Bryan Potvin, Jay Semko, Don Schmid, Kevin Kane
The Northern Pikes have been a band for 34 years, but you’re going to have to forgive them if they’re acting like a new group. In a way, it is a fresh start. There’s a lot of excitement about their first full, cross-Canada tour in over a decade, and the release of a brand-new collection. The Pikes have put together a special 30th anniversary edition of their beloved debut album Big Blue Sky. Featuring the hits Teenland, Things I Do For Money and Dancing In A Danceclub, it helped the group explode out of Saskatchewan and become fixtures and stars on radio and MuchMusic.
But now, it’s a whole new record.
The anniversary edition has been expanded to include a second disc of all-new music from the group’s archive, and a third album featuring a live recording from the legendary Horseshoe Tavern on their first national tour in 1986.
The new album, along with the big tour to launch it, has fired the group with new energy. “I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, and I’m increasingly proud of the fact that we’re still eager,” says founding member and guitarist Bryan Potvin. “There’s a youthful earnestness about what we’re doing right now, which is really peculiar for men who are ordering from the senior’s side of the menu at Denny’s.”
As the crowds at their recent festival shows can attest, there’s a real fire on stage. “The band in many ways sounds better than it ever has,” says bass player Jay Semko. “I just feel there’s a solidity in the songs that we’re playing, I feel like there’s new life to some of the ones we have played forever. It’s the old-fashioned work ethic, dig in, work at it, rehearse, and when you play, come prepared.”
The Northern Pikes were formed in 1984 with the members coming from three local groups, The Idols, Doris Daye and 17 Envelope. After the obligatory search for the right drummer, Don Schmid joined in 1986, and the line-up was set: Semko on vocals and bass, Potvin on guitar, Schmid, and Merl Bryck on vocals and guitar.
In 2006 Merl decided touring wasn’t for him anymore, but the core trio has remained unchanged since.
Being a band from Saskatchewan had its challenges in the pre-internet era. To get attention outside the province, the group came up with a strategy of making lots and lots of demos, a couple of independent E.P.’s, and relying on, gasp, snail mail.
“It was a good challenge finding a list of stations that would play independent music in Canada and the U.S.,” remembers Semko. “I wrote to the Library of Congress and got the listing of college radio stations. We sent them out, and we got played and they charted really well. It was a pleasant surprise to us, and that really opened the door for people to notice us.”
One of those who was very keen was Doug Chappell, president of the Virgin Canada label.
“We did a demo in the summer of ’86 that had Things I Do For Money on it,” says Schmid. “Doug Chappell knew about Teenland, he knew about You Sold The Farm, he knew all those songs, but when he heard Things I Do For Money, that was apparently the song that made him go yeah, I want to sign this band.”
June 2, 1987 saw the arrival of the group’s debut Virgin album, Big Blue Sky, and the hit single Teenland. Next came the single of Things I Do For Money, and Chappell’s instincts proved correct, with the song breaking them into the U.S., and landing lots of airplay on MTV and MuchMusic.
That was the start of an intense, six-year period where they released four hit albums, 13 singles and toured incessantly. Secrets Of The Alibi arrived in 1988, featuring Wait For Me and Hopes Go Astray. 1990 saw the platinum album Snow In June, which landed them three giant hits on the Canadian singles chart: She Ain’t Pretty, Girl With A Problem & Kiss Me You Fool. Neptune came out in late ’92, and featured the singles Twister and Believe.
If the radio and video hits weren’t enough, the live shows earned The Pikes a huge fan following and a reputation for rock that they kept from their early club days. “We were more of a raw version live than we were on record, and there was a real bit of frenzied, new wave, energy that we still had within us,” says Semko. “We rehearsed a lot. We practiced hard, we played a lot of shows, and we were lucky enough to come up in a time when they still had six-nights-a-week gigs in bars.”
Remember, it was a time when most of the rest of the pack was trying to catch up with the ’80’s hair-and-synth bands, while The Pikes, along with contemporaries such as The Tragically Hip and The Rheostatics, instead writing about being Canadian, and embracing the joys of guitars and hooks.
“The thing we figured out early on was, if you try to chase a trend, you’ll never catch up,” says Semko. “You just gotta do what you do, and feel good about that.”
But those many kilometres between gigs in every province started to add up, and after the months of touring for Neptune, and a ferocious live album called Gig, the band shocked its fans by announcing they were taking an “indefinite hiatus.” That didn’t sound good. “We just completely shut down for six years, put a padlock on the place and just walked away,” says Potvin.
It was Virgin that coaxed them back, when in 1999, they told the band they wanted to put out a hits compilation, and asked the members to work on it.
All four got involved, one thing lead to another, and pretty soon they were back in front of fans for a triumphant national tour in 2000, captured for posterity on the Live 2000 album. Buoyed by all these feel-good moments, the Pikes were soon back in the studio for two more albums, 2001’s Truest Inspiration and 2003’s It’s A Good Life.
Since that early 2000’s outburst, and the departure of Bryck, the band has settled into a steady, but spare schedule of concerts each year, usually at summer festivals and the odd casino, where they can give the most fans a chance to see them. “We encounter this all the time, people say oh, I love the Pikes, but I never saw them live,” says Semko. “And then they see us, and go, wow, you rock more live than your albums.”
They’ve all been noticing the audience changing recently, not just your typical Pikes fans from before. “It’s been slowly building for the last couple of years,” agrees Schmid. “It is really a combination, I must say. We see a lot of parents who are Pikes fans coming with children to their first concert. We also have new fans that come out and say they weren’t there in the 80’s and they’ve just discovered us on classic rock or on social media. There’s new fans that have never seen us before and just got onto us in the last couple of years, it’s a real mixture.”
Lately, all the members have agreed that not only can they do more, they want to do more. “I was getting a little tired of just going out, and I mean this in the sweetest, kindest way, but just aimlessly touring, just going and playing a show, not supporting anything,” says Potvin.
That was solved when Schmid, the self-appointed band archivist, mentioned he had saved all those demos the band had done. “The fact that we can entice people with brand new songs is pretty amazing, and as a band we’ve got Don to thank for that,” says Potvin. “Photographs, demo recordings, everything, he’s got it all really well laid out and organized. He just maintained it, he always made sure he knew where everything was. I thank him dearly.”
“There’s a hard-core group of people that are big fans of Big Blue Sky, that grew up with the music,” says Semko. “It’s amazing to me, I’ve just noticed this recently, how many people are huge fans of that particular album, as it wasn’t the biggest-selling of our records.”
“It is exciting to be going out with a show,” says Potvin. “We haven’t done that in a long time, with a really prepared show, and we’ve never had video screens and a visual component to our show. So that’s all brand new. The fact that we’re doing all this stuff makes it really exciting.”
It gets better. Bringing the Pikes back up to their full, two-guitar energy is none other than Kevin Kane, the group’s good friend from The Grapes Of Wrath, and a frequent duo touring partner with Potvin over the last few years. “He’s such a natural fit,” says Semko. “We’ve done a few shows and it’s so fun, he’s very pro, he’s a great musician and a great singer.”
New tricks, old dogs?
“We haven’t felt like this in many years, where we’ve got an actual game plan,” says Schmid.
“The Pikes, to me, feel like we have unfinished business,” says Potvin. “We had a rather abrupt ending in 1993, and we had this long, six-year period where we didn’t do anything, and the restart was good, but I don’t know, it just feels more focused now frankly.”
It looks like The Northern Pikes haven’t peaked yet.
Pikes Back Story:
The Northern Pikes were formed in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in January 1984. Over the next two years the band recorded and released the independent EPs The Northern Pikes (1984) and Scene In North America (1985) with producer and pal Mitch Barnett. Both were recorded and mixed at Studio West located near Pike Lake, SK.
The original lineup was spawned from the ashes of three local groups, “The Idols”, “Doris Daye” and “17 Envelope”, and consisted of Jay Semko (Vocals, Guitar), Merl Bryck (Vocals, Guitar), Bryan Potvin (Guitars) and Glen Hollingshead (Bass), who left the band in 1985. At this point Jay moved back to playing bass & numerous drummers came and went until June of 1986, when Don Schmid (The Idols) joined to make it a permanent quartet.
With the help of friend and local booking agent Robert Hodgins, the band cut its teeth on the prairie bar circuit. The combination of exciting live performances, well-received indie albums and the continuous stream of demos finally caught the ear of Doug Chappell, President of Virgin Records Canada, and with the help of managers Fraser Hill and Ed Smeall, The Pikes signed to the label on December 18, 1986.
In January of 1987 the band began sessions at Metal Works Studio in Toronto with producers Rick Hutt and Fraser Hill, and finished mixing at McClear Place Studios for what would become its first Virgin release, entitled Big Blue Sky.
The album hit the streets in June of ‘87 and featured the hit singles “Teenland”, “Things I Do For Money” and “Dancing In A Danceclub”, introducing the band to a wider audience and expanding the touring range to all parts of Canada and the USA.
Spring of 1988 saw The Pikes at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, NY, and later in Le Studio, Morin Heights, Quebec for the recording and mixing of Secrets of the Alibi.
The sophomore album had a more “live off the floor” feel, and the heavy airplay of the singles “Wait For Me”, “Hopes Go Astray” and “Let’s Pretend” kept the band on the road virtually non-stop across the continent until the summer of ‘89.
Up to this point, the primary singers and songwriters were Jay and Merl, with the exception of some group compositions and “Hopes Go Astray” written by Bryan.
The Pikes third album Snow In June saw the blossoming of Bryan as a singer and writer, most notably for the wildly popular hit single “She Ain’t Pretty”. In addition the album featured other smash hits, “Girl With A Problem”, “Kiss Me You Fool” and “Dream Away”, and featured a star-studded cast of additional musicians – Garth Hudson, Crystal Taliefero, John Sebastian and Stan Szelest, as well as mixes by acclaimed engineers Bob Clearmountain and Hugh Padgham. Recording again in Bearsville and mixing at A&M Studios in Los Angeles, The Pikes spent almost six months working on the album, and it became their biggest selling album to date.
After almost two years of touring to support Snow In June, the band began work on Neptune in July of ‘92 at A&M Studios in LA with Rob Jaczko as co-producer.
Subsequent sessions continued at Metal Works in Toronto and Blue Jay Studio in Boston. From start to finish the album took exactly two months to record, mix and master, the fastest turnaround since their indie days. Released in November, Neptune featured the keyboard work of Ross Nykiforuk, also a native of Saskatoon and an onstage addition for the Snow In June tour. Also featured were two duets with Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies, one of which, “Worlds Away”, made its way onto an episode of the TV series “Due South”. The album featured the singles “Twister”, “Believe” and “Everything”.
The spring of 1993 saw the last tour of the decade for the Pikes, and the fifth and final album “gig”, recorded live during concerts in Montreal and Toronto.
It featured 13 songs and showcased the raw energy the band always exhibited onstage.
After 10 years of intense road life & non stop travelling, 8 Juno award nominations, 4 Gold records & 1 Double Platinum record, the band elected to go on an indefinite hiatus. The Pikes played their final concert on July 2, 1993 in Fort Frances, Ontario.
In October the final recording was made when Jay, Bryan & Ross got together at Don’s home studio in Saskatoon to record the theme song for the TV series “Due South”.
Six long years later……
All original members Jay Semko, Bryan Potvin, Merl Bryck and Don Schmid reunited in December 1999 to assemble a greatest hits package for Virgin Records.
That meeting saw the release of a collection of old favourites and buried treasures, entitled “Hits and Assorted Secrets”. It also led to a hugely successful Canadian tour in early 2000, some of which was recorded and resulted in The Northern Pikes “Live 2000”, an album’s worth of tunes recorded at various shows in Ontario and Quebec.
This in turn led to the decision to record a new studio album in Toronto during the fall of 2000.
“Truest Inspiration” was released in 2001, The Pikes first studio album in 8 years. The song “Beautiful Music” from that album became a hit in Japan and The Pikes embarked on a short but intensive tour in the land of the rising sun in late June 2003, including a Canada Day concert at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo.
Shortly before the Japanese tour the guys began work on their 6th studio album “It’s A Good Life”, which was released in March 2003.
The album was a hit with Pikes fans everywhere, and the band continued touring into the second decade of the new millennium, with all of the members pursuing various recording and film projects in addition to their work with the Pikes. In 2007 Virgin/EMI released another “Best Of” album from the band, entitled “Platinum” from the album series of the same name.
Along the way, Merl Bryck made the decision to curtail his touring schedule, and long-time sideman and musician extraordinaire Ross Nykiforuk joined the band on keyboards as the fourth member onstage from 2006-2011.
On September 30, 2012 The Northern Pikes were inducted into the Western Canadian Music Hall of Fame in Regina, Saskatchewan as the highlight of the 2012 Western Canadian Music Awards.
Longtime friend (and fellow Hall of Fame member) John Donnelly introduced Jay Semko, Bryan Potvin, Merl Bryck & Don Schmid, and the group performed at the induction ceremony, much to the delight of the audience. A statement from the Pikes about their induction into the Hall of Fame: “This is a great honour and we have our fans to thank for this. So we want to extend the deepest gratitude to each and every one of you who ever bought a Pikes record or a concert ticket and supported us on this amazing journey over the years. This is very much your award as well.”
The legacy of the Northern Pikes continues in 2018, with the band rocking every venue they perform at, garnering glowing live reviews and entertaining their beloved audiences with their timeless songs and genuine love of the stage.