“Shut up and play the hits”: 18 musicians reveal why they will – or won’t – play the hits

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Sometimes, writing a hit song is as much a blessing as it is a curse

The evening ends with a palatable disappointment cloying in the air. Shuffling aimlessly around the venue, most of the concertgoers look uncomfortable – several have yet to surrender their spot at the front of the stage even though the house music is cranked and the 2am lights are on full blast. It’s a strange conclusion to an evening of music: the band didn’t play the hit.

Guitars are repackaged, drums torn limb from limb. But disbelief still abounds. Repeat: the band didn’t play the hit.

Keeping relevant is a tricky thing. Many musicians who are in it for the long-haul put themselves on a rigorous cycle of crafting product, releasing an album and touring when they can for the next two years only to do it all over again. Some even manage to write a hit song, a number that stumbles, trips and falls over the inexplicably impossible formula wherein music resonates with people and garners popularity. It’s a process that has no hard rhyme or reason, and sometimes is as much a blessing as it is a curse.

As a performer, it’s an eternal balance to cater to those in the audience who paid for the one song that brought them out of the house and to a show. On the other hand, what about all the other songs that help pay the bills, those that didn’t quite shake the world and set the stage on fire in the same way as their more fashionable brethren did?

Every artist seems has their own reasons for why they play the hits or ignore them completely. Ominocity tracked down 18 different musicians who represent a wide range of genres and sounds – Fred Penner and Kerry King of Slayer, together at last – to ask the following question:

“Do you play the hits? Why or why not?”

Also, for the sake of the article, assume that in this case a “hit” song is simply a popular number within a specific musical social circle, and not something to be measured quantitatively. After all, there isn’t really a way to compare Against Me’s “Baby, I’m an Anarchist” or an Eric’s Trip song with “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers.

Suspend your beliefs. Every genre has their own heroics.

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Laura Jane Grace – Against Me!

“I’ve played ‘Walking Is Still Honest’ and ‘Pints of Guinness Make You Strong’ at every single show I’ve played since I was fucking 18-years-old. And now I’m 33. As for ‘Baby, I’m an Anarchist’ people always sing along to it when we play it. But sometimes the people you are on tour with will roll their eyes at you.”

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Chris Carrabba – Twin Forks, Dashboard Confessional

“Everybody knows that I used to be in Dashboard [Confessional] — it’s not like we’re trying to keep it a secret. And I’ll tell you a secret: whenever I see people singing along with the songs that aren’t on the new Twin Forks EP, because they hunt down new material on YouTube, if those guys specifically ask for a Dashboard song I can’t help it. I have to do it. They earned it.”

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Dave Hause – Solo, The Loved Ones

“In the punk rock subculture that I come from there is a really strong tendency to be nostalgic for a band’s first record or their first 7” or whatever horseshit people get attached to. It’s ironic because sometimes that subculture doesn’t let artists grow and do new and exciting things. It’s provincial. I’ve been very careful to not play to those mentalities. As much as I am proud of coming from that world I’m not trying to stay there – I want to do my own thing. People love to yell out Loved Ones songs but they’ll get what I give them. Typically yelling them isn’t going to get you too far.”

NoMeansNo Gig Photo by AMANITO

Tom Holliston – Solo, Nomeansno

“For Nomeansno, we have some new songs nearly done but we wanted to take a break for a little while. We won’t do any touring until we have a bunch of new material to play live. We can’t go on tour again just playing old stuff, because otherwise we may as well just become a cabaret act and do those punk-rock-style casino festivals. We won’t do anything until… we have enough material that we really like instead of just playing a bunch of stuff from [1989’s] Wrong.”

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Charlie Reid – The Proclaimers

“I understand that some people will always associate us with two or three songs. We want to keep going and we’re both 51 now, so I think we appreciate it more now because we know this all isn’t going to last forever. If people want to keep coming to see us, then that’s great. If they stop, then that’s that. We don’t want to become a cabaret act. We’re playing a different set every night and that keeps it interesting to me — it keeps you from going into autopilot. Songs like ‘500 Miles’ or whatever are songs that we will always do, but if you were only playing three songs every night, like in a cabaret, then it would be really hard to keep it fresh.”

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Roger Glover – Deep Purple

“People ask me if I get fed up with playing the old songs. In a way I suppose I do, but they aren’t really old songs because we play them fresh every night. We know them inside and out, but the audience keeps getting younger and so you can experience it through them. These songs will always sound fresh to me.”

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Dave Ellefson – Megadeth

“We’re playing material off the new record, but there are some staples that we would probably be drawn and quartered for if we didn’t play them. Then, we get to pull a few surprises out. We only have 75 minutes to play a set, which isn’t a lot of time considering how many songs we have, but we still get to have fun with the set list.”

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Jim Cuddy – Solo, Blue Rodeo

“I’m surely comfortable playing all the songs in my catalogue, but I’d never want to rely completely on old songs. Any time we get ourselves in a situation where people are only interested in hearing old songs, it’s a very unsatisfying situation for me. I want to talk about something new with my audience — that’s where I put my self-worth as a musician. There are certain songs I’ve become fatigued with, but take a song like ‘Try,’ which was our very first hit in 1987. We played that so much for the first five years as a band that I just couldn’t sing it anymore, so I took a year off from it, but when we reintroduced it I wasn’t sick of it at all. I actually see it as a challenge because I suspect the audience thinks I can’t hit those high notes anymore. Still, we’re lucky in that we have a lot of songs, so we don’t have to rely on those hits anymore. Blue Rodeo developed a certain amount of style, in that our shows never go by rote: there’s a sense that it’s new every night, and that’s okay with me.”

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Gordie Johnson – Big Sugar, Wide Mouth Mason

“I hadn’t ever planned on getting Big Sugar back together, because the only kind of offers I was getting was to play the big hits and make big money and when you put it that way it just felt kind of jive. I have reasons to do this and I would almost not do it just to be contrary. I’m really not interested in pursuing it for those reasons. You can only really go where your muse leads you. I’m sure there are maybe some really brilliant things I could have been doing with my career, but I was too busy playing music to even ponder what those might be.

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Sam Roberts – Sam Roberts Band

“Picking songs to play live is kind of a daily torment. We don’t play the same show twice — that’s been a tradition since the first tour, because we want the show to change every day. That helps us stay motivated and sharp. But it’s hard: you want to play a lot of new stuff because nobody wants to live in the past, but there’s always a handful of songs you have to leave out that you know people are going to want to hear. It’s like cutting your own kids off of the soccer team.”

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Tim Kingsbury – Arcade Fire

“The newest record is the most interesting to me because it’s the one I’m still trying to wrap my head around when we’re playing it live. Some of these songs, we’re still trying to work out how to play them live, so it’s the album I’m the most engaged with.”

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Fred Penner – solo

“I work very much from the audience reaction and what their requests are, and I always try and bring in some songs from my young adulthood, which came from the early folk scene and singers like Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young. And I always add some new tunes, but the direction of my shows always comes from the audience. The two biggest requests are always ‘The Cat Came Back’ and ‘The Sandwich.’ I’m always happy to play those songs.”

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Kerry King – Slayer

“I got it in my head that this would all work doing the older material. And it’s a good time for us to be doing something like this because we are in-between records so you aren’t missing out on a bunch of new songs. And a lot of kids never got to see these songs live. I am a firm believer that our fans like us for what we are. They don’t want any hard left or right turns.”

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Ryan Dahle – Limblifter

“Our newer songs sound even more closer to the older songs. The more you write the more you diversify as a writer. But if you write enough songs you come back to what you used to do, which is what I think what we are doing right now. Those songs really worked for the band.”

Dani Martin, singer from the band El Canto del Loco

Julie Doiron – solo, Eric’s Trip

“Sometimes I find it really crazy I have to perform those songs. I’m generally a pretty happy person and the only time that other emotion comes out is when I play those songs so I find it’s a good balance. Even though not very good at writing really happy songs, on the new record there are a few falling in love-type songs and those are always quite nice. It can be hard to sing those darker songs but I’m used to it because I’ve been doing it all my life. It’s taken me a long time to figure out who I am.”

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Jordan Burns – Strung Out

“It was challenging to make a better record than the last one because everyone called our last record [2004’s Exile in Oblivion] our best one. Part of the reason Strung Out has stuck around for so long is because of the creative process. We don’t write the same song over and over again. I enjoy all of our music. People always ask me but I could never pinpoint my favourite song.”

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Todd Kowalski – Propagandhi

“We’re just playing what we want to listen to. And we want to play as well as we can. If you don’t play jazz and are just playing chord progressions, things can get boring fast. It’s just the way we think now – we just want to riff along. A lot of [our fans] are older now, or I would like to think so. So there’s probably not as many of them around anymore. I think it’s definitely a mixed crowd now, with people who are into the new stuff and people who liked the old.”

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Nels Cline – Wilco, Solo

“The band tends to change directions with each new album. Being There was a big change from Summerteeth, which was a big change from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and on and on. Every record sounds different from its predecessor. I don’t know if that is intentional so much as it is honest. We’re changing as individuals and we have no interest in repeating ourselves. I think that is what our fans like about us – that we aren’t milking the same song over and over. If you come to a live show and you are unfamiliar with the band then it might seem like we are stylistically all over the place, ranging from pure, noise-drenched feedback to simple folk songs. But for anyone who is moderately familiar with the band I think they would expect that.”