Moe Berg Overcomes Fear In The Pursuit Of Happiness
On the eve of his band's biggest hometown show in two decades, Moe Berg reflects upon the deluxe 30th anniversary reissue of TPOH's platinum-selling debut album, and how The Trans-Canada Highwaymen helped him overcome stage fright.
By Kerry Doole
When Toronto rockers The Pursuit Of Happiness headline a show at The Danforth Music Hall on Saturday (Jan. 12), it will be their biggest hometown gig since they started playing shows more regularly a couple of years back.
Momentum has been fuelled by the recent deluxe 30th-anniversary reissue of Love Junk, the group's stellar debut album. That record sold platinum in Canada, earned them fans in the US and beyond, and made many critics lists as one of the best records of that era.
Released last September 21 through Universal Music Canada, the Love Junk Deluxe Edition is available in 2CD, 2LP Deluxe and digital versions. The booklets for both editions contain new liner notes with interviews from band members past & present, written by David Wild (Rolling Stone). The booklet also includes archival photographs both licensed and from the band’s archives.
Earlier this week we interviewed TPOH leader Moe Berg to get the lowdown on Love Junk and the current state of play in TPOH land.
He explains that impetus for the reissue came from UMC's Warren Stewart. "He put me to work to find some stuff for the packaging and some demos and live versions. It was interesting to go back and look through all that stuff and dig up other tracks I likely hadn't listened to in 20 or 30 years. It's like looking at your old baby pictures."
Berg is justifiably proud of the fact that Love Junk's songs, spearheaded by the group's signature hit "I'm An Adult Now," have stood the test of time so well.
"That is a comment we get a lot, which I'm grateful for. People say it doesn't feel dated and that it still has a lot of the energy and spark it had when it came out. I attribute a lot of that to our producer, Todd Rundgren.
"I think two great things happened there with him. We gave Todd about 30 demos when we first approached him about producing the record, and he really did find the 13 best songs. I think that's a reason the record has endured; they were the best songs we had."
"The other thing was the way it was recorded. There's a real immediacy to it. After Todd saw the band live he wanted to make sure to capture that, so we set up in the studio live, and he usually only asked us to do one, two or three takes of anything. Hopefully, you can hear that in the recording."
Rundgren was one of the young Moe Berg's greatest musical heroes. He recalls that "when Todd came to Toronto to see us play, afterwards we hung out all night. That was great as it was an opportunity for me to get all my fan questions out of the way so when we got to the studio, I'd gone through that.
"We were still pretty starstruck, but because the sessions were so relaxed, with the idea of capturing things quickly, that made it a lot of fun. You felt like you were driving a hot rod, going as fast as you can the whole time. It was exhilarating."
Rundgren has remained a fan of the band and friend of Berg, as Moe explains. "He has been pretty good in saying nice things about the record in interviews. We asked him to write some notes for the reissue, and they are great. When I got work with him on a song ["Let's Do This"] for his 2017 White Knight album, that was a dream come true. I checked that in the 'I can't believe this is happening' column."
The current TPOH shows feature Love Junk in its entirety, plus other faves from subsequent albums. "I'm fine with where The Pursuit Of Happiness is at present, which is about being there for fans of our old music," Berg stresses. "We don't play new songs. It is a show for fans who have missed seeing us play. A lot of these towns we have been playing, we haven't been there in 20 years. Fans are fans eager to hear the songs they grew up listening to, and I'm fine with that. I have in my life other new things to look forward to, like new productions and songwriting things I'm involved in, so I feel I can do both."
Aside from two Best Of albums that came out in 2000 and 2005, the last TPOH album was 1996's The Wonderful World of the Pursuit of Happiness. Despite the group's long absence from the scene, Berg states "We never really broke up. We just went on a very extended hiatus, but we'd come back together occasionally, maybe a dozen times, for one-offs or a couple of shows."
One reason for the long break was Berg's reported struggle with stage fright. "I like to say I'm kind of over the stage fright at this point," he says. "I'm enjoying performing again a lot more than I did for a while. I think getting back into it through The TransCanada Highwaymen was pretty helpful."
Formed two years ago, that band is something of a Canadian supergroup, comprising Chris Murphy of Sloan, Steven Page of Barenaked Ladies, and Craig Northey of Odds. "What was great there was that it wasn't all on me," says Berg. "I was just one member of the band, and a lot of the other guys were doing more of the heavy-lifting than I was. That got me back onstage and eased me into it, so it felt a lot easier when we did more TPOH shows."
The Trans-Canada Highwaymen continue to play occasional shows. "Those three guys are super hilarious and great guys. Get us around a breakfast table, and the jokes start flying. It's an entertaining time. It's the same thing with the others in TPOH. We have a blast. The old camaraderie comes back, and there are no personality issues with anyone."
Aside from these two outfits, Moe Berg keeps busy teaching at Fanshawe Collge in London, ON. "I'm into my 10th year there, as First Year Music Production Professor," he explains. "It's a couple of days a week, and an excellent opportunity to take everything I've learned and impart that to the great students we have. It helps keeps you current and you can feed off the energy of these young people."
He also remains active as a producer and songwriter, with recent and current production clients including Olivia and the Creepy Crawlies and Toronto bluesman Little Magic Sam. "I had two songs on a record for Lost In Japan, I'm about to start another record with The James Clark Institute, and I collaborate on songs with Pat Robitaille," Berg adds.
On the topic of potential new TPOH material, the soft-spoken band leader is a mite elusive. "We have tried never to say never. There are no plans to record music as The Pursuit Of Happiness, but that doesn't mean that something might not come up. We want there to be a reason for it to happen. If that manifests itself, I think we'd be up for it."
Love Junk, the 30th anniversary Deluxe Edition, is out via Universal Music Canada.
The Pursuit Of Happiness plays London Music Hall in London on Jan. 11 and the Danforth Music Hall n Toronto on Jan. 12.