For thirty-three years Rob Baker was guitarist for iconic Canadian rockers The Tragically Hip. In 2005 with good friend and lead vocalist and guitarist of the Odds Craig Northey and Odds bassist Doug Elliot and drummer Pat Steward, Rob formed the side project Strippers Union. Ten years after their second release and almost four years after the tragic loss of Hip singer Gord Downie, Strippers Union has released their third album, a double disc gem titled The Undertaking. We sat down with Rob and talked to him about the new album and a whole lot more.
You and Craig Northey have a new Strippers Union album out, The Undertaking. It’s been ten years since the last one.
Yeah, good career move eh?
Well a lot has happened in those ten years, hasn’t it?
Yes, for both of us, it’s been a strange time.
When did you start thinking about doing this album?
I wasn’t even really thinking about doing an album. It was while I was trying to deal with all the things that surround the end of your career, one that you didn’t foresee and involved the death of one of your best friends. I had a lot on my plate, I had a lot to deal with and in a sense I had nothing on my plate but emotionally I had a lot. I felt like my dream that I was able to live, it’s all gone now and I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.
All this stuff was kind of pressing in on me so as a way of escaping all that I just came down to my studio and started doing the one thing that can be guaranteed to push all those voices away, let me insulate and find a happy place, and that’s playing music, writing music, recording music. Suddenly I had forty or fifty demos, and I don’t even think of them as demos because I try to make each one a finished piece of music.
Craig happened to be coming through town, I think with The Art of Time ensemble, and I said come and stay for two days and in the two days we knocked out lyrics for five songs and it seemed pretty clear, some of these songs are designed for a Strippers Union project and maybe I should start thinking that way. Start culling the ones that work for that and push others to another use.
You were originally thinking about doing this all yourself?
I was and in a sense I did, even as a Strippers Union record. Strippers Union has always been Craig and I and Pat Steward and Doug Elliot and then we would always have someone playing keyboards and usually a horn section and some female voices. This time I thought I’m going to do everything. I’ll play all the instruments and Craig will just help me out with the lyrics and the vocals.
As we got closer to the end, there were a few songs that I really felt would step up with real bass and drums and I know Pat and Doug, they’ve been playing together as a rhythm unit for thirty-five years and they just have an intuitive sense and work very quickly.
So I put my hard-drive under my arm thinking I’ll go out to Vancouver and we’ll get five or six songs and we did seventeen in three days and every single song they played on took a step up. I think my drum programming and my bass playing were fine, but it’s better this way.
You did that recording in Vancouver just under the wire before the lockdown started, didn’t you?
I did, actually those guys worked so fast. I gave myself four days to get it done thinking it was only going to be about six songs and then we had seventeen in three days so I rebooked my flight and came home a day early. If I had come home a day later on the original flight, there were two passengers on that flight who tested positive.
You produced the album at Bathouse Studios, right?
I actually produced most of it right where I’m sitting in my home studio. I did all the instrumentation here, I did my vocals sitting here, some of Craig’s vocals right here, we did the bass and drums in Vancouver, and we did all the mixing in our studio in Bath.
That studio has quite a history to it, doesn’t it?
It does, it started as The Hip’s clubhouse and The Tragically Hip was a little song writing Communist collective essentially where we shared everything equally including responsibility and the work load and we thought, we need to own the means of production. We need our own studio and we’ll do it that way.
So that’s what we did, we set up a little clubhouse, a place where we could keep our gear and go in and rehearse, not that we rehearsed much but record, hang out, come up with songs. Eventually it became a commercial studio. It’s actually very hard for us to get into it now, it’s busy.
Craig is a great writer; I love the lyrics in your music. Do you find that was part of the attraction when you first started working together? Working with Gord being as Ron Maclean called him, Canada’s Shakespeare, Craig is quite the writer himself.
He is and I think being in The Hip we were all aspiring songwriters but Gord’s way with lyrics was so unique that it sort of pushed everyone else down. There was no point in me trying to write lyrics because Gord could just do it so much better. So I focused on other things and as a result, that aspect of my song writing didn’t develop at the same rate.
When it came time for me to give myself a sort of creative enema and clear the pipes of all these songs that were building up, I needed to call someone in to help with lyrics and who better? I was always a big fan of The Odds, still am, and from the moment I met Craig, he felt like a long lost brother.
We’re the same age and when we were doing the bass and drums for this record we were chatting and I asked him, what is the first record you ever bought with your own money and it was the same first album I bought. It was just a meeting of the minds and it was apparent from the moment we met. All the guys in The Hip were great friends with all the guys in The Odds, we admired them and I think they admired us, but more than that, there was a kinship, a friendship.
I’ve always been a band guy, I never wanted to be a solo guy and stand in the spotlight. I love the band concept, that’s my vibe so if I was going to do something outside of The Hip, it was going to be with a group of people that I loved. They have to be friends first and foremost so Craig was a natural choice.
You don’t think that you would ever do a solo album, an acoustic kind of thing?
Yeah, I think I would actually. I think in the process since the band ended, even before that but really since the band ended I’ve spent a lot of time in the studio chasing down ideas. Some things feel like oh, that would have been good for The Hip, this feels like it’s Strippers Union, this might be a good solo record, maybe this piece would sound good on The Weather Channel. You never know what’s going to happen with your music. Maybe a soundtrack, you never know and I don’t rule any of it out. I did write a bunch of songs specifically about Gord and what I was going through and what that all meant to me. If they were ever to come out, that would be a solo effort.
Too Close to the Truth. Can you tell me a little about that song, what the lyrics mean? It sounds pretty relevant to me if I understand it correctly, it sounds kind of like what we’re going through today in society.
Yeah, I think so. In a sense, on the surface it’s just a little Sci-Fi story that I had kicking around in my head that I pitched to Craig almost like a movie idea. It had been kicking around for a long time, basically someone who’s on an island up in Georgian Bay or someplace and it hasn’t rained and the forests are like tinder and you’re surrounded by water but there’s nothing you can drink. You’re getting into a bad place environmentally and you need to get out. That’s the superficial Sci-Fi story but it’s also about talking about things without talking about things. Sometimes you have to skirt around what you’re talking about.
A way of being political without being political. You have a wonderful backup singer on this album, Miss Emily (Emily Fennel). How did you start working with her because you’ve known her for several years?
Yes, many years. I saw her perform in a little roadhouse bar in Prince Edward County, Picton, many years ago and I was just absolutely taken by her. Big soulful voice, a most pleasing person in every respect.
Years later, we became friends and she asked Gord Sinclair to produce a record for her and she asked me to be in the band for the album so I did that. I ended up writing two songs on the record with her kind of like I write with Craig where I come up with a finished musical idea and pass it on, if it strikes a chord with them they write lyrics and I pitch in where I can. I fired her a bunch of ideas for her next album and we’re in close contact.
You’ve also been able to spend a lot of time with your son Boris during lockdown. I heard you have weekly jam sessions and writing sessions.
Yeah we do. He grew up at shows. I never pushed him to be in music, in fact if anything I would try and steer him clear of it because it’s fraught with disaster for most people that go down that path. It’s one of his passions.
He grew up around the live shows then watching me down here in my studio and for the last year he’s been locked down with us. It’s interesting to have your twenty-six year old son come back and live with you and really be stuck indoors with you for a year, but it’s really been fantastic and he’s set up his own recording studio in his bedroom.
Sometimes I’m up there with him working on things and once a week we get together in this space where I am right now and plug away at stuff. It’s great, just plugging away at ideas with the vague idea that the two of us will put something out down the road but he has his priorities which are probably more schooling and he also has an excellent band and they’re writing every week.
You have an extensive vinyl collection I’ve heard.
I do, I feel so sad about some of it, I had about two thousand records at one point and then I moved all those records out to The Bathouse Studio.
We have a snooker table/vinyl room upstairs so you can pop on a record and play snooker. That was a pretty extensive collection and maybe two or three years ago I started to rebuild my collection and got a great system. I just love it, nothing compared to it.
When cassettes came out and CD’s, everything just seemed so disappointing. Every new format just watered it down more and now everything’s streaming and I understand the convenience, I understand what draws people to it, it has a lot of pluses, but one thing that’s really lost is holding that album jacket in your hands, a nice piece of art, and all the information. Who wrote what, where it was recorded, who did the engineering, the studio, all that stuff that was so important to me that I spent so much time doing as a kid, fuelling my imagination and driving my interest in music.
We’re the same age so I went through the same experience as a teenager and I made the stupid mistake of getting rid of all my vinyl a number of years ago and have had to rebuild my collection as well. I can’t wait to get your album on Vinyl; I just ordered it the other day.
You’re lucky to have ordered it because they’re almost all gone. We only did one thousand and they’re all signed and numbered and when those are gone it exists only as a streaming thing.
You’re working on a book as well about your travels with The Hip. Do you have a story you can share with us?
I didn’t want to write a biography about The Hip or a personal autobiography, so the book is organized around places. There are certain places that had great meaning for the band that we kept going back to whether it was New Orleans or Chicago, certainly Kingston, Toronto, and Vancouver. Utrecht and Amsterdam were huge places for the band and each of those places comes with a host of funny stories, often drunken misdeeds and silliness but a lot of laughing went down. And then there are other places where there wasn’t a lot of laughing which figure in the border crossings.
Is the border ever funny?
No, you don’t laugh much at the border, that’s for sure, and we knew that going in.
The very first time we crossed the border into the U.S. as a band for a real band purpose and it was to go down and make Up To Here, our first full length album in Memphis.
We crossed at The Thousand Islands which is our local crossing and we crossed many times there before and they immediately pulled us out of the van and took us all into separate rooms and held us for three hours, told everyone a different story, we found a big bag of weed, we found a big block of hash, we found pills.
Everyone’s got all these different stories; none of it was true. They completely toyed with us for three hours, we were sweating blood and bullets and they would say, “One of the other guys says it’s you.”
It was really horrific, I can laugh about it now, in fact we laughed about it ten minutes after it was over but they had said, “Well you lost your van, you’ve lost all your gear, that’s been confiscated, and you’re going to jail in the United States, but if you cough up what you’ve got you can walk back to Canada but your gear is gone, you’re not going to make a record.”
And then after three hours they said, ok, you can go and they let us cross because there was nothing, never was. We never messed with the border.
You and the band invested in a marijuana company, is that right?
We were tied in with a company, Newstrike, excellent people, excellent company and they eventually sold to a larger one. It’s a funny time and you see all these fish and it’s getting bigger and bigger but there are bigger sharks swimming around eating the fish and swallowing them up and we kind of knew that was probably destined to happen. When it did happen it didn’t feel the same. We were in it in part because we believed in the project but also because we believed in the people that were involved on our end that we went into business with.
We’re free agents now; we’re not currently players in the industry other than on a private level.
Why did you decide to release the new album in two parts?
So much has changed in the music industry with the move to streaming. Basically when you release a record on streaming platforms you get one kick at the can. If you release a double album same thing, you get one kick at the can. If you release two single albums you get two kicks at the can. I suggested releasing it one side at a time as four EPs to get four kicks at the can. I thought that was clever but apparently it was too clever by half so we’re taking it as two separate albums.
I also read that you didn’t really make any money on the first two Strippers Union albums so you really do this out of love of making the music, and being with a successful band such as The Hip has afforded you the luxury to do that, right?
Absolutely, that’s the truth. Yeah, the first one cost me a lot of money. The aim for the second one was to break even, that’s also the aim for this one. I didn’t break even on the second one either but I’ll break even on this one and I may make a hundred bucks or a couple hundred bucks off this record, maybe, if I’m lucky. That’s obviously not why I did it. It never has been honestly, playing music as a career choice has treated me very well.
I was one of the one percent who can actually make a go, keep body and soul together with money made but I never thought of playing gigs and writing songs as work.
The work is sitting in a van, sitting in hotels, sitting in airports, sitting around waiting in dressing rooms. Being away from your family and missing birthdays and anniversaries, that’s what you’re getting paid for. Getting up on stage with your best friends and playing music, I almost feel like we should be paying for that because that’s just privilege to chase your creative life that way.
Have you done anything creatively with the rest of the band or are there any plans for projects with the other members?
Well I was in Paul Langois’ backup band for a record and a tour and I was in the band that Miss Emily and Gordon Sinclair put together for that album that they recorded. I played with Paul and Gord in a couple of benefit shows for The United Way and a few things here and there.
We haven’t gotten together to do any song writing or to do anything Hip related other than we have a weekly Zoom call where we deal with ongoing business and while we are no longer a touring act and we’re not writing and releasing new music, there is lots of music in the vaults, songs that are unheard. There are tons of live shows that were extremely well recorded. There seems to be a hunger for that from fans and friends. So yeah, our work’s not done. We continue to merchandise and do other things so yeah, we have lots of business together but we aren’t writing songs together.
So there should be some new or should I say, unheard Hip released sometime in the future.
I think so. Every single record we went in to do, we made a point of trying to write twenty-five to thirty-five songs and then hone it down to maybe the seventeen best ones and then once you were in the studio after playing everything once or twice you’d hone it down to fourteen or fifteen which you would record to the best possible versions. Then you would cut from there and try to get it down to eleven.
So for every record there are at least three properly recorded two inch tape versions of songs that didn’t make the record and often the reason they didn’t make the record isn’t a matter of quality, it was a matter of maybe there was already a funky blues number on this or it’s a ballad too far or we have a straight up three chord rocker already, why would we put another on.
As these songs get revealed to me, somebody revealed one to me the other day. They said there’s a fan video of a song that you guys did thirty years ago and I saw this video they put up and first of all the video was unbelievable, it was really good but I have no recollection of the song. I was like, “Hey, that’s really cool!” I wonder why that didn’t make a record.
I’m sure all the songs are really good but they just didn’t fit the album you were recording at the time.
Yeah, an album is its own unique thing and it’s usually ten to twelve songs and you want it to be a little journey, you don’t want it to be too much of any one thing that was our approach anyway.