“Gord Said, ‘Promise You’ll Finish This'”: Bob Rock Talks ‘Lustre Parfait,’ His Final Album With Gord Downie
Gord Downie performs with The Tragically Hip in Victoria, BC, during the band's final Canadian tour — the 'Man Machine Poem' tour, 2016. Photo: Phillip Chin/WireImage
Bittersweet is not a term typically used to describe gargantuan-sounding rock records made by household-name artists. Yet Lustre Parfait — a collaboration between late singer-lyricist Gord Downie and Canuck super-producer and musician Bob Rock (see Metallica, Bryan Adams, Michael Bublé), which dropped May 5 — is as poignant as it is grandiose.
As the 68-year-old Rock explains from L.A. in his first official interview about the project, after the pair had cut The Tragically Hip’s We Are the Same in 2009, Downie asked if he had any stray music he could write lyrics to. Rock had plenty dating back decades (he’s also a distinguished songwriter). They began collaborating in 2010, grabbing recording time in various locales when packed schedules permitted. There seemed to be no rush; Rock says the sessions were joyful and liberating.
Then Downie died in 2017 at age 53. Lustre Parfait, which Rock describes as a musical manifestation of the pair’s close friendship and the most meaningful thing he has ever worked on, sat in limbo as the Winnipeg-born, Maui-based producer managed his grief.
“I had to go away for a while,” says Rock. “Before he passed, Gord said to me, ‘Promise you’ll finish this and people will hear it.’ After three or four years, I finally realized I could.”
The resulting (very dynamic) album notably features Downie’s vocals high in a mix that includes horns, keyboards, guitars, bass, and a roster of marquee drummers from The Hip’s Johnny Fay to Paul McCartney sidekick Abe Laboriel Jr.
While Rock notes that most of Downie’s impressionistic lyrics were written before his brain cancer diagnosis in 2015, many scan as prophetic, especially in the seven-plus-minute opus, “The Moment Is a Wild Place,” in which he implores listeners to “just live in the moment.”
“That song drove me to tears,” Rock says. “I’m still floored by it.
“I’ve been very blessed to work with great artists. But this is so special because Gord was so special. Obviously, this can never happen again. These songs are a lasting memory of our friendship. They will always move me.”
Rock spoke with Zoomer about the album and fulfilling his promise to Gord Downie.
KIM HUGHES: Can you speak a bit more about the origins of this project, and Gord Downie’s approaching you to collaborate after wrapping up We Are The Same in 2009?
BOB ROCK: Recording two Hip albums (including 2006’s World Container), Gord and I became friends, both being fathers. He wanted to do something different. He asked if I had any music, and I had a catalogue of tracks that never came to fruition, which I sent to him. It all started there.
KH: Did you send completed songs or were they bits and pieces that you built up together?
BR: It’s similar to the way I wrote with Paul Hyde in the Payolas. I put together complete tracks. All the music was pretty much intact. Of course, a lot had to change given what Gord brought to it. Once you get lyrics and melodies, you have to change the music. In one case, the song “Greyboy Says,” I thought the music wasn’t good enough. I kept his vocal and rewrote the whole song.
KH: Where are we in time?
BR: This is around 2010. Some of these tracks were done earlier than that because I’d been collecting them for a decade. Even though I’m not in a band, I continue to write music.
KH: And when did the recordings happen?
BR: To be honest, it’s hard to say when things were done because Gord was busy with The Hip and I was busy producing. Every time we could connect, we did. There was one time we both just happened to be in Los Angeles, so we grabbed three or four days and did some vocals. That’s the way the whole thing was done because we never had much time. I think the longest period we were ever together was four days.
KH: Logistically, how did you pull off assembling this small army of contributors?
BR: All the musicians on the album are very good friends of mine, so I would grab somebody at the end of a session and say, ‘Will you overdub this song I’m working on?’ (Laughs). When Gord was in his last days, I tried to mix the album as it was and then he passed away. And I just couldn’t touch it. I had to go away for a while. But because of [co-producers] Jamey Koch and Adam Greenholtz, I managed to finish the record. We spent two weeks finishing it up. That turned out to be a great thing because I had a different perspective on the album. I realized the most important thing was Gord’s voice, his performances, and lyrics. It all turned out the way it should be.
KH: How would you characterize the recording sessions?
BR: From the word “go” it was good. We both come from different places. He was in a huge band, and the joy we had doing something new together as friends… those were some of the best experiences of my life. Gord was happy. There was a lot of smiling and laughing. That freedom of when you break out of what you’ve been doing, and you find another way to express yourself? It’s really so much fun. And because we hadn’t done anything previously, we didn’t fit into anything. The album is all over the place because it reflects the influences we have.
KH: Why didn’t this come out sooner?
BR: Our lives and careers kind of got in the way. But we were in no hurry to get it out. It was about finishing it properly. So, we took our time. He was diagnosed in 2015 and it stunned me, to be honest. We knew we would never tour as a band, but we looked forward to maybe doing shows, like six shows total, and maybe in art galleries. Gord actually wrote a complete film script around these songs which I never knew. All the lyrics are just incredible. And I really focused on his voice being loud and present. When he was in his band, he was an entity within it. But when I looked at it, I realized that his voice was the most important thing. His vocals are quite loud in the mix on purpose.
KH: Even though this was written before Gord’s cancer diagnosis, it’s tempting to read greater meaning in these lyrics.
BR: I suppose. The one song that is the most moving is “The Moment Is a Wild Place.” It’s long, which is a format I am a big fan of. It’s like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin or Radiohead and it came out intact as a single. That was written before Gord was diagnosed. When I presented that song to other people, they always said, “It’s too long.” Gord never said that. He just listened to it and sent me what he wrote, and I was driven to tears. When someone is inspired to write like he did … I’m still floored by it.
KH: Do you have any sense of how this album will be received?
BR: I just hope people get a chance to hear it, for Gord’s sake. It was basically just me, Jamey Koch, Adam Greenholtz, the four of us finished the record. And the four of us knew it was very special. Because Gord was so special. I can’t say enough about that. It’s one thing to make an album with a friend. But these songs are so personal and meaningful.
People who have heard “The Moment Is a Wild Place” had the same reaction as me. As a matter of fact, I spoke to my manager Bruce Allen, and said “I think this song is maybe a little long [to release as a single]. Do we have to make an edit?” And he said, “No. This is not a silly pop song. This is art. You must leave it at seven minutes.” This is [notoriously business-minded] Bruce Allen talking! He said he never really got The Hip but now he knows why. It was because he could barely hear the lyrics and the vocals.
KH: Fair to say this is the most meaningful thing you’ve ever done?
BR: Absolutely. I’ve been very blessed to work with great artists. I was blessed to work with Paul Hyde, my lifelong friend from school, and he’s up there with Gord in terms of lyrics. But this is very special because of the time we spent together. And it can obviously never happen again so it’s even that much more important. The songs are a lasting memory of our friendship. This will always move me.
A version of this article was published in March 2023.