March 4 – Northern Pikes & Music In The Age Of Covid

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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.

Continue reading “March 4 – Northern Pikes & Music In The Age Of Covid”

March 3 – The Northern Pikes Began To Soar

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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.”

Continue reading “March 3 – The Northern Pikes Began To Soar”

March 2 – Semko Shares Secrets Of The Alibi, And More

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PART 1 OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH THE NORTHERN PIKES SINGER-SONGWRITER.

Thirty years ago today the laid-back “Kiss Me You Fool” by the Northern Pikes was starting to drop down the Canadian singles chart after a solid 13-week run that saw it rise to #12. It was the third hit off the Prairie band’s third major album Snow In June. The song was written by guitarist Merl Bryck and Jay Semko, the bassist and primary songwriter in the band. Not only did the song get good airplay on radio, but if you were in Canada in 1991 and turned on Much Music, you were sure to see the video for it. And if you looked at the video closely, you might have noticed something about the street scenes… doesn’t that busker out on the street look a little like Garth Hudson of The Band?

In fact it was Garth Hudson, and with him was John Sebastian (of “Welcome Back” and Lovin’ Spoonful fame), as Jay told me recently. I had the great privilege and pleasure of talking to Semko at length recently…and it was a pleasure. Semko is warm and chatty and shared a lot of great stories to tell about his life in the Pikes.

“After Secrets of the Alibi, we wanted to change, so we went down to Bearsville Studios (in upstate New York.) Todd Rundgren had something to with the design, but he had his own studio there as well. When we were recording there, The Pursuit of Happiness, who were good friends of ours were recording with Todd Rundgren in Woodstock as well and around the same time there was a third place…and the Grapes of Wrath did a record there. It was kind of a hotbed.”

So one night the band wanted to go out. “We tried to get into the local pub there,” he told me, but it was so crowded “we watched through the window and Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and John Sebastian (were on stage.) A number of other well-known musicians lived in the area, and there they were on a Saturday night playing in a little pub.

Eventually the Northern Pikes did get to talk to Hudson and asked him if he’d do a bit or two for their album. He agreed. “When Garth came to play, he had a truck bring all of the gear. We thought he was going to maybe bring an accordion. He kind of moved in for a number of days and hung out. “ You might also notice Hudson plugging away at the organ on the single “Girl with a Problem” and the video for it as well.

“It was great!” Semko recalled. “He’s such a cool guy. He’s one of my favorite musicians. He’s always so laid-back. One day (Semko imitates Garth’s slow drawl) ‘Well, I gotta go for a show, so I’ll be gone a few days. When I come back, we’ll finish up some stuff here.’ He comes back a few days later and we’re shooting the breeze, and I ask him ‘how’d it go with your show?’ And he’s like ‘I couldn’t hear the monitors. The monitors were kinda tough to hear.’ So I ask where it was. ‘ Well, there’s this guy who was in Pink Floyd – Roger Waters – and he’s got this thing, The Wall…’ It was one of the biggest concerts of all-time and tons of great bands and artists were a part of it. I say ‘Garth, you just played The Wall concert?’ and he’s ‘yeah. It was kind of tough to hear the monitors.’ He’s a humble guy. Garth’s all over (Snow In June). He plays on half the songs. I relish that experience, recording with Garth. Such a great musician and a really good guy.”

Another old-time rock pioneer Hudson got to know was Ronnie Hawkins, the early rockabilly star whose backup band more or less went on to be The Band.

During the second-half of the ’90s, the Northern Pikes broke up for a few years and Semko got a job doing the music for a TV show which like Hawkins was a mixed Canadian-American product, Due South.

“Ronnie was such a pioneer in the early days of rock & roll,” Semko notes, “On Due South, one of the episodes had Michelle Wright as a special guest.” Wright is a successful Canadian country singer. “They wanted ‘special skills’ extras, musicians” to play her on-screen band. Semko was one of them. “Ronnie Hawkins was an extra too. He got a speaking part. I was just kind of in the background, a guitar player for Michelle Wright. So we hung out a couple of days. He had such great stories. And the guy could tell a dirty joke.” Not that all of his stories were humorous, mind you.

“He had a scar,” Semko recalled, and when asked about it ‘The Hawk’ responded “’That’s where I got hit by a bottle, somewhere down south.’ He said it was a challenging time back then. His first band was multi-racial and the flak people would give him because of that was a nightmare. Yes, racism exists, we know that, but to talk to someone who’s experienced it, hear the stories, it’s like ‘Holy Smokes man!’ It blows my mind.”

I asked the Pike if John Lennon didn’t live at Hawkins farm near Toronto briefly around the time of the ex-Beatle’s Bed-in in Montreal. He did. “Ron talked about that and here’s what most people in a million years would never think – John Lennon loved snowmobiles! He loved to go out on a Skidoo. (Lennon) stayed at his place a number of weeks. After they left, he got his phone bill.” Turns out when John was out on the snow, his wife stayed indoors. “Yoko was phoning world leaders. Often she was calling someone like the White House, and they’d leave her on hold for an hour. The phone bill was for about $20 000…an outrageous amount! But he spoke very fondly about John. Just a cool guy, a regular kind of guy.” Clearly Semko loved the moments with other musicians almost as much as his fans loved seeing him and his band. “Super experiences you have like that along the way are kind of fun, you know?”

We’ll look at Jay’s thoughts on the being a Canadian musician, success in the U.S., listening to World War II stories from Robert Palmer’s dad, life in the time of Covid and future plans for the Northern Pikes in the next segment.

January 15 – Bertis Downs Talks R.E.M.’s Monster & Buying Records From Peter Buck

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On this day in 1995, R.E.M. were likely feeling on top of the world…even though they were near the bottom of it, geographically-speaking. They were taking a day off after playing the second sold out night in Perth, Australia’s Entertainment Center to begin the tour for the Monster album. They’d be on the other side of the country the next day to play in Adelaide. It was their first significant tour in six years, Monster had become their second-straight album to get to #2 Down Under and back home, it had topped the charts and was already multi-platinum after only two months. They’d managed to rival U2 as the biggest “alt rock” act in the world, without selling out, continuing to win great review after great review as well as radio hit after radio hit. They had no reason not to feel great. But opening a major tour on Friday the 13th, as they did here, might not be the best idea.

“In some ways the Monster tour was the highlight of their career”, Bertis Downs told me this week, “except that three members had really serious surgeries all in a five month period.” Ah yes, the surgeries. We’ll get to that in a bit, but first … who’s Bertis Downs you might be asking. Indeed the more astute fan might notice that he’s thanked on almost every R.E.M. record and on the biggies Out of Time and Automatic for the People, he’s listed there with the band members. Pretty good going for a guy who didn’t take part in their studio sessions or write any of their music. But Bertis was and still is an essential part of the R.E.M. story, or R.E.M. family if you will, and so I was thrilled when he generously agreed to talk to me by phone and chat a bit about the band… and the state of the world too.

“Pretty good – no complaints other than the country falling apart,” he answered with a chuckle when I asked how things were down Georgia way. Downs has been the band’s legal consul since they were unknowns playing local dives in the Athens, Georgia area and eventually became their full-time manager. It dates back to when they were all young, some forty years or more back.

“I was a law student at University of Georgia law school, and I knew Peter (Buck) from the record store downtown, and he was very knowledgeable.I remember buying records from him…it was always vinyl at the time – well before CDs. I would buy a lot of Neil Young and Peter was the guy…he would guide me. And I knew Bill (Berry) from the Concert Committee at (school). We brought concerts in.

“They started a band, and the word of mouth on the street was good,” he explains, so he began going to their shows regularly. “A couple of years later, I was getting out of law school and officially was a lawyer, so I could advise them.” Soon that became a fairly full-time commitment for him. “I helped them run the business. They wanted to be artists and write songs and tour, but they wanted people (to help them make business decisions). We had a small staff of people based in Athens.”

As for some of his specific responsibilities, he says he dealt closely “with the label, based in London or L.A. or wherever they were, our agent who was in Nashville.” Things like signing that big deal with Warner Brothers or setting up world tours takes some planning and no small amount of paperwork…all the stuff that ended up on Bertis’ desk.

“I was the person to take what they were doing artistically and make it work, on some level, commercially. So that was my role. They were generous with credit and considerate,” he says explaining why he’d be listed along with Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe on the record sleeves. But his influence didn’t extend to the music itself. Although he was a big fan, “I was not a part of the artistic process and didn’t need to be. There were plenty of cooks” what with the four band members, record producer and engineers. He also diplomatically says he didn’t have a favorite album or era in the band’s 30+ year run. Each album was good, each era had its high points and challenges. Challenges that increased while on the road. “One time we played Russia,” he told me. “The border, the guards. The bombing in London (when the band was in town) – there were times that were fraught.” And illnesses.

So those surgeries he mentioned? Well the Monster tour was supposed to last most of the year, running 165 shows across Australia and New Zealand, southeast Asia, Europe and North America. They were playing sold out arenas in many cities and outdoor sports stadiums in many North American and British cities. Things went fine up until March 1, when midway through a show in Switzerland, drummer Bill Berry had a sudden and awful headache. It got so bad he couldn’t continue and was taken to hospital, while the band limped on through the end of their set with Joey Petes of Grant Lee Buffalo, the opening act, filling in on drums. Berry had suffered an aneurysm which could have been fatal, but thankfully a high quality hospital near the show diagnosed him and he underwent emergency surgery. The band had to cancel the next 30 concerts, including most of the European leg and the first few American ones, before finally resuming May 15 near San Francisco. A downer for them and the fans, and a load of paperwork dealing with insurance and promoters for Bertis.

Continue reading “January 15 – Bertis Downs Talks R.E.M.’s Monster & Buying Records From Peter Buck”

April 17 – The Other Athens Foursome… The Diary Of Guadalcanal Diary

Today we mark an anniversary here that few others will notice. But thirty years ago, for a brief shining moment, an alt rock band out of northern Georgia was doing pretty well for themselves. A band which had the good fortune, or possibly misfortune, to rub shoulders with perhaps the great band to come out of northern Georgia in the last couple of decades of the 20th Century. For this one brief week in time in 1989, Guadalcanal Diary were sitting at #7 and rising on Billboard‘s Modern Rock chart with the upbeat and whimsical “Always Saturday.” What’s more, for that one week in time, they were sitting ahead of that “other” band from that college town in northeastern Georgia… , their friends, R.E.M.

Now I’ll say right here that Guadalcanal Diary were good. But, R.E.M. were great. R.E.M. richly deserved all the success they came to enjoy over their 30 years. But, you can’t help but feel a wee bit bad for Guadalcanal, whom you have to feel were it not for a bit of bad luck just might have grown and had a 30-year career almost as big. Still, they don’t feel bad about their fates as much as they look back on their decade of being aspiring rock stars.

The band had its start at the beginning of the decade when singer/songwriter Murray Attaway worked with guitarist Jeff Walls in an electronics factory near their home in Marietta, an upscale suburb of Atlanta. They formed a band with drummer John Poe added in, then needing a bassist, did what bands seemed to do back then if they were short a person…ask a girlfriend to learn to play! In their case it was Rhett Crowe,whom apparently was dating Attaway at the time. She’d later go on to marry Walls. Anyway, Attaway says “she was enthusiastic about learning to play bass” and soon got reasonably good at it despite her friends telling her girls don’t play bass. She wasn’t the only musical talent in her family either – her brother was the drummer for Pylon, then an up-and-coming band in the growing music center to the east, Athens.

The band would soon find themselves in Athens, as there weren’t a lot of venues wanting to have bands playing new music in Atlanta at that time, and those which did preferred southern rock “Allman Brothers clones,” according to Poe who told The Telegraph people were “surprised we have Beatles records down here.” Attaway says “we wanted to be XTC or the Kinks…we very deliberately weren’t interested in writing love songs or songs about cars and sex. Books were our friends,” he adds. That attitude explains the odd name, one suggested by Crowe after she saw a World War II movie of the same name.

They soon found a following in the college town that, at the time, Crowe found ‘very slow-moving. It’s wonderful for two or three days but then you run out of things to do.” They signed with an indie label, dB Records there and put out their first record, a 4-song EP called Watusi Rodeo in 1983. Although sales were neglible, it did get them noticed by a number of college radio stations, and in turn Elektra Records who signed them and brought them on board for their first full album, Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man, which curiously enough introduced the song called “Watusi Rodeo” to us. (And Watusis are an African, cattle-herding tribe. Now you know.)

The song was a minor college radio hit. The album was produced by one of Georgia’s most in-demand producers at the time, Don Dixon, who’d been working with another up-and-coming Athens band. One R.E.M. Continue reading “April 17 – The Other Athens Foursome… The Diary Of Guadalcanal Diary”