Innerviews, music without borders

Jay Semko
Embracing Freedom
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2009 Anil Prasad.

Jay Semko

It’s safe to say Jay Semko has never been more comfortable in his skin. Twenty-five years into his career, he’s firmly established as one of Canada’s premiere singer-songwriters, as well as a renowned film and television soundtrack composer. He’s also successfully escaped the demons of addiction and is enjoying life clean, sober and more productive than ever.

Semko is best known as the primary vocalist, songwriter and bassist of The Northern Pikes, one of the best-selling Canadian rock acts of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Also featuring guitarist-vocalists Merl Bryck and Bryan Potvin, and drummer Don Schmid, the band racked up gold and platinum records during its initial incarnation from 1983 to 1993. It also enjoyed major hit singles like “Teenland,” “Things I Do for Money,” “She Ain’t Pretty,” and “Girl with a Problem” that continue to resonate with listeners today. The group reunited in 2000, released three more albums independently and continues to this day as a part-time entity. Semko has also garnered significant attention as one of the composers for Due South, a hugely popular Canadian TV series that also received high ratings in America.

Currently, Semko’s core focus is his solo career. He recently released International Superstar, his fifth solo album—one that offers a departure from the rock and pop direction of his previous studio work. It’s a rootsy, country-flavored album that resulted from a couple of trips to Nashville, Tennessee to explore co-writing possibilities with members of the city’s singular community of songwriters. Prior to the experience, Semko was solely responsible for most of the lyrics and music in his projects, so it was a refreshing break that enabled him to explore new themes and directions. The journeys helped revitalize his creative spirit and spurred him to make a unique and engaging album that pleasantly caught a lot of long-time listeners by surprise.

Semko is already hard at work on his next solo disc. He took time from his busy schedule to provide a deep look at the making of International Superstar, the evolution of his solo career, as well as his perspectives on The Northern Pikes’ history and future outlook.

Let’s take a chronological approach to discussing your solo albums, starting with Mouse from 1995. Take me behind the scenes of that record.

Mouse was never intended to be an album. When The Pikes broke up and we finished with Virgin, we hadn’t completed our six-album deal. The deal they made with us as we broke up was “We’ll give each of you as an ex-member of The Pikes a small budget to do demos for solo records. In return, we’ll get first dibs on any solo stuff that comes out, and you will also assume your part of the debt previously accrued from the band.” It was a catch-22 and a typical music business thing. Three of us did demos. EMI at that point was becoming prominent in the world of Virgin and they went from being Virgin/A&M to Virgin/EMI. That happened around the time The Pikes put out Neptune. To be honest, EMI didn’t care about us. So Virgin didn’t pick up my solo album, but at the end of the day, I had five songs I recorded with this demo budget and I thought “I’m not going to waste these. I feel really lucky that I’m in a position that I can record songs and have someone else pay for them.” I took those songs, enhanced and fixed them, and then recorded another five songs live off the floor in two days. It went so well that I wondered why I hadn’t done all of the songs that way. Things can get too clinical when you’re overdubbing things to get them exactly right. So Mouse is a combination of those tracks and it turned into my first solo record.

Jay Semko

It was 11 years until your next solo CD, Redberry, from 2006. Why did it take so long between albums?

Redberry was a bit of a cleanup album for me. I’ve always been writing music, but a lot of it has been TV music in recent times. After I did Mouse, I concentrated on that stuff, as well as voiceover work. A lot of it was about paying the bills. I hadn’t done a solo record in awhile and hadn’t really thought about it. We did a couple of Pikes records in 2001 and 2004, both of which I really like. And in 2005, a friend of mine named Marshall Ward, a filmmaker who gets grants to do great indie documentaries, got in touch. He wanted to do a documentary about a song from inception through recording and wanted to come to Saskatoon to film me for it. My friend Ross Nykiforuk, the keyboard player in The Pikes, has a studio there called Cosmic Pad, which is where we did it. We shot it over a weekend. It featured me working on a song called “Love Will Set You Free.” I did the track with Ross and had my niece Brianna come in and sing a vocal part. They recorded the sessions, did some interviews and chronicled the whole making-of process. I also put it out as the title track of an EP. It got my wheels turning. I thought “Maybe I should do another solo record.” The Pikes were in semi-hibernation, so I went ahead.

When I said “cleanup album,” what I meant is that I had a number of songs collected from over the years. I thought Redberry was a good opportunity to put them together. So I went back and investigated the vault. A couple of them were co-writes with one of my friends and co-composers from Due South named Jack Lenz. We ended up reinvestigating them, enhancing them and putting them out. They were both written for an episode of Due South that was going to be a musical much in the style of the show Cop Rock. The executive producer was all for it, but it was towards the end of the show’s run and they decided it cost too much to pursue. So that’s where “Juliette Is Bleeding” and “Saw an Angel” came from. The rest of the tunes were a mish-mash of stuff I had written over the years and some brand new things.

One of the interesting things about Redberry is that you didn’t play bass on it.

I decided I didn’t want to for that one. That’s because my biggest challenge as a bassist is when I write my own songs, I’m thinking like a guitarist or pianist, because I write on both instruments. But then it means it’s hard for me to come up with cool bass parts, because I’m so close to the tune as a songwriter. I can’t separate myself from that component, so I had my friend Skip Kutz come in to play bass on it. He’s a great upright and electric player. My friend Serena Ryder sang on it too. She’s fantastic and could be a mega-huge star someday.  Also, Warren Rutherford, a fantastic pedal steel player who worked with me on Mouse is on the record. Once we finished the album, I went ahead and put it out independently on my own label Smoothwater. It got some airplay and reviews, but I discovered being a one-man label isn’t my strength. It’s being a writer and creative person.

You weren’t quite done with the one-man label world given that you followed Redberry up with two more records on Smoothwater.

True. I did a Christmas CD called Merry Christmas in 2006 just because I wanted to. I was going to write a bunch Christmas songs for it. In fact, I co-wrote one for an episode of Due South called “Santa Drives a Pickup Truck” that came out on a charity EP. I thought I should do a funny album of Christmas songs and started going down that road, but then decided I’m just not into that. I went and Googled a lot of traditional Christmas carols, and realized that whether you like them or not, they just stick in your head. Their melodies are really, really good. If a song has lasted 200 years, there’s something that must be working about it. So I went back and did all traditional carols. It resulted from investigating the history of these songs and realizing that many were mutations of other songs or classical pieces in which they would inject Christmas-themed lyrics. I chose to do it old school by using the oldest texts of the lyrics I could find. It was a fun project. I did it in three days. It was just me singing and playing acoustic guitar with just a couple of overdubs. I hope I get to do another album like that in which I just strip things down. There was something really pure about doing things that way.

Next up was your self-released Live at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum album from 2007. Why was it the right time for a live record?

The CBC had a show called Canada Live in which they record live gigs and play them on air. We were doing a triple bill for a couple of shows that year, one in Saskatoon and one in Regina, with my friends Kim Fontaine and David J. Taylor. Dave did a set, Kim did a set, and then I did a set. It was fun because I got to be just the bass player for Kim’s band. When I did my set, I switched over to guitar and she played bass for me. We recorded the Regina show for the CBC in a little theater, and it was a cool experience. It’s a true live album with no overdubs or anything. Like all live recordings, you wish you could re-sing some parts, but I didn’t. It is what it is. The CBC allows you to lease the tapes, so it was an inexpensive way for me to put out a good-sounding live record.

That brings us to 2008’s International Superstar, your first release on the Busted Flat label. Describe the journey that led to you creating the disc.

I went through a bunch of changes in recent years. There were a lot of personal things I had to deal with. I separated from my wife and I’m a recovering alcoholic. I struggled with that for a number of years. It was a little more than two years ago that I stopped that behavior, hopefully for good, but I’ve learned to take things one day at a time. It’s been a monkey on my back and it got to the point where it was interfering with life in a big way. So I went into a treatment center in November 2006 and spent 30 days there. It was an interesting experience. They let me bring my guitar, which was kind of cool. I started writing songs there, but a lot of them had a dark flavor. They were dealing with the immediate situation. It was blunt, soul-searching stuff. When I got out of there, I started thinking maybe I should make a record with these songs. I frittered around and didn’t do it. My main focus was sobriety coming out of the center. I was good for awhile and then relapsed. Things got worse than ever and the reality is I had to really hit a new low in which I was so desperate to stop drinking that I was willing to take whatever steps were required to make it happen. That’s what addiction is. I’ll never completely understand it, but I figured out some specific patterns I fall into and dealt with them. By the time I did that, I was feeling pretty good after a few months and wasn’t so bummed out anymore. My head was clear and I felt physically better than I had in a long time and thought “I don’t know if I want to go back there with those songs I wrote and deal with that stuff.”

Jay Semko

The result was that you chose to gain some fresh perspectives by visiting Nashville to pursue new songwriting ideas and collaborations.

Yeah. I have a couple of friends who’ve been down to Nashville and did some cool writing there. They said “You should really go down there. It’s really fun and will open your mind up to some new things.” I thought “Okay, let’s try this.” So I went down in December 2007 and had some songwriting sessions set up in which I worked with a bunch of people. It was a real domino effect in which I’d write a song with one person, and in turn I’d call up someone else and keep going and ended up with a bunch of songs in just two weeks. I enjoyed the trip and the creative vibe that was going on. There are so many people who do what I do there. It’s the first place I felt I really belonged in a long time. It was new, fun and challenging to work with people I just met.

I didn’t go with the intention of writing songs for a new record. I thought it was just something interesting to try out. I liked the process and came up with material that I thought maybe someone would want to cover. So I went back home over the Christmas season and soon felt I should go back down there because there were some other people I wanted to write with that I didn’t get a chance to get together with. I set up another week and came up with more songs and began thinking that these could be for an album. They were more country-sounding songs, and I found that an interesting direction to go with.

Outside of the obvious Nashville influence, what else made the new songs emerge within a country vein?

A lot of the co-writers I worked with that knew me in advance, knew me from The Northern Pikes and Due South. They had a certain picture of what I would be like musically, but they weren’t trying to make me go into any specific area. It was a direction that naturally emerged from the environment as you mentioned, but also because of the people I was working with. But there was no “Okay, this is a commercial country radio song that’s 2:55 long at this tempo” stuff going on. It wasn’t scientific. It was “Let’s have some fun and write some songs from scratch and see what happens.” I went with the flow and as a result the material had a real fresh quality to it.

True, the songs did end up being kind of country-sounding and that’s where I ultimately decided to take the album, but it was done a little tongue-in-cheek. A lot of the songs could have gone any way, arrangement-wise, but I thought I’d go where my headspace was when the songs were conceived. When I came back in January 2008 and decided to make an album, I chose to bring in some pedal steel playing for the album again, so the country component was a pretty organic thing that developed too. I made the album really quickly. It was recorded and mixed in three weeks. I went back to playing bass, used Charles Dumont on drums, Jay Buettner on guitar, as well as Kim Fontaine and Randy Woods. There were fewer guests than other records and it was a more straight-ahead project. It was also the first one I did in a long time that wasn’t based on songs I had written earlier. They were for the most part all brand new.

When my manager heard the project, he really liked what was going on and was in contact with the Busted Flat label in Ontario. It’s a roots label run by a real music lover named Mark Logan. It’s really growing and has good distribution. It’s been a happy experience. I have complete control over what’s going on artistically, and at the same time have support from the label.

Tell me how you got involved in Due South and how it expanded your composing horizons.

Working on Due South was the first thing I did after The Pikes broke up mid-1993. We recorded the Gig live album which was going to be released that fall and it was our last release during that first period of the band. I was in a weird state of mind. I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do. So I went back to Saskatoon and got a call from Don, The Pikes’ drummer and one of my best friends. He told me somebody at the Feldman Agency in Vancouver called him. The agent said they were doing a pilot movie and were interested in having The Pikes possibly write a theme song tor it. I talked to the guys and nobody was interested. We were at the point where nobody wanted to hang out with each other with the band splitting up. When you go through any relationship that breaks up, you get into a situation where you need time apart, even if you remain friends. So Don gave me the number and I spoke to them. They described the storyline and as we spoke, I started writing what became the Due South theme song in my head. I got off the phone, spent another 20 minutes on it, hummed it into a tape recorder, strummed it on my guitar, and it was done. Sometimes it takes 10 years to write a song, and sometimes it takes 20 minutes. [laughs]

By fluke, Bryan Potvin was in town in Saskatoon and Don and Ross Nykiforuk were in the vicinity, so I said “Do you want to play on this track?” They came down and I paid them for it, which was unusual, but at the time, everyone needed money and I didn’t want them to think I was taking them for granted. We recorded and mixed the track, sent it off to Paul Haggis, the show’s producer and creator, and he loved it. He then said “We’d like you to do a demo of something that could be used as the score music.” They sent me a videotape with little pieces of the pilot. A lot of it was scenes from the Yukon. I was unknowledgeable about the scoring universe. I didn’t know anything about SMPTE time code or any of that stuff—things I’m obviously well-versed in now. So I did a quick recording with acoustic guitar, accordion and harmonica set to the scenes and sent it over. It was really organic stuff and they thought it was cool and wanted me to continue.

I was really hesitant to commit. I was burned out. My dials had been turned to 10 for a long time and I wanted to do nothing but work in the back garden and spend time with my wife and little kid. But I got called a number of times by the agent who said they really wanted me to come to Toronto and meet everyone from the show. I finally said “Okay, I’ll go and see what it’s all about.” I showed up at the meeting and everyone was there—a whole platoon of people involved in creating this pilot. They were spotting the pilot movie and deciding where to put the music and what vibe it needed.

I was totally green and didn’t know anything about this world, but I got through with the meeting and then went over to John McCarthy’s house to talk about things and throw ideas around. He was one of the other composers on the project. I was a bit of a Forrest Gump in the situation, but I knew I had good raw instincts. John, myself and Jack Lenz, another Due South composer, got to know each other and tackled the music. We did a first draft for the pilot, and went back and re-did some of the cues after they made some more edits to the picture. After that, the movie sat in the can for a few months, and then aired March 1994 on CBS. It got really good ratings and a go-ahead for the full series to commence. They asked me to be a part of it, I said yes, and away we went. We got through the first and second seasons, and then there was a year off in which it didn’t look like the show would continue. So John moved to Los Angeles to pursue other things. Then the show started up again, so Jack and I did the last 26 episodes together. As a result of doing Due South, I was given the opportunity to score quite a few other television movies and documentaries.

The hardest part of working on Due South was getting out of the world of pop music in which everything was in twos, fours, eights, and 16s. With a show like Due South, you have to work with quick cuts and changes, and ensure the music works seamlessly. It all has to make sense, even when you switch to an action or chase scene. I learned a lot from John and Jack. Also, Paul Haggis is one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with. He’s super-talented and has gone to the top of the Hollywood universe, and I can see why. He’s a perfectionist and put us through our paces, but he was always pretty respectful and genuinely happy to express his enthusiasm when we did good stuff.

The Northern Pikes

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the release of The Pikes’ Secrets of the Alibi. How do you look back at the album?

That was the second record we did with Virgin. We were always a band that did lots of demos. With our first album Big Blue Sky, we must have demoed almost 100 songs from which we chose the best ones. With the second album, we went down the same road. We had lots of songs in the wings that we went back to and worked on. We spent four or five weeks working at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York, where we did the majority of tracking, and then finished it at Le Studio in Morin Heights, north of Montreal.

The album was a reaction to Big Blue Sky which was put together piece-by-piece with a lot of overdubs. It was a bit weird because we were a good live band that achieved the record deal on the strength of our songs and demos. The reason Big Blue Sky went that way is because we made it in a whole bunch of different studios. We had to make it really quickly after we signed the deal just before Christmas 1986. The record started right after New Year’s 1987 and the studios we were working in had booking issues—places like Metalworks in Mississauga and Grant Avenue in Hamilton. So we had to share time and work by doing a week here, a day there, and a half-day elsewhere. When it came time to do Secrets, we said “We don’t want to do another record that way again. We want to play like a real band again.” So Secrets started out as an off-the-floor recording and then we fixed things if they needed fixing. As a result, it had a lot more of a live feeling to it.

We weren’t at the studio for the mixes of the last three songs because the label set up a video shoot for the first single “Wait For Me” in Toronto. We were so burned out. We had been up for several days straight, yet we had to be in top form for the video. I can barely remember anything about the video. Afterwards, we heard the final mixes and they sounded pretty good, so we wrapped the album up. I flew home to Saskatoon and did nothing. It’s funny. You work so bloody hard for months in a row and then suddenly you have two months of nothing. That was a pattern we experienced during the first couple of albums. The post-album period is the only part where you have a chance to chill out.

We didn’t get that much of a breather during the Snow in June period and it had a negative effect. Shortly after it was recorded, we were in Los Angeles trying to get the American side of things going after getting dropped from the U.S. label. We shopped around for another deal, which eventually came through. So after we toured the hell out of Canada, we ended up touring the hell out of the States. It was released there right after the record had run its course back home, which meant all the U.S. stuff happened back-to-back after the Canadian activity. We were going non-stop for three years and in retrospect, we should have taken a break somewhere in the middle of it to stay sane.

There was a significant change in sound for the band between 1990’s Snow in June and 1992’s Neptune. Neptune was less cohesive and proved to be The Pikes’ last studio album before breaking up. Describe the circumstances of its creation.

With Neptune, suddenly we were thrust into the era of the compact disc. We always thought about vinyl up to Snow in June. It was old school thinking—you know, “How many songs can we fit on a side?” That contributed to what you mentioned. But the reality also was after ending our Snow in June tour in the United States, we parted ways with our management and didn’t replace them with new management. We tried to do everything ourselves and rely on the label to assist us. That was a mistake. We had too many irons in the fire to do it ourselves. We ended up being a ship without a rudder. We decided to do a new record, but the trouble was we did too many songs. Just because you can put 15-16 songs on a CD doesn’t mean you should. If it had been 10-11 songs, it would have made more sense. But we tried to do everything and do it fast. Neptune was completed in a span of two months—shorter than any record we had ever done before. A lot of that was driven by the availability of Bob Ludwig, the mastering engineer. He was only available at a certain time, so it gave us a hard deadline to work with. Unfortunately, we bit off more than we could chew, but there are some cool moments on the record.

I regret that we didn’t do a fifth record after that, because I think if nothing else, we would have exploded into the atmosphere, career-wise and personality-wise. [laughs] One way or another, the whole thing would have blown up in our faces, but it could have been brilliant from an artistic point of view. Sometimes when those conflicts occur, some cool music happens that never would have happened any other way. And at that point, The Pikes were in a state of conflict. We weren’t getting along, even though we’ve known each other since we were kids and are all best friends. The problem was we were burned out. We didn’t take breaks. The Snow in June tour lasted three years straight and we went right into making Neptune after that. Combine that with not replacing our management, and it created a lot of tension in what was historically a very democratic band. We needed somebody to take the reins and say “This is what I think about this.”

I’m an easygoing guy and always encouraged everybody in the band to write songs and sing. For the first two records, it was down to me doing most of it. I had to write a lot of songs and felt a lot of pressure. But it was a great thing when other people contributed in that way. It was really quite democratic and we tried to keep things very fair, including the business stuff. If you’re going to be a band, be a band. If you’re going to be a solo artist, be a solo artist.  However, even as a solo artist, I don’t like to restrict people. I’m often happy to hear somebody’s idea when I’m doing my own recordings, but if there’s something I really want, I’m going to ask for it. With The Pikes, it was a case of if it was your own song, it then became a band song. It mutated into a group thing, which is why you can’t emulate a group as a solo artist. You're typically missing that creative group friction.

Tell me how The Pikes ended up reuniting in 2000.

We regrouped because EMI put out a greatest hits record called Hits and Assorted Secrets. We thought “Let’s go and do a little tour for fun. This is a good excuse.” We hadn’t all been in the same room together in six years, so we did it and it was a lot of fun. We forgot how great it was to get out there and play. It didn’t stop after that. We kept playing off and on and did a few records, but to be honest, since we got together, we haven’t committed 100 percent to The Pikes. We can’t say “This is all we’re going to do.” I don’t think anybody wants to do that. We’re still scarred from our previous experiences of putting all our eggs in one basket. Let’s face it, we’ve all gotten older too and everyone has expanded to do other things. Don lives in Northern Saskatchewan where he and his wife do photography and he runs a video editing company. Bryan is in Toronto and works for Mercury Mobility, a cell phone company based in Australia. His job is to deal with publishers and record labels for their ringtone division. It’s funny, he used to work for another company with the same name, Mercury Records, as an A&R guy before that. The music business ended up being his thing. He still writes music, but his focus is his work. As for Merl, we haven’t played with him for most of the last three years. He got tired of it and said “To be honest, guys, I’m sick of playing live and don’t want to record anymore.”

So Merl isn’t in The Pikes anymore?

He’s not really not in The Pikes. [laughs] One thing we learned from the first experience of breaking up is never say never. Merl hasn’t been playing with us for awhile, so Ross Nykiforuk has been our fourth guy. For many years, he was the fifth Pike anyway. So we’re working as a four-piece with Don, Bryan, Ross, and myself. Merl came back and played with us last September at a 30th anniversary concert for Virgin Records in Toronto. So we’re all still friends and the future is still open to possibilities.

Jay Semko

In 2007, The Pikes and actor-singer Les Stroud got together to record a collaborative EP titled Long Walk Home. How did that opportunity come about?

What happened was I started watching his show Survivorman and I loved it. I turned the guys in the band on to it and they started watching too. Bryan really got into it and noticed that Les was going to be at a sportsman show in Mississauga. So we went down there and Les was in a booth promoting the show. This was the early days of Survivorman. The show has gone on to be huge, but back then it was still struggling, airing on the Outdoor Life Network. He was there trying to hype the show. We went up to him and talked to him. Les had his guitar and harmonica there. He’s a super-exuberant guy. He was a Pikes fan and when he learned who we were, he went “Let’s pick up the guitar and jam, man!” And we did. It was weird at first and then kind of fun. Afterwards, he said “Let’s get together and work on some music.” So we set up a couple of writing sessions, worked on a bunch of songs and then chose to record them at Cosmic Pad in Saskatoon. The band was Don, Bryan, Ross, myself, and Les. He’s a good guitarist and a great harmonica player.  He’s from a different school which might be described as busking folk with a campfire vibe, but he’s got pretty good instincts. We put down six tunes and he pressed up a thousand discs. The reality is Les is really busy. We talk every few months and he wants to get a full record out at some point and do this on a big scale, with a full tour. But he’s traveling all over the world, working on his really successful show. We’ve done a few shows with him as a special guest and it’s always really fun. So, we’ll see what happens. I’m hoping we continue working together.

Several archival Pikes projects have been discussed during the last few years, including a compilation of recent tunes titled Beautiful Music; CD reissues of the first two independent albums from 1985, Scene in North America and The Northern Pikes; and a DVD of all of the band’s videos. What’s happening with these releases?

The DVD is in limbo. EMI is in control of that. We want to have it released. We did 13 concept videos and a few live ones. We’ll keep pestering them and hopefully they’ll put it out at some point. Some of the videos are really cool and others don’t stand the test of time. The videos are available on YouTube, but it would be nice to have the real thing out at some point. As for Beautiful Music, that was going to be a reissue of It’s a Good Life and Truest Inspiration as a double album, possibly with a DVD. There were some record label problems with Truest Inspiration and we got the rights back to it, so we thought we’d make all of this material available again, but it got complicated from a business point of view, so nothing is happening with it at the moment. I still want to put out the original LPs on CD. I found the master tapes and they should fit onto one CD. There are about 14 tunes between them. We had the release all planned out, but everybody got busy. We hope to get it done at some point in the future.

Another project I want to continue with is putting together an album of female singers doing Pikes covers. We’ve done a few of these already. Our publisher was interested in having the song “Girl with a Problem” in a big American show and wanted a female singer to do it, so we had Serena Ryder do it. She was great and recorded a cool version at Bryan’s studio that was a lot sadder and alt-country sounding. It got the wheels rolling. Since then, a band called Drowning Girl recorded a version of “Teenland” with Carolyn Mark on vocals. There’s also a band from Edmonton called screwtapeLewis that covered “Things I Do for Money” with vocals by Kristy Thirsk, who played in a band called The Rose Chronicles. I’m hoping this album comes together soon. We now have most of our own publishing back for our songs, and I’m close to getting it all back. What that means is we can do whatever we want with our catalog. Getting this project out there is an example of something cool we can do with that freedom.

Contrast the output and attitude of The Pikes since reuniting to the group’s first incarnation.

Times have changed, even though the mix of Truest Inspiration was a little ‘90s-oriented. James Paul, the producer, studied our earlier stuff and wanted to catch the vibe of what was going on back then. It’s a weird album in some ways. It’s very moody, but there’s some cool stuff on it. It was the first album we did after not being around each other for awhile. We spent three months working on it and experimented quite a bit to get where we did. It’s a Good Life was done really quickly in five weeks. We were pretty clear-headed and didn’t think too much about it when making it. It has some good pop stuff, which is what the band first did when we started. Truest Inspiration is a little more all over the place.

When we made the band’s first four albums, we were on a major label and had big recording and promotional budgets. As guys from a little town in the middle of nowhere, we were very conscious of money being spent on us. We felt a lot of pressure to come through with things, so there were some battles about creativity in terms of what we wanted to do sometimes. But for the most part, we had great creative freedom and weren’t manipulated or turned into something we didn’t want to be. I admit we did look a bit cheesy in some of the videos though. [laughs]

More than anything, the difference between the two phases is we don’t have the big pressure on us now. When we do a record, we do it for pleasure and fun. At the same time, who wouldn’t want to have a song that gets popular or gets you back to a higher level of notoriety? But the music is very much done out of love now. I don’t have commercial aspirations. In 1987, yeah, we wanted to be the next Beatles. We had that competitive streak—in a friendly way—that every young band has. You want to hit the top and get the charts happening. Now, we don’t care that much. We had some good moments with that, and today, if we can just make music we feel happy with that other people can appreciate, we’re cool. I would really like to do another Pikes record—or with some mutation of The Pikes—because I enjoy working with those guys. There’s still a real pleasure in working together creatively. These days, we have a lot more fun. We’re not shackled to things financially. Now, we can go and play a gig or do a mini-tour and at the end walk away with a check and a feeling of “Oh, wow.” [laughs] That never happened in our first 20 years. We never made any money. I mean, we never saw anything. It was just the nature of the beast.

I don’t have unrealistic expectations about The Pikes or anything else, but I’m also open to any possibilities that may arrive. I simply have to keep making new music. The periods when I stopped doing that resulted in a lot of personal difficulties for me. Music is a big part of who I am and I have a deep desire and need to express myself through all of these different avenues we’ve spoken about. That’s where I’m at these days.