Friday 3 November 2017

What Are The Odds - A Lovely Chat with Craig Northey

The universe is a very strange, unusual place. She is full of wonders many that are yet to be discovered and others that have baffled scientists for many a long year and will continue to do so for many more to come. Infinitesimal, microcosms spreading out indefinitely are full of life of unending variety all of which interact sporadically, intellectually and psychically and yet the possibility of which of these disparate bodies, molecules or chemicals will interact together is nearly impossible to calculate. The ratio is almost as high as the chance of the composer of Corner Gas's two theme songs performing a gig at my favourite local venue not twenty minutes from my home. However, the correct celestial bodies aligned and lo it came to pass.

Craig Northey is one of the most popular and respected musicians in Canada. He is best known as front man for chart toppers The Odds and is associated with other bands such as super group Transcanada Highwaymen and Strippers Union. Craig has also written the scores to many t.v. shows and movies including Hiccups, Corner Gas: The Movie and the Kids in the Hall movie Brain Candy.

Craig was in the U.K. as part of The Steven Page Trio, and is his first tour in this country since 1993 when he visited with The Odds. Today they are performing at The Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth, a popular venue as evidenced by how sticky the auditorium floor is. This is the accepted mathematical principle used to judge just how good a venue is, Size of room (+ mass of crowd) x excitement of beer spilt² = viscosity of residue on floor. In areas of The Wedgy Rooms, as locals call it, you could loose the sole of your Converse to floor boards such is the quality of the acts the perform there, causing fans to jump about the place spilling their Heiniken without by or leave.

Being a bit of a newb to the whole rock and roll journalism field I had vigorously shaken information out of the internet to put together questions of such merit that I would hopefully hide my lack of experience and would also go part way to winning myself a Pulitzer. However, Craig is a chap so affable and of unabashed loveliness we ended up have a chat for the best part of an hour and structured questioning seemed to fly out the window. I rarely have a conversation this enjoyable with my closest friends let a lone a complete stranger!

How did you get involved with Corner Gas?

I met Brent Butt in 1992 we would have beer and meet around town as we both lived in Vancouver. He said "If I ever get a t.v. show would you do the music for it?" and I said of course, I mean we were just talking out of our hats! Then years later he called and he said "Do you remember me ever asking you that?" and I said yeah "Well I got one!" So described the show to me and what it was going to be, he walked me through the characters. He basically told me the vibe and that he would go to these little imaginary places every once in awhile. He described what he would want a song to sound like to open the show. So I wrote one with Jessie (Valenzuala) from the Gin Blossoms a band from Arizona. We had been working on an idea that I thought might work so we decided to adapt it for the show.

Why did you decide to write two songs?

I thought one was probably not enough and we should probably do another one in case Brent didn't like the first one. So I did Happy Place. Then we waited and Brent came back and said he liked them both and they would use both of them, one at the front and one at the back.

You wrote the score for Brent's other show Hiccups

I didn't score Corner Gas, a guy from Regina, Rob Bryanton scored each episode. Hiccups, I wrote the themes and the score, then I scored the Corner Gas movie and now I am scoring the animated series, which is going great, we are in post for most of it and mixing. It works differently than scoring for  regular film, animation is a bit slower, I have finished composing up to episode eleven of thirteen.

How do you approach scoring a complete series?

I do every episode custom, bespoke. I sit down and most all of it for the first season, even a two second piece, is going to be unique for each episode. Then to build a feel for the show as you move through the episodes you might repeat a section of music to create familiarity.

Is there a difference between scoring the live action show and the animated version?

As it is animation, there is more adventure and things go to crazy places so there is more opportunity to score something that is strange, it's fun! When Brent said I can start thinking about the music I asked are there any set pieces from the first couple I should be aware of, Brent just paused and said "...well a unicorn fights a Sasquatch"

Do you think the animated show will try to keep up with other shows like Family Guy by going to stranger places of pushing boundaries?

It doesn't feel wild, for a animated series you start to hallucinate that it is the same Corner Gas, although it is two dimensional drawings. The voices are the same, other than Janet, may she rest in peace, Corinne does an amazing job with Emma.

Do you have any favourite moments from working on the new show?

In the beginning we had to do some promo's to start where the cast were voicing the characters and the cast were all in the same room. Usually they work from two different locations Vancouver and Toronto on a high speed hook up, because of the promo everyone was together. That hasn't happened in a long time, since the end of the series.

There seems to be such a family atmosphere between everyone involved in the show. Is it easy to just jump back into those relationships and working together?

Oh yeah, it's just like friends, everybody starts where they left off. For me I am not as close to everyone as they are with each other, except Brent and Nancy and I see people around town like Gabrielle. They all keep very busy.

Corner Gas has such a large following, why do you think it is so popular? 

That show is such a blessing in Canada especially, for anyone on a small town in the world - because it did reach around the world. When your kids are sick or something and they sit on the couch and watch Corner Gas and feel better.

The translates to the British sense of humour really well. Do you think there is something in the Canadian sense of humour that travels well?

It's not overstated, it's like Beatles records, you can watch an episode again, and again and think "I missed that" and then "I missed that", the humour doesn't reach out and hit you over the head.

You worked a lot with legendary Canadian comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall. How did that come about?

They heard the records and they sad "Do you think you could do a movie?" I said yeah I come from classical music, sure I can do that. I didn't know what I was getting myself into but you just say yes and then you figure it out. So their movie Brain Candy was the first movie I did, in 1995. I didn't consider myself a full time film composer but then I got another one with Bruce McCulloch called Dog Park. I did another one after that, then it went away for a while but I came back here and there and all these years later I am still doing it.

Do you still enjoy doing it?

Yeah, I love it! It's less social than you would expect. You get into being a musician for it being social and to be with other musicians and doing things like this. Then you realise you are sitting by yourself for hours and hours and hours.

Outside of your work in t.v. and movies you are insanely busy with various bands. Is it ever hard to juggle everything at once?

Only in remembering songs. It gets a bit dense sometimes when you are going from one show to the next and you are going "Oh, I forgot to learn that!"

Being that you play such a wide variety of music from rock, pop and even blues do you feel pressure to keep up with musical trends and write music that is going to be popular in the mainstream?

I never felt that because I was in a band and we would just write songs together and what came out was what came out and then someone else would decide "You are this, you are a power pop band" they catagorise you. We just do what we do and you just keep deciding. I was lucky because the music that I liked, from the Beatles on up, was catchy and so I really realised I don't have to worry about it because I wanted the music to have a hook to it or something melodic - something that was memorable to the songs. So I never thought, I better do this to keep up with something. If I was interested in some new technology or something going on in music I just dabbled to see if it was something I would incorporate and you might hear that in the production of the songs. If you listen back to the work I did in The Odds years ago it doesn't sound of that time and you can't really place it, you can't say that is a dated thing that happened in a particular year. So I didn't really chase that, that it had to be popular. Then eventually someone lined it up that we got seen and heard in North America and it crossed over onto the radio and then other musicians came to me and said "Hey, do you want to try and do something together?" That's how all this stuff with doing a million bands and t.v. and movies came together!

With all the bands that you are involved in and the intermingling of members, it seems like everyone knows everybody else in the Canadian music scene. Do you find that sometimes you want to work with a certain person but they are busy with another project and you have to rethink your own project?

No it doesn't become an issue, I would figure out something else, find someone else to do but it might change the nature of whatever I was doing. Sometimes in town you may think - I need someone who plays the Zither or a Traditional Harp and you can't find them at 10.30 or 11pm. When you are doing film you will have to figure out how to do that or fake it.

How does the dynamic work when you are writing with someone else

You can sit in a room or you can write online. You can send someone a recording of a chord progression you have, and say I wrote these words or the section of the melody goes like this. You send it to them and they say "I know where you are going with this, this is where it is going" and they send it back to you. It is a lot like a chess game, you send your move over and you are both looking at your own chessboard. For the most part nothing beats sitting in a room with two guitars. A lot of it's bullshitting, sitting there laughing at something and hanging out, then something happens and an idea sparks and you run away with it. Often times you can get together with people to write songs and nothing happens or you write something you don't really like. You can't put pressure on yourself, you go in and see what you get.

You are here working as a trio with Steven Page and Kevin Fox. The songs you are performing together, particularly from Steven's Heal Thyself album are quite complex. Is it difficult to break down the structure of the song to the trio format?

It's not difficult. Kevin is a great orchestral arranger as well as a cellist and a song writer. He compliments Steven and myself really well. He organises thoughts and harmonies quickly. I think it is quite organic how our arrangements of these things have come together. Steven and I started doing shows together just the two of us and I had to fill in a lot of space and I had to think, should I play acoustic? How can I give this more bottom end and which harmony should I choose in my guitar playing and singing? We came up with a bunch of ideas and did some shows, just the two of us. Meanwhile, Steven had been doing shows with Kevin on the Cello the same way. Then we combined them and Kevin was doing things I was doing before, so I don't have to do that now - I can do other parts of the song, adjusting the songs on the fly. We had a two week residency in New York where we could try all these things and it became something.

Do you play a mixture of everyone's music in the trio?

Sometimes in Canada we throw in some of mine. In the is all Steven. I don't think too many people would know what was happening if I started singing my songs.

So if I was to leave a five pound note on the chair here, and look away...and that fiver has somehow disappears. Would "Not A Lot Going On" find it's way on to the set list tonight?

No, the guys don't know it.


My thanks to Craig Northey, Kevin Fox, Steven Page for being so generous with their time. Thanks also to Cynthia Barry for her support.

Massive thanks to Terry Emm of Cannonball PR who has been easily the most helpful person I have encountered on my Corner Gas Fan journey and is responsible for getting me in the room with some of the nicest people I have every met. Thank you Terry. You Rock!

Please go and support Craig, Kevin and Steven via music purchases on your preferred format from your favourite retailer.

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