Interview: Blue Rodeo
Iconic Canadian country rock band Blue Rodeo released their fifteenth studio album in late 2016. I had the privilege of speaking with drummer Glenn Milchem over the phone prior to Christmas, to discuss the new album, their upcoming tour and the legacy that Blue Rodeo has created.
You guys just released your 15th studio album, so first of all, congratulations! After all this time, what experiences were different about recording 1000 Arms compared to previous albums? Do you guys tend to stick with what you know, or experiment, or take a hybrid approach where you incorporate both?
We tend to stick with what we know. In this case of this record, when we started rehearsing tunes for it, which was several months before we started recording, Gregg was talking about wanting to do a power pop record. He was writing songs that were inspired by late 70’s power pop bands, like early Elvis Costello, people like that. When we were initially rehearsing, it was going to be like that. We were talking about a lot of electric guitars, possibly some synths, things like that. It’s usually Gregg that has these concepts. With Five Days in May, I recall it being Jim’s idea to do more of an acoustic record, but often Gregg will start with a batch of songs and think oh, I wanna go in this direction. It started out as going to be a power pop record, but then when we actually started recording, Gregg said “I really wanna hear the sound of wood, and more acoustic instruments,” and I sort of thought, “Oh, you mean like every other Blue Rodeo record?” So we did eventually go to what is familiar for us, which is kind of what we always do. So often we’ll have a song, and this happens a lot with Gregg - Jim tends to be a lot more straightforward in his approach to writing and arranging - but Gregg will often want to try like, a soul/R&B approach, but eventually we always end up gravitating to country rock, which is kind of what we do best. There’s been many times when we’ve kind of stretched out away from that or tried other things, but it’s what we always come back to, like a comfortable pair of slippers. But having said that, because there was this intention at the beginning to be a power pop record, the record ended up being a little more energetic and up-tempo than the last few have been.
2017 will be a pretty big year for you guys, as you have a full Canadian tour booked and even play two nights in select cities. Does touring ever get old, or does touring on a new album make it feel refreshed and new?
I always enjoy touring, and it doesn’t get old for me - I look forward to it. I think we’re all really enjoying playing this new material, it’s fun to play live and it works well with the stuff we’re doing. I find it enjoyable. Gregg has some challenges, he’s diabetic and so I think touring can be wearing on him, but I think he still enjoys it. I know he enjoys the Canadian tours because they’re cushy, for one thing. We’re on a nice tour bus, we stay in nice hotels, we’re playing nice venues, things like that. We just did a tour of the States, and that’s a little more challenging for him in particular. We’re playing smaller venues, we don’t stay in hotels as often, that sort of thing. Because some of the guys in the band are older and dealing with physical challenges, touring isn’t party time anymore. But having said that, as far as playing and the actual act of touring, hitting the road and playing all these fabulous places- it’s fantastic. These Canadian tours are really enjoyable, and how could they not be? We’re playing beautiful venues in front of appreciative audiences. It really is kind of living the dream when you’re doing that.
I read that in 1991, Jim called you to audition for the band. What was your initial reaction? Can you recall the day of the call and the audition?
I can actually remember that really well. It was actually 25 years ago this month, almost to the day, I think. I first got a call from Andrew Cash was a singer-songwriter who was on Island Records and actually subsequently became a member of parliament. He was a great guy, and Jim called him saying, “Look, do you mind if we audition Glenn? We’re looking for a drummer,” and Andrew said he didn’t mind because he was like I said, in between record deals. So Andrew called me up and said, “Glenn, I think your ship has come in.” Then I got the call from Jim, and I went and auditioned and it went well, then I recorded Lost Together and became a member of the band. It was thrilling. Up to that point, it was one day chicken, next day feathers, as they say. Sometimes you’d be working and everything would be fine, and sometimes you’d be waiting for the phone to ring. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve got this steady gig, and at the time I couldn’t imagine it lasting as long as it has, I feel incredibly lucky.
You’ve personally worked on some other projects as well, such as The Swallows and Starvin Hungry, which definitely are different than Blue Rodeo. What sparked your interest for these projects, and how was the experience to record and perform in bands that fall into a different genre than country rock?
I still do that. When I started out playing I wasn’t playing country rock at all, I started out playing in the early 80’s, so a lot of post-punk bands, and artier type things. I played in funk bands, jazz-influenced bands... I’ve never been a musician that’s like, “I play this genre.” I’ve always played in a lot of different genres. I’ve always liked rock music, and I still play in a lot of different bands. I’m playing in an R&B band, I play in a post-punk band, I just played in a blues band last week... I’m gonna do a full metal recording tomorrow with a guy called Ian Blurton who used to be in Change of Heart and is now with a band called Public Animal, and he’s doing a metal project that I’m gonna be recording. I’m always doing different stuff. The more variety there is, the better for me. I love playing hard rock, I love playing softer music, I love playing everything. I’m a musician, it’s what I do. I just wanna keep busy and play all the time. Blue Rodeo is fantastic, but we have lots of downtime these days, so I need to keep working and doing other stuff so that’s what I’ve always done.
Blue Rodeo has, for the most part, kept a fairly consistent lineup through the years. How would you describe the bond that the band members have?
Since I’ve joined, there’s been four of us who have remained consistent for 25 years now. The band’s been around for 31 years, so there’s three original members, Bazil, Jimmy, and Gregg. The band is based around Jim and Gregg and their voices and writing. They have a pretty extraordinary bond that goes back to when they were teenagers - I think they were 15 or something when they met. They became pretty fast friends. It’s been a good 45 years that those guys have been together as friends and musical partners. A lot of their bond is based on their sense of humour. They’re really funny guys - their sense of humour can be a little dark, but they kind of find refuge in each other. They get each other and understand each other in a way that they value, and they’ve also built this incredible thing together. That relationship is the foundation of the band. Baz is just this rock of a guy, especially when it comes to music. He’s always looked at being in Blue Rodeo as something he’s in for the long haul, even though I’ve seen him many times have doubts about whether or not he can go on, but he always does. He and I are pretty good pals, and we’ve been playing together for a long time. The four of us have been through a lot together - ups and downs. When you play with somebody for that long and you share all these experiences, you just can’t help but have love for each other. Even though you have your differences - we’re all very different people in a lot of ways - it works, and it works as a band and as a creative unit. It’s something I treasure. It’s like a marriage, you always have to work on it, you can’t take it for granted, you’ve got to think about how you’re treating each other and how everyone’s feeling and be sensitive and aware, just like in any other relationship.
While you guys show no signs of stopping, what do you have to say for the legacy that Blue Rodeo has created so far, especially in the Canadian scene?
First of all, I think Jim and Gregg have written a lot of iconic songs, that are the foundation of our legacy, and I’m proud to be part of that. I think a lot of it is about the songs. I feel like I’ve had a part in the legacy in that I’ve done my bit to keep the band going and keep it together and keep evolving, but really the legacy comes from the songs that those guys wrote and the way those songs resonate with Canadians in particular. They capture a unique part of the Canadian experience, a lot like The Tragically Hip have as well. The way that Gord Downie writes these lyrics that relate to the Canadian experience and resonate with Canadians, and I think that Blue Rodeo has done that too. Every time we play “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet” and Greg sings that line: “Out in the middle of Lake Ontario,” it doesn’t matter where we are - we could be down in Nashville - and people will cheer. Because first of all, most of the people there are from Canada, but also because there’s just a recognition there. Like, that speaks to me. I stood on the shores of Lake Ontario, and felt a connection. It’s a very uniquely Canadian experience. I think that’s the legacy that we have given, is that we’ve provided something that resonates with the people of this country, and it does for other people too from different countries. We travel around and meet people that love our music, and that’s nice to know. We definitely feel that what we do resonates most with Canadians.
Blue Rodeo's fifteenth studio album, 1000 Arms, is available now through Warner Music Canada. Catch them this month on their 1000 Arms Tour later this month, which hits Calgary on January 21st and 22nd.