Trans-Canada Highwaymen Channel the Spirit — but Not the Sound — of Classic AM Pop
Chris Murphy, Steven Page, Craig Northey and Moe Berg relied on a Google Doc to organize their cross-country collaboration
Published Nov 16, 2023They're not Johnny, Kris, Waylon and Willie, who formed the iconic supergroup known as the Highwaymen — but the Trans-Canada Highwaymen are similarly prestigious for Canadian Gen-Xers. Conceived in 2016 as a touring greatest hits package, Sloan's Chris Murphy, Odds frontman Craig Northey, the Pursuit of Happiness leader Moe Berg, and former Barenaked Ladies member Steven Page are essentially a '90s CanRock compilation in the flesh.
Joining his three Highwaymen for a chat, Page tells Exclaim! about how it came together: "Our friend Jim Millan had an idea for a touring show where the four of us play our biggest hits and swap road stories. We thought it'd be more fun, rather than sitting on stools, to actually be a band and swap instruments and play each other's songs."
After putting their live act on pause during the pandemic, Murphy pitched the idea to record a full-length LP. "We wanted to exist on streaming. If you don't exist on streaming, it's like you don't exist in the world," he explains. But rather than re-recording their own material, he drew inspiration from his first musical love: "I wanted to make a K-tel record. The whole thing for me revolved around making an infomercial, because I learned everything about music through infomercials."
To keep with the spirit of the Winnipeg label who found success compiling hits from the '60s and '70s and selling their collections on late-night TV, the quartet put together a collection of 13 covers (plus an original "theme" song) indebted to Canadian radio staples of their youth.
Unable to congregate in a studio to lay down tracks, the recording of what would become Explosive Hits Vol. 1 posed a new challenge for the four veterans. "It was designed around guide tracks," says Northey. "We elected what songs we wanted to do and who was going to sing them, and that person was responsible for making it."
Berg adds, "It's kind of different from song to song. A lot of the time, Craig or Steven would do the bulk of a song and then send it to us, and then I'd record Chris doing harmonies or playing something on it."
Murphy interjects, "None of these jokers play drums on the record. I play everything."
Page retorts, "I did play cowbell on the record, if that counts."
Capturing iconic AM gold sounds on Andy Kim's "Rock Me Gently," April Wine's "Tonite Is a Wonderful Time to Fall in Love" and the Guess Who's "Undun" would send most musicians scrambling for analogue gear or vintage-sounding plug-ins. "From a production or engineering perspective, all these songs were originally released in the time where we still idealize the recording technology of that time," says Page. "The Neve consoles and the API consoles, 1176 compressors. All those things that everybody's trying to clone as far as equipment goes."
Instead, the quartet decided to approach each arrangement with their hearts rather than their ears. "From an audio point of view, they don't really sound like the originals," admits Berg. "They sound more like how we would play as a band. But I don't think we went crazy with the arrangements and changed them too much. I think we wanted the songs to be very recognizable to anybody who actually knew the song."
Northey already has production credits for working with Colin James, Bruce McCulloch and fellow Highwayman Page, so he mixed the final recordings, juggling an impossible array of guitar parts, keyboards, lead vocals and harmonies that were all self-produced and recorded across the country. "There was a producer; his name was 'Google Doc'," Northey laughs. "We put all our ideas about what had to happen next and rearranged it on this document. Then I would just cross them off as I collected them and aggregated them at my studio."
While songs from the DeFranco Family ("Heartbeat, It's a Lovebeat") and the Poppy Family ("Which Way You Goin' Billy?") can easily be viewed as ironic odes to a more innocent era of pop music, Trans-Canada Highwaymen prove that the best interpretations come from a place of reverence.
"If we had done these songs 25 years ago, it would have been all about the irony of it," says Page.
"I was really into punk rock, and there was a lot of music that was kind of forbidden," adds Berg. "But as you get older, you start to lose all those prejudices, and you start to see the songs for what they really are, and a lot of the songs are really great."