The name looms large over Canadian rock'n'roll, for a multitude of reasons.
For a certain generation of Canadians, Sloan were the first homegrown band they fell in love with: the band who would send them scurrying to track down import EPs and 7" singles, the band who jumped from obscurity to a major label American deal while running their own respectable indie in the process, the band with myriad built-in dramas (girlfriends in the incestuous Halifax scene, constant threat of break-up, label battles), the band that inspired a genuine love from average fans unlike many of their peers.Their mid-90s albums still hold up well: take the best tracks from 1994's Twice Removed, 1996's One Chord to Another and 1998's Navy Blues and you have as brilliant a pop album as this country's ever produced. Since then, the band's been in a bit of a tailspin, falling out of fashion as those kids got older, and scoring their best hits when they aimed for the middle of the road--like the nonetheless excellent 2002 single "The Other Man" (which, and this cat has long been out of the bag, is actually about Chris Murphy getting between Feist and the Apostle of Hustle). Fairweather fans are well-advised to check the 2005 singles comp A-Sides Win for further evidence.
Nonetheless, Canadian critics--many of whom came of age during Sloan's golden era--for the most part gave them a free pass, even on 2004's turgid Action Pact. That album reeked of placation: to rock radio, to lughead expectations, to major labels, to America. And Canada, for that matter, as Chris Murphy's shameless nationalist pandering could be heard in the single "Rest of My Life," where he sang about wanting to live the rest of his life in Canada. Come on, even the Rheostatics and Tragically Hip don't stoop to that, and Sloan of all people always seemed to consciously avoid that kind of writing in the first place (which can be done well: ask Sloan's old friend Joel Plaskett). It all sounded like a resignation, and not just because of its classic 70s rock aesthetic, but because the songs simply sounded limp. If it had actually kicked ass--like much of Navy Blues--it would be a very different story. Nonetheless, we still got to read most critics buy the party line at the time: the band has never felt more united, we needed a change of scenery and more direction (which is why they recorded in L.A. with Tom Rothrock), this is "getting back to basics" or some such nonsense.
So no one was expecting much from their new album, titled Never Hear the End of It. On its overly meta opening track, "Flying High Again," Jay Ferguson sings, "Right or wrong, you know we'll never disappear." And here we have evidence as to why they shouldn't: they still have it in them to make amazing radio rock that aims right for the heart of both the mainstream listener and the hardcore vinyl geek. Granted, the main criticism of Sloan is still valid: it too often sounds like mere pastiche. But just because they get the sound down perfectly doesn't mean they can't add their own songs to the canon, and the shocking thing about this ballsy 30-song set is that their batting average is ridiculously high, particularly in the album's first third. The vocal arrangements soar, Andrew Scott is still one of rock's best drummers, and even the most trivial songs here still beat out most of their recent discography.
I interviewed Andrew Scott for the Kitchener-Waterloo Record in early October. The album had just come out and they were already on tour in the Maritimes. I've known Chris Murphy for years via the Exclaim Hockey league and other connections (and played on stage with him in a cover band for such gatherings); Jay Ferguson and I have mutual friends and he's always impeccably charming whenever I meet him. Both of them are hosts on CBC Radio 3 when time permits. Further disclosure: my old roommate Victor Wolters did lights for them on the Action Pact tour--which I have to say in the most unbiased way possible, was the best light show I've ever seen in a rock club, working brilliant and subtle choreography with very simple flourescent lights.
O, and they appear on the cover of this book.
But Scott is always a mystery to many. He's the most reclusive member of the band, and the least likely guy to still be playing in a rock band at his age. That's what made our conversation more interesting to me--especially because this is the kind of record that he obviously wanted to make, perhaps even more so than his bandmates. And for a guy who makes it sound like he puts his head down and lets others steer the ship, he's also very opinionated on the topic of Action Pact.
I hadn't listened to the new album since doing this interview, but going back to it today I like it even more than my first impression. It's undoubtedly a new lease on life, and more power to them for it.
Sloan play Toronto's Kool Haus this Thursday, November 30. It's a make-up date for an earlier show that was postponed due to Murphy's throat infection.
Sloan, Andrew Scott
September 26, 2006
locale: phone interview from hotel room in Prince Edward Island
How are you approaching the set list with so much new material? How do you fit that in with all the greatest hits?
We’re concentrating mostly on the new record, to some people’s chagrin. But we’re not doing it for you—we’re doing it for ourselves. We’re throwing in the odd oldie here and there. We’ve also employed a fifth musician for the first time in our long, storied career. We got this guy Greg MacDonald who’s playing keyboards for us, and he’s fantastic. He’s this ultra-musical person from Vancouver.
Was he in a band out there?
Chris knows him better than anybody. I don’t know if he was actually playing in a band at the time, but he was keen to jump aboard when we asked him to do it. He’s a great singer and great musician.
I imagine you were being a bit facetious when you said it was to the audience’s chagrin that you’re playing so much new material.
Well, not fully. Our record is so new that a lot of people, especially out here [in the Maritimes], we’re playing a lot of university shows, and a lot of those people just know the hits, so to speak, and not necessarily the albums, especially this new one. So a lot of people are standing there wondering, ‘what song is this?’
This comes right after putting out a hits package. Was there anything you learned from putting that together that influenced how this one was made?
It was a combination of a number of things. It was a time-saving maneouvre for us. The time was right to do something like that. It was an attempt to put out a release in the States that people could latch on to for people who had never heard of us before and could get a taste of what we’re about. If it worked, great, if not, I don’t know. It gave us the urge to go and make a new record quickly, and make a big long one and get a whole bunch of new songs to play, because we were all getting a bit tired of playing the old ones.
You in particular, I would imagine—last time you didn’t have any songs on that record. I heard you saying at the time that you were a new dad and didn’t have much to write about at the time…
Yeah, I had had songs that I was offering to that record, but I wasn’t thrilled with the state they were in and nobody else was either. And they all had a ton of songs ready to go, and we were under the gun time-wise because we recorded in L.A. with a producer. There were constraints that we had to consider, so I decided to not bother trying a few of my songs just for the sake of getting them on a record.
With the exception of Jay—whose voice is always distinctive to me—I have a lot of trouble distinguishing voices on this album. How many songs do you have on this record?
I have eight, but a lot of them are really short. I own four of the one-minute-and-ten-seconds-or-less songs. Those were really fun to make and I think they make sense in the context of the record. They’re these connector vignettes that we planned on doing and we made them up on the spot and recorded them.
I think those kinds of songs make this record work.
I think if it was a double record of five-minute songs…
You would never hear the end of it. Literally.
You’re not the only one writing those shorter songs, so why was that? Were you getting bored with repeating choruses?
I don’t think it’s that. It’s just doing what we do a little differently, which you have to do if you want to try and continue to get better as a band and make better records one after the other. It was a conscious decision. It wasn’t like we decided to come up with exactly ten songs around a minute long. We just wrote a whole bunch of them, and those are some of my favourite songs on the record.
The sequencing of the record works really well, and some sections work as suites, not unlike The Who or the Fiery Furnaces.
Again, a very conscious decision.
How does that work with different writers? Do you check to see who’s writing in the same key, or what?
It was very thought out in terms of what songs would run into each other. If one ended in A minor and one began in A major, those two would go together. We played around with them in their earlier states and knew which ones would work and which wouldn’t.
Even lyrically there are some threads. “Something’s Wrong” comes right after “Right or Wrong.”
Yeah, right. That’s more of a happy accident.
Every time a new Sloan album comes out, I read countless articles where the writer says the same thing: they apologize for the last record, they say the band has never been more unified in years, and this album marks a new direction for the band. And yet this is the first time I think that’s been true in almost ten years! How do you feel about that cycle?
The press is going to be whatever it is. It’s not for us or from us. People who listen to our records have a different take on them than we do, and that’s the case with any band. What’s written about you is uncontrollable. But I think this is the record we’ve had to make for a long time, and I’m really glad we did. We were humming and hawing about the notion of making a double album, and whether we’d have enough good material to fill it out. We were lucky that everybody wrote so much and we came up with 30 songs—and that’s edited down from probably about 55 of them. With four of us writing, the onus isn’t on one guy to come up with all the material.
Action Pact struck me as the most divisive record of your career. Some people loved it, and…
Oh yeah, and some people just hated it. That’s usually the case with our band, though, is that people either love us or hate us.
But this was fans who were divided, people who already liked the band.
Yeah, I know. That one really pissed ‘em off! I don’t know, there’s some success to that too. If you can make people mad with a record, you’re doing something right. That record was an obvious attempt at something that failed. Like every successive record for us, we just say, ‘Well, back to the drawing board.’
When you say that the album has been trying to make this record for a couple of years, what reasons prevented that from happening before?
I’m just talking from my own personal point of view. I always prefer weirder records that have more art potential as opposed to a commercial reach, so to speak. For a while there, we were really trying to get our records played on the radio and trying to sell some records, and considering how much longer are we going to keep this thing going, and what do we have to do in order to make that happen? It’s not like there’s a formula. You can’t predict anything. You can think that you do what you do and cross your fingers and hope it’s going to happen, but it’s not necessarily going to. Now, even more so in the world of record buying, it’s a question of who’s buying records and who’s not. It’s a confused Titanic, the whole music industry.
So why not do what you love, then.
Yeah. I’m glad we just decided to fuck that whole thing of striving for commercial success. You’re not going to be satisfied anyway. Even if Action Pact did sell a million records in the States, it would probably backfire in some way or another. There’s some comfort in being an underdog all the time.
Comparing the process of the last two albums, I find a lot of Canadian bands in particular will go to the bigger American city and make an expensive record with a name producer, and it’s not any better than a record they do make closer to home.
Yeah. And you’re lucky if you ever hear from that band ever again, in the case of a lot of them. This one, we did it totally ourselves, recorded it at our rehearsal space, did it on a couple of laptops. Our soundman produced it and engineered it with us. It was such a comfortable environment.
And not even creatively, but even just the sound of it—it sounds as big as the L.A. record. The advantage of that old model doesn’t seem relevant to me anymore.
For sure. You can make a really good record in your basement.
With 30 songs, there are obviously a lot of musical tangents you could have gone on, and yet the record is remarkably consistent. Were you tempted to throw some curveballs, or was it a question of focusing on strengths?
It was more focusing on our strengths. Some of the songs will be considered curveballs to some fans, like the ones who were pissed off at Action Pact. These people get so caught up in it that there’s always something that they will be dumbfounded by.
With a band that’s been around as long as you have, there will always be a conservative element of the fan base who want you to do one thing.
Of course. And because we’ve never been huge, they still claim us as their own. They still think they own us and nobody else is allowed to touch us.
To me it sounds quite consistent all the way through, with the exception of one acoustic songs that sticks out—in a good way.
That’s a really great song, and it suits the album. The whole notion of consistent records never occurs to me. I like compilation records, or ones that go from one thing to the next.
At one point in the process did you come up with the title?
That was a pulling teeth we had on the plane to Winnipeg one day. For me, I’m not reading too much into the title of any record. The Times They Are a Changing by Bob Dylan—'well, I guess that’s just what it’s called.’ Or Let it Bleed—hey, good title. If it were up to me, I’d close my eyes and point at the newspaper and whatever two words they landed on, that would be the title. But there are some people in my band who actually take a bit more care and pride and come up with a title that has some sort of connected meaning to this or that. It’s always going to be some kind of pun, but I don’t mind it. If it’s something I hate, I’ll stand up and say that it’s terrible. If it’s something I can live with, that’s fine, just count me out of the equation.
What’s it been like learning all these songs again for the live show? According to the YouTube stuff [behind the scenes footage from the studio that the band posted in the lead-up to the release] most of the band might not even have played on specific songs on the record.
A lot of them were, but that’s always been the case with us. With the exception of Twice Removed and Action Pact, which are the two records we used a producer for. We’re a weird band of weird people. We’ve been doing it together for a long time, and we know what’s going to work and what’s not. On my songs, I generally play everything. I’m not doing that to consciously exclude anybody else. But it’s my little art project on this collective art project, and I just like to do it my way. Then we play them live together as a band, and they take on a different live, which is nice. I don’t want our live show to be a carbon copy of the record.
Were these rehearsals the most gruelling, with so much new material to learn?
No, not at all. It’s so often the case with us that we have to learn how to play the record afterwards. It was nice having Greg come along and really add some body to the sound of everything. We’re pretty at ease with one another now, and we know what to expect. It was an enjoyable pre-production period.
You’re playing Oktoberfest in Kitchener, and to the best of my knowledge, you’re actually sharing the stage with another living Canadian legend: Walter Ostanek. How will rubbing shoulders with this icon compare with, say, the Rolling Stones?
Well, it will have a different sort of feel. There won’t be as much fanfare, for sure, for old Walter. There won’t be half as many crew members milling about. The Stones is such a giant circus when you play with them. We don’t spend any time with them, they don’t know us, they didn’t ask us to come and play with them. It’s one of these political lotteries that managed to get us on three Stones shows in one year. It’s great, you can’t say no to them, and why would you? It doesn’t get any bigger than that.
Walter Ostanek, though! That’s big! Can we expect any collaboration?
Hey, I’ll happily get him up to play accordion on a couple of our songs. We’ll make it so.
Some of them are really short, so he can learn them at soundcheck.
Most of them are two chords, so it will be perfect. We’ll let what happens happen.
post-script: Chris Murphy was felled by a severe throat problem, which cancelled the Oktoberfest. We’ll have to wait and see if these two Canadian icons will meet again.