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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Still Swimming

Chris Morin
Published Thursday August 7, 05:26 pm
From small-town scares to stardom, the Northern Pikes have had quite a ride

Photo Credit: Photo by Dave Dickson


Thursday 14

O’Brians Event Centre

When it comes to Saskatchewan bands, it’s probably safe to say that no one’s enjoyed more popularity than The Northern Pikes, who marked their 30th anniversary earlier this year. And from early days, when they were getting run out of small towns, to the height of their success when they were opening for the likes of David Bowie and Duran Duran, here’s betting nobody has a cooler collection of rock ‘n’ roll stories than The Pikes, either.

The best part? They’re still going. Here’s a look back — and, hopefully, forward — at one of Saskatoon’s most enduring bands.



Future Northern Pikes Jay Semko, Merl Bryck and Don Schmid (along with two other local musicians) start playing together in 1979 as The Idols, a band that delves into power pop, punk rock and new wave. As one of the few SK groups who dares to play their own music in an era when garage bands are relegated to playing cover songs, they aren’t exactly a hit.

If you would play in a smaller town it would freak people out,” recalls Semko. “We would even have situations where we were literally run out of town, where drunken guys would actually chase us. But sometimes you would play a show and it would go really well. It was definitely a different time.”

After The Idols break up, The Northern Pikes are founded in Saskatoon in 1984, with Semko and Bryck joining up with guitarist Bryan Potvin and drummer Glen Hollingshead. The band independently releases two EPs in 1984 and 1985, and starts making waves beyond the prairies.

When we got to Toronto in 1985, it was an eye-opener industry-wise,” says Semko. “There, you were expected to write your own songs, and eventually that filtered down into the prairies — and so everyone started writing their own songs.”

After Hollingshead leaves, Don Schmid, who’s working at a medical supply company, starts filling in on a part-time basis.

I had always dreamed of being in a band that actually made records, but going into a studio to record a song was a bit of a pipe dream back then,” says Schmid. “I wanted to play with the band, but I had a one-year-old daughter, and I didn’t see how there was any way possible to support her while playing.”

Schmid and the band play a talent showcase in the basement of the Centennial Auditorium, where they perform for high school students who are there to decide who they want to hire for their hometown dances. Strangely enough, it’s at this show that Doug Chappell, president of Virgin Records Canada, comes to watch The Pikes on their home turf.

It went really well, and when I went back to work on the following Monday, I received a call from the other guys saying that Chappell liked the band, but was bummed out that I was only filling in and that the band wasn’t complete.”

The band quickly agrees to help cover some of Schmid’s expenses, and he joins the group permanently.

The Northern Pikes eventually sign with Virgin on in December of 1986, and immediately set to work recording their major label debut.

It took six months before we actually signed, and there were times when we thought it was all going to fall apart,” he says. “It was really a roller coaster ride. We were staying out in Toronto and we had no money.”



Recorded in Mississauga, Big Blue Sky skyrockets The Northern Pikes towards Can-rock stardom. The album yields two hit singles — “Teenland” and “Things I Do for Money” — and goes gold by the end of 1987.

During a video shoot in East Coulee, Alberta, the band receives a phone call inviting them to open two shows for David Bowie and Duran Duran at the CNE in Toronto — by far their biggest shows to date.

It was amazing — unbelievable, really,” says Schmid. “It was really bizarre playing outside in a big football stadium, and we had no idea what we sounded like. You can’t even imagine. But it was more space than we had ever had before, and for Merl to put his guitar down and run around with the mic was a great experience.”

Secrets of the Alibi is released in 1988 and produces several more radio hits, as well as two Juno nominations. The Northern Pikes start touring extensively, including an opening spot on Robert Palmer's 1989 tour. They also begin road-testing songs for their next album.

We knew ‘Girl With a Problem’ was going to be big,” says Schmid. “But with ‘She Ain’t Pretty’, Bryan didn’t even want to play it for us. He said it was a silly song, but we made him play it and it was great. In fact, no song has come quicker to the band than that one. We were in a basement in Saskatoon, and we banged it out in two hours.”

The band retreats to a secluded studio in Bearsville, New York, where they record Snow in June. It’s an instant hit and goes platinum in Canada. The Pikes produce a claymation music video for “She Ain’t Pretty”, which becomes their highest-charting song.

The video was really expensive,” says Schmid. “In those days, bands would spend $100,000, which wasn’t that unrealistic for bands that had record deals. It was just the way things were done.”

Keyboardist Ross Nykiforuk begins playing with the band in 1990.

Hitting the height of their popularity, the Pikes record and release their fourth full-length album Neptune in 1992, and a live LP called Gig in 1993. They then spend much of the next two years touring, leaving the band exhausted.

That was nine years for the other guys and seven for me, and The Northern Pikes was all that we did,” says Schmid. “We needed a break more than anything.”



With two more albums to go on their contract, The Northern Pikes break up in July of 1993.

Before completely going their separate ways, several members help Semko write and record the theme song for Due South, a Canadian television series about a Mountie who solves crimes in the U.S. Semko also releases his first solo album, Mouse, in 1995, while Potvin works as an A & R representative for Polygram Records and, in 2000, releases his own solo CD, Heartbreakthrough. Schmid starts a group called The Non-Happeners who also drop an album.

Despite the split, the members of The Northern Pikes remain in touch.

We were all [still] involved with music, but in a different way,” says Schmid. “The break was important, but none of us had really worked with other people in that way until we split. There’s good and bad with anything. You realize that chemistry between musicians is something that just happens, or else it doesn’t. And we realized what we had was pretty special, because you can’t just go out and find that.”



After several years apart, the members of The Northern Pikes are contacted by Virgin Records in 1999 to help put together a greatest hits album. In response, the band gets back together to do some shows to promote the record. Their first show is a New Year’s Eve gig in Saskatoon, which is eventually cancelled because of the Y2K scare.

It was an odd time. It sounds really ridiculous, but I guess nobody really knew what was going to happen,” says Schmid. “Stuff was getting cancelled all over the world.”

Once everyone realizes that the world hasn’t come to an end, the band starts to roll forward. The Northern Pikes once again tour across Canada, garnering rave reviews, and the trek inspires another live album.

The singles were still being played at that point anyway,” says Schmid. “And we had fallen into classic rock to some degree, because our songs were a part of that [radio] rotation.”

In the summer of 2000, The Northern Pikes head back into the studio, and Truest Inspiration is released the following year. The band tours again, including a stint in Japan in 2003, before heading back to Saskatoon to record their seventh full-length album, It’s a Good Life, which they release independently.

It’s hard enough for a band to make a decision on something, never mind getting managers and a record label involved,” says Schmid. “I like to think we’re at peace with our place in the music business. We have a good idea where we stand and the kind of gigs we are capable of getting.”

The Pikes then collaborate with Les Stroud, which inspires a six-song EP called Les Stroud and The Pikes: Long Walk Home, released in the spring of 2007.

Around this time, Bryck begins to stray from the group. And, after the departure of Nykiforuk in 2010, The Northern Pikes become a self-described “power trio.”

The full band is briefly reunited in 2012 when they perform at their induction into the Western Canadian Music Hall of Fame in Regina.

It was nice in that Merl came and played with us for those three songs — we hadn’t played with him in years, and it was like he’d never left,” says Schmid.

It was emotional in some ways,” he continues. “I’d never really ever given those sorts of things [like awards] any kind of thought, but when it finally happened it was really an honour, and to be included with those other bands was a great feeling.”



On their 30th anniversary, The Northern Pikes (once again a trio) announce a string of summer gigs across western Canada, including the upcoming Saskatoon show with Kim Mitchell.

Even though some members are now living in different places across the country, Schmid is still hopeful for new Northern Pikes recordings.

Never say never,” says the drummer. “Recording is so different these days, where you can easily record an EP or even just one or two songs now. But I hope that we do and I think it’s still realistic.

It’s always nice to have something on the horizon — we love the old songs, but it’s always fun to have a new song to play as well.”

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