Record Rewind: The Road to Road Apples




A dozen songs that clock in just shy of 50 minutes with hooks aplenty, I bought Road Apples in Grade 12. In the ensuing decades, it’s been played more than most of my 1,500 CDs. I also own the vinyl. Thirty years on, I still know the words to every song. And, when I sing along I’m taken back to those carefree—and awkward—high school years cranking these tunes, alone in my bedroom, at a friends’ cottage in Muskoka, or in my parent’s car—rolling down the highway with my best buds en route to a Hip show. 

My love affair with The Tragically Hip began with Up to Here, but Road Apples is where my adulation for these Kingston boys really bloomed. My friends and I saw them live every chance we could whether at a weekend festival such as Courtcliffe Park in Carlisle, Ontario on July 6, 1991, or at the old Ontario Place Forum later that summer. One look at that ticket price, $10.55 for a seat on the lawn, confirms this event happened 30 years ago.

This was a band my friends and I understood. There was no twisting our arms to make us like these Canadian alternative rockers. From the start, we were all in. Never in my wildest dreams did I fathom while I was rocking out with a bottle of Molson Export in my hand at a high school house party to “Little Bones,” and “Three Pistols,” that three decades on I would jump on a Zoom call to chat with Hip guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker to reminisce and take a deep dive into the making of Road Apples—The Tragically Hip’s first record to reach No. 1 in Canada.

The Tragically Hip, circa 1991. Credit: Jim Herrington for MCA.

Take a trip now. Close your eyes. Join the band down south in New Orleans. It’s early September 1990. The air is hot and heavy. Here’s where the road to Road Apples begins. Stroll into the French Quarter, down Canal Street, and into one of the older residential neighbourhoods. At the corner of Chartres and Esplanade, stop at 544 Esplanade and enter this 19th century mansion.  

Known as Kingsway, Daniel Lanois—the Canadian Grammy-winner and creator of countless sonic journeys—owns and operates this studio. Haunted? Perhaps. No matter, the ambience and the weight of history within this 12,000 square-foot home were palpable from the moment the five members of The Tragically Hip, along with their A-list production team (Bruce Barris and Don Smith) crossed its threshold. Kingsway was the perfect milieu for the birth of Road Apples. Other artists who were drawn to this studio during the 1990s included Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., and Iggy Pop. “We discovered Lanois had this great beautiful hidden mansion studio down in the French Quarter and we were all in!” Langlois recalls.

“You felt the history all around you,” Baker adds. “I don’t believe in ghosts, but if there were ghosts that is the type of place where you are going to see them. The home was three storeys, but five storeys in the back where the slave quarters were once located … that is the history you are in. It was a strange place in a strange city where a lot of different cultures meet. In New Orleans, there is a lot of good history and a lot of bad history meeting in one spot and we just soaked it all up.”

Before setting foot in this historic manor featuring 12-foot high ceilings, the band spent several days rehearsing in a wooden warehouse in the Ninth Ward. Again, the musical history of this locale was not lost. This district was where rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Fats Domino called home. “It must have been 105 degrees,” Langlois says, of this rehearsal space, “but it was a great way for us to acclimatize to the city … we also got two songs out of those sessions: ‘Little Bones’ and ‘The Last of the Unplucked Gems.’”

The band arrived in New Orleans with the bones to the rest of the songs that eventually appeared on Road Apples. They just needed to assemble the skeleton and flesh them out until they sounded just right. “We felt we already had the makings of a great record and then ‘Little Bones’ comes along,” Langlois comments. “We are all big music fans and there are certainly music historians in the band—I can’t say I’m one of them—but the New Orleans’ culture was something that really fit us. We all felt the vibe and we soaked it in.”

The decision to record in a different location, one that oozed history, culture, and music was something MCA Records’ Bruce Dickinson believed was not just important, but essential, for the band’s studio success. “He felt we needed to get away from friends, family and record company executives who might drop in if we were recording in Toronto,” Langlois explains. “Bruce wanted us removed from all the distractions.”

This vibe definitely kicked the record up a notch and added to the atmosphere and grittier sound found on Road Apples. One wonders if setting up shop in New Orleans—a city known for its temptations (especially at night)—might have blocked productivity? For The Tragically Hip, these diversions did not steer them away from their purpose in the slightest. The band was there with a clear objective: to make and play music. And, since the studio was in a residential district, by 10 p.m. they had to be mindful of neighbours. “You had to tone it down,” says Baker, “so mostly we went into listening mode or acoustic mode. Some nights we went out, but we were pretty restrained.”

Billiards anyone?

Lanois had set up a classic pool table in the house and it was perfect for when the band needed a break. The room was so large that that’s also where they did the bulk of the recording; all five guys played in the same room with monitors and without headphones. The Hip arrived in New Orleans having played hundreds of shows over the past year and a half. Smith understood how tight the band was and the necessity for them to record as if they were performing live. Langlois says Smith was their kind of guy: funny, low-key, and cool. “We were just happy, and frankly, a little surprised that he saw what we were trying to go for. We felt understood by him and that came through in his methods.

“Don was a master at getting the sound of a room through which mics he used and where he put them,” Langlois continues. “He wasn’t overwhelmed by any of it and we all had massive respect for him.”

Baker agrees. “When Bruce [Dickinson] suggested Don to us to produce Up to Here we weren’t immediately familiar with his name. Bruce told us, ‘Well, he just finished the Keith Richards solo album’ and the recent Roy Orbison album.’ ‘Ok’, we said, ‘he sounds like our guy.’ When we got to Memphis to do Up to Here we waited for like three days for him to arrive. I was prepared for Don to adjust my mic, and say stuff like, ‘I don’t want you to use that amp,’ ‘switch your guitars,’ and ‘change your sound,’ but there was none of that. He just wanted to capture the sound of us as we were and what we were about. He didn’t want to push us around in the studio and produce us in some grand sense. While that caught me off guard initially, it really gave us all added confidence.”

Smith: A Master and a Stickler for the Take

Smith was also what Baker refers to as a stickler for the take. “He wouldn’t press record until it sounded just right, which might take five days of pushing mics around and moving one a couple of millimetres,” he says. “Don was a master at the old school method of recording that he learned by working Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley records in the Capitol building. Once it sounded right he pressed record and we would play and play and play and then he would say, ‘It was really good, now do it again … “Fight take 86!’”

Thirty years on, sadly many of the players who convened in Kingsway Studios in that sultry September in New Orleans are gone (including The Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, along with producers Don Smith and Bruce Barris). Yet, the songs live on. They’ve also aged well. For the remaining four members of the band, listening to, and working on, the new anniversary box set, brought mixed emotions.

“Any little thing can bring Gord back because all of us were such good buddies,” says Langlois. “It’s just too bad they are gone. But, on the other hand, listening to all the music, it sounded way better than I was expecting—particularly Saskadelphia. I didn’t think I would be that blown away by it. It was a great feeling of accomplishment. Adds Baker, “When I heard the tapes, it felt like the band was playing in the room with me. At the time, we were playing 250 shows a year and had been doing this for three years, so we had a lot of playing under our belts. We were feeding off each other in a really intuitive way. The ideas were flowing and we were playing really well together. All you had to do was pop the tapes on before they were even mixed … it just sounded like the band was right there.”

Road Apples 30th Anniversary Deluxe was released on November 12. All tracks were completely remastered in 2021 by Ted Jensen at Sterling Sound in Nashville, TN. The deluxe edition features rarities, new discoveries, live recordings, and ‘unplucked gems’ from the Road Apples sessions and era. 

Fast Facts:

Album:                                   Road Apples
Meaning of road apples:      Frozen horse poop used as a road hockey puck
Group:                                   The Tragically Hip
Label:                                     MCA Records
Recorded:                              September 1990
Release date:                         February 1991
Producers:                             Bruce Barris and Don Smith
Studio:                                   Kingsway Studios in New Orleans, LA

Track List:

1. Little Bones 
2. Twist My Arm 
3. Cordelia 
4. The Luxury 
5. Born in the Water 
6. Long Time Running 
7. Bring it all Back 
8. Three Pistols 
9. Fight. 
10. On the Verge 
11. Fiddler’s Green 
12. The Last of the Unplucked Gems

Record Rewind: Rheostatics’ ‘Music Inspired by The Group of Seven’ Turns 25

Music and art are natural friends. Many musicians don’t just paint pictures with words and melodies; they also pour these creative thoughts onto canvases. Tom Wilson, Kurt Swinghammer, and Joni Mitchell are a few examples of multi-talented Canadian artists who express their creativity and imagination across disciplines.

In the fall of 1995, The National Gallery of Canada (NAC) in Ottawa, Ont., through a local DJ and promoter at CKCU-FM, approached alternative art-rock band the Rheostatics and commissioned them to write and perform a concert of original music to accompany a Group of Seven 75th anniversary retrospective. Most Canadians, even if they are not art collectors or art historians, are aware of the Group of Seven. Sometimes referred to as the Algonquin School, this collective of famed Canadian landscape artists included: Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, Frank Johnston, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley. Operating from 1920 to 1933, their evocative and impressionistic works symbolized our national identity.

The Rheostatics—one of Canada’s most beloved indie-rock bands of the last 35 years—were perfectly suited to capture the Group of Seven’s spirit through music. The band had so much fun in the studio writing and creating these instrumental songs that following the curated sold-out concert at the NAC, they returned to the studio to make a full-length record. The result—Music Inspired by The Group of Seven—was released 25 years ago, in 1996. “That record is interesting because we had just come off a cross-Canada jaunt with the Tragically Hip as part of the Another Roadside Attraction tour,” recalls Dave Bidini, a founding member of the band. “We had some relative commercial success with the single ‘Claire,’ at that time too and, through that tour, had made more inroads in the industry. We followed that success up with a completely instrumental record. That was a weird, and problematic career move, but it’s also a very Rheostatics thing to do.”

It was an honour, Bidini adds, just to be asked to participate in this project. “I remember the Hip guys saying to me at the time, ‘It’s not fair! You guys get to do all the cool records!’”

After agreeing to this cool commission, the Rheos gathered at Gas Station Studios in Toronto’s east end, the birthplace of many Canadian indie rock records, and set to work. Long before they picked up their instruments, or struck a note, they spent time creating the right mood for contemplation and creation. “It was more like a film shoot,” Bidini says. “We started off by collecting all of these materials and doing a lot of non-music work.” The band decorated the studio with art and other inspiring images. Guitarist Martin Tielli, also a talented visual artist, poured over books of the Group of Seven’s most famous works. Bidini brought in some records from his collection to play on the old gramophone in the studio. These unique LPs included speeches from former Prime Ministers including William Lyon Mackenzie King and John Diefenbaker as well as Queen Elizabeth, along with interview clips from Newsy Lalonde, an NHL player and professional lacrosse player from the early 20th century. Kevin Hearn brought in additional sampled wilderness sounds like frogs and crickets. Bidini describes these found sounds as: “Cool dashes of spice, sonically and historically, that helped tie us all back to the crazy size of the country and try to reflect that in this recording.”

Music Inspired by the Group of Seven was the first Rheos’ album to feature Don Kerr, who replaced original drummer Dave Clark. He brought a new energy to the group and a keen ear to the production. Kerr met the Rheostatics for the first time when the band recorded demos for their previous record (Introducing Happiness) at Gas Station Studios, which he co-owned and operated at the time with Dale Morningstar.

Kerr’s biggest contribution to this record was the idea to interview visual artist Addison Winchell Price. Kerr met the landscape painter, who worked alongside the Group of Seven, years before. Through a series of edited conversations, Price offered observations on the connection between art and music that provides a narrative thread that ties the album together.

“Dave had brought in funny recordings of people talking about trains and a poem read by the Queen and somewhere in there I was like, ‘I have this old family friend, who is an artist, is brilliant, and his voice is amazing, why don’t I interview him?’” Kerr recalls. “I called him up and talked to him for two hours and just recorded it. It was emotionally moving … so grand and beautiful the way he talked about the link between music and painting and being an artist. We combed through the recording, found the best stuff, and used these to string the songs together for the live show and later for the record. It was a nice addition…as close as we could get to having a Group of Seven member on there.” Bidini agrees: “That is the golden thread…where the album went from a collection of instrumental songs to a cohesive concept album.”

Kevin Hearn also concurs. “The conversations with Price are the heart and soul of the record.” Like Kerr, Hearn became an additional member of the Rheostatics for this album. Hearn was playing with the Look People then, and he had yet to join the Barenaked Ladies full-time. Hearn describes the Look People as “Frank Zappa meets Dr. Seuss.” They shared a rehearsal space with the Rheos and the keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist often sat in with them. They became fast friends and eventually they “invited [Hearn] into their orbit.” The Toronto native was a classically trained pianist, but with the Look People, Hearn was experimenting with synthesizer sounds on his Korg T3. Working on Music Inspired by The Group of Sevenwas a refreshing change and the experience renewed his childhood love for the piano. “There was a Yamaha piano at the Gas Station Studios and it felt right to use it,” Hearn recalls. “I got to go back in time to my roots. This album was a reconnection for me as a pianist and that was an amazing thing for me as an artist. It also fit perfectly with the palette of this music.

“I was not an art expert, but I knew who the Group of Seven were,” Hearn continues. “I remember thinking back then—even though I don’t know who did what—I know the source that inspired their art. All of the Rheos grew up in Canada and spent time in northern Ontario at summer camps, taking canoe trips, and going to cottages. I felt well suited to do this and I loved every minute of it.”

Once the band got down to writing the songs, despite the project’s vast scope, the songs came quickly. The studio became a rehearsal space. The process was a raw, spontaneous, fun, and collaborative affair. “I loved the harmonious way the Rheos worked,” Hearn says. “Each member brought an idea to the table and each idea was treated equally, respectably and enthusiastically. That made me feel comfortable, and for that I’m very grateful.”

The end result of this collaborative affair was a record of mostly instrumental mood music featuring a dozen songs that beautifully capture the Group of Seven’s spirit. Starting in the fall of 2015, to mark the 20th anniversary of the original NAC concert, the band performed the record in its entirety during a series of concerts at art galleries across Canada. Twenty-five years on, the record still resonates and deserves another listen.

“For me, because we were imagining music inspired by paintings and the north evoked by somebody who lived in the city, that record has as much High Park and Humber River in it as it does Tobermory,” Bidini concludes. “Even though I write about Canada—the country—I’m mostly a Torontonian. The album provided me with the liberty of imagining the north as opposed to portraying the north. From touring, I knew Canada from bar to bar, club to club, not from provincial park to natural landform. I, and the rest of the band, had the license to dream it, and we did! When I listen to the songs today, I can see and feel the corner of Liberty and Atlantic—pre hipster Toronto, pre Liberty Village, as much as I hear Algonquin Park.”


ARTIST: The Rheostatics (Dave Bidini, Martin Tielli, Tim Vesely, Don Kerr, Kevin Hearn)

RECORD: Music Inspired by The Group of Seven

YEAR: 1996

LABEL: Dave’s Records of Guelph (DROG)

STUDIO: The Gas Station Studios (Toronto)

PRODUCER: Don Kerr & The Rheostatics

MASTERED BY: Joao Carvalho at the Dub House

ALBUM COVER ART: Martin Tielli