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The Tragically Hip Launching Their Own Marijuana Strains

One really couldn’t script a more “of the moment” Canadian story: The Tragically Hip has quietly re-emerged into the public eye for the first time since frontman Gord Downie’s death from brain cancer last October, and broken an almost-total radio silence imposed for the past three years to talk about … marijuana.

The band announced it had entered into a partnership, co-signed by Downie, with Brantford-based cannabis producer Newstrike in May of last year. But the big reveal of the (ahem) joint brand name, Up Cannabis, and several planned weed strains named for Tragically Hip tunes — “Eldorado,” “Gems,” “50MC,” “Grace” and “Morning Moon” — came this week amidst a lavish overnight party for around 200 invited guests, including many music-industry folk and online “influencers” and a handful of media, myself included, thrown on the combination organic farm and event space known as the New Farm outside Creemore.

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Dallas Green of City and Colour played an acoustic set in the barn on Tuesday evening, with earlier support from not un-Hip-like Kingston rocker the Glorious Sons, while a bonfire blazed away outside and craft cocktails were served. Banquet tables were laid out for a farm-to-table feast. An entire upside-down house was erected on site for the sole purpose of encouraging visitors to snap silly photos of themselves to post to Instagram with the #LiveItUp hashtag. Lucky “VIPs” stayed the night in canvas “glamping” tents better appointed than your average motel room.

The highlight for most, however, was simply seeing Hip members Rob Baker, Paul Langlois and Gord Sinclair — drummer Johnny Fay sat out the occasion — in one place again, not playing music but simply hanging out, having a few drinks, mingling with fans and friends, and generally showing their support for a line of products in which they hold a 5.4-percent stake that, the Globe and Mail estimated last year, is already worth about $39 million to them.

It’s an intriguing next chapter in the life of a band of brothers that effectively ceased to exist as an actual band when the irreplaceable Downie died last year, and a wholly novel means of sustaining the Tragically Hip’s legacy into the future.

I don’t necessarily think that is intentional,” confesses Langlois. “We were already in and aware of it as we didn’t know how Gord was going to be. We all hoped that he would still be here, as he did. So it wasn’t a thought of ‘What do we do after you go?’ or that kind of thing. It was just kind of like, ‘This is exciting and this is cool and these guys are great.’ They really seemed to have their sh–t together. We toured the original plant in Brantford and we became educated, as a credit to them, on just how this was going to play out and the hoops they were going to have to jump through — legitimate hoops — to satisfy Health Canada to get their grow license and then the sales license. It’s a tricky situation.”

It is, as Langlois puts it, “an adjustment” for the surviving members of the Hip, who ceased doing interviews after Downie’s diagnosis with terminal glioblastoma in May 2016 and for the duration of that following summer’s triumphant farewell tour of Canada, to return to the public eye in any fashion. They hosted a small event with Up for 30 or so people at their Bathhouse studio outside Kingston in May, but this week’s event was the site of their first real media interviews in three years.

The band is understandably wary of appearing to be cashing in on its name in opportunistic fashion by linking up with Newstrike and Up Cannabis. And it isn’t really. Current Canadian law prohibits direct endorsement of cannabis products — hence the rather vague sponsorship presence of companies such as Aurora Cannabis and Tweed at festivals like North by Northeast and Field Trip this summer — so the Tragically Hip’s name won’t actually be on any of Up’s wares. They have a legitimate stake in the company, however.

“They’re real partners in the business,” affirms affable Newstrike CEO Jay Wilgar. “I think that’s the thing that people forget: the Hip, as a group of guys and managers, these guys are involved in what we do. We didn’t just use their name. They wouldn’t do that. It’s not their style. And it clicked immediately.

“In my view, what better group could you partner with in Canada? No one knows Canada better than the Tragically Hip. And certainly, when we figured out that this made sense there was a very excited moment.”

It’s not like the Hip has abused its position by slapping its name on a bunch of branded products over the past 34 years, anyway. There’s a line of wines from Stoney Ridge Estate Winery out there, but that’s about it.

In any case, there were pot leaves subtly waving in an aquarium years ago in the video for “Poets.” The Tragically Hip has never really made a secret of its affinity for marijuana.

“Those opportunities do come along over the course of a career,” notes Baker. “If you stick around long enough, someone will say, ‘We’d really like to use your song for Ford pickup trucks’ or ‘Union Carbide is building a new plant in India and we’d like to use your song’ or whatever. We get opportunities and we say ‘no, no, no.’ But occasionally something fits. We drink wine. We like wine. So when the opportunity came along to pair with a winemaker and get involved, we said ‘That’s a natural thing.’ And, you know, we’ve all been curious about cannabis for a long time…”

“I’ve always wanted to try it,” laughs Langlois.

“So this seems like a natural thing,” says Baker. “For probably 30 years, we’ve been saying it’s going to be legal. It’s inevitable that they have to make it legal because the current policies are stupid. Prohibition doesn’t work. It’s a bad idea. There are a million reasons why it should be legal and there are no good reasons why it shouldn’t be legal. So it was inevitable.”

Sinclair is, by his bandmates’ own admission, the most knowledgeable of the bunch on the fine details of sativas versus indicas and the effects of ingesting this strain or that strain.

Indeed, it fell to him at the New Farm on Tuesday to announce the five Hip-approved cannabis strains that will be available for purchase on “legalization day,” Oct. 17 — which, in an odd twist of fate, will be a year to the day after Gord Downie’s death.

Guests at the Up at the Farm event sat for a "Cannabis 101" session.
Guests at the Up at the Farm event sat for a “Cannabis 101” session.  (UP CANNABIS)

“It’s amazing. It’s a tribute to the country that we can actually push this through,” says Sinclair. “Socially, it’s a really good thing. I’m not an advocate or anything, but everyone needs to take the edge off once in awhile and everybody likes to have fun and so many people who’ve maybe not tried it before would benefit from smoking weed instead of, for instance, drinking the brown water. It might be a really, really good thing.

“It’s amazing that they’ve done it nationwide, too. That’s such an important thing. We toured down in the States after it became legal, up and down the west coast, and it was great — you’d go to a dispensary in Washington and try another one in Oregon and then do the same thing in California. But then you’d make a left turn and the ‘federales’ are literally waiting at the New Mexico border to tear your tour bus apart so that they can send you to prison for the rest of your life.”

The Tragically Hip’s involvement with Up Cannabis does not, of course, signify a return to action for perhaps the most beloved band in Canadian history — one whose final performance on the Man Machine Poem tour at Kingston’s K-Rock Arena on Aug. 20, 2016, was watched live by roughly one-third of the country’s population.

There can be no Tragically Hip without Gord Downie. The rest of the band is clear on that.

“We have very similar social circles — the three of us, especially, since we’re in Kingston in general — and we collaborate on various things,” says Langlois. “Sometimes it’s recording with other people; other times I’ll be in the studio and I’ll ask Gord to come in and sing backup or Robbie to put a pedal-steel on something I’m working up, and vice versa. These guys have worked on a couple of things together. So everyone is still a musician. We’re not getting together and playing Hip songs or that kind of thing, but we’re not going to stop being musicians.”

Why tarnish the perfect send-off that was that final tour, after all? Langlois, Baker and Sinclair concede they’re all still in awe of how their lifelong friend Downie managed to pull off that last run at the road. And then top it off with the activist project Secret Path — a harrowing multimedia depiction of the final days in residential-school escapee Chanie Wenjack’s short life — and last year’s stunning farewell solo albumIntroduce Yerself, to boot.

"No one knows Canada better than the Tragically Hip," says Up Cannabis CEO Jay Wilgar.
“No one knows Canada better than the Tragically Hip,” says Up Cannabis CEO Jay Wilgar.  (UP CANNABIS)

“No one worked harder than Gord,” says Sinclair. “When we started those first few shows, we were playing worried. Like, we were watching him. And I’m speaking for myself, but towards the end you would kind of forget that he was sick. We’re a band, so when he was strong, we were strong, and we were getting stronger and stronger to the point that you’d forget and you’d go, ‘Wow, what a great show’ and then you’d sit back with each other afterwards and then you’d realize, ‘Oh, he’s a very sick man.’ It was really cool — the power of the audience and how hard he had to work to get there and how hard our crew worked to get us there.”

“You saw Gord get stronger over the course of 15 shows,” nods Baker. “The outpouring of love lifted him up and gave him strength, which allowed him to continue on and do the other projects he had. I made no secret of it that I wasn’t a fan of the idea of going out and doing the tour because my fear was that it was going to be a public funeral every night for 15,000 people, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. It really was a celebration. It was pretty awesome.”

“It’s great that he got to do that,” says Langlois. “He was obsessed, through his radiation and getting sick, that he wanted to do the tour only because he was just remembering, ‘Wait a second, we did a record, right? We’re supposed to tour.’ And he f-ing did it, and then Secret Path was another obsession, just to see if he could do it. And he gathered all the strength to do it, I think, just from being out on the road and getting to say goodbye to all these people.”