<< A SOUNDDAY EXCLUSIVE >>
THIRD AND FINAL PART OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH JAY SEMKO OF THE NORTHERN PIKES.
Yesterday we looked at the Northern Pikes glory days in the early-’90s but also noted they broke up in 1993. Bassist/singer Jay Semko told us that was one of his regrets, especially walking away from the contract the band had with Virgin Records.
Semko went on from the Pikes to do the music for the TV show Due South, which was shown on both American and Canadian networks, writing and performing the Pike-esque theme song and scoring episodes through the series four seasons. All the while it seemed like there was unfinished business with the band though. He told one interviewer that at the time “we didn’t really hate each other. I think that’s the reason we did break up. We would have ended up hating each other.”
However, around the end of the decade Virgin Records decided to put out a Greatest Hits album, and that got the band interested in being back together for a show or two and bit of promotion. Soon they were working together again, recording a new studio album, Truest Inspiration, which they put out themselves. Although not a major success in terms of sales, it could be Semko’s personal favorite of their discography.
Since then they’d toured at times and put out another album in 2003…around when Merl Bryck quit the band. “Merl stopped playing with us around 2005,” Semko told us. “We did a New Year’s Eve show in Manitoba. We had the offer and Merl just wasn’t keen on playing anymore. You know, he had – still has – a good job with the City of Saskatoon” and they realized there was little sense in keeping a guitarist in the band who didn’t want to be in the band anymore. They went along as a trio until a few years back when they brought in new blood in the form of Kevin Kane, formerly from the neo-psychedelic Grapes of Wrath.
The infusion of new talent led them back to the studio for their first new work in 16 years, Forest of Love.
“I really like it,” he says. “It was recorded at the National Music Centre in Calgary. It’s amazing. If you ever get out to Calgary, it’s well worth checking out. It’s like a rock & roll hall of fame, and it’s country music too – it’s kind of a museum. They have great recording studios in there too, vintage equipment. Recording there it was a really good setup. They had movable sound booths with plexiglass so you could see everybody when you’re recording. I really like (Forest of Love). I feel we made a really good record and there are good memories of making it. We cut it live, we all played in the same room at once. In my experience, a lot of studios don’t have the size. You couldn’t set up realistically,” resulting in recording individual players separately, lots of overdubs and a less organic-sounding product. So the large studios were the coolest thing about the Centre? Well, maybe second coolest.
“You know what they’ve got? They have the original Rolling Stones mobile recording truck. We weren’t able to utilize it but we were able to get a personal tour, got to hang out in there awhile” he tells me with reverence in his voice. “The records made in there! A bunch of Bob Marley records, then it was used a lot in New York in the early new wave and punk thing. the Ramones did records in there. One of my favorite Zeppelin records is Houses of the Holy, and that was in the Rolling Stones mobile truck. And obviously Deep Purple. You go in there and go ‘wow!’”
The studio-slash-truck ended up in Alberta as they “heard it was in a kind of automobile graveyard. They got it and drove it up. They said they’d never do that again. Alot of engine problems, a lot of miles.” So there it sits for the people of Calgary and visiting stars.
The Pikes liked putting together the new album and touring for the 30th anniversary of their first album Big Blue Sky, so much that they began working on a new album. Until… insert broken record here … Covid got in the way of the plans.
“Our new record is a sort of tribute to Snow In June. 1990 was when it was released, so we were hoping to put out a 30th anniversary version, doing a number of songs in a different way. Kind of a rootsy, acoustic sound. We started that, down in Nova Scotia in a great studio.
“We’re about half done. Our original goal was to have it out last year some time” but of course, Covid restrictions put an end together to the in-studio work. “We started recording overdubs separately, it didn’t feel right. I said ‘you know what? Let’s just wait until we can actually be in the same room together.’ There’s a certain kind of chemistry that happens with good bands. You just kind of feel it.” I suggest it duplicates the feel they have on stage together. “That’s it,” he agrees.
Getting back together for finishing the album has taken longer than expected. Of course, Covid has failed to die down a year into its deathly run and then there’s geography. Semko still lives in his hometown of Saskatoon. Although it’s cold (we started the interview chatting about weather and he told me it had been a bone-chilling -55 there a few days earlier. His garage flooded, freezing the door shut, leaving him to hack through to get to his equipment) he seldom left for long. “My folks were here, my kids are here. I like it. Saskatoon’s a good city.”
The other band members set their sights elsewhere though. “During the course of the Pikes, Bryan (Potvin) moved to Toronto, became a Torontonian…Donnie (Schmid) is in B.C., just outside of Chilliwack. Kevin Kane, our newest guy, he’s in Toronto. But Bryan and his wife Kate moved to Lunenbourg, Nova Scotia a few years back. One person on each coast, two in the middle. It’s challenging sometimes.” Not however as challenging as the pandemic has been.
“When I see live music, it’s just a feeling that you get. You can’t lift the needle up and put it back. It’s live, warts and all. A big part of that is the reaction of the crowd. I think people are really missing that right now. I miss it.” He tells me he recently played a small show at a lighting conference, with the crowd socially distanced and him wearing a even mask while singing. Outside of a few individual shows in backyards last summer “it was the first time I’d played live since November 2, 2019. It was such a rush to be playing. The last (real) gig I’d played before that was in November, 2019, when we played two nights at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto.”
Will the Northern Pikes be back on stages near you anytime soon? “We’re scheduled to play a festival in Saskatchewan called the Gateway Festival. A great festival in the middle of nowhere in the middle of July. We’ll see if it happens. To be honest, I think they’ll move it another year back. The word from industry people – it might be opening up a bit but it’s not gonna happen until 2022. “ Not only do local authorities need to drop restrictions on social distancing and capacity limits for it to be practical, but “people need to feel safe” out in crowds again, and that’s something neither Jay nor most of us do yet. He tells me that three people died of Covid the day before in his hometown and though “it’s pretty wide open, it’s a concern. A bit of a topic of conversation : should we have done more in the fall before it got as bad as it is? Geez. I’m of the age now where I’m in danger. I turn 60 in August.”
Another facet of the problem “people aren’t aware of is for promoters, bands and agents…your insurance costs.” Bluntly, with Covid around costs to insure shows has skyrocketed because the insurance companies worry that some super-spreader person will show up coughing all over a crowd, people will die and the band as well as venue will be sued every which way because of it. “It has to go away,” Semko sighs. “It’s been a long time and sometimes it bums me out.”
Still one figures the guy who wrote a hit called “Wait for Me” will wait patiently for the chance to get back in the studio and on stage in crowded taverns like the Horseshoe. “I got to go places I never would’ve normally gone…we played on Baffin Island (in the Arctic). That was pretty interesting…” And don’t forget working with guys like Garth Hudson, or being on the same stage as Bowie or Robert Palmer. “Yeah, one of the coolest things is to be able to just hang with musicians along the way.”
“I feel very blessed,” he adds in closing. And we do too Jay, for your music and your willingness to share stories with us!