Sloan talk being uncool, ‘One Chord to Another’ box set & tour & more in BV interview
Sloan‘s 1996 album, One Chord to Another, was the pivotal third LP in the Canadian band’s career. After their second album — 1994’s out-of-time, critically-loved but commercially unsuccessful Twice Removed — the band broke up, for the most part, and parted ways with Geffen Records. In the interim, members Jay Ferguson and Chris Murphy started Murder Records which released records by The Super Friendz, Jale, Thrush Hermit, The Inbreds and more. It wasn’t long before the urge to continue Sloan resurfaced and the band recorded OCTA on their own, on the cheap. It ended up being Sloan’s most commercially successful album, spawning Canadian hit singles “Everything You’ve Done Wrong” and “The Good in Everyone,” and is generally regarded as their best album in a very consistently good discography.
The band are currently celebrating One Chord to Another‘s 20th anniversary, with a vinyl box set that includes the Live at a Sloan Party album (a bonus disc on the 2007 U.S. release of the LP, a disc of rarities and more. The fall leg of their tour, where they’re playing OCTA in full, starts this week, and includes an NYC stop at Bowery Ballroom on October 17 (tickets are still on sale).
Ahead of the tour, I talked with Chris Murphy and Jay Ferguson about the box set, the tour, the evolution of songs, “riff farms,” a 4-track recorder’s importance on OCTA and more. Read that below…
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So after doing the OCTA tour in the Spring, you’ve spent most of the summer playing festivals.
Chris Murphy: We played almost every weekend. We have a slightly different career in Canada than in the United States. We were on the radio and TV here, so we have “value” in summer festivals that are put on by a city or a town. “Let’s get these guys in, they’ve got 12 recognizable songs.” So we make more more money playing that festival than we would coming through town on a tour, so we morph into a greatest hits show in the summer. We did play one “cooler” festival where we played the One Chord to Another set.
Festival crowds don’t want “deep cuts.”
Chris: Not necessarily. When we play in the States, we might say “Here’s a deep cut from ‘Between the Bridges'” and people will cheer, but in Canada it’s “play the five songs we know from the radio!” So it’s kind of more rewarding when we go “south.” We’re not a part of any mainstream media, we command less money but if you’re at our shows it’s because you’ve searched us out, you’re a music fan.
At least in New York, Sloan shows are full of die-hard Sloan fans. And Canadians in NYC.
Chris: I think so. I should say in Canada too we have fans. We didn’t become “uncool” or anything but when you’ve “crossed over” you can’t help but lose some of your cache. For me it happened when The Joshua Tree came out. “These guys don’t deserve my love anymore. How can I separate myself from the jocks in my class?” Even though I was already out of high school, but I am still fighting jocks to this day. [Laughter].
When I was doing research for this interview, I looked up to see where you had played in NYC in 1996 — it was during CMJ at Luna Lounge. Do you remember who you played with?
Chris: Olivia Tremor Control?
Yep, and this Chicago band Number One Cup.
Jay Ferguson: Oh yeah, it was all bands on this label Flydaddy. Back in the ’90s when we were doing Murder Records, I had a relationship with the guys who ran Flydaddy. I loved all that stuff, Olivia Tremor Control, Cardinal, and Murder Records put out the first Richard Davies album in Canada. We talked about releasing a single with Flydaddy but it never happened.
Chris: Jay, what year is that? 1996? I feel like we had the songs earmarked for that. I have a feeling about what those songs would be though I don’t remember what actual songs they were. I remember we were kind of ramping up to do that and were like “we need a song.” If you told me what song it was it would be satisfying.
Jay: I think I had a song in mind for it that maybe ended up being on Between the Bridges, but I forget.
Do you remember anything about that Luna Lounge show? That was a tiny place.
Jay: I remember the venue, with the bar in the front and almost living room sized performance space. I wanna say Olivia Tremor Control didn’t play their best show, a little bit falling apart. But I don’t remember a lot about our show. I was happy to be playing a “cool” show. This was us playing CMJ basically on our own, we didn’t have a label at that point, it was after Geffen and our “breakup” when we came back together to make a new record. It wasn’t a bunch of unknown bands playing that CMJ show, it was like we were being associated with a bunch of likeminded bands. Especially Olivia Tremor Control who had a similar aesthetic to the music we were making then.
Chris: I think that also may have been the show where we met Richard from The Enclave who we ended up signing with and who released One Chord to Another in America. We were all set up to release One Chord to Another with Geffen, actually, which is a story too long to tell. But I ended up staying out all night talking to the Enclave guy. Even though I thought nothing was going to come of it, as It looked like we were going to get in bed with Geffen again but I was dead-set against it, I thought it was a terrible situation. Sorry, again, that’s a story that may or may not be related. Giant sidebar that goes nowhere.
Jay: But if that was the case, it does make that show eventful, that we played that and Richard, which set things up a little bit for what was to come in America. Which wouldn’t last for long. [The Enclave released One Chord to Another in February 1997 but the label folded by year’s end. – Ed]
Chris: That was probably the last time Sloan was actually promoted in the States, The Enclave actually had ads come out and everything.
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So I don’t want to turn this interview into something out of Tape-Op, but reading the liner notes to the OCTA box, I was fascinated by the fact that the drums on the album were recorded on a cassette four-track. I don’t know that much about recording, but I’m just curious about, apart from it being cheaper, what is the advantage of doing it like that?
Chris: Well. If you have a drummer who says “I’ll give you five hours of my time over the Christmas holidays” and I just thought “Oh shit, what are we going to do?” No it was self-financed so, setting up drums and getting takes, that’ll take you a long time, that’ll cost you money. Luckily, we had a fantastic drummer in Andrew and we didn’t have very much money, so I think Jay and I were on the same page, it was his big idea to do it. We made Twice Removed and it cost $120,000 U.S., this giant budget where we used the best gear in the world. So with this we thought “we either make a poor man’s version of that or we really go for character.” So we opted for crazy sounding drums that were recorded super-cheap. It’s not like we didn’t like the aesthetic of it, we weren’t “ugh I hate the way this sounds but that’s all we can afford.” We thought it was kinda ’60s throwback. We also don’t know how to record or use the gear very well, certainly at the time. We used the same microphone on every track, we didn’t know about phasing or stereo separation. I have the tapes still — when you isolate each of the tracks, they all sound almost the exact same. This one has just a tiny bit more bass drum on it, this one has a tiny bit more snare. While we recorded it on the four-track, we also recorded it on a two-track reel-to-reel machine at the same time, the same takes, but we preferred the four-track cassette every time. It was our most commercially successful record, we had songs on the record that, hilariously, had this dinky drum sound. Maybe we could have been more commercially successful if we had had more fidelity, but we don’t have any regrets. We think it sounds super-cool. We love it.
Jay: My favorite sidebar of the recording of the drums, is that we had to record piano for the song “Junior Panthers” and there was no piano at the studio where we were doing the overdubs. We had to record the piano at Chris’ parents house using that four-track. We had used all four tracks for the drums and we had to erase two of the drum tracks to make room for the piano. The other funny thing is, it’s Chris and I playing it together sitting side-by-side because I didn’t know how to play the complete chords. Chris is playing the root and I’m playing the chord. It was a total hobo affair.
Chris: That was the alternate title of the album: “A Hobo Affair.”
What I was really getting at was if it was as much the way it sounded as the money you were saving.
Jay: I guess it was a little both. It was a limited budget, Andrew was only around for a little bit, so how can we eliminate two or three days of recording time? So we thought we’d just record the drums in our practice space. But we were also fans of records that didn’t have much of a budget, that had a do it yourself spirit. I’m not sure which was the chicken and which was the egg, but both aspects were appealing.
Chris: We had done the demos on the same machine, and we really liked the way it sounded so we thought “Let’s just do the drums on this.” The only thing that is unfortunate is that at some point you have to mix the drums down to record anything else. I don’t know if this is too “Tape-Op” but then took all four of the tracks and brought them onto a 16 track, so we didn’t have the fidelity problems associated with four-track recording.
Jay: Actually, speaking of this we both still use four-tracks and a couple of months ago we had the idea of recording a couple of original Christmas songs to make as a 7″. So when we recorded the songs we did the drums, almost like a 20th anniversary, with on a four-track and then did all the overdubs in a studio. Hopefully that will be out as a 7″ right before the holidays. A whole new adventure in four-track recording.
What a scoop! [Laughter]
Jay: I can’t wait to see the headline.
I really do think, though, that the drum sound on One Chord to Another gives it a timeless quality. You listen to it today and don’t think “Oh this sounds like 1995.”
Chris: I think you’re right. From our second album on that became a thing. We weren’t thinking about “timelessness” but we definitely thought “we love the ’60s, we love the ’70s, we love American college rock and hardcore.” Music from all times. It was kind of a goal to make it so that you wouldn’t know what year it was from. I don’t want to speak for Jay, but I was really kind of embarrassed at the time of the sound of our first album, Smeared. It was so of the time, and behind the times at that. Our blueprint for making that record was Isn’t Anything by My Bloody Valentine which was a record that came out in 1988. Maybe we were ahead of the curve in Halifax, but I felt like if we went to England we’d be the laughing stock. I was really excited when we made Twice Removed to make one that sounded so different. I don’t know if you think of Once Chord to Another as that different that Twice Removed but our aesthetic was the same. We just had different tools at our disposal.
This is the second one of these 20th Anniversary box sets you’ve done. Did you learn anything from the first one that made things easier this time?
Chris; We spent so long working on Twice Removed I thought, “This one will be a breeze. We know what we’re doing,” but, of course, it also took fuckin’ forever. Next time we’ll know.
Jay: We had the template for the book, after doing the first one, which was helpful but it was still a lot of selecting photos and moving them around that Chris had to deal with.
Chris: When Jay says I have a template, we worked on almost every aspect of this together but Jay was in charge of the audio side of it and I am sort of in charge of the look of it but basically I’m just trying to please Jay. We really liked doing it. Whether or not you like the music, you can’t say that a lot of time and care didn’t go into it.
Was there anything that you wanted to include but, for whatever reason, couldn’t?
Jay: The only thing was something that I thought would be fun to have in the box, but wouldn’t fit in the box, was to have an actual cassette of the demos from the album, with like a hand-written label, so it would’ve been like what we would’ve handed around to friends in 1996. So you’d get three LPs but also a cassette. But it physically didn’t fit, so you get it as a digital download. That would’ve been fun.
Chris: When we had the Twice Removed box, we had so many demos, we pressed a record of what we called the “mirror” version of the album with the exact same running order, just in demo form. Jay really insisted, I think he was right, that we do demos that are as different as possible from the finished studio versions because that’s the most interesting. However I, from an ego point of view, wanted to illustrate that we had demos that were almost the exact same as the finished versions, to illustrate that we were not “produced.” All of the musical ideas that we had were our own, we didn’t go to New York to make it not knowing what we wanted to do.
Most of the One Chord to Another demos sound remarkably similar to the finished product.
Jay: Yeah. With one disc being the actual album, and another being the Live at a Sloan Party album, it was up in the air whether we were going to do the third vinyl LP as another “mirror” album or “outtakes” and I definitely wanted outtakes, which is what we did.
Chris: When we did the Twice Removed demos we put a lot of effort into making them sound beautiful and perfect, but with One Chord to Another, they were more sketches. I argued against the party record, saying that since that was originally the bonus disc on the American CD release, you were only getting one “new” record after that. But Jay said, and I ended up agreeing, that the fidelity of the Party record is so much nicer, and deserving of a vinyl release, plus it never came out in Canada.
Jay: I was on the fence myself but I’d run into people who’d say “You are going to put the ‘Party’ album in the box right?” It also gave Chris an opportunity to make cover art that really mimicked The Beach Boys’ “Party” album, which we didn’t get to do before.
Chris: And it gave Jay an opportunity to complain about the photos we had available to do it with. [Laughter] And currently, we’re on a quest to find all the pre-mastered mixdowns of Navy Blues stuff. Jay seems to think that we mixed everything down to reel-to-reel but we don’t seem to have those mixdowns. We have DATs and stuff, we have enough material to make a box set, but Jay’s been spending a lot of time and energy trying to find those fucking things.
Speaking of different version of songs, I think it’s interesting that across the two box sets there are a bunch of versions of “Autobiography” which would end up on OCTA. It was neat to hear how that song really changed over the course of the different demos.
Chris: Actually there’s at least one other version of that out there somewhere.
Jay: We can put that on the Navy Blues box set.
Chris: We were actually playing it before Smeared came out, it was awful though.
Jay: Was it slow and dirge-y?
Chris: No, but I don’t know how to describe it apart from using that word that you never want to hear associated with anything, which is… “funky.” It was almost like a poor man’s version of The Stone Roses’ “Fools Gold.”
Jay: Really? Oh my god. I kinda want to hear that now. Is there a live recording of it?
Chris: There’s a VHS of us playing it. You might want to see it, but you will not want to release it.
The forgotten “baggy” era of Sloan.
Chris: That’s right! We like that stuff. Well, Jay was aware of it. I knew nothing, I was just following Jay at that point.
I also think it’s interesting on the outtakes disc, you can definitely hear parts of melodies that would end up on other songs, like there’s at least two that use elements that end up in “Anyone Who’s Anyone.”
Chris: That was just me blowing on the embers of the few ideas I actually have in life. If I’d had another good idea in the meantime, I’d have used that.
Jay: On the Twice Removed box set there’s a demo of “Ill Placed Trust” which wouldn’t show up on an actual record for another 12 years. I’m a fan of things like that, the Beatles had “Child of Nature” from The White Album era that would eventually be John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” Or The Rolling Stones originally recorded a version of “Start Me Up” in 1974. So as a nerdy fan of musical history, I hope Sloan fans enjoy it too.
Does that happen a lot, that you have these riffs or melodies that you just catalog till they’re actually used in a song?
Chris: I think so, yeah. I have mine cataloged, Jay has his and I have Patrick and Andrew’s cataloged for when they don’t remember anything I can say “But what about this one? What about this one?” For his 18-minute song “Forty-Eight Portraits” on our last album Commonwealth, I was just feeding him his own ideas. “What about this riff?” “Oh yeah.” And then he stitched them all together into one giant song. He could’ve remembered them, I should say. He’s got an excellent musical mind which so many great ideas, but I’m better at cataloging them than I am at music.
Jay: It’s like Chris is Andrew’s musical secretary. I remember there was a lot, especially around Pretty Together, of just 30-second riffs and bits that had been mined a lot of the succeeding years.
Chris: When we were making Pretty Together, my big idea was, and it kind of sounds gross to say, but was to have a “riff farm.” I had these riffs numbered. Since we were all capable of writing and playing, let’s just come up with a giant catalog of riffs. Since we split the money equally, if you make a song out of Riff 18 and Riff 40 and Riff 12, and I use Riff 12 too, it’ll just be fun, a musical motif that repeats. So I thought it would be cool for us all to contribute to this “riff farm” and we’ll all benefit from it. Ultimately, though, I think it was just I that benefited from it. As you can see, I’m still referring to it.
So you’re already done one leg of the OCTA tour which was back in the spring. I’m guessing before that you had never played this album front-to-back. What was the hardest thing about doing it this way?
Chris: Jay downplays his enjoyment of playing “Junior Panthers” because it’s in a vocal range that doesn’t allow him much air to move, but it always goes over great and it’s awesome, and we all enjoy playing it.
Jay: The middle part is nice with all the “oohs” and chord changes but it’s basically in a vocal black hole, it’s like trying to talk with melody.
Chris: It’s rapping. [Laughs]
Jay: [Laughing] That’s right, I’m rapping. I’m especially looking forward to doing it in New York City. No, it’s frustrating to play, for me anyhow, but this has been really fun. These days there aren’t that many songs where Patrick and I both play guitar leads on a song, so getting to do “Can’t Face Up” is fun, and there’s all sorts of neat guitar parts on the album. It’s a fun album to play, apart from my rapping.
Chris: Hello New York, Birthplace of Rap. Here’s one for you called “Junior Panthers.” [Laughter] Seriously though, One Chord to Another is probably our best album all the way through. Our manager says “you can judge an album’s greatness by seeing how many times you have to press ‘skip'” and I don’t think there are any skips on that one. I would like to argue that you don’t have to do it on any of our records, but maybe you do.
Sloan – 2016 Tour Dates
Wed 21 September San Jose, CA The Ritz
Thu 22 September Santa Barbara, CA Velvet Jones
Fri 23 September Pioneer Town, CA Pappy & Harriets (Desert Stars Festival)
Sat 24 September Las Vegas, NV Sayers Club @ SLS
Sun 25 September Santa Ana, CA Constellation Room
Tue 27 September San Diego, CA Casbah
Wed 28 September West Hollywood, CA The Roxy
Wed 5 October Montreal, QC Fairmount Theatre
Thu 6 October Charlottetown, PE Murphy’s Community Center
Fri 7 October Halifax, NS Marquee Ballroom
Sat 8 October Truro, NS Marigold Theatre
Tue 11 October Moncton, NB Capitol Theatre
Wed 12 October Fredericton, NB Fredericton Playhouse
Thu 13 October Saint John, NB Imperial Theatre
Fri 14 October Boston, MA Brighton Music Hall
Sat 15 October Philadelphia, PA Underground Arts
Sun 16 October Pawling, NY Daryl’s House
Mon 17 October New York, NY Bowery Ballroom
Wed 9 November Madison, WI The Frequency
Thu 10 November St. Paul, MN Turf Club
Fri 11 November Chicago, IL Bottom Lounge
Sat 12 November St. Louis, MO Blueberry Hill
Mon 14 November Nashville, TN The High Watt
Tue 15 November Atlanta, GA The Earl
Wed 16 November Carrboro, NC Cat’s Cradle – Back Room
Thu 17 November Charlotte, NC Visulite Theater
Fri 18 November Washington, DC Rock & Roll Hotel
Sat 19 November Buffalo, NY Iron Works
Sun 20 November Cleveland, OH Grog Shop