People and Places

CBC Traffic Guy Doug Hempstead on Split Shifts, Sinkholes, and Making Music as Area Resident

In the five hours between split shifts talking Queensway delays and clogged thoroughfares, Doug Hempstead records music in his Bells Corners basement under the name Area Resident. His self-titled debut album — mixed, edited, and mastered in Pembroke by Blinker the Star’s Jordon Zadorozny — draws from experiences in Ottawa and the Valley. There’s even a tune about the much-mocked/heralded Rideau Sinkhole Van. We attempt to keep Hempstead, prone to tangents, on track in this Q&A.

AlbumCover
Hempstead worked with Andrew King to create the art work for his album, Area Resident.

You’re well known as CBC’s Traffic Guy. What should people know about you as Area Resident?
I’ve been playing music in bands since I was a teenager. Recording at home is my hobby. I bought a little Fostex MR-8 and have been recording in the basement since 2003. I don’t play anything other than bass and drums, but at home you can write for instruments you don’t really play and record bits at a time.

You work a split shift. What is a typical day like for you?
I get up at 4 a.m. and leave for work around 5 a.m and get to work about 5:15. I go through different websites and try to figure out what’s going on for the day and what is a bit unusual, like where construction is starting or ending. I do a blog, a couple of silly tweets, write my first traffic update, which comes on at 6:10 a.m., and then I do updates every 10-15 minutes until 8:30 a.m. Then I go home. The great thing about a split shift is that I can do all of the parental admin: orthodontist appointments, getting the stickers for your licence plates, then the vacuuming, laundry, splitting firewood — that kind of stuff. I head back in for 2 p.m. and do the traffic again for the afternoon show, All In a Day, then I go home. Everyone comes home to a clean house. We can chill and I stay up until 10 p.m. then I do it all over again.

Your life is an open book on air. Do you take any flak at home for that?
There was one time last winter when I went out at 4 a.m., just after the snow plow went by. I borrowed my neighbour’s scoop shovel and I broke it. I had shovelled my driveway, but they still had this messy mountain of plow effluent and they had no way to clear it. I had to text them to apologize. I told this story on air in the morning and when my wife got to work, all of her co-workers were saying, ‘Doug’s going to be in trouble with the neighbours’ and she had no idea what they were talking about. Generally speaking, I don’t think I say anything that’s a faux pas or taboo but if pressed, I probably would.

Your colleagues like to take their turn too: your outfits, being tardy, missing the alarm.
You decide what kind of person you are going to be on the radio. The best answer is just be yourself, right? I would describe myself as a bit of a jerk know-it-all, a bit of a goof. I’m a bit of a kid. I don’t take anything too seriously apart from my job and I want to be the best at it. I actually want to shame the competition and beat them badly. I like to knock it out of the park, but I don’t take it home with me. The expectations are predictable. It’s not like driving taxi, which I did in Pembroke to pay for college. It was a lot of bingo runs.

DougHempsteadbyDougHempstead

I love the dynamic between you all in the studio. It seems you’re the one that always has to be reined in.
When I was in the first week of training, they sent Robyn [Bresnahan], David [Gerow], and I out to Bier Markt next door at like 11 o’clock in the morning and said go have a few drinks and get to know each other. It was a great thing to do. We get along great, we’re really tight, and we know each other well because we had that time to spend together.

Have you ever been slapped on the wrist for your off-script asides?
No. I’ve only had my wrist slapped for procedural things. Because I’m a huge Montreal Canadiens fan, it’s hard to keep my mouth shut when you know that John Hancock is coming on next and you want to say something about sports, but there is an order to things. I have to throw back to Robyn or she throws to me. If I throw the order of things off, that can be confusing to the listener.

Your work meets your art in the song Concrete Caravan. Tell us about it.
I’ve always written about my work and a lot of songs come from news stories. With “Concrete Caravan,” I set out to do it because I kept telling the producers at All in a Day that we should have a contest for listeners to write a ballad about this van that they piled all this concrete on and that’s down there for all time. It’s like the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” I said, I’m going to write about this sinkhole van. I took lines from news stories, like the line about the “hissing hole.” What a great image that is.

Other tunes touch on nostalgia, fear, suburban ennui. Is that a fair summary of what’s going on in your head these days?
It’s about suburban isolation. “Threshold” is a love song that I wrote for my 15-year-old daughter and her boyfriend because they have a great relationship. “Canopy” is about when I left the Ottawa Sun. I used some of my pension payout to buy stock in Canopy Growth, the medicinal marijuana company. The stocks are doing well, so I guess it’s a weed song. “Brown Carpet to Cover the Stairs” is about how 15 years ago appliances all went stainless steel and granite countertops were popular and everything became very cold and clean. It’s all a kind of tension, a cold tension. It’s kind of like skinny jeans. I was at Moore’s today and there’s these skinny suit pants — but in a size 40 waist!

What About Holy Hell and Holy Days?
It’s about my mom, Barbara — my favourite person — who died just after midnight on November 12. Over the years she was getting progressively worse. She had congestive heart failure and emphysema. My mom was 84 when she died and my dad is still kicking; he’s 87. Holy Hell is the terrifying stuff. The Holy Days is because my mom was a classic ‘50s homemaker and at Christmas the special Bible would come out, the wise men on the mantelpiece, the special candles for that time of year, the wreaths. She was queen of Christmastime and the holy days was a reference to her love of special occasions.

How is your dad adjusting?
That’s the thing. Men from that era are a bit macho, so they don’t like to admit it, but he does look across from his chair to her empty chair where they used to watch TV together. They were married for sixty-two years! If listeners want to know where my sense of humour comes from, that’s where it came from. My mother. She was sarcastic and critical.

You did post-production work with Jordon Zadorozny. What approach did you take in working with him?
I recorded it in Garageband. Each track has twenty-plus tracks to make it sound full. I would export the tracks into Dropbox, send them to Jordon, who would import them into ProTools, and make them sound good. He would make a few edits, fix the levels, put some effects on, do some massaging and overdubs.

The album maintains a ‘90s feel — though hazier, drearier almost. Is that what life in the Valley is like?
I hear Guided By Voices in it — a lot of Do the Collapse-era stuff. I didn’t set out to do any of that. I only ever set out with, ‘Is this going to be a fast one or a slow one?’ You just write hooks and string them together.

It’s got a throughline, like a kind of low, looping hum. Did you do that on purpose?
No, none of that. If there’s a hum it’s because I’m using cheap power bars and a cheap audio interface.

Andrew King does a bang-up job of illustrating your cover. There’s a mid-century bungalow all slick and of a time. How did that come together?
I follow him on Twitter and I knew about him getting in trouble for giving away free t-shirts on Sparks Street. I just loved his art and decided to reach out to him. We set up a date, met at Morning Owl downtown, and he showed me his work. The first image he showed me on his laptop is the album cover. I said, ‘That’s perfect!’ In the end, all he wanted for it was a bottle of whisky.

What is the best song about traffic and transportation? Okay, top three, er, five.
The obvious one is “Traffic Jam” by James Taylor, there’s “Crosstown Traffic” by Jimi Hendrix, “Drive My Car,” “Magic Bus.” There’s all kinds of ‘em: “Highway to Hell,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Long and Winding Road,” “Walk This Way,” “Bicycle Race.”

Active transportation! Niiiiice! I know you report on bike lanes, which I appreciate.
It’s because none of my competition do and I like to kick their ass at something. Bike people in one respect are really easy to please because they’re delighted to have someone trying to give them some help and on the other hand they’re difficult to please because they’re used to being endangered and flat out scorned by drivers. The places I go for information is all about cars, so the best source I have for cycling, and for all of my traffic reports, is our listeners. I get 15-30 calls in the afternoon. I have one woman who gives all of her kids a turn to say what they’ve seen each week. Six-year-old Craig calls and tells me what he sees.

Do you ever get used to early rising for morning radio?
Suuuure. I worked at Loblaws back in the early days of Sunday shopping and they had to pay you double time. My brother and I would go in at six o’clock in the morning. There’s a proud lunchpail mentality in my family. It was cool to go out in the dark when no one’s out on the road yet and you’re going out to do this job that is down to you to get it done. I like going to work with a purpose and they’re waiting for me to get there. That’s me, that’s my peg that’s been pushed into the map.