‘This is the only life we know:’ Q&A with Blue Rodeo’s Bazil Donovan
Longtime bassist of Canadian country-rock royalty has a special place in his heart for Halifax
February 25, 2017, 10:58 am ADT Last Updated: February 25, 2017, 10:58 am ADT
Bazil Donovan is an original member and bass player of Canadian country-rock legends Blue Rodeo. The band is playing Saturday night at the Scotiabank Centre, promoting its 15th studio album 1000 Arms.
Donovan joined The Signal for an interview and spoke about the personal importance of playing in Halifax, the past and future of Blue Rodeo, and how the music industry has changed since the band first started out in the mid-’80s.
Next month is the 30th anniversary of your debut album Outskirts. How special is this anniversary to you as an original member?
“Certainly it is a big milestone. I mean, prior to that I was a musician eking out a living playing bars and I didn’t really have a record out. Back then, to be able to play on a record was a pretty special thing because before the time of CDs there’s only a few bands in Canada signed every year. It’s not like today. Today a band gets together and they make a CD and then they go out and get some gigs. Back then, there was a lot of work leading up to getting a record out. You had to be a popular bar band for a while and you had to make that leap into where you’re playing the university circuit doing really well. And then maybe a record company would come along and say ‘alright we’re gonna give you a shot at making a record, see if you can get on the radio.’ So it was a very special thing to actually get the confidence of Warner Brothers saying ‘OK, we’re gonna send you into the studio to make a record and see how you do,’ and lo and behold we ended up having a hit with our first record. So, to me it was the start of everything that has been my life ever since.”
What keeps things interesting for you as a performer after all these years?
“I think the fact that every night when you’re on stage it’s a different night, and anything can happen. Things can go wrong, things can go right. Basically you’re out there playing new songs, and for me I’m quite excited about our new album so it’s nice to get out and play those new songs. And of course, we’re also very aware of the fact that the people coming, they don’t just want to hear the new ones, they want to hear the old ones too. A lot of times playing those old ones, it’s really satisfying because they’re great songs and we have to find ways of re-inventing them every now and then.”
Do you re-invent them to keep them fresh or is it a natural evolution?
“It kind of evolves on its own. It’s not something we sit down and talk about. A song will just morph into something else, you know. We’ll start playing it a little faster and add little parts in, not really realizing we’re doing it. We’ll listen back sometimes to a recording from years ago and go, ‘Wow has that song ever changed over the years.’ It’s not something we ever sat down and talked about, it’s just from night to night playing it, things evolve. You start to put certain shots in certain places, or maybe someone drops out by accident one night and you realize it’s a good idea. That happened to us in Lost Together. We had Ron Sexmith sitting in with us one night on piano, and there’s a part in Lost Together where we all come down and there’s just silence. Well, Ron didn’t know about the silence so he just kept plumping away on the piano. So that became the part, and then from there we build on that and really change the whole arrangement of the song. So stuff like that happens.”
Since Halifax is your place of birth, how special are these shows to you personally?
“I love playing Halifax; it’s a home to me. I grew up in Toronto but my parents met in Halifax. My mom’s from Cape Breton and my dad’s from P.E.I. My dad was in the navy stationed in Halifax, so when I was born they decided to move reluctantly to Ontario because there was not very much work in Halifax. And most of my other relatives stayed there, so I still have a huge family network in Halifax. It’s very much a home to me. My dad grew up in Dartmouth so to me it’s a very special place.”
As a performer, how does Halifax compare to other cities across Canada?
“Halifax is great. The one thing you know about Halifax is the people are up and they’re with you right off the first note. They’re a great crowd, they’re up and they’re involved. They really like to partake in the show.”
How do you feel about the current state of Canadian music compared to when Blue Rodeo was first starting out?
“Well, I mean there’s always going to be good things happening in the Canadian music scene. There’s more players in it now, that’s for sure. There’s definitely a lot more going on. When we first started, there was a couple record labels and they would all sign one band each. So you know, there would be about six competing bands in Canada. And nowadays there’s so many records being made in Toronto and in Vancouver, and all over the country. You got Joel Plaskett in Halifax making great records. It happens everywhere now. You know, Calgary, Winnipeg, everywhere there’s people churning out great music.”
Is there anything missing you would like to see come back?
“I don’t think that the coverage of it is as good as it was. I really long for the day when Much Music started and they used to be at the street level interviewing bands that were playing. When we started we were very lucky to be a part of a very vibrant scene that was very well documented. I kind of long for those days when I could turn on the TV and watch a show like The New Music and see and hear about all of these different bands, not just locally but internationally. They would have a band on from Toronto and they’d talk about them, and the next interview would be The Clash. It was a great time for music, and I know that there’s AUX and a few things out there, but I really think there’s room for someone to pick up that ball and just to document it a little better. I think there’s a lot of great bands out there, and I think there’s really good songwriting. It’s a healthy scene.”
Do you think it is easier or harder to find inspiration for songs now that the band has gotten older?
“The songs are still coming, for sure. Definitely the songs change. I find that when you’re young and full of ideas and, you know as they say ‘piss and vinegar,’ it’s easy to be very passionate about a certain topic. You can kind of wrap yourself into something and go ‘I’m going for this.’ As you get older, I think it’s harder to become that committed. Sometimes the naive aspect of it can really go a long way. A band like The Clash, for example, would not have been nearly as exciting if they didn’t have things to complain about, and a lot of the times some of the stuff they’d complain about was laughable. Even still, they still knew how to complain about it and it was good. So, I think it’s harder for writers as they get older to be really passionate about certain issues because I think they tend to think well there’s two sides to every story, and it mellows them a bit. It still doesn’t stop you from writing songs.”
Now that Blue Rodeo is 15 albums in, what do you think the future holds for the band?
“This is what we do, right. This is the only life we know. As long as we can keep playing, we’ll probably be playing. We’re going to take some time off, and we’ll probably regroup in a year or so. We’ll do some shows in between, we’ll do summer festivals and that, and then after that there will be a downtime when we go our separate ways and have some fun with life. And then we’ll probably get back together and make another record if the stars line up. When you’re doing it as long as we have, there’s no reason to stop, there’s no reason to quit it. It becomes second nature, it’s just something where you just kind of go ‘oh, it must be almost time to go across the country again.’ You know, every two years we go to Europe for a little run. Those are the things you just kind of get used to. We have our own studio so we would always be recording music, and if we had to put it out ourselves we would. We’ll be recording until we’re finished.”
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.