Interview: Tom Cochrane

tom cochrane

(July 2017) There are just a handful of musicians that can be considered true Canadian rock icons, and Tom Cochrane is one of them. The son of a bush pilot from Manitoba, he’d go on to write more than his fair share of hit songs, including some the most listened to tracks in musical history. He has won eight Juno Awards, named a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, awarded as an officer of the Order of Canada, and has an honorary doctorate from Brandon University. In September 2009 he was inducted onto the Canadian Walk of Fame and is continually honored for his charitable work with organizations like World Vision. With a career too long to do justice here, Tom promises an autobiography in the future that will tell the tales of Red Rider’s meteoric success, his time as a solo artist and all those road stories that can drift away with an aging memory. I dragged an old “nugget” from him as we spoke by phone…


Mb: Hello Tom.
Tom: Hello Mike, how are you buddy?
Mb: I’m great. How’s your day? You at home?
Tom: No I’m in the lounge at Air Canada.
Mb: Where are you heading?
Tom: We’re heading to Victoria and then Whistler and then back here. Festival season has started. You know what I mean?
Mb: I do! Lots of shows this year?
Tom: Ya tons. It’s probably the busiest I’ve been in quite some time… through my own choice. With Mad Mad World 25 and all that, we’re doing a lot of stuff so you know… but I love it, you know? It’s great. It’s what I do.
I play music.
Mb: It’s tough work for an old dude. How’s your stamina?
Tom: (laughs) I feel pretty good. I’m in, knock on wood, pretty good shape… all things considered. I’m pretty active.
Mb: I saw on your Wiki page you used to fly around with your Dad, who was a bush pilot, and then in just a few lines, it described how years later you flew to LA to write the music for the Xaviera Hollander story. There must be a bad joke in there somewhere.
Tom: My Pleasure My Business, was a very small foot note.
Mb: One of those first gigs…
Tom: I did a record called Hang On To Your Resistance. That was my first record and a song You Drive Me Crazy and it went to #16 on the Canadian Charts and then right after that I did… Franklin Boyd was working with Frank Davis and, that was the small label I was with, he said he wanted me to do the music for this movie. We basically did it in Canada, I hadn’t moved to L.A. at that point. I went to L.A. later. I went to L.A. for a year and wore out my knuckles banging on doors with publishers and record companies, and came home and joined Red Rider. Long story short, because Capitol was short on budget, we ended up signing to the US anyway. It was a long way around, but ended up signing through the US that initial Red Rider record deal. Capitol Canada A&R’ed it. Ya that film, funny because Al Waxman directed it and it had a lot of Second City people in it. It’s more of a comedy. It was a lot of fun. It was a nifty little record. When you write songs, I always look at Red Rider that way, it’s like writing for a movie. You have an impression in your mind of what you want people to perceive about the band as and you write towards it. When you’re writing for films, it’s that way. So ya, it’s a funny footnote. Every once and a while someone will pull out the original vinyl of it and I’ll sign it up. It’s a humourous aside to my career.
Mb: And with all those early experiences you hope to learn everything you need to move forward in your career.
Tom: I did, you know? A foot note in survival.
Mb: And what a survival it’s been. You join Red Rider, which is a huge success and then you go solo and the heavens open up.
Tom: We had a lot of success with Red Rider but it was extremely competitive in the late 70’s through the 80’s. Basically, the powers that be, the establishment, tried to convince you that you had to be a sucess internationally or in the US, to make it anywhere. You couldn’t sustain yourself in Canada. So we were one of those bands that refused to not acknowledge that fact we were Canadian and proud of it and we sort of laid the ground work for the bands that followed. You got to remember man, we were at an age where there was nothing but pop songs. And look at our first hit White Hot. It’s about Arthur Rimbaud, a gun runner in Africa. I’ve always tackled some pretty heavy subjects. I’ve tried to explore some different terrain in my work. The point being, we were just more than a rock and roll band. We weren’t just a hair band, we were a band with substance. And I’ve always been proud to be Canadian, even if the perspective in my writing was not just that. And then Lunatic Fringe. It was #1 for I don’t know how many weeks on the AOR charts in the States. Up until Rascal Flats covered Life is a Highway… it has taken over once again as the song that I got the most airplay for. It was tremendously successful and still is. It’s in the top 300 rocks songs of all time for airplay, so I’m very proud of Lunatic Fringe. And, the subject matter is very contemporary when you look at what’s happening in the world today. So I’m very proud of that tune. That one stands the test of time… and White Hot. Get on stage now and people sing the whole song. Kids out there, eighteen, nineteen, singing the lyrics to White Hot. So they’ve been indoctrinated to some of these songs through their parents and classic rock radio. It does your heart good to know your work stands the test of time. It’s still moving people today like it did 35 years ago… and then Life’s A Highway…. wow.
Mb: I have to know, did that song just come to you while driving down the a long road or…?
Tom: That song was forged in different steps. I started that song early and it was a demo and it had more of a Ska beat then anything else. I hadn’t finished the lyrics and Kenny encouraged me to, to his chagrin now, that we shouldn’t do it. It wasn’t appropriate for Red Rider. So the song sat on the shelf for a while and then I took that trip to Africa with Terry David Mulligan. It was a long protracted trip to Africa and we were in war zones and in really tough areas, even shot at, at one point. First time in my life I ever saw someone die in front of me, from starvation no less, and it was a very powerful experience. I came home and everything was weighing heavy on my heart and soul, some heavy scars on my psyche and the way I dealt with it, which is the way I deal with a lot of things , is song writing. So one morning I got up and went out to my shed in Oakville, sat down and out it came. My friend John Webster had encouraged it for quite some time, he’d say “You’ve got to finished that.” But I needed something to write about, so the whole idea of the song is that we can’t control everything. All around us when you think control is a road in front of you keep moving forward on your motorcycle or your car, or whatever you move forward in, and you do a little good a long the way and life spreads out from there. You can’t go out single handedly change the whole world but you can change other people so they go out and change it. It’s a song that uses that road metaphor very effectively cause it’s touched a lot of people. You always need something to hang a song on. People ask, “Do you know the formula for writing hit songs?” I say, to write a song that people can move to, has a good melody and makes them feel happy, is a pretty good formula but with that said, I think for a song to have that sustaining power that Life Is A Highway has had it has to have that other element. It has to have some soul to it and the soul comes from telling a story. It comes from the lyric that is touching people.
Mb: And with that trip came your on going involvement with World Vision. I was at your party launching the tour, and World Vision was represented and had great things to say about you. Your photos were on display… from a book?
Tom: We released a coffee table book for Mad Mad World 25 and we’ve been selling them on the road. But a real book, I’ve been toying with it for years. I’ve got to get it done. Whether I’m going to have someone interview 150 people, cause that’s what I think needs to be done to really do justice to the book. And my memory, because I didn’t keep journals… so it’s going to take more time than anticipated, but it will be coming.

Tom Cochrane and Red Rider perform at Peterborough Musicfest in Crary Park Saturday July 8, 8:00pm