Delving Into Blue Rodeo’s Treasure Trove

It seems like Blue Rodeo have been around forever, doesn’t it? In fact, 2012 marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Toronto roots rockers to Warner Music Canada. This record deal and the subsequent release of their debut album, Outskirts (also in 1987), marked the band’s transition from favourites of T.O.’s Queen Street West scene to national stardom. They’ve remained in the elite ranks of Canadian music ever since, as one of our best-loved and most influential bands ever. Blue Rodeo were deservedly inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame earlier this year.

In honour of this 25 years milestone, Warner Music have just put out an eight-disc box set that revisits, in great depth, the seminal first seven years of the group’s recording career. Blue Rodeo 1987-1993 contains newly remastered versions of the band’s first five albums, a collection of outtakes and demos from the Casino sessions, an exclusive disc of previously unreleased material titled Odds & Ends and a brand new, entirely remixed version of the band’s debut, Outskirts, produced by Greg Keelor. Add in an enlightening 44-page booklet featuring rare photos and an eloquent essay from music writer Jason Schneider and you have a package to delight the hardcore BR fan.

This scribe has been a serious fan of the group since they first appeared on the Toronto scene. I’ve seen and interviewed them countless times over the years, including memorable chats on Manitoulin Island and in a London hotel, for pieces that frequently appeared in Music Express. The chance to flip through this great band’s back pages with singer/songwriter/guitarist Greg Keelor was welcomed. Here’s how some of the chat went.

ME: Was the box set idea initiated by the band or the label?

Greg Keelor: They mentioned something called a brick, an industry term meaning a collection of records put together. I just felt that was short-selling the band a bit. I wanted to do something a bit more extensive and have a little fun. If you really want someone to listen to your first record, you have to do something different to it. If you want someone under 40 to listen to it, you need something of interest there. And I always wanted the Casino demos out. I loved them more than the record. Then just having alternate takes and unheard stuff was fun to do too. I just wanted to give the band a little perspective.

ME: Is it true you were never totally happy with the sound of

Greg Keelor: It had that ’80s sound. That gated reverb and the samples on the drums that made it sound like it could be Tears For Fears or Bryan Adams. That has always driven us nuts, that sound. Also Bobby Wiseman’s keyboards. They put tons of cheese on them, trying to make them sound like synths or electronic keyboards, cos Terry Brown (producer) didn’t like the Acetone sound. We loved that straightahead Acetone/Augie Meyers sound.

ME: Hard to track down the tapes?

Greg Keelor: We had to get all the original tapes and transfer them. It’d have been too much to do it all on analog. It was still hard trying to find some of the stuff. I just found a box yesterday of tapes we’d looked for the whole time! A little too late.

ME: Did the others have input into the takes you used etc?

[quote]Now it’s all blogs, YouTube and Twitter, and in my view that doesn’t make for good music. It just makes it more democratic. It’s the onslaught of mediocrity.[/quote]Greg Keelor: Jim (Cuddy) was on the road, doing his solo tour. The engineer and I would sit around and listen to old music all day long. I even listened to old rehearsal tapes. You have to be in the right state of mind to do that. They’re strange days, listening to cassettes from 1985, but at the same time it’s fun. A bit like going through the old family albums. And fun to hear us talk between songs, and listen to the original band rehearsing. It was such a different band from the middle band and the one it is now. That’s a nice place to visit.

ME: They say nostalgia can be dangerous.

Greg Keelor: I think nostalgia is a beautiful emotion. I quite love it. I find it quite evocative.

ME: As a band Blue Rodeo has documented where you’ve come from well.

Greg Keelor: As those conspicuous dates add up, you think like ’25 years. Let’s do something.’ For 20 years we did In Stereovision DVD and had a big party. It’s nice to mark those things. There has always been a family thing about the band, so conspicuous dates are marked and measured in a certain way. A little celebration and appreciation of your good luck.

ME: Makes sense this comes out the same year as your Hall of Fame induction?

Greg Keelor: You don’t really look back much with the Hall of Fame. It’s a fun night, a good party. We like a good party, and it was great to have Sarah McLachlan induct us. That felt fitting as she was such a great contributor to one of our best records (Five Days In July) and a record that rather changed our course. It was like the second coming of Blue Rodeo. I’ve always thought she’s such a huge talent and I love her voice, so it was great. The induction doesn’t have the same effect as this box set, which was an enjoyable and extended visit to the past.

ME: If someone had come up to you while recording Outskirts and said you’d still be doing this as a band now, would you have called them crazy?

Greg Keelor: I think we were ambitious and delusional. We thought we could be as big as anybody. But the reality of what it is is so much better than the delusional idea would have been. It is nice being a Canadian band. accepting that, and having such a good fan base and being able to tour and play. And we’re making a new record now and it’s a great record. I think it’s one of the best we’ve made in a long time.

ME: Back in the day you were mavericks, you were on the outskirts of the mainstream industry.

Greg Keelor: Right. Warner Brothers was like Honeymoon Suite. Platinum Blonde was around. But we were delusionally confident. We were ambitious and willing to work. There were 5 years then where we played 200 nights a year. That’s a lot of playing.

ME: That builds fan loyalty that survives.

Greg Keelor: Completely. We’ve played everywhere. We’ve gone back everywhere a few times too.

ME: The collection covers seven years and five albums. That was a prolific period.

[quote]at the beginning of the song I’m singing in an American accent, and by the end it’s a British accent. It’s like ‘ohmigod, what a poser!'[/quote]Greg Keelor: Those were totally different times. One of the biggest differences now and then was the curatorial aspect to a major label then. You didn’t get into a studio unless you were signed to a deal. You just couldn’t afford it. The whole independent thing, there was just a little of it and it was subculture-based. Small pressings and regional. Now it’s so democratic. Anyone can make a record, anywhere. There was something enjoyable back then in the feeling of making it or moving up, through the bars and getting a deal. I don’t know how people feel they’ve made it these days. There’s nothing to confirm what you’re doing. It’s tough. We could get on radio, and that and retail meant something. Now it’s all blogs, YouTube and Twitter, and in my view that doesn’t make for good music. It just makes it more democratic. It’s the onslaught of mediocrity. That’s why it was nice to have a record label. You were always mad at them, but often they did pick the right people, and they made stupendous records.

ME: It sounds like you had ups and downs with producers in the early days.

Greg Keelor: We haven’t really dealt with a producer since Casino. Done it all ourselves since. We’re quite collaborative with our engineers, like John Whynot, but haven’t felt the need to have someone tell us where to put the bridge. We are a band now of six producers.

ME: You still enjoy the outside production work?

Greg Keelor: Yes, and I’m doing more of that. The Cuff the Duke record is just coming out, and Michelle MacAdorey (Crash Vegas) and I have just done a record, and it’s really good. You know Graham Walsh (Holy Fuck) and Julie Fader? They’re making a record at my place now. Graham is just brilliant, and that’s inspiring.

ME: What can you tell us about the next Blue Rodeo record?

Greg Keelor: It’s got great new songs, and I think it’ll be one of our best. Having Colin Cripps (Junkhouse, Crash Vegas) play guitar is great, and Michael Boguski on keyboards. Having those two new voices is great, and the band is feeling good, getting along. We’re doing it up at my farm, so we can focus a little better sometimes there.

ME: As I listened to the box set, the calibre of the musicianship really stood out. Often people just focus on Blue Rodeo as you and Jim, but there’s that rich musical element there. Think that has been undervalued?

Greg Keelor: Yes. Bazil (Donovan) has been such a great player, from day one, and his style hasn’t really changed that much. He was that musically sophisticated from the very beginning of the band. He has been playing great forever. Cleave (Anderson) was such a structured drummer, he really arranged his drum parts. And even Mark French, playing on the Casino demos, his drumming is fantastic. I think we sound a bit like Big Star there, really lyrical and quirky drum parts. I just love it. I wish we could have made that record that way, rather than (producer) Pete Anderson trying to make it sound like an L.A. studio band.

ME: I found a quote where you said that on the older material Jim always sounded the same while you had all these different voices.

Greg Keelor: Oh yes. From cassette tapes at rehearsals in New York City, Jim would sing in the same voice, then I hear mine on that record and at the beginning of the song I’m singing in an American accent, and by the end it’s a British accent. It’s like ‘ohmigod, what a poser!’ It is what it is, but there’s a little cringe factor there.

Photography By: Heather Pollack

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