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 2020,” says drummer Don Schmid. “We’re all different than we were 36 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.”
Most recently, The Northern Pikes received a SOCAN Classic Award to commemorate 100,000 radio performances for their classic hit single, “She Ain’t Pretty” in Canada. “It’s amazing how some things in life come full circle” says Schmid, “hopefully we can keep on rockin’ & continue to record new music for many years to come.” Guitarist Bryan Potvin adds, “I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, and I’m increasingly proud of the fact that we’re still eager. There’s a youthful earnestness about what we’re doing right now. ”
Forest of Love arrives as follow up to 2017’s Big Blue Sky (Super-Sized) 30th anniversary reissue and 29-city Canadian tour in celebration of the beloved album. The triple coloured vinyl anniversary edition was expanded to include a second album 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 triple coloured vinyl anniversary edition has been expanded to include a second album 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 29 city Canadian tour in the fall of 2017 has fired the group with new energy.
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.” 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 Bryan.
That was solved when Don, the self-appointed band archivist, mentioned he had saved all those demos the band had done in the ’80’s. “The fact that we can entice people with brand new songs is pretty amazing, photographs, demo recordings, video footage, everything, he’s got it all really well laid out and organized, 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 Jay. “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 on the BBS30th anniversary tour” says Bryan. “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. The Pikes, to me, feel like we have unfinished business, 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 LP’s 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). In 1985 Glen left the band & 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.
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 LP’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 USA” remembers Jay. “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.”
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 at The Copa nightclub in Toronto.
“We did a demo in the summer of ’86 that had Things I Do For Money on it,” says Don. “Doug Chappell knew about Teenland, he knew about You Sold The Farm & Jackie T, 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.”
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 their 3rd LP & 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 their 4th LP Secrets of the Alibi. The 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 5th LP 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 their 6th LP 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 ’92, 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 their final Virgin LP 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 ’93 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 Live 2000, an album’s worth of tunes recorded at various shows in Ontario and Quebec.
This successful reformation led to the decision to record The Pikes 7th LP in Toronto during the fall of 2000.
Truest Inspiration was released in 2001, The Pikes first studio album in 8 years, recorded & mixed by James Paul at The Rogue Music Lab in Toronto & produced by David Baxter. 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.
In February 2003 the band began work on their 8th studio LP It’s A Good Life in their hometown of Saskatoon, recorded, mixed & co-produced by Ross Nykiforuk at Cosmic Pad Studios.
In the new era of social media & self promotion The Pikes ventured to film 3 music videos for Blame The Song, Underwater & It’s A Good Life with Saskatoon filmographer George Hupka in March of ’03, it had been 10 years since their last music video Everything from the Neptune album.
It’s A Good Life 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.
Along the way, Merl Bryck made the decision to curtail his touring schedule, and long-time sideman and musician extraordinaire Ross Nykiforuk played with the band on stage from 2006-2011.
In 2007 Virgin/EMI released another Best Of album from the band, entitled Platinum from the album series of the same name.
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 & fellow Hall of Fame member John Donnelly from The Queen City Kids introduced Jay Semko, Bryan Potvin, Merl Bryck & Don Schmid. The Pikes performed 3 songs at the induction ceremony, much to the delight of the audience.
A statement from the band about their induction into the Hall of Fame:
“This is a great honour and we have our fans to thank for this. 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.”
In Toronto on June 18, 2018 The Pikes received a Socan Classic Award to commemorate 100,000 radio performances for She Ain’t Pretty in Canada. All 4 members Jay, Bryan, Merl & Don attended & got a chance to see an old friend Fraser Hill, the bands first manager. “It’s amazing how some things in life come full circle” says Don, “hopefully we can keep on rockin’ & continue to record new music for many years to come.”