In Québec, the expression "n'a pas la langue dans sa poche" has a direct translation: “He doesn’t keep his tongue in his pocket."
Our translation: The Mofo speaks his mind.
Well, a hang with Montréal’s semi-reclusive superstar Michel Pagliaro, a.k.a. Pag, never disappoints in that department.
The first artist in Canada to have hit singles and gold records in both English and French, Pag speaks in the cadence of the Italian "wiseguy" as he delivers the views of a very wise man. In conversation, his soft-spoken baritone, polished smooth by years of rocking, is thoughtful and considered.
In the music business, there’s a tendency to refer to the elder statesmen (and women) of rock as “legacy artists,” which we all know is politically correct speak for “old fucks.” But in Québec, Michel Pagliaro is a rebel hero; a kind of locavore Bruce Springsteen who has written the soundtrack to peoples' youth. He’s the insider's outsider: ever popular, yet ever resistant, to playing a card-carrying member of the Québec vedettariat.
Pag had his first hit in his late teens. Ever since quitting a summer job in a lumberyard, his fulltime occupation for the past 50 years has been reluctant rock star. Songs like "Give Us One More Chance," "Rainshowers," "Lovin' You Ain't Easy," "We're Dancing," "J'ai marché pour une nation," and "J'entends frapper," have won him hit records, faithful followers, a 2008 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award and, in 2010, a Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame Award.
He arrived for the interview via electric scooter at his downtown Montréal studio, his tanned face framed by large sunglasses, long grey hair and a silver-white bushman beard.
Matt Zimbel: You’ve been threatening a CD of new material for, what, 28 years now? I heard September is a possible new date to release something.
Michel Pagliaro: We’re in September.
MP: The thing is not when it comes out; it’s more of what comes out, in my case. I’m not ready to do something that I don’t get off on. I would see no reason to go through everything an artist has to go through to get to the end zone if it’s only a commercial test, the repackaging of your name. You've got to do something that’s really good. I’ve got something that’s really good and it’s gonna come out.
MZ: That’s what you’ve been saying for a really long time. Can you give us an idea? Is it written and recorded, mixed and mastered?
MP: I have all the tunes. I have all the tracks. (It's) just a matter of finishing it up and finishing it right. Basically, this took a long time because I couldn’t get any money to produce, so I just kept writing and jamming. There were three projects that were not finished because of misunderstandings or goals that were not conducive, or (due to a) lack of financing. I’ve got tons of music. But it’s better to put out stuff that people are going to remember, rather than because people want to merchandise your name. If you’re not too happy about the product and it comes out and people say, 'oh, he was better when he was this way,' then you've got to eat it…but I don’t care about pressure. I’m an old hippie.
I don’t know if you’re proud of everything you do, but hopefully the outcome is that you can say, ‘hey, I can play this for 12 years...I can play this for six months...or at the very least, I can play this again.’ If not, what’s the point? Because you want to stay in the wheel of commerce...or you don’t want to lose the front page...or you don’t want to fall into oblivion...or whatever other reasons that might jolt your insecurities, so that you would put out something that you’re not happy with? This is not something that I go along with too well. Obviously, a lot of these projects didn’t finish on good terms.
But you know, at least the artist didn’t suffer… the other guys, well, hey, it wasn’t their money anyway. So why do they give a shit? They get the money from people like you and me. When I started in this thing, people put their hands in their pockets and they said, 'hey, these guys are great! I want to produce this.' But now, even if the guy loses all the money- what does he care? It’s not his money. So, the motivations are quiet different. Here, if they don’t subsidize, who’s going to bet on a thing like that? Nobody. If they wait on the artist to do it themselves like I do, well, there would be more empty space.
You sign the paper for a subsidy. In 12 months, you have to lay the egg. If you don’t like the egg - well...too bad, thank you. But with me - if it’s my egg - I want to at least get the chance to play one of those eggs again.
MZ: We’re sitting in your beautiful studio. It doesn’t seem to me like money is the biggest thing standing in the way of a new record.
MP: Well, yeah, it’s a good place, but it’s a studio - not a bank. It’s just a guy that’s got to go out and sing to keep all this going.
MZ: Some artists like you, who have had massive success early in their careers, still want to create new work while their audience just wants to hear the classics. Do you worry about that after 28 years without a new record?
MP: It’s a memory thing. You were doing Linda on the couch when you heard that tune for the first time …so you remember. I’m being facetious, but you know what I mean.
I don’t see it as a pressure. That’s not where my head is at. I don’t really give a shit.
MZ: Well you must give a shit about the work...
MP: Definitely! I do give a shit about the work. But if I stop making music tomorrow, I don’t owe anyone anything. For me, this is a challenge, but the end result is what really counts. I need to say, ‘this is really good, let’s put it out.’
The new record is three electric guitars, bass, drums and vocals, very raw. But tone is very important. You can bring in the best guy in the world to play - he’s got all the pedals, the amps and guitars - but the tone is not there. Or you might get some kid off the street with his fucked up guitar and he’s got the tone and it works great! It’s a very subtle thing, but it’s like theatre: an actor comes out and says that line and it doesn’t do anything, no one believes it …
I like to provoke ideas. I’m not a poet. Very rarely will I come up with the whole text and then accompany myself with some chords. Usually, I try to provoke my melodic impulses through having a whole bunch of people play together. Then, I might get a beat. We develop it. I wiggle through it. Sometimes, you need to get away from the expected thing...sometimes, we will jam a polka for 20 minutes. It doesn’t matter. Then, all of a sudden, it brings you someplace you didn’t expect to go.
I don’t go in with a mindset.
MZ: Sylvain Cormier at Le Devoir called you "the master of false simplicity:” You listen to your songs...they are immediately hooky and memorable...and yet, underneath that there is a complex arrangement or chord progression...
MP: Simplicity is a difficult thing, in the sense that something is rendered that touches you. But it can’t be glamorized, it has to be pure. What’s the point of creating something you don’t like? Then you have to put it out and live with it.
MZ: At some point, this new record of yours is going to come out and you are going to be proud of it. Or, it’s not going to come out. Right?
MP: Right. I am proud of it. Definitely.
MZ: As a songwriter, you’ve had a unique relationship with French-and-English-speaking audiences, especially for a rock artist.
MP: I don’t think of myself as a rock artist. What’s that? Something with fuzz on it? I’m a tune guy.
MZ: A lot of Francophone artists say rock music was meant to be sung in English because of the way the lyrics scan.
MP: Basically, it’s because of history. Chuck Berry, Little Richard - it’s from the south. It’s part of their culture. it’s not a part of French culture. Doesn’t mean it’s not good; it’s just not part of their culture.
MZ: Does Québec have a sound?
MP: If it does, I haven’t heard it. But there is a music culture here - partially because of the technician culture.
MZ: What language are you writing more in these days...English, or French?
MP: I've got a hard time calling it writing. For me, writing is someone who gets up at 6 a.m. and writes for three hours a day. Here in Québec, they only write when they get subsidies. They call it: 'I’m in my writing period.' That means, he got a subsidy to write. It’s like it’s a hobby: if you’re a writer, you have to write. It’s visceral. You don’t wait until you have everything you need: This is you.
A lot of people ask me, 'what is an artist?' An artist is someone who doesn’t want to do anything. He doesn’t want to work: he wants to live off of whatever he creates. Hey, if he can throw paint on the wall and make $100K every time, he’s going to be throwing paint on the wall.
In the commercial world, when you start recording stuff, there’s a lot of constraints. There are a lot of steps before you get it to the people. You’re in the studio. You record the tune. You mix the tune. You get the promo people. They've got to talk to the distributor. They've got to get interest over here. Who’s paying all these people now? Nobody, because there’s no money! (laughs)
It was hard before...now, it’s almost impossible. To make a living playing music is a very complex thing. The exploitation only works when it’s massive.
MZ: How has the TV talent show changed the geography?
MP: You try and bring a musician to Radio-Canada and they say, 'a musician?' It’s like you’re trying to bring polio. Meanwhile, the weather guy has two assistants...there’s a guy to carry the donuts...but a musician?
'No, we couldn’t do that!'
Meanwhile, they’re all talking about culture. Why bring a star on TV? He’s gonna cost you money. Bring on some guy nobody knows...they’re going to watch anyway! Why promote somebody that doesn’t belong to you? These shows are killing everything for everybody: They don’t have the talent to back it up. They sing a cover song one time. That’s not an hour-and-a-half show! That’s not an artist! That’s a guy who won a contest! It’s not the same thing.
Sometimes an artistic soul goes into a contest and can become an artist. I’m not knocking it...but in a small market like this, I would just say, it is not conducive to keeping up what they like to call 'culture.' It’s doing the opposite! But they don’t see it: they only see the immediate result.
MZ: You have had a lot of control over your contracts and copyrights early on in your career. That was very uncommon in the days when you started. How did you do that?
MP: At one point, you need to get help to get you extricated from your contracts. Sometimes, I got help to do that. For me, it was not money-or-rights-geared: It was artistic freedom. It’s my thing: I sing what I want. I do what I want. You’re the record company...you want to sing? Sing, then: you’re not going to tell me what to do.
MZ: Is that the Italian in you? "You ain’t gonna fuckin’ tell me what ta do…!"
MP: No not at all. It’s just that at one point, if you belong to somebody, you have to do what they want you to do. That is the part that made me keep the rights and the tapes. Maybe if I had been with really serious players - people who were trying to do really big stuff - maybe it might have been different. It was not empire-building. This is not an empire.
MZ: How many dates do you do a year?
MP: Twenty-five-to-30, but we’re going to start doing more.
MZ: Are you excited about that?
MP: It’s a necessity. Excited? I enjoy playing, so I guess the excitement comes from there. The show works very well. We always get good responses. I always try to give as much as I can and I always expect the band to do the same.
MZ: Do you remember the last time you played in Toronto?
MP: Yeah it was opening slot for Peter Frampton at the CNE, three million years ago. I lived in Cabbagetown for a while. I like Toronto. It’s a buzzing city. I have a lot of friends there. Toronto’s more like a business place. Here, you can fall asleep easy...time goes by and nobody does anything.
MZ: What can we expect in Toronto?
MP: A great hot rock show. We will have fun.
Pag plays his first Toronto gig in more than 30 years on Sept. 29 @ 8 PM at the Phoenix Concert Theatre.
-- About Matt Zimbel: For the past 38 years Matt Zimbel has worked as a musician, artistic director, broadcast executive, writer, producer, television and radio host. Zimbel’s career is full of distinguished accomplishment and a body of work that has been performed, published, licensed and celebrated around the world. His peers have acknowledged him with Juno Awards, Gemini Awards, Actra Awards and numerous other industry accolades. His 12th album with Manteca, The Twelfth of Never, was released last week by Pheromone Recordings. It has its official live performance debut on Nov. 10th at Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. He, like many, is an enormous fan of Pag.