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The Tragically Hip’s Gord Sinclair: "Find the holes in the melodic dialog with the guitars and the vocals – that’s when you find your moment as a bass player"

Gord Sinclair
(Image credit: Mark Horton/WireImage)

The Tragically Hip’s singer Gord Downie died in 2017, and as any of his fellow Canadians will tell you, his passing was a national tragedy. Although TTH were and remain critically respected and commercially successful outside Canada, their domestic status was immense, equalled in their home country only by Rush. 

The fact that their 13 studio albums released since 1989 have sold 10 million copies in Canada, but only 1.5 million in the USA, is revealing. When Downie’s death was announced, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an emotional speech in his honor, and the country’s House of Commons observed a minute’s silence. All this indicates why so much attention has been focused on Saskadelphia, a new album by The Tragically Hip. 

It contains six previously unreleased tracks written in 1990, five of which were recorded the same year during the sessions for the album Road Apples; the sixth is a live track, Montreal

The line-up will be familiar to fans – Downie plus Rob Baker (guitar), Paul Langlois (guitar), Gord Sinclair (bass), and Johnny Fay (drums) – and the energy and enthusiasm emitted by the young band gives the songs a ton of appeal.  

BP talked to bassist Sinclair just after the now-quartet received the 2021 Humanitarian Award at Canada’s annual Juno Awards, presented to them by Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush.

I’ve been watching the video of you receiving the Juno Award, Gord.  

“Yeah – it was really quite something. My first concert was Rush in Kingston, Ontario when I was 14 years old, so the 16-year-old me keeps pinching the 56-year-old me. When we were invited to support Rush back in 1991, after touring Road Apples, we honestly thought it couldn’t possibly get any bigger than playing with them at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. It was a watershed moment for us.”   

How did you get started on bass? 

“I grew up across the street from Rob Baker, our guitar player, and we grew up listening to his older sister’s record collection. His dad bought him a guitar, and he came over one day and said, ‘I’m going to put a band together and you’re going to be the bass player.’ I just loved the vibe of the bass: I’d had some exposure to some Motown stuff from my mom’s record collection, and I spent a lot of time listening to Carol Kaye.” 

What was your first bass guitar? 

“I had a black Univox. It’s still in the basement here somewhere. My mom ponied up for that and off we went. Rob and I were plugged into one amp between us – I was in the one side, he was in the other. For years I used a G&L – it was a classic workhorse bass. 

“I pulled it out of my gear closet recently. I hadn’t played it since we stopped playing four years ago, and it was still in tune. It’s a remarkable piece of wood, and it has that little bit more output than a P-Bass or J-Bass. I was also given a really nice bass by the folks at Lakland.”

Have you always been a four-string guy? 

“Absolutely. I find the architecture of a five-string bass very, very odd. My fingers always go to the wrong string. I’ve recorded with one a few times, but only to reinforce a couple of low pedal notes.” 

Talk to us about the new album, Saskadelphia

“I’m really, really happy with it. A lot of these songs were road-tested, so we knew the arrangements really, really well. Back then, our producer Don Smith reined us in ever so slightly, and got us to apply a little restraint in the way we were playing, because we were still pretty young guys.”   

It sounds like there’s a lot of adrenaline flying around. 

“Of course, because it’s a live gig, so you’ve got to come out like a racecar and hit it really hard. Don was good about trying to get the right vibe, and trying to capture that live energy, but this recording session predates click tracks and metronomes. We were playing together as a band, and the more fired up we got, the quicker the choruses would get.”

This recording session predates click tracks and metronomes. We were playing together as a band, and the more fired up we got, the quicker the choruses would get

Do you remember the bass gear you used on the session? 

“I was using an old P-Bass through a Fender Bassman amp – real nuts and bolts stuff. I had recently bought a Spector bass with active EMG pickups, and Don said, ‘Oh, that’s a really nice guitar that we’re not going to use,’ haha! It wasn’t his thing at all. It was going to be either a P-Bass or a J-Bass as far as he was concerned. 

“He made me realize what the function of the bass was. He was all about less being more, and understanding how to find the holes in the melodic dialog with the guitars and the vocals. That’s when you find your moment as a bass player, and even if it’s just a little bit of syncopation or just a little riff that you have, that’s your moment to shine right there.”  

Are you a different bass player now? 

“Honestly, I don’t know that I am. I feel like I’m a better bass player from a technical standpoint, but my approach has not changed one little bit from making those first couple of records. I have the advantage of having played with the same drummer my entire career, so we have an implicit conversation with each other without ever speaking. 

“Maybe sometimes people lose track of the idea of what a dotted half-note is, and what a whole note is actually supposed to do – that kind of really simple stuff. Don taught me to listen less to the kick and more to the snare.”

Why should we do that? 

“I think people have a tendency to want to double what the kick drum’s doing. It’s funny – when we were making this record, it was right at the time that the Red Hot Chili Peppers were coming out. Slapping was just starting, so everything was locked tight with the kick. I love those players – it was such a cool way of approaching it – but for two and four players, that’s the feel of the song. I was always inspired to listen, and leave room for nuances in the kick drum patterns.”  

Why issue Saskadelphia now? 

“This has been a two-year process, but it started when our guitar player Rob Baker read the New York Times, about the fire on the Universal lot. Our first three records were with MCA US, and there on the list of artists who had lost material was our name. We got on the phone with each other, and we could not say where our master tapes were, so that started an archaeological dig, as we’ve been describing it.

“Our drummer Johnny was really a dog on a bone with this kind of stuff, and he was finally able to learn that our tapes had been shipped from Los Angeles back up to Canada. We found some reels of two-inch tape that we recorded on, with these five unreleased songs, so we organized a proper mix for them.”  

We were friends long before we put the band together, and it’s impossible for me to conceive of carrying on without Gord

Presumably this is a celebration of those songs, rather than a reboot of the band?

“I’m in the ‘never say never’ camp. If there was something worthwhile and charitable-oriented, it’s never something that we wouldn’t consider, but obviously we were friends long before we put the band together, and it’s impossible for me to conceive of carrying on without Gord. He was such an instrumental part of what we did, not only with his voice and his lyrics but also with his energy. He was the principal motivator in the band.”

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