​Gord Downie and Bob Rock's Electrifying Collaboration Goes "Beyond Friendship"

"I remember one of the last times he saw me, he said, 'Please make sure everybody hears this music.'"

BY Daniel SylvesterPublished May 2, 2023

Those hanging onto the notion that Gord Downie's posthumous album would be a solemn affair simply don't know Gord Downie. Built from hours of material created between 2009 and 2017, the Tragically Hip leader's collaboration with uber-producer Bob Rock bursts with vitality, buoyancy and bliss. It's not a sombre entrée — it's a lustre parfait

Attributed to both Downie and Rock, the 14 compositions that make up Lustre Parfait are the result of a decade-long friendship between the two icons. "When I worked with the Hip, that maintained, and he just grew into a really close personal friend," says Rock in a conversation with Exclaim! "Making music with somebody, especially like this, it's just beyond friendship."

The improbable partnership between Canada's college rock pioneer and the renowned hard rock producer (who helmed Mötley Crüe's Dr. Feelgood and Metallica's Black Album, among many other albums) reaches back to 2006. That's when Rock, fresh off sessions with Canadian mall punks Simple Plan and Welsh post-grunge artists Lostprophets, was brought on board to record the Tragically Hip's 10th LP, 2006's World Container.

Converging on the Hawaiian island of Maui, Rock's memories of his first meeting with Downie are vivid and joyful. "We went to this fish market at the corner of Paia, not far from where I live. We just talked about our lives and talked about our kids and our wives and our lives — me growing up in Winnipeg and him growing up in Ontario. We became friends almost instantly, and we just had the best time."

After the duo reconvened to record the Tragically Hip's 2009 follow-up, We Are the Same, Downie would begin work on his first solo LP in seven years, The Grand Bounce. A simple request for co-writing would soon flourish into years and years of collaboration. "Basically, he asked me if I had any music. I sent him some and he sent back some ideas, and it was amazing."

Over the subsequent years, Downie and Rock continued to work together, but as musical obligations began to mount for the two, these sessions became irregular and less structured. "Every time we were in Los Angeles together, Vancouver, Toronto, more than anything in hotel rooms, anywhere we could get together," adds Rock. "It took a long time to do it. He had the Hip, and I was working."

Out May 5 via Arts & Crafts, Lustre Parfait highlights a decade of fertile studio rendezvous. From the moment the scattergun drums and "whoo-hoo" vocals kick off the joyous "Greyboy Says," it's clear this project is nothing less than a labour of love.

The explosive chorus of "The Raven and the Red-Tailed Hawk" is strung together by Rock's power-chorded guitar (which he plays on every track of the LP), while the brash "Something More" is propelled by brass fanfare. Downie's exuberant performance on "Camaro" stands as the most absurdly shrewd ode to a car this side of Neil Young. The jump-blues rhythm of "In the Field" brings back that same '90s panache that once attracted artists like Veruca Salt and American Hi-Fi to join forces with Rock.

Nonetheless, amongst the album's unbridled energy lies some definitive moments of Downie's meditativeness. The glistening album closer, "There Goes the Sun," is stripped down to keyboards, bass, drums and Downie's contemplative voice, which Rock calls "just stunning." But the deeply moving "The Moment Is a Wild Place" comes closest to Downie's finest campfire moments with the Tragically Hip. Written before his cancer diagnosis, the profound lyrics act as a chilling harbinger: "They keep saying, 'Just live in the moment' / What they don't say is, the moment is a wild place." 

"I always appreciated his lyrics," reflects Rock. "But working with him, it's almost like you actually feel the depth of the man. It is the same thing that happened with James Hetfield when I started working with Metallica and got to be friends with Hetfield and understand the lyrics and the depth of it."

On May 24, 2016, The Tragically Hip announced to the world that Gord Downie was battling brain cancer. But rather than shuttering the project, the Downie and Rock seemingly grew closer, and the scope began to expand. "When we got together, we were laughing, and we were like, 'Well, you know, we can't tour,'" remembers Rock. "So, we were trying to think of a way to do it. We were talking about maybe doing it in the museums in Canada, just make it almost like a performance thing. Actually, Gord wrote a script to a movie based on the lyric and the storyboard."

As Downie's health declined, the duo spent those fleeting last months together writing, recording and bonding. "We never gave up on [the album], never lost track." But after Downie succumbed to his disease on October 17, 2017, emotion finally got the best of Rock: "Just as we finished it, he passed away, and it just killed me. So, I kind of put [the project] behind me, and then I couldn't really listen for about four or five years."

As the years passed and the fog of grief began to lift, Rock just knew he owed it to himself, and to Gord, to get Lustre Parfait out of his studio and into the hands of the fans. "I remember one of the last times he saw me, he said, 'Please make sure everybody hears this music.'"

Rock reflects, "And when I finished it, I made good on that promise. I know he would've loved it."

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