Northern Pikes’ Jay Semko Talks 30 Years of Big Blue Sky and New Material

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The Northern Pikes, augmented by musical pal Kevin Kane (Grapes of Wrath) are in the midst of a national tour in support of the release of a special 30th anniversary edition of the band’s debut album Big Blue Sky.

It’s always a wonderful occasion when one gets to celebrate a significant anniversary or milestone. Canadian rock band The Northern Pikes is in the midst of just such a celebration, as the band is currently touring cross country to support the release of a special 30th anniversary edition of their 1987 breakthrough major label debut album.

Big Blue Sky (Super Sized) was released in early October by Universal Music Canada on both a deluxe three-LP vinyl set or two-CD package. It contains not only a completely remastered rendition of the album itself, which was an instant hit, thanks to the singles Teenland and Things I Do For Money, as well as 10 previously unreleased tracks and a full live concert from the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, recorded in 1986.

Big Blue Sky put the band on the map, as founding members Jay Semko (bass/vocals), Bryan Potvin (guitar/vocals), drummer Don Schmid and former member Merl Bryck (who departed in 2006), would follow it up with Secrets of the Alibi in 1988  and then broke out on a massive level with Snow In June, which came out in 1990. That LP features the monster radio/video hits She Ain’t Pretty, Girl With A Problem, and Kiss Me You Fool. The Pikes would release one more studio album in the 1990s, Neptune in 1992, before talking a six-year hiatus, reforming around the time of the new millennium, and they have remained a consistent touring act ever since, also releasing two records, Truest Inspirations in 2001 and It’s A Good Life two years later.

Semko said it he and his bandmates have been impressed with the scope of the anniversary reissue project and their former label Universal’s enthusiasm for it right from the outset.

“It’s really cool what Universal has done. We have been pleasantly surprised, and they have been great, they really have. We could not have asked for anything more or anything better. It’s a very cool thing. If you had asked me 30 years ago do you think you will be going out to do a tour to support the re-release of this record I would have said ‘no, I can’t even fathom that,” he said, adding that in many ways, it was Universal’s idea to put together such an expansive three-LP, two-Cd package.

“We knew the anniversary for Big Blue Sky was coming and Bryan talked to someone he knew at Universal about a year ago and the person said, ‘yeah, we know about the anniversary. We’re thinking we should do a release to commemorate this.’ And then after speaking with them for a while they were the ones who asked us if we had some unreleased stuff. And we told them yeah, and that a lot of it was in their vaults, because it went from the original Virgin label, which got absorbed by EMI which got absorbed into Universal Music. We recorded a lot of stuff that wasn’t on any of our records, I am guessing anywhere from 70, 80 to 100 songs. And they were pretty good recordings that we just didn’t get on any of the records for one reason or another.”

The 10 songs included on the Big Blue Sky Unreleased were songs actually recorded prior to signing their record deal with Virgin. Another added bonus to the Big Blue Sky (Super-Sized) package is a live concert from 1986 at Toronto’s famed Horseshoe Tavern.

“It was found by Doug McClement from Comfort Sound [now Live Wire Remote Recorders] and he was sort of the go-to live recording guy in Canada for decades. And this was a number of years ago now, but Doug told Bryan that he had this old tape of us and asked if he wanted it because it was just taking up space. And Bryan kind of sat on them for a few years and then when it came time to do this anniversary project we decided to give them to Peter Moore, who is a mastering engineer who remastered the whole thing. He also remastered the original Big Blue Sky album and the unreleased tracks for the project as well,” Semko explained.

“He kind of cleaned up the tapes and did a great job on it. And it’s interesting because the Live at the Horseshoe 1986 LP happened about three months before we signed the record deal with Virgin. We were out there trying to show the world what we can do.”

The Northern Pikes have already completed the eastern Canadian swing of their Big Blue Sky (Super Sized) tour but begin in Western Canada later this month, starting Friday, Nov. 10 in Powell River. BC, then through Nanaimo, Campbell River, Courtenay, Victoria and Langley before heading to Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, with the tour wrapping up at The Broadway Theatre in their hometown of Saskatoon on Nov. 25.

The Northern Pikes: Bryan Potvin, Jay Semko, Don Schmid and Kevin Kane (Photo Credit: Joel Naphin)

“One of the cool things is we’ve added a fourth guy for the tour. We have been touring as a three piece for a number of years, just me, Don and Bryan, but now we’ve brought in Kevin Kane from The Grapes of Wrath to come in as the fourth member. And it was a natural fit. He did a record with Bryan as Kane and Potvin and they sometimes go out and play as a duo. I was actually the one who said we should bring a fourth on tour and that maybe we should talk to Kevin and see if he’s interested. And he was. He knew some of the songs already from playing with Bryan and he’s a super pro. He’s a great musician and great guy and it’s been a great fit,” Semko said, adding that as part of the tour, the band has incorporated a pretty cool and sophisticated audio-visual component to the live stage show.

“We have a person who is dedicated to running this video in behind the band. We have two screens that we travel with and sometimes we use those, or if the venue has a huge screen in behind we can use that. And we’re putting up a variety of stuff and a lot of it is archival footage. We have had a video camera since 1986 with the band, so we have all this great footage. And then some of the show is just these little artistic interpretations of the music and then we also have live cameras showing the band and stuff. So it’s pretty cool. And it changes a little bit every night. We’ve given the person running it some artistic licence to make it a little different and unexpected each night.

“And for the show itself, if you haven’t already seen it, the first set is Big Blue Sky in its entirety. Then there’s an intermission and we come back and do a variety of other stuff, including all the other well-known songs from the Pikes.”

Semko believes the reason why Big Blue Sky, and indeed many of the Northern Pikes’ hits have withstood the test of time, is because they were written and recorded in a manner that was quite timeless.

“Fraser Hill, who produced Big Blue Sky and actually produced our first three records on Virgin, had these sort of marching orders from Virgin that they didn’t want a sound of the time. Sometimes you can listen to classic rock radio and you can hear a certain snare drum sound or a keyboard sound or guitar sounds and you know, ‘oh that’s so 1986.’ They didn’t want that, especially on Big Blue Sky,” he said.

“It’s a pretty meat and potatoes type production and mix on it. Let’s put it this way, whenever there was a delay used or reverb, it was used with purpose. The effects were not overdone to try and follow a certain sound or trend at the time. And our co-producer and engineer on the first two indie albums did the same thing. When the band started in 1984, we were all in our early 20s and were kind of old pros and a number of things regarding music and one thing we figured out in those early days was if you try to chase trends in terms of styles or sounds, you’re never going to catch up.

“You’ve just got to be yourself; that was the biggest thing we realized. Be yourself; write songs about your own life. Make the songs you want to make and screw everybody else. And we were really different at the time. Being in the prairies in the early 1980s we were definitely freakish at the time compared to many of the other groups around at the same time. We stuck to our guns and as a result we were able to go beyond that and get the interest of major record labels, which was far more than anything we had ever planned or hoped for. And I think people picked up on that tone and that’s why they still come to our shows and that’s why I think we’re still getting airplay and even getting new fans out to our shows.”

While in the midst of celebrating the 30th anniversary of their landmark major label debut album, the band is also beginning initial work on a new album – the first Northern Pikes studio album since 2003’s It’s A Good Life and the band’s seventh studio album overall.

“We are looking at recording it later next year, and hopefully release it in early 2019. And I know that seems like zillions of light years away, but we kind of have to do it that way. The thing is, we all live in different places: Bryan lives in Nova Scotia, Don lives in B.C. and I live in Saskatchewan. And Kevin is our fourth guy on this tour and he may do some future recording with us, we still don’t know, and he lives in Toronto,” Semko said.

“So we’re pretty spread out and everyone has lots of different things in their lives, so scheduling is always pretty interesting. In fact, it’s kind of a miracle that we were able to block this zone of five weeks to go across the country. Bryan has some solo projects and he has his own recording studio in Lunenburg. Donnie is just outside of Chilliwack and he and his wife have a photography/video production company and I have my solo stuff, plus I write music for film and TV and do voice overs. We’re all very busy people, in other words, besides the stuff with the Pikes. But I am really looking forward to doing some new stuff with the guys.”

For more information on The Northern Pikes, their current tour and Big Blue Sky (Super Sized) visit http://thenorthernpikes.com.

  • Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at jimbarberwritingservices@gmail.com.

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