Iconic Canadian rock band The Northern Pikes are defying the odds, returning with a brand-new studio album, Forest Of Love. It’s the group’s first new release since 2003, and the first to feature new group member Kevin Kane (The Grapes Of Wrath). He joins founding members Jay Semko, Bryan Potvin and Don Schmid, the gang responsible for classic hits She Ain’t Pretty, Teenland, Things I Do For Money, Wait For Me, Hopes Go Astray, Girl With A Problem, Kiss Me You Fool, Believe and more.
Forest Of Love rings true with the beloved Pikes sound, plus a new guitar edge with Kane’s addition. You get that great variety the band always brings, with rockers, smart ballads, and bright hooks and harmonies, thanks to the luxury of having three top-flight singer/songwriters on board. Leading the way is the edgy first single “King In His Castle,” where nasty guitar verses meet a gorgeous, catchy chorus. In other words, the hits are back, the Pikes are back.
Well, they’ve never really been away of course, their music and videos constantly heard as Canadian classics, and the band have been keeping their fans happy with short tours and festival gigs through the 2000’s. Things started heating up again in 2017, when Universal Music reissued the group’s classic debut, 1987’s Big Blue Sky album in a special 30th anniversary “Supersized Edition”, a 3-LP set on coloured vinyl, with a treasure trove of previously unreleased demos and a vintage live recording. The Pikes responded with their biggest tour in a couple of decades, a sprawling 29-date jaunt across the country, with rapturous fans getting to relive their love of Saskatchewan’s finest.
It also marked the addition of Kane to the band, although at first he was a hired gun to bring them up to full compliment on stage. Original fourth member Merl Bryck had amicably left the group in 2006, and the others had missed having that second guitar and third voice in the band since. That big tour proved they’d found the right player, and right friend for the job.
“That was a pretty comprehensive run, that was 29 shows across the country,” says guitar player Bryan Potvin. “And we really got a sense of how Kevin was fitting in to all this. The Pikes ultimately are a 2-guitar, bass and drums band with three singer-songwriters. And with Kevin that’s been restored, and it just felt natural at this stage to go in and make new music again.”
For Kane, the offer to join the band permanently came as a surprise, but a very welcome one. “It’s just been a blast, even the way it came about,” he says. “They were clear right from the get-go, this was just for the Big Blue Sky tour, 29 shows. After that, they said, how would you feel about becoming a member, and also, how would you feel about doing an album? That all happened really quickly after the tour.”
The other guys in the band had no doubt Kane was the missing ingredient. “Having a fourth person after having played as a trio for awhile was pow, it was great,” says bass player Jay Semko. “Kevin’s goooood, he can sing, we couldn’t have asked for a fourth person who was better, really. I’m a huge fan, a Grapes of Wrath fan, a fan of Kevin’s writing and singing, he’s a super-talented guy who fits right in.”
So, it’s the same band, but a brand-new one too. “That’s what it is, it’s Pikes 2019,” says drummer Don Schmid. “We’re all different than we were 30 years ago, it’s a new version. We were hungry to go into the studio.”
That opportunity happened after one of the Big Blue Sky gigs, at Canada’s new National Music Centre in Calgary. The Centre approached the band, offering its impressive studio space if the Pikes felt like recording an album. “They made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, they were very accommodating,” says Potvin.
The Centre, which houses Canada’s Music Hall Of Fame in the fabulous Studio Bell complex, has beautiful recording studio space, along with some famous and classic recording equipment and instruments. “It’s an amazing facility, we’ve recorded in some pretty outstanding studios across North America in our 30 years, and this one is right up there with them,” says Potvin. “It has some amazing gear, well-designed rooms, it’s just over the top.”
The band got to record on a classic 1975 British-made Trident recording console, the fifth of only 13 ever built. And for a little Canadian history and luck, Potvin & Kane used a vintage amp donated to the Centre by Neil Young. But the best feature was the spacious Studio A itself, designed as a throwback to the great studios of rock ‘n’ roll’s past. “The room is really well set up so you can all play at once, you can physically cut the song live, off the floor,” says Semko. “I love that.”
They set up each day and all played together, recorded full takes all at once, just like bands used to do. “That’s how people think records are made, but that isn’t how they’re made normally today,” says Kane. “It’s kind of exciting for us at this point in our careers to go, oh, we can make a record like that!”
That vintage technique helped define Forest Of Love. “When we got in the studio, there was a sound that was coming out of the tracks right away that we latched on to,” says Potvin. “Tonally, it was an old sound, it sounded like an old rock record, and that was exciting to us. We ran with that.”
They recorded 10 brand-new originals over two sessions and 11 days, basically a song a day. And these truly were new songs, never shared with the other group members before. Each day brought a new surprise. “When we went into the studio, I hadn’t heard a single thing. Not a stitch,” says Schmid. So we started every morning with acoustics and a vocal, whoever wrote the initial song, and we’d craft it into a Pikes tune. And at the end of the day, you had a song.”
At the first session for the reinvigorated Northern Pikes, the honour went to the new guy. “The very first day, they decided to go with one of my songs,” says Kane. “The symbolism wasn’t lost on me. I think it was really cool of them.”
In the end, Forest Of Love featured a classic mix of Pikes tunes, three by each of the songwriters. But that left them a song short of a full album. So it was all hands on deck, including drummer Schmid, to compose the last tune for the last day of recording. “Don’t You Give Up” was written the night before in Bryan and Kevin’s hotel room,” says Kane. “The next morning, Don wrote some lyric ideas from which we got the last line of the song.”
The excitement of the studio sessions meant that some of the songs that started out calm and acoustic got a boost of energy once the whole band got involved. “King In His Castle” was one that started out moodier,” says writer Semko. “Then Bryan said, ‘I hear kind of a rock riff in there.’ So we messed around with it. It was just very natural, the most organic of all the records we’ve ever done.”
Then there’s the epic title track, with a mysterious opening vibe that turns into the hardest, catchiest rocker the group has laid down arguably since “Teenland” back in ’87. A heritage band, living on the past? Forget that. “We are a new band,” confirms Semko. Adds Potvin, “It feels good to have a record we’re proud of, that’s coming out. It’s been a long time for us.”
Of course, when they hit the road, they still have a whole lifetime of beloved hits for fans young and old. “People want to hear songs that they know and love from earlier in our career, and we’re happy to play them,” says Semko. “Nothing’s more fun than having a whole crowd sing along to one of your songs. It feels pretty good!”
The Northern Pikes are better than ever with Forest Of Love, thank you very much. “The feeling right now with us is we’re getting along better than we ever have, we’ve got a more mature and deeper appreciation for how far we’ve come, how long we’ve been at this, and still actually all alive and still able to make music, and sound pretty good I think,” says Potvin. “So let’s just take this as far as we can.”