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Northern Exposure

Canada's favorites, The Tragically Hip, try to conquer the lower 48 without violence

Most Canadians have this thing about guns. Just ask Gord Sinclair about it.
The side arms in question were strapped to the hips of some rent-a-cops in El Paso's Club 101, cops who were there to keep the peace during a show by Sinclair's band, The Tragically Hip. Also on hand were a few hundred more bodies than the legal limit allows. The Hip was in the middle of its set, the mosh pit was in full splendor and then the security guards decided enough was enough, and dove into the pile to break it up.

"As a Canadian, the whole U.S. vibe of seeing guns in public is a very weird thing," Sinclair recalls over the phone from his home in Kingston, a quiet, and extremely gun-free, Canadian city just a little bigger than Galveston. "So imagine these guys, wrestling around in the pile with their guns on, and all I could think about was some kid grabbing one and firing off a few shots.

"I mean, these cops with the guns seemed really anxious to start something, and they were all pretty young guys, which made it really kind of tragic to us. Being from Canada, seeing that armed panic is a dangerous, dangerous combination."

The incident fits in with the Hip's college-educated desire to make people think, which is why the event in El Paso became the inspiration for the song "Yawning and Snarling" from the band's latest CD, Day for Night. It's the same desire that's darted in and out of the group's maelstrom of guitar-driven rock and jerky, off-the-wall lyrics for 11 years. The band has always included political, historical, philosophical -- and even nautical -- thoughts in its songs.

You can visualize the theme immersed in Day for Night when singer Gord Downie talks about Russians hiding art treasures from the Nazis, or about the empowerment that goes along with reading a book, or about the decision by Canadian political demigod Pierre Trudeau to retire. It's even in a seven-year-old tune such as "38 Years Old," in which Downie warbles about a convict from Kingston's Millhaven maximum-security prison, wondering how he felt spending practically his whole life in jail, never having kissed a girl.

Those smarts, and the Hip's intense live shows, have brought the band stadium-size concerts in their home country and massive critical acclaim as Canada's hottest band ever. It's also something that's earned the group a loyal -- and growing -- cult following in the United States, spurred this year by a string of dates opening for the Jimmy Page-Robert Plant big hair reunion tour. The band likewise has a healthy cult following growing in Europe, which wasn't hurt by four stadium dates in early July in Germany and Belgium opening for those other rock geezers -- or superstars, depending on your perspective -- the Rolling Stones.

Sinclair, the band's bass guitarist, likes to measure his group's progress in defined increments. He remembers playing in tiny, half-empty clubs on the back roads of Ontario, so having to go through the same process in the U.S. over the past five years was no big deal.

"The U.S. comparison has been a perennial thing for Canadian musicians," Sinclair says. "For some, there's always an element of frustration, but the thing is never to let it develop into a debilitating thing. But it's hard to conceive of that border being a natural obstacle. I mean, somebody in Winnipeg, Manitoba, has more in common with somebody in Fargo, North Dakota, than with somebody in a big Canadian city like Toronto. Anyway, I don't think that being the King of Canada coming through town is something that the American fans would relate to. The average music fan would just say, 'No big deal.'"

After all, the band has had only one song that even made a ripple on U.S. radio, and that was "New Orleans Is Sinking," a tune that established Louisiana and Texas as two of the Hip's best markets for U.S. club shows. While many bands use this "Hey, we write the songs and we don't care who likes them" attitude as a kind of worn-out shtick, Hip fans will tell you that it's the thought-provoking lyrics -- something to converse about while standing on someone's head in the mosh pit -- that makes the Hip stand out.

"Anybody who knows the band knows we are never overly conscious about what we write. We're not going to change some lyric about the 401 [Ontario's biggest highway] to Interstate 5 just to make it accessible to our American friends," Sinclair says. "You write about what you know, and once you compromise, it's a dangerous road you're going down. Then you're a step closer to the record company guy telling you to put on this nice pink leather outfit. I always stay conscious of that, like you're one step away."

It's another Canadian thing, this being humble and sincere -- and meaning it, well, most of the time. It's a puzzling trait to Americans. Downie, who prances around the stage in some strange, speaking-in-tongues quasi-conscious state while singing songs with Latin names about Conquistadors, is Mr. Politeness if you get to sit down and chat with him before a gig.

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