Trooper may well be the most popular Canadian band ever in Canada, their musical legacy stretching back to the mid 1970s comprising a vast catalogue of hit songs that still remain staples today of Canadian class rock. The group performed at the Rock The Lake inaugural festival in Kelowna last summer and return to the Okanagan this year to perform at West Kelowna’s Royal LePage Place on Friday, June 2, the first rock concert ever held at that venue. They also will play at the Penticton Peach Festival on Aug. 10. Black Press senior regional reporter Barry Gerding recently interviewed lead singer Ra McGuire via email about the history behind the band, their music and Trooper’s place in Canadian music history today.
BG: How many shows or how long a touring schedule does the band have this year?
McGuire: So far there are 26 or 27 shows booked for 2017. An Ottawa Grey Cup show booking just recently came in.
Some of your original band members, such as Tommy Stewart, Donni Underhill and Frank Ludwig, moved on to other things over the course of Trooper’s tenure. What keeps you and Brian Smith motivated to keep touring year after year? How long do you want to keep it going?
Doni, Tommy and Frank all left the band – so, really, Smitty and I were just the last men standing. There was a period there, where being the two leftover Trooper guys was not particularly empowering for us. Speaking for myself, I am still performing because I love doing it – and record crowds keep coming out to do it with us. It’s a really rare, and beautiful, combination.
Where did the name Trooper originate from?
“Trouper” is an old vaudeville term for a performer who keeps doing his tap dance, even though the roof is falling in. We changed it a bit so people didn’t mispronounce it as Trowper.
Trooper has become an iconic band in Canada and you received many, many honours in recognition of that fact. Given your success in your home country, any regrets that you didn’t enjoy similar level of success in the U.S.?
American success, and in our case the lack thereof, is a complicated topic that I could probably write a book about. Back when we were striving hard, US success and its associated riches was definitely the most attractive goal to strive for. And we did tour pretty hard in America in the seventies. As things have worked out, though, I’m really proud that we’ve ended up becoming a Canada-only band. I honestly have no regrets. I am very grateful for our Canadian situation.
“American Dream” was written as a reflection on our travels in the US and I was trying to allegorically compare and contrast our two cultures. The unspoken upshot, in my mind, is: I like it a lot better here in Canada.
What does it feel like to be at a Vancouver Canucks hockey game, or any sports event, and hear Raise A Little Hell played to get the fans pumped up? Is it still a kick to hear that?
It’s still a big kick to hear our songs entwining with the culture, like they often seem to do. I don’t think that’s something you can (or should!) get blasé about.
What do you credit as the reason for the band’s songwriting success and creative longevity through the ’70s and ’80s period?
I honestly don’t know for sure why our songs were so successful back in the day and, in some cases, continue to be relevant in some ways today. I’ll humbly suggest that one of the reasons might be the fact that we were always very aware of our audience and tried hard to make music that we liked – and that they liked too. New songs were always auditioned live, and the response determined whether they were recorded or not. Also, that audience feedback helped to shape our songwriting trajectory going forward.
Creative friction is an important key to exciting and interesting work, but like you say, it can also contribute to a powder keg. Like many other successful bands, we were not immune to those kind of struggles.
Of your numerous hit songs, are there any that surprised you at how popular they became or resonated with people?
“The Boys In The Bright White Sports Car” is a strange and quirky song that I loved precisely because of its strangeness and quirky-ness. Traditionally speaking, there is no chorus or hook and the song really shouldn’t have been a hit record. It was not released as a single from the “Two For the Show” album that it was originally released on, but we were all surprised to see how popular it became at our live shows. It was that popularity with audiences, live, that lead us to choose it to be the single from the Hot Shots Greatest Hits album.
Do you have a personal favourite(s)?
I like “Thin White Line” a lot these days, but I like most of them still.
Can you explain how you and Brian Smith worked as a songwriting tandem? Was it the one-rights-the-lyrics-and-one-writes-the-music scenario?
I wrote all the lyrics. Smitty wrote most of the music. We came at songwriting from all different angles, but that was the consistent combination.
Do you still have a longing to write another hit song or record a hit album, or do you have a sense of satisfaction at this point, a been-there-done-that, outlook on Trooper’s musical history?
I have written over two hundred songs and, to be honest, I’m not really driven to write any more. Having said that, I’m writing something just about every day – but it’s mostly prose.
Do you still get nervous just before stepping on stage for a gig?
I feel all the feelings most people would associate with nervousness before I go on – but I choose to think of those feelings as anticipation or excitement.
Why do you think Vancouver was such a hot bed for musical artist from the mid-1970s through the early ’80s and why do so many of the groups and individuals from that era still resonate today, still can draw a crowd for concerts?
I think…that Vancouver spawned so much great music because there were so many great places to play. This brings me back to my point about bouncing your songs off of real people – the more of that feedback you can get, the stronger you will be as a performing artist.
Can you offer some quick hit thoughts about some of these songs from your catalogue of hits:
Raise A Little Hell – We closed our show with RALH from the time we wrote it. Still do.
Two For The Show – a bittersweet look at the music biz. My first lyrics and music song on a Trooper album.
Santa Maria – All lyrics written while on the boat trip that it chronicles.
3 Dressed Up As A 9 – I love the big voices in the chorus. Some real Monty Python singing in there.
Janine – Sweet, sweet song.
Boys In The Bright White Sports Car – Strange, quirky – still a big favourite of mine
Real Canadians – I thought this was a really funny song. Ending too long.
General Hand Grenade – Great party piece. You can here us all goofing in the background
Can you describe the influence that Randy Bachman had or made upon the band as an album producer back in the day?
Randy was like a Dad for the first three of four records he produced with us. The first one sounded way too much like BTO, but he can be forgiven for that because that’s what he was up to at the time, and it was a successful formula for him. The second album sounded a lot more like us, and as we learned the ropes in the studio, we took on more and more of the production responsibility. “Thick as Thieves” was a high point that showcased everyone giving equally to the project, and I think it’s our best record from the first batch (I thought “Last of the Gypsies” was better).
It would be a great soundtrack, but do you think there is a movie or feature length documentary potential about the life and times of Trooper?
It’s hard to see the big picture when you’re right in the middle of it – and now that I have some perspective, it still seems like a very complicated story with probably way too many interweaving arcs. Essentially it’s a story about hard work and some good breaks, but there were an awful lot of people, from Randy back to our very first road manager and forward on to our current band and crew, who all put their shoulders against it for us and helped to push it forward. Featuring just a few of them seems wrong somehow, and who wants to watch a three day documentary??
Is it easier or more difficult for bands to find a following in this era of social media than when you guys were starting out and first finding success?
I try to keep up with the always unfolding world of music, but when it comes to the many ways the music business can play out these days, it’s really hard to tell what’s working and what isn’t. The music business pipe we had to go through had a very narrow opening at the audience end. There was a reasonably dependable mechanism for a band that was “discovered” by a record company A&R man, but not many got the shot. These days, everyone can take a shot, but where it goes is a far less focused place. It seems like, in the last few years, the record companies are gaining strength again, but I can’t say which is a better system. I think, generally, folks have less interest in music and music makers these days. Which I totally get and I’m not complaining.
Did you enjoy performing at the Rock The Lake outdoor show last year in Kelowna and the opportunity to reconnect with some of your peers from your era?
The Rock the Lake show was one of our favourite summer shows! (We did a ’10 favourites’ thing on our Facebook and it’s on there). It was a hoot having (Al Harlow from Prism) out onstage with us – as well as pretty much everyone else who was backstage when we started Raise a Little Hell! The Kelowna show was a ton of fun – as most of our shows end up being, one way or another.
Tickets are available for the West Kelowna Trooper concert at http://etixnow.com/events/trooper/jun-2-2017/royal-lepage-place.