Iconic Canadian musician Tom Cochrane, with his band Red Rider has been a mainstay in the Canadian music scene ever since Red Rider’s debut album; Don’t Fight it in 1979. With a career that has spanned over 40 years, 17 albums, eight Juno Awards and an induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
Tom Cochrane and Red Rider will perform at Caesars Windsor on December 5.
We sat down with Tom for nearly an hour to get to the heart of where his music comes from. For more of this incredible interview, visit 519magazine.com.
When we were preparing to talk to you today and just realized it’s been 40 years ago this week that Don’t Fight It came out.
It was a Halloween release 40 years ago. Wow, that’s amazing. I feel like it was just yesterday in some ways, and then in some ways, it feels like another lifetime ago, you know?
What do you remember about making that album?
It was our first record, and so it was, there’s always an element of trial and error, and you have to sort through all the songs. Red Rider, we still were in that phase where we were trying to find our identity, obviously. It was the first record you know, and I’d been on the coffee house circuit and I’d also been in a couple of bands for six, seven, eight years before that. And so it was really, it was a lot of work. I guess we were learning on the job really because we were just learning how to make records and how to record and the kind of discipline it required.
There are moments of exhilaration and there are moments of tedium. There’s moments of huge disappointment where the songs don’t quite match what you’d hear in your head. There’s that struggle between the writers and the band, and trying to find that identity that meshes with everybody and how everybody plays, there’s the awkwardness.
Because it’s a whole different dynamic, you’ve got to remember that. Back then, between being in the studio and being live and performing the songs live. So it was a bit of trial by error, and some songs made the cut and some songs got thrown out. There’s obviously that tug-of-war back then, because we were a band, and Peter Boynton was writing some songs, I was writing some songs, Kenny had a couple. And then of course, everybody wants to protect their babies, right?
Everybody wants to protect their tunes. So there’s that struggle to find out which songs are going to make the cut and which won’t, and then there’s pressure from record company. And at that point, we didn’t have management and shortly after the record, just before it was released, we had management and they were based in Vancouver. And so we started touring, and I remember we started touring April Wine and it was an incredible tour with them.
But before we did that, we drove, Robbie Baker and I, the drummer at the time, we drew the short end of the straw and we had to drive our old step van all the way out west. And at that point, we didn’t even have credit cards, and so we just had, we had a little kind of cache of money to get out there and we were going to park ourselves out there and start working clubs out there.
Resound was booking them I guess, the agency, and so he took us on management. And I remember driving south of Winnipeg and we tuned into CKY, and I remember hearing White Hot for the first time on the radio. And it was about 30 below zero, because it was in January, it was incredible. And then that song went on to the top 10 on the Canadian charts. And of course, number 45, I think it got up on Billboard charts in the States.
So it was, we were off to the races. And that song helped the record go gold in Canada, and gave us the opportunity to make another record because you’re always out of a job once you make an album. You hope there’s enough songs on there that capture peoples’ imaginations that you’re allowed the privilege of carrying on with your work.
We recorded in Toronto at Eastern Sound and it had quite a history to it, it’s no longer there in Yorkville. And then we ended up recording a lot of stuff, Red Hot included, recording the bad tracks down in the infamous Sunset Sound where so many great records that we loved were made: the Beach Boys and the band Little Feet. And as a matter of fact, Billy Payne actually played keyboards on the intro to White Hot, and he played in the great Little Feet. He loved Little Feet.
But also, Jim Morrison and The Doors recorded there. Pet Sounds was done there. And it was an old converted auto shop that the studio was built in, but it had a linoleum floors and fluorescent lighting, and there was a puke mark on the couch in the control room that was there, they said, “Don’t sit there. That’s where Jim Morrison threw up.” Very protective of that historical site.
And it was, so it was a magic experience being down in Los Angeles and doing a good chunk of the record there, and then also having the experience of doing it in Canada. And it was a real learning experience for us and we were learning on the job. White Hot in particular, and of course Avenue A’s a concert staple, we’ll be playing that one in Windsor and White Hot of course.
You know the songs are that good when 40 years later, you’re still playing them in concert.
Well I feel very blessed to be able to do this and make a living doing what I love. And so, you know April, I always tried to write songs that were timeless. And you don’t always achieve that right? Certain songs kind of fall by the wayside, and some songs that you think should get more attention than they do, don’t.
But for the most part, I feel very blessed. I feel very lucky, because I talk to some of my contemporaries and they’re embarrassed to play their old stuff. They feel it was a place and a time, and they’re pop songs that suited that time. But I sort of came out of that whole folk scene where songs were relevant, and I remember listening to Bob Dylan, which really changed my life in a lot of ways, and I thought, “Wow, songwriting can be a lot more important and more relevant than just writing simple pop songs, boy/girl pop songs.”
And that’s when I kind of knew I could possibly make a hunch I could possibly make a living at it. I was lucky. I wrote White Hot and Avenue A, and those songs are still staples in our shows, we play them most of the time. Every once in a while, we’ll pull out one of the others.
And then of course, we moved on. Lunatic Fringe was timeless. It’s as relevant today as it was back then. And so every record, we were lucky enough to have one or two or three songs that really, really stood the test of time. And a bunch of songs that stood the test of time that I still enjoy playing today that feel just as relevant today as they did back then.
So I really did try to setup to do that. I tried to setup to write songs that I could be proud of playing five or 10 years down the line, and not just at the time that I wrote them. And I think a lot of that comes out of that folk culture, that Canadian folk culture of writing stories and telling stories, and telling stories that are relevant. That really was a big part of my growth and my background.
We’re talking a little bit about White Hot. So what does that song mean to you today?
Well it means the same as it did back then. The song was about Arthur Rimbaud, I could relate to the song, who was a poet who had tremendous influence on everybody from Jim Morrison, we talked about, to Patty Smith to Bob Dylan. And the more I studied his life, I was fascinated by this man who was the Enfant Terrible of Europe as a poet, and just wrote basically three books of poetry and then gave it all up and traded it all in to run guns and barter in all kinds of things in Africa.
As a matter of fact, he actually explored a tract of Africa, very much like Joseph Conrad’s a Heart of Darkness. He became an explorer, but he traded all the poetry in and that life to be a mercenary and trading all kinds of things. Some of them were really nefarious. And so I found it a real interesting study on human nature. Why somebody would turn to the dark side, why somebody would turn away from something that was as powerful as their poetry and their art and how in a way, life circumstances can change you. And that’s kind of what White Hot explores, there’s a desperation in that song, and a sense of adventure as well.
So from that point of view, I still find it unique. I think some of the songs that I wrote and that we performed as a band, there’s no other songs quite like them, and White Hot was one of them. Lunatic Fringe was another, and of course that whole first side of the Neruda album. I’m very, very proud of that record.
But, I’ve always been interested in human nature and the dynamic of human nature. Not direct politics so much, but the politics of the soul. And White Hot explores a lot of that, and so does Lunatic Fringe obviously in a different way. But the song is exciting to play. I tell you, Bill and I do an incredible version of it acoustically. So a good song, you should be able to play acoustically or on a piano or on a kazoo. You should be able to hum it. And that song is that way, it’s exciting, there’s a lot of energy to it and there’s a lot of desperation in that song.
One thing I do love, you guys used the steel pedal for Lunatic Fringe. It must’ve been groundbreaking at the time. How did that discussion go when you guys were creating that song?
When I first went out and saw Red Rider downstairs at the famous Alma Combo, I was immediately fascinated with the band. They were so precise. Their musicianship was incredibly. They were very proficient at their instruments. And Kenny, Kenny stood out in particular. And you always want, well you sometimes want what you don’t have. I was coming from the whole folk scene, so I was wet behind the ears in terms of even tuning my instrument and being as precise as these guys.
And so I was very, very attracted to the band because of that. And they did wonderful versions of songs like Jessica and that, but they also did these versions of songs and Kenny would add this very unique color on the steel guitar, and I was always intrigued with that. I loved Pink Floyd at the time, so that would’ve been 1979, The Wall. And David Gilmore would occasionally use the steel guitar. He’s the only one that I really know can really point out, use the steel guitar similarly to where we took it after that.
But also bands like, we loved the Flying Burrito Brothers and Sneaky Pete’s steel playing. And he had come out of that same school where we were all influenced by a lot of the real rootsy country rock bands and folk bands. So Sneaky Pete, some of those bands. Procol also had a steel guitar player. So that’s where some of that came out of and then we just took it farther into the rock genre, and it just became a really unique color and a unique flavor to the band. And Kenny played some… The soul on Lunatic Fringe is very, very powerful and very haunting, so it adds a wonderful character.
There have been a few incarnations of the band, the name of the band. You went from Red Rider to your name only. And now lately, you’ve gone back to Tom Cochrane and Red Rider. So what brought about the return of Red Rider to the equation?
Well, it’s funny because some of my career parallels Tom Petty in that around the same time, he released Full Moon Fever and it wasn’t with the Heartbreakers, but he utilized Mike Campbell. I started, became more and more educated and more adept in the studio. I started having my own setups at home, and that sort of all developed around the mid-80s. And then that got very sophisticated with pro tools later, but I used a thing called Digital Performer, so I was doing a lot of stuff at home. I was working with a thing called the E3, which was an emulator, and it was very much like the Fair Light, so I was doing a lot of sampling and I was creating all these song scapes on my own.
And Kenny and I kind of just drifted apart a little bit. He started doing more production. A lot of people aren’t aware of this, and please mention this, I think it’s really important because nobody gives him credit for this. But Kenny produced the very first Tragically Hip EP. So he sure did, and you better mention that because he should be proud of that.
But during that period, this was on the Victory Day record. So we’re doing pre-production for the Victory Day record which was the second Tom Cochrane and Red Rider record. Boy was the first, which we did in Wales, which was a wonderful experience over there.
But Kenny, I think the reason it became Tom Cochrane and Red Rider, we were always criticized. Because again, getting back to the songs, the songs told stories and people were saying, “These are real songs that have a personality to them, an individual personality because of the lyrics.” And people were always saying, “People don’t know what to make of Red Rider, because there’s no one person they can relate it to.”
So we had a very painful breakup with our management and Capitol Records, because after three wonderful records that were successful, Breaking Curfew didn’t do as well as expected and there was a lot of stress there. We were actually doing concerts and doing really well at those concerts, but management still had us on a $200, $300 a week salary. It wasn’t pretty, and that was back in ‘84/‘85.