By David DeRocco
As an insightful young songwriter, Moe Berg managed – in one perfectly crafted song – to capture the inherent frustrations and stark realities involved in accepting the responsibilities of adulthood. Now, as he sits halfway through his life as a career musician, the man who penned the Canadian rock classic “I’m An Adult Now” is pondering the question: do you think, as a mature adult, you could write a song that reflects the perceptual mindset of millennials?
“I don’t think I could even go there,” laughs Berg, frontman for seminal indie rockers The Pursuit of Happiness (TPOH) who’s getting ready to step on stage for the first time in nearly two years as part of the “RootStock” event July 16th at Jackson-Triggs Amphitheatre. That concert is a chance for fans of Canadian music in the 90s to witness four of the most recognizable stars of the era – Chris Murphy (Sloan), Craig Northey (Odds), Steven Page (Barenaked Ladies) and Berg – come together for an evening of songs, story-telling and survival.
“I don’t even play live anymore,” admits Berg, who’s put his touring days behind him to take on the role of a music producer and teacher at Fanshawe College. “We’re just starting this tour. I haven’t played a concert in a year or probably almost two with The Pursuit of Happiness. So this is going to be a very unique experience for me.”
What inspired Berg to dust off his guitar and step back on stage is the chance to perform with Page, Northey and Murphy in a project suggested by Berg’s friend Jim Millan, a director responsible for staging such live shows as Myth Busters and Penn and Teller. The idea was to put on a concert featuring a like-minded musical collective that could swap stories, songs and instruments during an intimate, audience-friendly performance. Berg said the artists involved were obvious choices for such an initiative.
“This event features bands that sort of came of age in that critical time for Canadian music, a 1988 to 1994 kind of thing. Chris, Steven and Craig, we kind of all know each other. (TPOH) did a lot of shows with Odds back in the day. Chris is a guy who has kind of become a buddy of mine over the years. We actually had a short-lived cover band called CanadaAM that played songs you would have imagined being played on Canadian radio in the 70s. Steven is someone I knew from when they first started up the (Barenaked Ladies). So they’re all people I’ve run into over the years. I have a ton of respect for all of them. It should be a cool kind of evening.”
Berg is the only one of the four who’s pursuit of happiness has resulted in a career shift away from the rigors of touring and recording. Instead, Berg has spent the last 10 years pursing other interests outside of performing with TPOH, including releasing a book of short stories, co-hosting the television show Master Tracks, writing book reviews and studio work producing young bands.
“I kind of made a conscious decision,” said Berg, whose last new music with TPOH consisted of two songs for a greatest hits package released in 2005. “I decided I wanted to be a record producer more than a touring musician. I just found the music business was too much of a racket. The whole business end of it never appealed to me anyway, It’s just become more about the business and less about the music these days. I’m happier to be behind the scene at this stage of my life. Let the kids go knock themselves out on the road.”
Stepping off the road has been welcome relief for Berg, who racked up thousands of kilometres touring with TPOH after the release of the band’s 1988 smash-hit debut, LOVE JUNK. Success for Berg and his bandmates included a string of rock radio hits, inclusion on the Beavis and Butthead movie soundtrack and induction into the Canadian Indies Hall of Fame. Looking back, Berg says TPOH was part of a very unique period in Canadian recording history.
““It was a great time to be in music, especially in Canada. Before then was a weird time for Canadian bands. Up till then labels were always trying to make Canadian bands seem more like successful American bands or British bands. There were obvious exceptions like RUSH. But right around the late 80s there was more of an interest in just letting bands be themselves, let’s see how that works out. And what was great was there were a lot of bands that came of age at the same time. The Tragically Hip, Cowboy Junkies, Grapes of Wrath, and then bands like Odds and Barenaked Ladies and Sloan. All these bands got American record deals, because American labels didn’t want half-rate versions of what they had, they wanted what they didn’t have.”
The seismic shifts that have rocked the music industry since “I’m An Adult Now” was released 30 years ago are no better illustrated than in the story of how Berg got that song played on Canada’s national music television channel.
“We just walked in the front door of MuchMusic and handed them the video. The next day they called us up and said it was in full rotation. I’m not sure that could happen now.”
Given the state of the music industry, it would also be doubtful an indie band like TPOH could attract a record producer like the legendary Todd Rundgren, who was brought on board to produce LOVE JUNK in 1988. Berg says that experience working with Todd has helped better prepare him in his current role as a producer.
“The thing that I learned from Todd about record production is that the most important thing is having a great song, making sure that song has a great arrangement. That’s really what record production is all about, making sure that whatever the artist has created you present that to the audience in the best possible way, to give them the best possible listening experience. That’s really what it’s all about. That was the thing with him. He was focused on the song, focused on the lyrics, making sure the song played out in an interesting way. That was 90 percent of his production. We recorded those records in one or two takes, most of those songs, so it was as much about the recording process as it was making sure that we had a great song. You can take a bad song and record it as beautifully as you like but it’s still a bad song.”
There will be nothing but great songs played when Berg and his RootStock counterparts take the stage to deliver a full setlist of non-stop hits from their respective catelogues. Berg says he has fond memories of his touring days that had him playing local clubs and festivals in Niagara, including The Hideaway and the annual May 2-4 bash in Cayuga.
“I always remember having a pretty good time whenever we played down there. And HTZ-FM was always a great supporter of the band, always could do an interview there, most times they’d present the show and got a good turnout from the station at the show. I always remembered having tons of support there, just being invited to just be on the radio for an hour. I’ve always felt we’ve had great support in Niagara.”
For tickets to RootSTock, visit http://www.jacksontriggswinery.com/.