Paul Langlois Band

When Paul Langlois (from the Tragically Hip) was asked to play the closing ceremonies of the Canada Summer Games in Niagara Falls in August of 2022, the last thing on his mind was making a new record. A few months later, however, Guess What, The Paul Langlois Band’s debut on Pheromone Recordings was in the can, and Langlois began a new and exciting phase of his musical journey.

The title track itself – which closes out the record – is an expression of his surprise that one gig could lead to the formation of a new band and a full record. “At the time, I’d been quietly making my way through my new life, chipping away at little musical ideas here and there, with no particular goals in mind,” Langlois explains, crediting the Niagara gig as the impetus to get him playing music again and, ultimately, rekindling his interest in songwriting.

Fans of Langlois and The Tragically Hip will be thrilled it did. Featuring Langlois on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, and the ample talents of bandmates Greg Ball on guitar and backing vocals, lead guitarist Joe Carscallen, Matt Mulvihill on bass, and drummer Billy Anglin, Guess What offers up the kind of thoughtful, straight-up rock and roll that’s timely, timeless, and a bit of a rarity these days.

That’s evident from the album’s opening track and lead single, ‘It Matters To Me,’ a laid-back rocker that sets the tone for an album that plays out like an often raucous meditation on our relationship with time; what you make of it, who you spend it with, and why.

In Langlois’ view, you don’t necessarily get smarter or wiser as time passes. “You’re still the same person, but your perspective gets bigger.” That perspective is something Langlois brings to bear beautifully on tracks like ‘The Face Of Time’ and ‘638 Main,’ a song inspired by a moment of quiet reflection outside of that exact address, The Hip’s Bathhouse Recording Studios, during the recording sessions for Guess What.

The last song written for the record, ‘638 Main’, finds Langlois musing on how time disappears to some extent in the studio but transposes that onto a bar setting, where moments frequently seem to slip by in a similar way. It’s also a track he wrote pretty quickly compared to some of the other songs on Guess What, he adds, a product of Langlois’ approach to songwriting – “Going with lyrics that were coming out me naturally, as opposed to thinking ‘What am I going to write about?’”

When the Niagara gig came up, Langlois’ first thought was, essentially, ‘Why not?’ Followed
immediately by, “I’ve got to put a band together.” That wasn’t an issue, he says: “I went with my buds down the line.” Ball and Carscallen (from another of his projects, The Campfire Liar’s Club, Mulvihill (a frequent player at campfires at the lake he and Langlois have cottages on, and Anglin on the advice of The Hip’s drummer Johnny Fay. “We started rehearsing for that show, and then it was like, well, I guess I’m gonna start writing.”

Putting pen to paper and setting words to music, however, came slowly. “The gig was months away, so I thought I’d write and play one or two new songs. But I never really sat down to write. I just thought, ‘It’ll come. It’ll come,’ and, sure enough, it didn’t,” Langlois says, laughing.
That’s something he covers in depth on ‘Been Waitin’ – the first song he wrote for the band and a track that, while clearly about waiting on inspiration, also captures the sense of stasis so many of us have felt over the past couple of years; and the difficulties of moving forward or even being sure of which path to take to do so. To some extent, that state of mind inspired ‘Been Waitin.’

“The night before I started it, it was hailing, and I was outside under an umbrella thinking, oh my god, I’ve got to sit down and write.”

To be clear, Langlois has done plenty of songwriting over time, both with The Hip and for two
previous solo albums, Fix This Head (2012) and Not Guilty (2014). But writing hasn’t been top of mind for him recently. “I might throw a guitar idea down, but a song, proper, I’ve really got to coach myself to do it. When we started The Hip, we were all writing full songs,” he continues, “but it was obvious Gord should be writing the lyrics early on. So I’d be looking for riffs and ideas and bringing in my best every writing session – just like everyone else. So, even on my first solo record, I wondered if I could still do it because it’d been so long.”

Clearly, he can, and then some.

Across the ten songs on Guess What, Langlois finds himself ruminating on time – not just on how it passes, but the moments that stand still and stand out, from the highs of finding the ‘Will To Fight’ and just rocking out on ‘Peels Is Sleep Backwards’ to the lows of finding yourself on the receiving end of ‘Desperation Calling.’ And perhaps nowhere more poignantly on the plaintive and raw ‘Don’t Leave Me, Brother’ a revealing take on loss that, while rooted in Gord Downie’s untimely passing, is sure to be a comfort to anyone suffering grief of any kind.

Recorded over eight days and nights in November 2022, with a bare minimum of overdubs, and co-produced by Langlois, the band, and engineer Niles Spencer, Guess What is fuelled by the kind of immediacy and energy that comes from making a band-based record. Chock full of subtle vocal and instrumental hooks that stick with you long after the album finishes, it’s a testament to what a tight group of talented musicians can accomplish in relatively short order.

“We worked around everyone’s schedules so we could all go into the Bathhouse together. I didn’t want to be chipping away at a song and building it without all of us there.” Instead, Langlois adds, “So, it was more a live experience, recording live off the floor until we got the takes we wanted and having a blast playing together.”

That immediacy comes across on every track, in Langlois’ growing comfort in the role of frontman, Ball’s urgent backing vocals, Carscallen’s blazing and beautifully phrased leads, and Mulvihill and Anglin’s deep connection and rock-solid grooves.

If there’s one thing he’ll take from this experience, Langlois says: “I think it’s the support. It was very much a group effort, and in The Hip, it felt like that, too, except I wasn’t front and centre.”

And now that he is?

“It was kind of overwhelming to convince myself to sit down and write. That’s a daunting thing for me. But now it feels like I’m in a band. Everyone’s so positive and excited; I feel like they’ve got my back. When we play shows, it’s not going to be just me. It’s gonna be our band. In hindsight, I didn’t know it, but that’s the way I wanted this to feel. So, guess what? We did it, and maybe that will spur us on to do it again.

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