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PART 2 OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH JAY SEMKO OF THE NORTHERN PIKES.
By late 1990 when Snow In June was certified platinum in Canada, to some it seemed like the Northern Pikes were a bit of an overnight sensation. Of course, that was far from the truth. By then they’d been a regular on the Saskatchewan music scene for about seven years and had put a lot of miles on their van and a lot of effort into being noticed. That dated back to when they had out their first indie release, a self-titled 1984 EP. Jay Semko knew they had a marketable sound, a fresh guitar-driven rock not that different than that which bands like R.E.M. and the Replacements were beginning to take off with south of the border. He also knew that stepping up from the ranks of a backwater bar band would take a little luck…and a lot of work. He decided to put in some of the work and wrote to the American Library of Congress to get a list of radio stations in the U.S. and their addresses. He mailed out hundreds of copies of their first cassette to college stations across the continent, and even had pockets of success in the U.S. with it. Along the way, Virgin Records took note and signed them, resulting in the 1987 big label debut, Big Blue Sky and its memorable singles “Teenland” and “The Things I Do For Money.”
Their status began to grow not only due to their sound, which Innervisions suggest accomplishes the “rare feat of merging the accessible and the adventurous” but by touring. And touring some more. They began to play hundreds of shows in small venues across Canada and at times opening for bigger, international acts across North America.
“We did two shows where we opened for David Bowie at the CNE in Toronto. We were the ‘find your seat’ band,” Semko chuckled. “We were first up, then Duran Duran then David Bowie. It was a huge thrill for me. I grew up a David Bowie fan as a kid and I’m still a huge fan. He’s one of the most interesting and innovative artists ever. “ As well, “it exposed us to a lot of people right when our first album had come out. 60 000 people there each night, so we played to a total of 120 000 people. “
Alas while they got to sit in on Bowie’s sound check, the closest they got to The Thin White Duke was seeing him wave from the door of a limousine. With Robert Palmer, they got a little closer.
“We did a tour with Robert Palmer in the U.S., but the only time I met him was the last night of the tour. (Up until then we’d) kind of nodded to each other. He’s in charge of a whole tour, doing his own thing. So at the end of the tour, we gave him a bottle of cognac, went to his dressing room , gave him that and thanked him for having us on the tour. That was fun!
Semko add that Robert wasn’t the only interesting Palmer he talked to then. “His dad came on tour too! His dad was a pilot during World War II. We’d get done earlier (than Robert, the headliner) and go back to the hotel, go down to the lounge, and his dad would be there, telling stories about the war, being a pilot in the Royal Air Force. I thought it was one of the coolest things – when you can bring your dad out on the road!”
He clearly enjoyed the experience of playing on the same bill as David Bowie; of listening to Robert Palmer’s dad’s reminiscing as well as opening up for Peter Frampton on another tour and often ending up in shows with fellow Canucks Loverboy (“great guys.”) But his favorite international artist to work with appeared to be Bruce Hornsby.
“We did a number of outdoor festivals opening for Bruce Hornsby and the Range. Bruce is one of the nicest guys ever, his band was great, they all treated us really nicely. Often you don’t treated that well if you’re the opening act. Sometimes the crew and the other bands look down on you. But Bruce and his crew treated us fantastically.”
The Pikes opened for quite a range of big names, and in turn had bands like the Crash Test Dummies who’d go on to be popular open for them before they were well known. I suggested to him that they were often termed “new wave” back in the ’80s, but they didn’t seem much like, say Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. He laughed.
“Interesting you mention Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark because they were label mates on Virgin and ended up achieving platinum status with one of their albums. So Doug Chappell, president of Virgin Records, who signed the Northern Pikes had a pool party. He had a pool in his backyard in (Toronto.) He invited us and the guys from Orchestral Manoeuvres so we were at this pool party with them. Merl (Bryck, another guitarist in the Pikes) had a couple of drinks and was splashing water all over one of those guys.”
So if they weren’t precisely “new wave”, who did they see their contemporaries as at the time? “Contemporaries…” he paused for a few seconds before suggesting “54/40 out of Vancouver. They were, around that time. Blue Rodeo – they got signed shortly after we did. We saw Blue Rodeo long before anybody knew them. Now they’re on the Canadian Walk of Fame in Toronto, but back then they were just like everybody else, struggling to make it…Chalk Circle was another band, and Grapes of Wrath. Shortly after was the Tragically Hip, the Barenaked Ladies. The major labels all signed a bunch of bands who were all kind of in the same worlds, even though we didn’t all sound like 54/40 or Blue Rodeo. We were all the same kind of thing, guitar rock.”
Which led to the million dollar question. Literally. While the Barenaked Ladies had a surprise hit in the States with “One Week” and the ’90s were very kind to Canadian songbirds ranging from Alanis to Shania to Celine, for the most part American and international success remained elusive for the Pikes and their contemporaries despite becoming hugely popular at home.
“Y’know, it wasn’t for lack of trying,” he tells me about the comparative lack of U.S. success. “We toured a lot down there. That was our focus. (He told me they played in 47 out of the 48 mainland states at one time or another) Our manager, our producer, our record label. They all said ‘look the U.S. is where you want to make it. You make it there, you’ll make it everywhere.’ So we did have two songs do very well for us there. There was ‘Things I Do For Money’, which was a top 30 Album Rock track on Billboard and the video got played many times on MTV. Then a few years later, it was ‘She Ain’t Pretty’ (a top 10 hit at home) which became a Hot 100 single. It did well, it helped us a lot.” Still, there was a huge discrepancy in the level of fame on the two sides of the 49th parallel.
“The big difference,” he explained “if you were a Canadian band and you signed directly to a Canadian label, when you went to the U.S., you were considered a ‘foreign’ act. We don’t consider it like that, we live right next door to the U.S. and consider it like an extension of ourselves, and vice versa. Certain bands that signed directly to the U.S. label. One of them was The Pursuit of Happiness and they had a huge single in the U.S. with ‘I’m An Adult Now’. And Jeff Healey Band. Jeff signed to a U.S. label…those artists who signed directly to the U.S. branch as a result ended up having time, effor, money in promotion sunk into their (records) whereas Tragically Hip signed in Canada. Blue Rodeo signed in Canada, Northern Pikes signed in Canada. Not that it was a bad thing, but to be considered a priority by the U.S. record label it wasn’t going to happen if you’re a Canadian act signed to a Canadian label. We were heavily promoted by Doug at Virgin (in Canada), he did a fantastic job. But sometimes it would get frustrating.
“In the States, our first two records came out on Virgin, Big Blue Sky and Secrets of the Alibi, and… Snow in June was released in Canada and the U.S. branch dropped it. It was a weird time. We were in L.A. doing promo and that was when it happened. We were like ‘what is going on?’ We just made a really good record.’”
Nonetheless, perhaps it was for the best. Snow in June went on to be the band’s biggest at home, partly because “it really focussed us on Canada with that particular record. We did a headline tour, because by then we’d had some pretty big hits off that album, ‘She Ain’t Pretty’ ‘Girl With a Problem’ and ‘Kiss Me You Fool’. We were able to make the move from being a high-level bar band to playing theaters as the headliner.”
Despite that album’s success, the follow-up, Neptune failed to match it and the band packed it in around 1993. “Blue Rodeo, they stuck it out. They didn’t break up. I give them credit. When we broke up, one of the regrets I have is that we did break up and didn’t complete our contract with Virgin. Quite a big deal at the time in terms of legal costs and all sorts of things.”
Happily they had gotten back together by the new millennium. In the final part of the interview, we’ll look at the latest album by the Pikes, Forest of Love and get an idea of future plans for them.