BY NUMBERS Sloan

When it comes to
longevity, the Canadian quartet finds craft, cooperation and consistency a most
effective formula.

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

Twenty years and ten albums. Those are the major milestones
that Sloan celebrates with the release of The
Double Cross
, the Canadian combo’s first full-length offering in nearly
three years. Emulating the best of the British invasion, their sound has been
marked by hook-heavy melodies that quickly take hold, even on an initial
encounter. Likewise, they’ve held to a high standard, matching consistent
quality with ongoing quantity. Their 2006 opus Never Hear the End of It lived up to its title, boasting thirty
songs over the course of a single CD, indicative of the craft and care that
finds each member contributing equally to the common cause.

 

With the same line-up still intact – guitarists Jay Ferguson
and Patrick Pentland, bassist Chris Murphy and drummer Andrew Scott – the band
opted to give a shout-out to their longevity by reference it in the new album’s
name, the double Roman numeral ‘X’ that indicates two decades of making music
and winning fans and admirers in the process. “There are almost too many
anniversaries to keep track of,” Ferguson jokes. Fortunately, his powers of
recall are fully functional, given the fact he had no problem providing BLURT with
an extensive overview of Sloan’s history, musical trajectory and the elusive
origins of their name.

 

***

 

BLURT: How does a
band hold it together for 20 years without any casualties?

JAY FERGUSON: I don’t the un-sexy answer to that question. (chuckles)

 

It doesn’t have to be
sexy.

We split the money four ways. Actually, our band is an
outlet for everybody. Everybody sings and writes songs, so it’s not like “Oh,
there’s a lead singer and the bass player wants to do a solo record because he
doesn’t get to do his own songs.” That’s not really the case in our band.
Everybody can sing and write and contribute, and we all share in the profit…
when there is profit… and so we all split the money evenly. I think a lot of
bands break up due to financial troubles or artistic squabbles or whatever, but
you can have it all if you’re a member of Sloan.

 

It sounds nice, but
are there ever disagreements about whose song goes on the album and whose
doesn’t?

Maybe a little bit, but everyone usually has songs to
include so we try to make it even. If there are 12 songs on the album, each of
us gets three songs. If someone says, “You know, I only have one or two songs
this time,” and everyone else has a lot more, then maybe we’ll balance it
differently on the next album. Andrew, who plays drums, didn’t have a lot of
songs for this album, so he only contributed two, but Chris had a number of
extra songs so he had four. So there’s a little bit of a skew there, but in general
it just sort of balances out. There’s rarely a case where, out of say, 25
songs, somebody has none, so it really does stay balanced.  

 

Indeed, Never Hear the End of It had thirty
songs? You really are a prolific bunch.

Yeah, we put out an album in 2003 called Action Packed and then we put out Never Hear the End of It in 2006. So it
took us three years to accumulate songs. There was a lot of music on the table,
probably a good 50 songs, and we thought it would fun to our version of the
Beatles’ White Album because we
hadn’t really done a double album.

 

Speaking of the
Beatles, it sounds like nobody in your band suffers from the George Harrison
syndrome, where poor George never got more than a token inclusion.

But then again, his first solo album was basically a triple
album because there was so much backed up creativity. No, we’re pretty lucky
that everybody has an outlet in the band, so it’s not like nobody can not do what they want.

 

It’s amazing that you
can maintain such a high bar in terms of both the quantity and the quality. How
is it that you don’t start repeating yourselves after awhile?

Thanks for saying that because sometimes I can’t tell if we
might be repeating ourselves. I think everybody in our band is a really good
songwriter, and sometimes you try and compete. So I’ll hear a song by Chris and
say, “Ah, I don’t know if I can beat it, but I’ll try.” Maybe there’s a little
bit of one up man’s ship, or maybe we’re just all genius songwriters. (laughs)

 

The fact that the
albums really do hold together well says a lot about your consistency. On the
new album they almost flow into one another.

There was a little bit of preplanning on that. The first
song is called “Follow the Leader” and the second one is my song, “The Answer
Was You,” and I knew the chords Chris had at the end of his song and I sort of
thought “Oh, here’s how we can blend them.” 
So yes, that was premeditated. Sometimes it’s not premeditated.
Sometimes it’s “What if this song fit with that song,” and then it’s sort of by
fluke. The key is right, so we can patch them together. So we spent time doing
that.

 

So when you guys go
in to make an album, is there some sort of plot or concept, or is it all
dictated by the songs?

I think it’s more the songs dictate it because I don’t think
we could all agree on some sort of template for an album. When we plan a
record, it’s not like “Hey everybody, we’re going to make a synth album!” You
know what I mean? I don’t think anybody would go for that. Or, “Let’s all make
an acoustic record!” Some people might be into it, but some people might be,
“Oh, forget it!” Everybody just writes on their own and then we bring it
together. The thing that holds our records together, even though it’s different
songwriters and different styles, is usually that everybody sings on everybody
else’s songs. So if I’m singing lead, Patrick and Chris will be singing
harmonies. Andrew will have a song and I’ll be singing back-up on that or sing
a few lines. I find it’s the vocal blend that usually ties our records together
because the music is often different from track to track.

 

Is there a common
thread that you can trace back to the beginning that continues now?

It might be that harmony blend I just described. A lot of
people recognize it in Canada, especially that combination of Chris and
Patrick’s singing together. It’s very Sloan-sounding. I don’t know how else to
distinguish our records because if the vocals weren’t there, it might just
sound like a different band. I also find Andrew’s drumming is very distinct. He
has his own style. But I do think it’s the vocals that tie the records together
and I do think it’s the same for most groups really, especially the Beatles and
groups like that. They changed their style from album to album, but once you
get back past that, when it’s John and Paul singing together, and so you know
it’s the Beatles no matter what the track is.

 

Speaking of which,
this album sounds like it recalls your earlier records, with the Beatlesque
elements and the retro sound you built your reputation on early on.

It’s true. Some people that have heard this record say there
are tracks on it that remind them of One
Chord To Another
, which is one of our early albums. But that’s not
necessarily conscious on our behalf. We’re sort of doing what we do, and that’s
the way it turned out. It may hark back to a certain sound, but it definitely
wasn’t conscious on our behalf. But thanks for saying it!

 

It’s good to know
other people felt the same.

Yeah, a couple of people have commented, “Oh this would have
fit perfectly on One Chord to Another.

 

Was it you who was
quoted as saying this is your best album since Exile on Main Street? What did you mean by that?

I was just sort of joking. It’s like the Stones, whenever
they’ve put a record out, basically since Exile
on Main Street
, they’ve always said, “This is our best one since Exile on Main Street,” but rarely have
they topped it. I think Tattoo You had some good stuff on it, and Some Girls had its moments, but to this day, when they put out Bridges to Babylon or Voodoo
Lounge
, they’ll say “It’s our best one since Exile” and I think, guys, it’s not!

 

That’s very true.
Everybody’s kind of thought that, but no one wants to nail them on it
.

I think for our band, this record that we just made, I want
to say that I really like it and it’s up there with my favorites of ours. But I
didn’t want to start sounding like Mick Jagger saying, this is our Exile.

 

But your quality has
been consistent, whereas with those later Stones albums, the quality has been
somewhat sketchy.

It’s good to hear that because sometimes it’s hard to step
back and look at the records and wonder, is this batter than the last one, or
is it the same, or is it worse? So it’s nice to hear.

 

So what are your
favorite Sloan albums?

I think Never Hear the End of It was
the type the album I personally was excited to make for a long time. I like the
idea that there were pop songs on it, and then there were really short songs on
it, like one minute long, and it flows into something else, like a four minute
long, long ballad. And there’s a real rock ‘n’ roller, and there’s a weird sort
of instrumental bit. I love the second side of Abbey Road where they compiled short songs into a greater whole. I
kind of thought Never Hear the End of It was like that, at least that’s what we were trying to accomplish. And I really
liked the way it turned out; I was really happy we could make a 30-song record
that to me, in my mind, holds up really well. Not to sound obnoxious but I like
that one a lot.

        I also really
like the sound of One Chord To Another.
We had left Geffen Records and we had our record label going, and we came back
and made that record, and it was our most successful one we ever had. It was a
nice feeling and a nice time to go through. And I really liked Twice Removed, our second record, and Between the Bridges, which is our fifth
album. I’m happy with all our records. I’m happy to look back on our career and
not feel like “Oh, I wish we didn’t do that!” I don’t have that feeling at all.
Maybe there’s a song here and there where I think “Urgh, those lyrics, I wish I
could redo them” but it’s minor because overall I’m really happy with what
we’ve done. But yeah, One Chord to
Another
and Never Hear the End of It are my favorites to be sure.

 

Are there a lot of
outtakes?

Well, we’ve sort of compiled outtakes from different eras and on Twice Removed there’s like 50 demos and
alternative versions of different songs and things like that. And that’s just
from one album! So yeah, there’s a lot of stuff from Sloan.

 

Can fans expect any
kind of rarities compilation at any point?

I’d like to see it. We’re just trying to figure out how to do it, whether we
just sell them digitally or we make CDs of them, or if we reissue albums and
include a bonus disc or two with outtakes and demos and that sort of thing. Or
do we make new vinyl versions, or do we do it I Tunes style and let them go out
as digital albums?

You guys should do a box set or an
anthology of some sort. You’d probably do very well with it. Just don’t break
our wallets with it.

(Laughs) I’ll take
that to the table and pitch it to the others. I think we could do a box set,
whether we reissue the albums or not. We’re conscious of trying to make nice
packages for people who are fans. We just haven’t figured out the approach
we’re going to take with it. But I’m sure that the next few years we’ll put
stuff out that’s more archival. Some of our albums are out of print in Canada,
so we thought if we bring them back, we’ll bring them back as deluxe versions.
If you do have to repurchase the albums, we’ll make it worth people’s while.

 

Is it difficult for
Canadian bands to get a foothold in the States?

I don’t know. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the only Canadian
artists to really break through in the U.S. were people like Bryan Adams or
Celine Dion or Loverboy (laughs). I
guess the Barenaked Ladies broke through to a certain extent. But a band like
Tragically Hip, who are massive in Canada and headline festivals, and play
hockey arenas and stuff like that… not many people know them in the United
States. I don’t what it is. It could be touring, or the records are released on
Canadian labels and then they’re issued on the American affiliate, but then the
American affiliate doesn’t put any money into it because they don’t care.

        There are a number of different reasons, but
to me, the tide has turned over the past six or seven years, especially when
you’re talking about the more underground bands like Broken Social Scene or
Arcade Fire or Feist. All those artists have really made it due to touring or
the internet. The taste-making websites have really made the world more flat. I
think a lot of those bands have really benefited from the internet and the
exposure it’s given them, especially when one of those websites really pipes up
and does a major feature story or a major record review. That really spreads
the word faster than during the ‘80s or ‘90s when those websites hadn’t broken
through that massive barrier yet. So I think it’s that, but also the hard work
of touring that those bands did helped those bands a lot too. And so not having
to rely on radio to get through that bottleneck helps. The internet is much
easier.

        A lot of time
it’s just luck, being in the right place at the right time. I think early on,
our band just benefited from luck, making the right kind of music at the right
time. There are so many factors involved. But you know, there are bands that
are massive in Australia but you don’t hear about them either.

 

You could probably
find that example in any country.

Yeah, any country. But even in the United States I find the
media breaks through so many more barriers than the Canadian media does. I
found when I was watching the Grammys, there were artists I never heard of.
This is like a top ten record in the United States and I’ve never heard it
before. I think there’s a little bit of that in the U.S., but more so in
smaller countries. There are even bands in the U.K. who don’t break through
over here. It’s just the nature of it. There are also bands that when they
break through, they break through in a big way, such as Arcade Fire.

        I do think a
big part of it is media. Even though you’re right next store, Rolling Stone or People magazine aren’t going to write about who the up and coming
band that’s in Toronto. They’re going to write more about what’s going on in
New York or L.A. American record companies are pitching stuff to them, but the
Canadian companies aren’t doing so necessarily. I don’t really have an answer
for it. It is weird, but there are so many factors, so I think the best
solution is just to tour your brains out basically.

 

You guys have your
own label, correct?

Yes, we have a label called Murder Records, but basically it’s just us. There
are no other artists on the label other than us. We’re signed to Yep Roc in the
States for distribution, but technically there’s still a Murder Records logo on
the albums because we still own our masters. We’re kind of our own label, but
Yep Roc is still handling all the marketing and publicity and whatever.

 

You alluded earlier
to the fact that your initial relationships with American record labels were a
bit difficult. You were on a David Geffen label at first, were you not? DGC?

We signed to them and there were great expectations. The
first single was “Underwhelmed” and it started to do well, but half way through
the campaign for our first album, it became a game of musical chairs at the
record label. So the guy that was doing radio promotion for it was behind our
band and then he moved to A&R. Then they brought in a new radio guy and he
wasn’t into it. He was kind of like, “Sloan? I don’t care for them much.” So he
went on to work on the Urge Overkill record or the Hole record or something
like that. So I find that happens at a lot of record labels when there are
people working on a project from the ground up, and then they move somewhere
else and someone else inherits it. It’s like “Oh, okay” and they throw it on
the pile and they work on the stuff they want to work on. So I think we were a
victim to that a little bit.

        And then when
we handed in our second album, which was Twice
Removed
, it was so different from our first album that they couldn’t see
the continuation and build upon what they had with the first album. They asked,
“Can you guys redo this album or re-record it?” And we said, “No, we’re happy
with it.” And our A&R guy, bless him, stuck up for us, and said, “We can
put it out the way it is and see what we can do with it, but really, the
marketing team are not behind it. So we’ll put it out, but just do another
album.”

        So that was
difficult, but we understood why it was happening. It wasn’t like we made this
album they wanted us to do, and then it was like, oh forget it. We understood
their reasoning.  So our band and our
management really liked the album we put out, but it was still really difficult
to go through that. When that album was over and the touring was over, which
was also very unsuccessful, we thought the band was going to break up. We told
Geffen and we told our A&R guy and he basically told us he could get us out
of the deal. We basically ended up breaking up and we got out of the record
deal.

        And then,
within a year later, we sort of thought we should make one more record and put
it out on our label Murder Records. We actually went back to Geffen and offered
One Chord to Another to them. We
said, “We’re getting back together and there’s no bad blood, so do you want to
put it out?” And originally, it was going to come out on Geffen. Then we sort
of realized they weren’t going to put any work into it, so we said, let’s just
forget it and we axed the deal and decided not to sign. We ended up going with
another label called the Enclave in the United States. It was started by a guy
who used to do A&R for Geffen, and I think he took us to prove he could
take one of the bands they had and then skyrocket them to fame in the U.S. But
that didn’t exactly happen.

 

It’s good you were
able to get those hassles and aggravations out of the way early on because it
seems like it’s been smooth sailing for you ever since.

We’ve been able to steer our own career and not have to
worry about someone saying, “Ah, do that album again.” We can go make a record
and put it out and do what we want. And if it doesn’t do well, oh well. But if
it does do well, we can reap the benefits. So it feels like we’re running our
own small business since we left Geffen, and we’ve been doing that for 16
years. I’m glad we didn’t get tied up with Geffen for years. I know some bands
and I’ve heard some terrible stories where they’re locked into a certain deal,
and by their third or fourth record, their label is telling them to redo their
records.  So I feel very grateful we’ve
been able to make it on our own. We’re not massive or anything, but I feel like
we’ve done well enough where we can each make a living from it and we’ve done
that for 20 years, so I feel very grateful. There are hard times, and sometimes
you’re not the band that’s the flavor of the month any more, but I’m grateful
we’ve been able to sustain it.

 

Twenty years is
pretty impressive.

Yeah, I’m proud and surprised and hopefully we can keep
making records and there will be an audience that will still stay with us.

 

We’ve got to ask you
one question — and maybe we should know this – but where did the name Sloan
come from? Because you know, in certain, umm, lavatory facilities…

I know. You were in a washroom and you just happened to
notice the name above the urinal…

 

Yeah…

No, we didn’t take it from there. It was actually, the
nickname of a friend of ours when we were living up in Halifax. He worked in a
factory and his boss spoke poor English, but he was always calling our friend
“slow one” (laughs), but it always
slurred into “Slo ‘un.” So his nickname became “Sloan” to his friends and we just
kind of stole that name.

        It’s not that
exciting a story, but often people will come up to us and say, “Oh, did you get
it off the urinal?” Or, “It’s Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”  Ah, that’s a good one. And sometimes we’ll
lie, but no, that’s the truth.

 

 

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