Blue Rodeo’s California Calling
Canada’s Blue Rodeo is the perfect example of what a dichotomy a musical career can be. For the past 25 years the Toronto-based ensemble has fused together county, folk, and rock influences with their distinctive pop sensibility to establish themselves as one of the most popular bands in their homeland. Yet here in the United States they have curiously never risen above cult status. Based around the songwriting and vocal talents on Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy, Blue Rodeo arose from ashes of the duo’s previous band the Hi-Fi’s. Having first met in high school in 1971, the pair started performing together in 1978, they ventured to New York in 1981, where the Hi-Fi’s morphed into Fly to France. Three years later Keelor and Cuddy returned to Toronto and decided to tackle a more roots-driven guitar-based sound with Blue Rodeo. In 1987 the band released its debut album, Outskirts, which yielded double platinum sales and a support slot for kd lang. After signing to Warner Music Canada Casino and Lost Together marked a concerted push into the American market prior to the band venturing out to Keelor’s rural farmhouse to record 1994’s acoustic-infused masterpiece, Five Days in July. The album became one of the band’s defining moments, both critically and commercially. That’s not to say Blue Rodeo rested on its laurels as a slew of equally impressive recorded ventures followed. 2000’s The Days In Between was an album of gorgeous balladry as was 2009’s sonically expansive double record, The Things We Left Behind. After returning to Keelor’s farmhouse for another bout of recording, Blue Rodeo recently released its 13th studio album, In Our Nature. From the infectious warm embrace of Cuddy’s beautiful “New Morning Sun” to Keelor’s rollicking “Mattawa,” the plaintive “Wondering,” and sublime in the “In The Darkness,” In Our Nature offers yet another gorgeous mix of tone and temperament. The band’s contrasting popularity between Canada and the United States has meant that southern forays have been few and far between, but this month Blue Rodeo heads south for another fleeting visit. While America might have originally been on the band’s hit list, in a recent interview, Greg Keelor says he kind of likes things just the way they are.
This is probably one of Blue Rodeo’s longest stints between albums. It’s been something like four years since the last release, why the extended hiatus?
Jim did a solo record and went out on the road and that took up a lot of his time. We were still playing Blue Rodeo shows while Jim was doing his solo record, but it made it hard to find time to get in and make a new record.
The new album was recorded out on your farm. What was the impetus for corralling everyone and heading out there to work?
We’ve been out here many times over the years. We’ve done three records here before, we did a couple of DVDs out here, and have done a lot of demoing out here too. So it’s a place where the band feels pretty comfortable. The old house out here is a great sounding house. There’s a great piano here too, an old upright 1905 Bell. What it mostly comes down to is that the band wears the house well.
And presumably for you, it’s a place where you know the technically parameters inside and out?
Part of it is that my ears are pretty bust from too much loud volume; too much loud mixing and too much loud electric guitar over the years. Working in traditional studios doesn’t really work for me anymore because I can’t wear headphones so I worked out a system here at home where I can sit with a speaker and be quite comfortable recording my songs and songs with other people.
How do you think the setting out there infuses itself into the resulting music?
One of the major things is that when you get everyone out of the city, they sort of take a deep breath and look at the beauty of the surrounds and it’s a little more communal. It seems to be a little easier to get into the mindset out here. We all eat together and sleep here at the farm, it’s sort of like going to rock camp and that brings the band together.
We did this record in three chunks of time. One of those chunks was in the late summer and early Fall and then we did a tour. We did three months on the road across Canada. When you’ve been in a band this long, you have a few moments and this was one of those moments where the band really elevated itself and everybody was playing fantastically. We had two new guys in the band, Colin Cripps and Michael Boguski, and they really shone. So when we came back to start recording again in the Spring, the band was actually playing great together and felt very connected.
How did writing work for this album? With Jim having come into the album on the back of a solo project and having been on the road a lot, did you guys have the chance to get together and write at all?
We don’t really write together very much anymore, but we still do the two name thing. It’s like a Beatle hangover from our adolescence when we first started writing together. I had a bunch of songs, but with Jim having been on the road touring a lot he didn’t have quite as many songs. But Jim has a great ability to sit down and just start writing songs and that’s what he did. He came up with some great songs when we went into the album. I have always been impressed by that because I can never work like that. Well, I have, but they’ve always been shitty songs.
Your songs work so cohesively together. What do you think drives the uniformity that the two of you obviously share?
Jim and I have been working together since 1978. We first met in high school in 1971. We have one of those brotherly relationships. The initial reason for us putting a band together was that we loved the same sort of music and that has continued on and on. And like brothers there have been years where things are great, but then there have been a couple of years where things have been not so great. Most importantly, our friendship has endured and we’ve weathered all the nonsense of being in a rock and roll band together.
You guys experimented in music a little early on before you struck upon Blue Rodeo. What was it about that combination and that sound that has since instilled you guys as one of the most popular bands Canada has produced?
I think that’s impossible to answer, you know? I look at the story of Blue Rodeo and think that it’s a great story. You’ve got two guys who meet in high school and have that sort of teenage exuberance and started a band together that became very durable. I love the story, but I certainly don’t have any idea what the reason for our success up here is.
The other mystery is why your tremendous success in Canada hasn’t translated to here in the United States …
That’s funny because when we were younger we worked really hard at it. We wanted to be big in America. We wanted to big in Britain, Europe, and Australia. That was the initially goal of course, but now I feel like what we have got is a gift. We’ve had a great living and made some great music that people here in Canada seemed to appreciate. The nice thing about how it has played out is that I don’t have to work as hard now as if we were as success everywhere else as we have been here. If we were still playing all those cities and doing all those radio stations in America every tour, I think that would’ve killed me.
A lot can be said for comfort …
You’re right. Canada for us has been like going to a small high school compared to the huge university that America is. Everybody up here knows everybody and you’ve probably played or done some charity gig or something together. I like that. That’s a lot more tolerable for where we are now in our career.
You guys played here in Santa Barbara at Sings Like Hell – a music subscription series – where half the audience were unfamiliar with your music and its legacy. It must be nice to still be able to be an overnight sensation every now and then …
Yeah – that was really nice. And it’s really nice to know that the subscribers enjoyed the show. That’s our story in America right there. We played that great old theater one night to a whole new crowd and then we were down in Los Angeles at a small club the next night playing to the devoted few. America is strange like that for us.
You guys recently released your entire back catalogue as a boxed set and threw in a bunch of outtakes for good measure. What was it like spending some time revisiting the past?
It was like going through an old family album or scrapbook and picking out this and picking out that. There was a lot of emotion in there too. I personally quite enjoy nostalgia so it was great to go through it all. There was a lot of stuff we left behind or abandoned and rediscovering that stuff made me question why we didn’t use a lot of it. Maybe at the time we had a prejudice against the song because we didn’t like some of the lyrics or a chord change or something. Listening back to it now made me wonder why we didn’t use some of that stuff. It has been nice to get some of that out.
You alluded to Jim going off recently and doing a solo album. You of course have released several solo albums along with also having composed soundtracks. Where does your heart lay these days? Is it on the road or in the studio?
I think I love working in the studio more than anything these days. I have a studio here at my home and people come out here to me. We’re at the bottom of a beautiful valley so it’s a great place to work. And I love that whole thing of something coming from nothing. People come out here and at the end of a few days you’ve got a record. I really do love that. But I still love getting up on stage and singing the songs. That contributes to how I make a living lately. I’m in a pretty lucky position.