right circumstances. We’re pretty hard on ourselves, you know, considering how many shows we’ve done. The level, picking it apart after the show, is pretty high. But I think that results in everybody playing well. We enjoyed all of those shows in the States. They were great fun.

You guys have been moving through the catalog, doing vinyl reissues of the album and we’re up to Five Days in July. Are there plans to get the rest of them out there as well?

Yeah, I think so. We’re really pushing now to have the Christmas record made into vinyl. Vinyl is great and it’s fantastic to put out, but it takes a long time to get it done. It’s not like the old days where you could just get it done in two weeks, it’s an eight to 12 week process. So we are — we’ll figure something out in the new year.

On the CD box set that came out in the past couple of years, it was so cool to hear the demo recordings for the Casino record. It was a real gift that you guys had recorded those in such good quality and it painted an interesting picture of the early days of that album.

That was fun. That was a big watershed moment for the band, because those demos were then quite different than what the record became. And that was a producer working with us and contouring things. You know, it was interesting to go back and listen to our natural instincts vs. what we thought was the right thing to do on the record. And I think that record, it worked great, but we were sort of…..we never did that again. We never allowed ourselves to be that edited. I think after that, we felt that we had an obligation to be ourselves, that we shouldn’t try to be the Jayhawks or some other band that was just a little bit more formatted than us. It was great to have those. Those demos shouldn’t have turned out that well. They were done in such a completely haphazard way. But they did turn out great. That was wonderful.

I read a recent interview with your manager, Susan, and she talked about how the management company came together. I didn’t realize that everything had kind of fallen apart for you guys management-wise right after Casino was finished. Reading the story of how it went down, it would seem like you guys did a hell of a job picking up the ball and carrying things forward. But man, what a time to have to make those decisions and make that transition.

[Laughs] But you know what? It was actually a good time, because we were operating from such a position of strength. We had a good reputation and we played that record for every major manager in Los Angeles. It was a shock, to hear our manager quit, because we didn’t really think he was going to quit. But with him went a whole lot of problems and we were just free and clear. So it was actually quite exciting. I think we also had realized that this was something we’d been doing for five or six years at that point and that it wasn’t rocket science, we could figure it out. We may be naive in certain areas, but we could certainly get advice.

Playing from a position of strength means that people are anxious to talk to you. And they also give you their best pitch and sometimes that pitch is too honest. Sometimes it’s only about money or sometimes it’s how they see the band breaking in the States. “You should collaborate with this songwriter.” It’s all good, because nobody was hiding anything and we could certainly make our decision. But bringing Susan along was great too, because she was brand new and she didn’t know very much about the business, but she seemed so smart and she seemed so honest and open. We’ve just been through this complete wreck of people’s’ ulterior motives and people not being entirely honest and people not acting with total integrity — I think we can do better than that.

And we just learned. Even with lawyers, I just got a friend from high school who was a corporate lawyer and I said, “You know, we can’t deal with these entertainment lawyers. We don’t even understand if they’re on our side or not, so you and I just have to learn it. We just have to read the contracts and figure it out.” So that’s exactly what we have. We have this cottage industry of people that were brought in without a whole lot of prior experience and that has worked to our advantage, I think.

What else is on deck for you guys?

Next year will be pretty heavy on touring. We’ve got touring through the winter and spring and then we usually take the late spring off and then our summer plans are all coming together. And then we’ll have to figure out what is next. I have some idea. I played a room last night in Toronto called the Winter Garden. It’s a small theater, but it’s a beautiful sonic theater and I’ve always wanted Blue Rodeo to do a full acoustic tour. Really acoustic, like I remember from folk days. So we’ll see. We’ll see what they think about that. You’re the first to hear it. I haven’t even mentioned it to them! [Laughs]

Photo Credit: Dustin Rabin