|Blue Rodeo | Jim Cuddy|
Since 1984, Blue Rodeo have been the finest purveyors of Canadian roots and rock music. Like The Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo, they were among the first to get the alt.country ball rolling, and today, more than 20 years later, Blue Rodeo and its two main songwriters, Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor, continue to take their sound to new places. As they prepare for their three UK dates starting September 30 in Leeds, we spoke to Jim Cuddy about their latest double album, The Things We Left Behind, why Greg Keelor hates playing clubs, and why MP3's are obviously destroying music…
Interview by Soren McGuire
Photo by Dustin Rabin
The obvious question. A double album with four different sides. Is this a stab at making a vinyl record on a cd format?
No, it's actually a stab at just making a double album. From the beginning, Greg and I knew that we were going to make a double format. Recently, we've both been very by how many American record stores who now put vinyl records on their front shelves, and we think that's great. We both love vinyl, and with the memories of being a teenager listening to a double album, we just wanted to revisit that. We had enough songs, and we thought about it from the very beginning in terms of recording four different sides. We didn't have to trim songs, because we had lots of room, and we knew that we could let a song like (the 10+ minutes long) Venus Rising get the full treatment it deserved. If we had to cram that particular onto a single cd, we would probably have trimmed it and that would have made it a completely different song. And of course, it helped us when Thom Yorke, in the midst of us making this record, proclaimed that the album format was now dead and that he was never going to do any more records, only singles. We've always kind of thrived in being cross-current, so him saying that was perfect!
But in this day and age, most people aren't used to the fact that listening to a record requires you to get off your ass and change sides every 20 minutes. Don't you run the risk of the listener not really bothering to listen to the entire album simply because he or she has to get up and change the cd?
I think there's two ways of saying that. It can be considered an imposition on the listener and it can be considered an invitation to the listener. I'm a pretty good listener for about 45 minutes, but often, cd's are so long now, my attention starts to wander. So if a cd is 60 or 70 minutes, I don't get to know those last five songs very well. Eventually I'll discover them, and I've always felt that there was still some value in that, but with a vinyl record you can't be disconnected. You actually have to want to listen, because you have to go over there every 15 or 20 minutes and flip it over. It gives you a choice. We tried to give each side a different emotional context, so you would get to know the different characteristics of each side. If you only want to play side 1 and side 4 or side 2 and side 3, whatever, go ahead! But yes, it does require more of the listener, but if you want to buy the cd instead and stick it on your iPod, that's fine with us as well.
I recently spoke to another fine Canadian band, The John Henrys, and they actually like to record their albums as if they were only coming out on vinyl. I suppose there's a lot of good things to be said about wanting to keep those kinds of ethics alive?
What happens is, an artist puts together a collection of songs however they want to put it together. The John Henrys put it together in terms of an A-side and a B-side, and that is communicating something to their audience. Putting it together as 12 running songs, is communicating something as well. We communicate what we think is the best arrangement of those songs, to our audience. That, to me, still matters. So I still want some insight into the artist's intention. I know the importance of singles in the record markets, but a single means NOTHING to me. I like a good song as much as the next guy, but I have no idea whether that's a band I'm going to be interested in. It requires so much more fleshing out for me, I gotta know what kind of people they are and how it's represented in their songs, I gotta know who their influences are. I just require a lot much more information, and I think somehow and in some form, the collection of songs put together by the artist, will survive.
So this vinyl comeback isn't just a current trend that will go away once people realise that the cd or MP3 is so much easier to deal with?
No, I don't think vinyl's gonna go away anytime soon, I think it's been as engraved in us as anything that is antique and has value. In terms of how the majority of people are gonna get their music, sure, it's always gonna be old. What's happening over here is that people are going to eliminate any other format than getting the music directly on their phone. I'm in the middle of having my vinyl collection digitalized, so these people came to me and told me what they could do. I said "but this only plays MP3's, and I'm not interested in that. I want the full spectrum." It took them a whole bunch of research to find out what to do, and while they're doing so, I'm thinking, "did all you motherfuckers forget that music has just been squashed, and that it has nothing to do with the way it was actually produced!?" And if people can at some point discover the full aural spectrum of music, they will think "Oh my god, what have we been listening to?!"
Good point. Back to the album – what do you find yourself singing about these days?
One of the things we've always done in Blue Rodeo, is deal with subjects that were fairly age appropiate. We're not young guys, and we don't write songs about loving 16 year-olds. That's not our world. But with The Things We Left Behind, you know, by the time you get older, the losses start piling up, and that's inevitably something that occupies a lot of space in your mind, and I think this album is a pretty accurate expression of how we feel about things.
You and Greg Keelor have been working together for a long time now. How does this songwriting partnership work?
Greg and I were sort of the two only guys in our high school who were into music to the extent that we actually wanted to do something about it. I guess we became friends through music. We've always written seperately, while still being each others musical guidance, and I think this record is the perfect example of this. We would get together in mine or Greg's studio, sit on the couch and play our songs to eachother, trying to figure out what the record should look like. We're very much involved in each others music, and we may discuss arrangements and such, but we never make lyrical comments on each others songs.
Some of the best songwriting partnerships in music history have been made up by two men, who just share this ability to create magic together – from John and Paul, Mick and Keith to Jay and Jeff and Mark and Gary. Where do you think this magic comes from when you and Greg sit down and work together?
Well, as I said, we don't sit down and work together. We bring songs to each other, and I think that's always been necessary. For coherence, we need to work alone, and we've been doing that for the past 20 years. We've broadened our sensibilities; I know what Greg thinks, and he thinks differently than I do, but when we sit down together and have to play our songs for each other, there's a shared sensibility. From a little bit more distant perspective, there's also been an incredible shared experience. Through your career, you go through cycles of criticism and praise, criticism and praise, but none of that really makes any difference if you have a good, solid core in the middle your band. That's been a big part of our partnership too, that we've been able to operate seperately or together, but always together, if you know what I mean?
Greg's not going to be touring with you for this tour, in fact, Luke Doucet will taking his place. Luke is a great guy, but isn't it going to be weird without Greg?
You know, it's not the full representation of Blue Rodeo, cause Greg's songs aren't there, and Greg and I won't be singing together. But he needs a break this fall, and you know, clubs are hard on him, and we don't usually do them over here. When you play clubs, you don't have the same control over the sound, so it's too difficult for him. But the rest of the banded wanted to do it, and we like to be able to go over to England and Ireland every couple of years. We're also going to Spain, cause I have a daughter in Spain, and I want to see her, so we just asked Greg if it would be okay if we still went over there. And besides, I have a solo career back in Canada, so I'm used to being on stage without Greg standing next to me. It's a weird experience though, and we've done it before with Luke when Greg's dad was very ill and he had to leave the tour, so we'll get by. But it sure won't be the same without Greg.
Luke is an extremely talented musician and songwriter in his own right, but what do you think he can learn from an older, more experienced musician such as yourself?
Luke and I have shared a lot of stages over the years. He's played with my band, so we've done a lot of touring together, Luke and Melissa (McClelland, Luke's wife) and Blue Rodeo, so we're very comfortable on stage together. I don't think it's a question of youth or age or experience. Luke is a very seasoned stage performer, and he doesn't need to learn anything from me. We all know how we're supposed to play these songs, and Luke is a very talented guy. He's a great guitar player, he's a great singer and he has a great stage pressence, so yeah, he brings his slightly different version of the Blue Rodeo songs, but I've toured with Luke before, so I know what to expect from him.
Looking back on Blue Rodeo's 20 year history, what kind of mark do you think you've left on the international music scene?
I don't think we've left very much of a mark on the international scene – that's never been something we've had much luck in doing – but I do think we've left a mark on the Canadian music scene. We came along at a good time when all the elements came together to forge a very strong, recognised Canadian music scene. We have forged a long career that has made Canadians recognise that it can be done, at a time when it really couldn't be done in Canada. We got a lot of envy from bands that were around before us, when there weren't any good studios in Toronto or radio stations that would play a lot Canadian music. But we also got a lot of love of accomplishment for it. Canadians are happy that some of their favorite artists are Canadian homegrown. It is more personal for them. That's where we find ourselves. We are like the grand statesmen of Canadian music. We're surely not the only ones, don't get me wrong, because there are a lot of other great bands who came from the same place as us.
So thanks to you, it's easier for younger Canadian artists such as Luke Doucet, Justin Rutledge, Kathleen Edwards and The John Henrys to be Canadian musicians?
It has, if that's what they want. Most people, when they start out, want to be international musicians, that's where they place a lot of their attention and energy. When Blue Rodeo first came together, being an international band really wasn't possible, so we put a lot of energy into Canada. We played every bar that would have us, and the result was that we got a lot of loyalty from Canadians, simply because we had been to their little place, playing our songs. Luke operates on a much bigger scale and so does Kathleen, but I don't know, it's for everyone to decide. I think artists these days are starting to forge their own ways, and I don't think they could possibly imagine what it was like when we first started out. You didn't have a fair shot at radio back then, but that's different now, so I think we're inspiring to young bands because we lasted for such a long time. But then again, I don't think they want to do everything Blue Rodeo did. In fact, I think it's quite the opposite.
Blue Rodeo's The Things We Left Behind is out now on Red Eye USA. The band will play Wheelan's in Dublin 27/9, The Errigle Inn in Belfast 28/10, The Irish Centre in Leeds 30/9, The Harput Suite in Bedford 1/10 and The Borderline in London 2/10. For more, go to Bluerodeo.com