The Northern Pikes
finding their true inspiration
by Nova Herman
July 7, 2009
They're doing it by themselves.!
"It's kind of like starting over with a big hit star." That's how Jay Semko describes the current state of Saskatoon's Northern Pikes. Following EMI's release of a Northern Pikes "Greatest Hits" album last year, the Pikes are back together, touring, and riding the success of their own new independent album, Truest Inspiration.
The Northern Pikes started playing together in 1984. After releasing two independent albums, they signed a major label deal in December of 1986. The group spawned many successful singles including "Teenland", "She Ain't Pretty", and "Kiss Me You Fool" before going their separate ways in 1994.
Discussions about reuniting for a tour were sparked when EMI first contacted the Pikes with the decision to release the Greatest Hits album. The Pikes happily headed out on the road, having fun and promoting the album, but they soon grew tired of "playing the Grand-dad circuit doing oldies. We toured because the Greatest Hits was out, and it seemed like a good idea. But after a while we thought, if we're gonna do this, let's record something new and try and be a current group with something new out and not just a band from a number of years ago." The fruit of their labours, Truest Inspiration, was released on January 30, 2001. Recorded at Toronto's Rogue Studios, it is the Pikes' first recording of new material since 1992. But the album's real claim to fame is that the Pikes have done this one without a record deal. "It's our own thing. It's back to the independent world. We financed it ourselves and we're the masters of our own destiny at this point."
In support of their new CD, The Northern Pikes set out once again on a national tour. Building on their established reputation, the Pikes were able to make enough money to support their tour - and themselves - through playing. They hired a publicist, a radio tracker, and cut a deal with a distribution company to place the CDs in stores. Other than that, Jay boasts, they haven't sought assistance from anyone. "We've kept it self-contained, and feel proud of that we really wanted to keep this album to ourselves.
"Inspiring? No, Jay corrects me, expensive. But he admits they've learned to do more things on their own and become more resourceful. "I feel like I'm still learning a lot. I feel like because we got signed to a major record label, we missed the boat on a lot of things and even until this year didn't realize how much things cost and how things really worked sometimes. I mean, we knew it all along, we dealt with it, but until you really look at the nuts and bolts and do it yourself you don't really quite figure it out. Experience is the best teacher at the end of the day or experience is what you get when you didn't really get what you wanted...but yeah, we're doing it on our own.
"With all the celebration of the Pikes' independence, one has to wonder if the record company experience was all it promised the Pikes it would be. "The record company paid for a lot of things, but ultimately we paid for that, it all comes back at the end of the day through the band recouping. The record label has to recoup on sales before the band gets paid, and that's how it works. We really didn't make a lot of money...but they sure got us in people's faces and there's a lot of good things about being on a label. So I'm not a person that says labels are evil and don't ever get involved with them. I mean, they can do lots of things for you and if you are lucky enough to find the right one and some people that really have an understanding of what you are all about, and if you're smart yourself with regards to your own business, then I think there's lots of good things that can happen from there."
"Being an independent album, the cool thing is that we don't have the timetable that major labels have where it's 'okay, the album's out and we've got eight weeks, now let's get the single happening'. If a single happens, great, if not then okay we might do another single or we might go on to the next thing and see you later. We don't have to work on that schedule because it's our own thing." Jay adds they've found success with the two singles they've released off the album to date.
"I feel really good about the album - I feel it's quite an interesting album. It certainly goes a little bit all over the musical map, which I like, because I think it tends to give things a little more longevity as opposed to being all on one track. I think part of that is a result of the fact that everybody in the band writes."
Like so many great Saskatchewan artists, the Pike boys have always been influenced by the people and places that surround them. "A large percentage of the early songs I wrote were complaining about living here and wanting to get out. That was the inspiration for a lot of it. And then I got to a point where I realized it's really not something to complain about - it's kind of nice. We're able to be on our own here and have something that's a little bit unique, and not be influenced by anything that rolls through town...you can't help but be influenced by your surroundings, and now I really cherish the fact that we're from Saskatoon."
But do they sound like they're from Saskatchewan? Does Jay believe in a "distinct Saskatchewan sound"? "I think we're still developing that. I think it's still growing. If there is one unifying factor that creates what might be a Saskatchewan sound, it would be honesty...musical honesty, and honesty in the lyrics." He observes that there are a lot of references to land and climate. Yes, our topography does seem to creep into our souls whether we like it or not.
Jay reflects on being a young musician from the prairies. While he admits he didn't have access to things that people had in Montreal and Toronto, he recognizes that it was nice to be able to work out any kinks performing at home before meeting important record people. "The reality then was that you have to go to the big city, you have to go there and play, and that's where a lot of the music business is located; a lot of things take place there. But the world is a much smaller place now and you can do a lot more out of your own backyard than you ever could before. The regional barriers that existed when we began playing I think have been broken down quite a bit. Sure, if you are from a small town in Saskatchewan you can feel isolated and out of the loop, but really, having traveled across Canada, there's lots of small towns in every province, and there's lots of places where you feel like you're out of the loop. People tend to migrate to the big centers because that's where you tend to get noticed. You tend to become tougher out here, and sometimes you have to work a bit harder to get the audiences because there just aren't as many people."
Jay tried his hand at living in "big city Toronto", but he's happily back home now. "If I'm away for a long time, I really do miss the open space. There's something nice about just getting outside the city. Halfway between Saskatoon and Regina you can look around 360 degrees and see basically nothing but sky, and there's something that really works for me with that. I'm like everybody else and bitch about the weather; but that's part of the charm of it. It's a very unique place."
The members of The Northern Pikes have grown outside the boundaries of the band itself, and found much musical success. Don Schmid developed an independent project called the Non-Happeners, and put out an album, in between engineering and producing for other people in his own studio in Saskatoon. Bryan Potvin became an A & R record company guy, and stayed involved in what was happening musically, eventually releasing a solo album. Jay most notably composed for CTV's Due South, as well as releasing a solo project. Merl Bryck and Jay also played a few gigs together, forming the Blue Gills (who performed at the 1999 Flatland Music Festival) and then the Red Whales. Jay is quick to note they haven't abandoned the idea of resurrecting that band either. "The nice thing is that we are not tied to a contract and in a position where our lives have to revolve completely around the Northern Pikes. The options are available for us to do a lot of different things."
"I take it seriously in that I am serious about my music, but I don't live and die by the group like I once did. I sort of go, 'well, this is a fun thing, and I enjoy doing it, and I think we make some good music together, and that's a cool thing.' We're doing it at our pace, on our terms, and from that point of view, it's very liberating."
Jay Semko and The Northern Pikes are headlining Saturday night at the Flatland Music Festival in Regina's Victoria Park. It is a gig that Jay looks forward to attending both as a performer and as a guest. "I like the fact that I can get there early and see a number of other interesting acts that are homegrown here. It's quite a cool thing, and it really makes you appreciate how good the music is from Saskatchewan."