A Conversation with Jay Semko

When you think of Canadian Rock from the late 80’s and early 90’s, a few names come to mind Blue Rodeo, The Tragically Hip and of course the pride of Saskatchewan The Northern Pikes. With iconic songs like “Teenland”, “She Ain’t Pretty” and “Girl With a Problem”, they will be forever included in our national discography. Their 1990 album “Snow in June” garnered them 3 Juno nominations and was certified Platnium in Canada.

The Bicycle Gang recently chatted via email with Jay Semko, founding member and bassist with The Northern Pikes. We dug into Jay’s musically history from his solo projects, his musical composition work, being from Saskatchewan and of course The Northern Pikes. In his own and might I say candid words, Jay desifferd the code of longevity of the music business for us. Giving us a glimpse into his world.

You can find Jay still touring with The Northern Pikes and as a solo artist with his latest album “Flora Vista”. Jay is performing Friday in Prince Albert for the Victoria Hospital Foundation, and you can check him out in Saskatoon on Saturday at Music for the Gut a benefit for Crohns and Colitis.

BG: In your words, Tell us the history of Jay Semko?

JS: My history………..well, in a nutshell, I was born in Saskatoon, lived there until Grade One, when my family moved to a farm outside the city, where my dad, my uncle, and my grandfather had crops and a pig farm – I went to Clavet School – it was a tough school, and I survived a lot of vicious bullying, partly by getting into music – I listened to pop radio from about 8 years old (I had a transistor radio) – piano lessons were available at school, and my folks enrolled me – I learned to read a bit of music, although it was quite frustrating, as I picked things up by ear very quickly, and after a couple of seasons of piano I was done. At age 10, I started to take guitar lessons at the YMCA in Saskatoon – my dad had an acoustic guitar he noodled around on – the first full song I learned was Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds”. For my 11th birthday, my parents gave me a Raven electric guitar and Symphonic amp they bought from a hired hand who was staying at my grandparents’ house. I was completely hooked on music, and when we moved into Saskatoon when I was part way through Grade Seven (there was a huge fire and the pig barn, with 400 pigs, burned to the ground), I saw/heard a real life rock band play at the school (actual first concert I ever saw/heard was Johnny Cash/June Carter at the Saskatoon Exhibition Grandstand) – I was fascinated by the bass – I figured out that every band needed a bass player, and there were quite a few pretty good guitarists around, so I started bass lessons and further guitar lessons (for a little while) at Gordie Brandt’s Music. At first I played my Raven with the 2 highest strings removed, and was lucky enough to find other budding musicians who lived nearby to jam with, and we started a band……..actually became many different bands. I loved music and practiced like crazy, playing along with records and the radio, as well as learning from the lessons. I did all the stuff teenagers do throughout my high school years – some sports, some other stuff, but music ultimately was king for me – I became quite proficient on the bass, played in numerous cover bands, and had a blast playing at dances (yes…..dances) and eventually bars and other places. I lived a lot of life in the prairies, did some rock ‘N roll road travel, and ended up doing a couple of attempts at the University of Saskatchewan. I had played in a couple of quite good bands in the early 80’s – The Idols and Seventeen Envelope. Both of these bands played all our own songs – I developed my songwriting through osmosis and trial and error – once I started putting my personal experiences and feelings into my writing, the floodgates opened, and a whole new level of songwriting happened for me. In November of 1983, I ran into Bryan Potvin at the University – we were already friends and had played together in a band for a short time – Bryan and I went for a few drinks to Louie’s Pub, and decided we needed to put a new band together. Shortly after that, we both bailed on University, and the Northern Pikes were formed. The first edition of the Pikes had 5 members – we had a mission in mind – to go out and play the bar circuit as full-time musicians (playing cover songs as necessary) and save money to record an independent album. Merl Bryck, who I had played in the Idols with, was a core member of the band with Bryan and myself – we went out on the prairie bar circuit, saved some cash, and recorded a 6 song EP in 1984, entitled “The Northern Pikes” – I researched addresses for college and indy-oriented radio stations in Canada and the USA, and we mailed out copies of the EP – lo and behold, it was very well received, went to #1 on many charts in both Canada and the USA, and led to the recording of a second independent album, entitled “Scene in North America”, in 1985 – we did the same thing in regards to mailing it out, and had even more airplay and chart success. We eventually dropped our cover songs, and became an exclusively original band – by the time we recorded “Scene” we were a 4-piece band – our indy success attracted the attention of major record labels – many times A & R people came to see us in western Canada – in September 1985 Doug Chappell, the president of Virgin Records Canada, flew out to see us play at a showcase in Saskatoon, and really liked the band. Shortly before this, we started working with producer Fraser Hill in a management capacity with Ed Smeall – they became our managers – a couple of other key people at that time were Mitch Barnett, who engineered and produced our first 2 indy albums, and Robert Hodgins, who was our agent through the early Pike years and helped us immensely. We continually toured across Canada (we had expanded our territory nationally) and in mid-1986 Don Schmid joined the band as our permanent drummer – we were a very exciting and tight band – although were were all in our early twenties, we had a lot of experience – we signed a worldwide record deal with Virgin in December 1986, and began recording our first album for the label in January 1987 – we were vaulted to another level – it was a very exciting time for us. At this point, I could go into great detail about many things, but let’s leave it at this: we began an intense pattern of recording and touring across Canada and the USA, releasing Big Blue Sky (1987), Secrets of the Alibi (1988), Snow in June (1990), Neptune (1992) and Gig (1993) on Virgin. We had numerous hit singles in Canada – Teenland, Things I Do For Money, Wait For Me, Hope Go Astray, She Ain’t Pretty, Girl With A Problem, Kiss Me You Fool, Twister, Believe, and others. Two singles did well in the US – Things I Do For Money and She Ain’t Pretty. we did some great opening and headlining tours – some of our opening slot tours were with Bruce Hornsby and the Range, Tom Cochrane and Red Rider, Robert Palmer, Peter Frampton, and many more. The Pikes were nominated for 8 JUNO Awards, received a ton of airplay on MuchMusic, and became very popular, selling almost a million albums.
In mid-1993, the band essentially broke up – we were burnt out, having personal and musical conflicts – it was a weird and difficult time within our circle.
In the summer of 1993 I was in touch with Janet York from The Feldman Agency in Vancouver, who spoke with me about submitting a demo for a potential theme song for a pilot movie for a TV Series that was being shot in Canada. She described the plot, about a Mountie in the Yukon tracking down and following the suspected murderer of his father (who was also a Mountie) to Chicago, where he partners with a Detective to catch the criminal – As she spoke to me about it, I started writing down ideas, and soon after, the theme song for “Due South” was born. I recorded the song in Saskatoon at Don Schmid’s home studio with Pike Bryan (who received a co-writing credit for his work on the song) and Ross Nykiforuk, the Pikes touring keyboard player – the producer/creator of Due South, Paul Haggis, loved the song, and I was encouraged to submit a demo for composing the music score, which I did – it was very well received, and shortly after that I was teamed up with two great film composers, Jack Lenz and John McCarthy, to begin work on the score for the pilot movie in Toronto. We did three updates to the original submitted score, and when the pilot aired in March 1994 it received great ratings and went to series. Due South was a primetime major network series in the USA and was (and still is) seen in over 80 countries around the world. The show was a huge success – it won many awards and led to myself, Jack and John being nominated twice for a Gemini Award (at that time the Canadian equivalent of the American Emmy Awards). I learned so much working on the show, and it led to a whole other unexpected career for me as a composer of music for film and TV. In addition to the pilot movie, 66 1-hour episodes were produced, and the show has a huge international following from around the world.
In 1994, I also began recording my first solo album, entitled “Mouse” and originally released on the Iron Music label in 1995. I toured across Canada with some great musicians from Saskatoon, and had 2 Top 40 singles with “Strawberry Girl” and “Times Change” – through the rest of the 90’s I continued working on music for film and TV, with other series, documentaries and movies, in addition to Due South.
In 1999, Virgin/EMI spoke to the Pikes about releasing a “Best Of” album – the guys in the band began communicating, were able to put our differences aside, and we did a cross Canada tour to promote the album – we have continued to tour off and on to this day, though now as trio, with Don, Bryan and myself – in 2000 we recorded and released a live album (Live 2000) and an album of new material entitled “Truest Inspiration” – in 2003 we recorded and released “It’s A Good Life” and in 2007 a second “Best Of” album entitled Platinum, and in July 2016 a third was released entitled ICON, from the Universal Music Group series (Universal now has the Pikes catalogue from our Virgin days).
In 2005 I recorded and released Love Will Set You Free, a 3 song EP, and since then I have recorded and released 8 more solo albums. I have received many nominations and some awards for my albums and songwriting (2012 Winner SCMA Award “Force of Horses” for Roots Album of the Year – 2015 Winner SCMA Award “Flora Vista” for Roots Album of the Year) – in 2013 I was nominated in the Canadian Screen Awards (formerly the Gemini Awards) for my work as a composer on the TV series “Dust Up” in the category of Best Original Music for a Non-Fiction Program or Series.
I tour across Canada regularly with the Northern Pikes and as a solo artist – I am a full ACTRA member and record voiceovers regularly for film and TV – I continue to compose music for film and television – I am in the planning/preproduction phase of a new solo album – I mentor/instruct songwriting……..life is good, and I am very blessed.

BG: What is the secret of longevity in ibeing part of a band for 30 years?

JS: The secret of longevity in a band is to respect each other as friends, musicians, and music creators……..have fun, don’t burn out (as the Pikes did in the first phase of our career) – and in the words of Viv Savage, “have a good time ALL the time”.

BG: I remember listening to “Snow in June” when I was a kid on my parents Panasonic 6cd changer- beast of a sound system. I felt then that I could relate to the youthful angst of the lyrics. What was going on in the world of “The Northern Pikes” during this album?

JS: When the Pikes recorded Snow in June, we had a great amount of songs to choose from for the album – everyone in the band was very creatively fertile at that time – the label was willing to let us have a substantial amount of time in the studio (the album was almost 6 months in the making), and as it was our third album on Virgin, we were very aware that big things were hoped for/expected for the album. The lyrical subject matter covers a pretty wide swath – one thing that was very cool is that Bob Clearmountain mixed 5 of the songs, Hugh Padgham mixed 5, and Rick Hutt/Fraser Hill mixed 3 – cool to have the variety of interpretation with the mixes.

BG: Who is the song Flora Vista about?

JS: The song “Flora Vista” is the title track of my most recent solo album – the song is a love song to my partner Colli – I recorded the song “live off the floor” with Randy Woods – just me singing and playing the acoustic guitar at the same time – one take.

BG: On your website, you talk about about the album “Flora Vista” as being a labour of love, care to elaborate?

JS: The Flora Vista album was a labor of love because I really had no focus on a “single” or anything like that – I just really wanted to put together a cohesive album of music – no limits, no boundaries – just love of music – I always feel very attached to my songs with every album – with Flora Vista, I included some stuff that had been creatively fermenting for some time, as well as songs that were written almost on the spot – every album I’ve recorded has been different, in location, musicians, recording method – I like the creative challenge of something new – pushing yourself and letting moments happen…….

BG: What advice would you give to a new artist starting out in the music industry?

JS: Advice to a new artist? Have fun – go deep into the music – aim high, really high – practice hard – record and listen to yourself regularly – be YOURSELF in the lyrics and music and let YOU as a unique artist/writer/creator shine………..and again, have fun……..

BG: What’s it like being an musician from Saskatchewan?

JS: Being a musician from Saskatchewan? Well, you certainly get experience with long and sometimes challenging driving. A gazillion years ago in early Pike days, it was a real sense of isolation – previous to the Pikes, the Idols were billed as “Saskatchewan’s First New Wave Band” – we thought it was a hokey title, but at least it warned some of the folks in the isolated areas what was coming to their town………actually we were quite harmless – it’s just that this was before the mass communication that exists nowadays – really now you can be from anywhere and get your music out to everyone – you still need to get to the big urban areas to make an impact – Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, etc – nothing will ever be a substitute for a great live in-person experience.

BG: What is your favourite place to play a show in Sask?

JS: Favourite place to play in Sask? Anywhere outdoors on a beautiful warm day or night…….preferably with mosquito bites at a minimum.

BG: What is your most proudest memory?

JS: Proudest memory? When Ian Tyson was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement/Western Canadian Music Hall of Fame Award in Calgary a number of years ago, the Pikes were asked, along with some other artists, to perform our version of “Four Strong Winds” – we did it with Ian about 40 feet away from us at the Awards show……I sang it – I was a bit nervous – that was the first full song I learned on the acoustic guitar, so it was pretty cool to come full circle……….another proud memory was when the Pikes were inducted into the Western Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2012 – it was a great night!!!!

BG: What’s something you can’t go on the stage without?

JS: Something I can’t go on stage without? Well………to be frank, a pee beforehand………and also, my cell phone so I can see where I’m at for time…………also extra picks in my left jacket pocket…..

BG: The apocalypse is imminent, what would be the last show you see and where? (Dead or alive)

JS: Apocalypse imminent…..final show….?? Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young………together and separately on a beautiful warm night…….

BG: Who are you listening to right now?

JS: Listening to right now? Mumford & Sons, latest Eric Clapton, Jenny Berkel, Evening Hymns, Donovan Woods, Poor Nameless Boy, latest Paul Simon, lots of classical and jazz – I love solo piano stuff………so much great music out there!!!!!!

BG: What does the future hold for Jay?

L: The future? I am prepping for 2 new albums – one to be released this fall – the other a gospel/spiritual album to be released in 2017……….always writing, singing, strumming………….

-BG-

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